April 29, 2005
The lecture deals with the paradox of contemporary Islam. By all economic and political measures, the late twentieth century was a time of dramatic decline for the Islamic world, particularly its Arab heartland. Yet, precisely at this time of unprecedented material vulnerability, Islam has emerged as the only transnational force strong enough to assert itself successfully against American's homogenizing power on a global scale. This is the central and little understood paradox of Islam today: How at a time of such unprecedented weakness has Islam emerged as such a powerful transnational force? Several things are clear. Islam's unexpected strength does not originate from official political, economic, and religious systems and institutions, all of which are in decline. Nor can it be explained by focusing exclusively on the marginal groups that use dramatic violence to advance their claim to speak in Islam's name. In this lecture, the argument is advanced that the source of Islam's surprising and little understood power today derives from a world-historic struggle within the global Islamic community for the reconstruction of Islam as a civilization. The key to understanding that complex internal struggle is the intellectual and activist work of the New Islamists of Egypt, an intellectual school of Islamist centrists, who play a leading role in the transnational Islamic mainstream. These Egyptian Islamist intellectuals are spearheading fundamental changes within Islam that have important, though largely unexplored implications for the relationship of Islam and the West. Through the creative and controversial work of the New Islamists, Egypt is once again asserting itself as the lead society of the Arab Islamic world.
Dr. Raymond W. Baker is the College Professor of International Politics at Trinity College, Hartford, CT and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. Baker's latest book is Islam Without Fear (Harvard University Press, 2004), a pioneering study of the Egyptian New Islamists who are now playing a lead role in the transnational movement of mainstream Islam, known as the Wassatteyya. Baker specializes in the politics of the Arab Islamic work, and has written extensively on contemporary, centrist Islamic movements. Baker has lived and worked in the Middle East for decades, speaks fluent Arabic, and is currently based in Cairo at least half of each year. He has served as a consultant to the State Department, Defense Department as well as a variety of other government agencies, corporations, and international cultural and educational institutions. Currently, Baker is President of the International Association of Middle Eastern Studies and a member of the governing board of the World Organization of Middle East Studies. With Dr. Tareq Ismael of the University of Calgary, Canada, he is chairing the Committee to Found the International University of Iraq, a private university project of international civil society, and is a founding member of the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies.