Author offers new insight on Islamic traditions in book
John Willis, author of “Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past,” lived in Yemen and Egypt and traveled to India and the Persian Gulf while conducting research for his upcoming book.
Toby C. Jones, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, invited Willis to speak yesterday at the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus.
“I have admired Jones’ work for a while,” Willis said. “It is a good situation in which I can present some of my newer work.”
His upcoming book is about the interwar period in the greater Islamic world, he said. It approaches the idea of using the ethical vision of Islam to create an alternative to the European state and empire system containing the holy city of Mecca.
“The book can teach students there are other ways of imagining political communities that do not correspond to our notion of the democratic state to liberal political freedoms to forms of secularism that liberalism is grounded in history and not universal,” Willis said.
One challenge Willis faced was deciding what sources to use to create a coherent framework for understanding that the issue of Mecca does not only concern Arabs, but also the entire international community.
Willis’ inspiration for the book came after former President George W. Bush characterized Al-Qaeda as wanting to form a caliphate after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“This is a form of Islamic political authority — which they did not want to do — but it made me wonder why there is a general fear of this idea.”
He said while in Yemen he found interfaith understanding when dealing with historic scholars.
Willis said he became interested in the field of Middle Eastern studies because he started college in Kentucky during the first Gulf War and felt he did not know enough about the Middle East. He began teaching himself Arabic and read extensively about the area.
Anasuya Ray, a fifth-year graduate student, said she felt Willis presented an interesting view of Islam.
“He described Islam through a new lens,” she said. “His talk was really good and informative.”
The mission of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies is to organize events around Middle Eastern art and culture and to bring in speakers so students can learn more information outside the classroom, Jones said.
“The speaker was wonderful,” Jones said. “He made a difficult topic very manageable and easy to understand.”