This week Mona’s guest is Tom Lea, General Manager at the Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.
Mona Siddiqui: Tom tell us a little bit about the centre, first of all. How long has it been a feature of the University and what is your role there?
Tom Lea: The centre’s been going now for a little over 10 years. We had our formal 10-year anniversary celebrations last year, which were slightly compromised by everything that’s happened obviously.
We were set up formally in 2010 primarily for research, but also a strong outreach remit. My first role was to manage that outreach programme – trying to engage locally and nationally around Islam and the contemporary Muslim world. Subsequently in the last three years I’ve transitioned into this general management role which is a support to our director, keeping an eye on the administrative dimensions of the centre but also staying involved in that outreach dimension which has been such an enjoyable and rewarding part of the job.
MS: The centre itself is funded by Alwaleed Philanthropies – a Saudi funder – can you tell us a bit about the reasoning and rationale behind, not just this centre, but the other Alwaleed Centres dotted around the globe.
TL: Our funders Alwaleed Philanthropies are the philanthropic arm of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s business empire – a Saudi prince who’s a very famous global business personality – and he invested in a centre in Georgetown University for Muslim-Christian understanding. That investment led him to think more broadly about building a network of centres. Now there are six, two in the US – one in Georgetown, one in Harvard – two centres in the UK – the University of Cambridge and ourselves here in Edinburgh – then two centres in the Middle East – the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut.
The interesting element there is that the four centres in the US and the UK are very much focused on global Islamic studies, both historical and contemporary, but the two centres in the Middle East are exploring general American Studies, looking at culture in Western society. There’s an attempt to build a bridge of dialogue between the Middle East and Western universities.
MS: Do you think dialogue is an overused word nowadays?
TL: That’s a good question. Yes, it probably is. It’s a very broad term that can mean so much and so little at the same time. You yourself Mona have done a huge amount of work on dialogue, at quite a high level. I’m throwing the question back at you now, do you feel there’s real progress made in initiatives and events that are premised around this notion of dialogue?
MS: At a very basic level I think anything that brings people into conversation with one another, whether that’s at an academic level, a political level or a community level, is a good thing. I think that it’s very difficult to mark the consequences, or the effects of any dialogue but I still think talking of people of different background, of different persuasions, at any level is a kind of virtue. It stretches the imagination, it helps you think more about who you are and what your own inner conflicts and loyalties are. In that sense I think dialogue is a good thing.
One of the issues is, not necessarily the Edinburgh centre, but a lot of people are trying to bridge this gulf, as they see, between the Islamic world and the west and I suppose the question I want to put to you as somebody who’s worked here for a while, is where have you seen some of the biggest challenges in the work of the centre?
TL: It’s an interesting question because we’ve been talking about what our plan is looking forward and one of the things we’ve been very clear about is this whole notion of the Muslim world and the west as a sort of dichotomy. It’s something we’re not going to move forward with because they suggest the positions are worlds apart, and of course the Muslim world is the world in general isn’t it. We’re talking about a quarter of human beings alive today in all kinds of countries and contexts including huge populations in western countries. We’re trying to dissolve that a bit and focus in on that sense of being able to expose people to other cultures, ideas and beliefs through the work that we’re doing.
We’re fundamentally research centres in universities but a large part of what we do is trying to take that knowledge and experience of, whether it be Islam or American studies, out into communities to try and give people a richer sense of perhaps a different perspective or culture or religion.
MS: This conversation is about one regret, one hope so looking back at your own distant or recent past, is there one regret you can share with us?
TL: One professional regret very specific to my role here is not having learnt a relevant regional language while I’ve been with the centre. We sit within Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies physically and there’s this extraordinary teaching going on in our subject area in Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
I tried in the early days to learn Arabic but it was a couple of hours a week on an evening class basis and I soon realised that if you’re serious about learning a very different language you really have to throw yourself at it in a very full blooded way. I failed, ultimately, at doing that and I see our language students go on this incredible journey learning language and the excitement of that process.
MS: And what is one hope you carry forward?
TL: My wife and I have a little boy, Archie, who’s nearly three, and we’re expecting our second child, so I suppose a lot of my hopes are really bound up in my kids. Over the past few weeks, a lot of people have been very interested in COP in Glasgow, and thinking about these environmental questions. I suppose a real hope for me is by the time my kids are adults and fully engaging with the world that some of these commitments from COP, as imperfect and compromised as they may have been, have been mainstreamed or put into effect. Maybe there’s just a different relationship between people and the planet that’s more normalised and across the board. That would be my hope.