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Terrorism. Extremism. Violence. Intolerance. According to Banu Gokariksel, Assistant Professor of Geography and Joint Professor of Global Studies, these are the themes and images that have come to represent Muslims and Muslim societies in the American media in the wake of September 11th. The divide between western perceptions of conformity and uniformity within the Muslim world and the reality of a remarkably diverse and often conflicted community is stark.

It is this disconnect that Banu Gokariksel along with Sarah Shields, Associate Professor of History and affiliate of Global Studies, sought to explore through their organization of the 2009-2010 Andrew W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar: “Diversity and Conformity in Muslim Societies: Historical Coexistence and Contemporary Struggles.”

Gokariksel and Shields coordinated a series of biweekly seminars, international conferences and courses for both undergraduates and graduates that tackled this question of multiplicity in Muslim cultures through an interdisciplinary conversation.

“Our goal in the Sawyer seminar was to use a multidisciplinary, cross-regional, and integrative framework to expand our research agendas and to start a dialogue between various disciplinary, as well as regional approaches,” Gokariksel said.

Determined that the issue should be broached from diverse academic fields to profit from new perspectives, Gokariksel and Shields ensured that the seminar attracted professors from a range of departments and universities across the Triangle and abroad. Researchers traveled from countries as diverse as India, Senegal, Turkey and the United Kingdom to participate.

In this spirit, the Seminar moved beyond the walls of the classroom as well to address the stereotyped perception of a uniform Muslim identity. As part of the first workshop, Gokariksel and Shields screened the documentary “Jihad for Love.” For the second, the Ackland Art Museum hosted a Silk Road Exhibit reception. At the third workshop, participants attended a Gnawa music and dance performance.

“The seminar produced extremely interesting discussions and was successful in creating connections between different academic disciplines, approaches, and regions that are rarely in conversation.”

Gokariksel’s own research engages with questions about neoliberal globalization, dimensions of public space and identity-formation through contemporary everyday Islamic and secular practices and ideologies in Turkey. So the theme of the 2009-2010 Seminar was close to her heart.

She has been doing ethnographic fieldwork research in Istanbul since 1996. Her primary research questions have examined competing and contested secular and Islamic visions and practices of contingent modernity in mall spaces, cultural politics of dress, and consumer capitalism. She has seen firsthand over the years as a result, the diversity of Muslim opinion as individuals navigate between consumer desires and religious doctrines.

“Women who wear veiling-fashion [a new kind of modest dress in Turkey] do so in many different ways and give it a set of meanings that are often not recognized in the political debates about the headscarf. That’s why I thought it was important to emphasize the diversity within Muslim societies and to draw attention to ways in which certain political projects try to impose uniformity and how people struggle against such projects.”

The Sawyer Seminars were well attended, with numerous K-12 teachers and scholars in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia traveling to participate. The series brought the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill once again to the fore on the research of global issues. The University proved to be a focal point of discussion and community outreach as academics wrestled with the multifaceted topic of diversity and conformity across the Muslim world.

“The Sawyer Seminar produced a significant body of work and ideas that will keep me busy for the next couple of years!” Gokariksel said. From collaborations on articles to publishing a volume based on papers that will share the benefit of such interdisciplinary collaboration with the academic community and public, Gokariksel will indeed be busy. But already, she’s planning ahead. “I hope to continue my research on how religion is mobilized and enacted in ‘Islamic’ businesses and cultures in Turkey,” she said.

For now though, she is happy to immerse herself in the incredible scholarship the Sawyer seminar bore.