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From Spain's Basque Country to Sufi Muslims in America
Edurne Portela, associate professor of Spanish, is studying the Basque language to improve her understanding of the Basque Country in northern Spain.

Recognizing that disciplines and research programs evolve during a faculty member’s career, the College of Arts and Sciences has awarded New Directions Fellowships for Mid-Career Faculty to Edurne Portela and Robert Rozehnal.

The awards, available for full professors and for associate professors nearing promotion, provide $10,000 a year for two years to support scholars pursuing new directions in their research.

“The New Directions Fellowships continue to support exciting new research,” says Donald E. Hall, Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean. “Portela and Rozehnal are developing new areas of scholarship that undoubtedly will add to the academic dialogue in their disciplines.”

Portela, the director of Lehigh’s Humanities Center, is an associate professor of Spanish in the department of modern languages and literatures. Rozehnal, the founding director of Lehigh’s Center for Global Islamic Studies, is an associate professor of religion studies.

Portela studies political violence and its cultural manifestations, particularly the representation of memory and trauma related to violence in the Hispanic World. The fellowship supports her examination of recent cultural expressions in the Basque Country of northern Spain that reflect the violence there.

A profound indifference toward violence

Since 1959, the separatist terrorist group ETA has used violence in an effort to achieve Basque independence. This violence has been applauded by a minority of Basques, ignored or condoned by a majority, and openly criticized by a few, Portela says. In September 2010, ETA announced a ceasefire and the region is undergoing a reconciliation process.

Portela, a native of Spain’s Basque Country, is examining why Basque society has developed a profound indifference towards terrorism. She is studying Basque literary works and films that address this indifference in order to awaken an ethical imagination that would move Basque citizens to empathize with victims of violence, or at the very least to show more responsible civic behavior. She attempts to explain how a society torn by fundamental, internal and endemic violence grows into a paralyzing culture of indifference and how literature and film have the potential to move citizens to work for peace.

To improve her understanding of the Basque language, which is unrelated to Spanish, Portela will take classes in Basque Country with the support of the New Directions Fellowship. She hopes to write a book that will contribute to current debates about peace in the region.

Rozehnal is an expert on the history and practice of Islam in Pakistan and India, with a particular focus on Sufism (Islamic mysticism). In his new research, he will explore the Internet as a vital space for communication and community building among diverse groups of American Muslims. Combining textual analysis with ethnographic fieldwork, he aims to chart the theological, socioeconomic, geographical, gender and cultural diversity of prominent Sufi orders in the United States—both online and on the ground.

In 2012, Rozehnal conducted a comprehensive online survey of Sufi websites. In the coming year, he will do fieldwork among five distinct American Sufi communities to document how they use cyberspace to expand networks, rethink tradition and refashion identity.

“The New Directions Fellowship offers a wonderful opportunity to transition back to academic research with a new project and a new trajectory,” says Rozehnal.

Rozehnal is writing a book with Oneworld Publications (Oxford, England) that will shed new light into Muslim life in America. He hopes to create a new course to introduce digital religion and cyberspace Islam to Lehigh’s undergraduate students.


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