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Researcher mixes religion and politics



Ziad Munson, assistant professor of sociology

When a documentary film on the threat of Islamic terrorism landed in Ziad Munson’s mailbox not once, but twice, he asked the same question many other curious recipients pondered: Is this an educational film or pre-election propaganda?

The film, Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, struck a chord for Munson, who is a scholar of political and social movements. As a sociologist, he strives to understand the formation of social movements and how individuals come to join and identify with them—particularly among religious and politically conservative movements and movements in the Middle East.

Understanding the motivation and intent behind something such as a present-day documentary film or delving deep into the history of the uprising of a political opposition group helps Munson gain a broader perspective on some of the world’s most complex issues.

Munson’s expertise was recently tapped this summer by Tel Aviv University’s S. Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies in Israel for a two-week workshop to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. As the only attending sociologist, Munson collaborated with other scholars – historians, area specialists and political scientists – who immersed themselves in discussions, briefings and tours that shed light on the conflict at large.

“An interdisciplinary scholarly approach provides the opportunity to pinpoint nonpartisan opportunities for peace, precisely because it focuses on the underlying causes of the conflict rather than the flavor-of-the-day political policies or political expediencies,” Munson says.

Other key areas of Munson’s research, such as The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, are critical to deciphering the current state of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as other violent movements in the world. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has played a critical role in the emergence and spread of Islamic political opposition, protest and violence in the Middle East and around the world.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict is the source of a remarkably large percentage of all terrorism that takes place in the world. Understanding the conflict is at the core of understanding violence in lots of different ways,” Munson says. “The close proximity of the Palestinian and Israeli populations, the peculiar ways that conflict has developed historically and the enormous influence that terror organizations on both sides have had on international terrorism is so key that a conference like this helps inform many different research questions.”

Munson participated in discussions and lectures led by prominent Israeli scholars. He also had opportunities to meet with the former military governor of Ramallah and other politicians, take an aerial tour of the security fence, and talk with the Israeli Defense Forces officer in charge of security along the Gaza border.

One practical thing Munson learned through the workshop was the degree to which the Israeli population is following a drumbeat to a war with Iran, much more than in the United States. While there, he understood that the debate about Israeli government action and anti-terrorism policy is more robust and wide-ranging in Israel than in the United States.

“We need these kinds of discussions because knowledge of the causes of the conflict is necessary to find solutions. When politicians get together their focus is almost always short sighted, and there’s often more heat than light with respect to the conflict,” he says.

Munson hopes the time spent in Israel will provide new resources to draw on for future collaborative research.

--Tricia Long


Posted on Tuesday, September 30, 2008

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