McDaniel students help demystify the Muslim world at international conference

McDaniel College students, from left, Kyle Smith, Claire Lawson, and Cody Knipfer share their experiences from presenting at a conference on the muslim world in Istanbul, Turkey this October at McDaniel College in Westminster Wednesday, Nov. 5.
McDaniel College students, from left, Kyle Smith, Claire Lawson, and Cody Knipfer share their experiences from presenting at a conference on the muslim world in Istanbul, Turkey this October at McDaniel College in Westminster Wednesday, Nov. 5. (DAVE MUNCHSTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Cody Knipfer, Claire Lawson and Kyle Smith admitted they are all still a little jet lagged and groggy.

Three days ago, the McDaniel College students returned from a trip halfway around the world that they believe could have changed their academic careers and opened their perspective on the Muslim world.


The trio was chosen as the second crop of McDaniel students to present academic papers to be subjected to criticism and discussion from scholars around the globe at the annual Conference on the Muslim World.

Although issues in parts of the world where Islam is prevalent are complex, the students attempted to demystify the topics by digging into the lives and historical contexts of minorities in Muslim cultures, said McDaniel professor Anouar Boukhars, who accompanied students to the conference in Istanbul.


"The news is dominated by the Middle East and parts of the Muslim world is going through turmoil," Boukhars said. "It's about bridging the gap and bringing understanding of that part of the world."

Boukhars said few academics or policymakers have expertise in Islam. He said it is important to encourage students to develop that expertise "not just to promote understanding, but to promote scholarly understanding of the Muslim world."

During the five-day conference, undergraduate students and graduate students, as well as professors presented papers dissecting the dynamics of minorities in Muslim cultures. These minorities include people of religious, geographic and ethnic divisions.

The undergraduate and graduate students competed for a top prize of $500 a piece, and all of the papers have an opportunity to be published in a scholarly journal.

During the conference, students facilitated conversation on their papers with an audience and had the papers critiqued by scholars.

"Being there and presenting and having people listening to you and defending your argument … it's very challenging [for the students]," Boukhars said of the experience.

The McDaniel students who attended the conference are all interested in international politics and are all world travelers.

Smith, a senior, who grew up in Sykesville, is a political science and Arabic linguistics major. He has traveled to Greece, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Through travel, Smith said he has learned that there are people living around the world who have very little, such as those living in tin huts in Mexico. But he said those people are often more happy than people who have everything.

Lawson, a junior from Oregon, has lived in various countries including Saudi Arabia, Thailand and South Korea. Her parents taught at schools in foreign countries.

For Lawson, also a political science and Arabic linguistics major, traveling helps break down the barriers and misconceptions many have about the people and countries that are foreign to them.

"I thought everyone lived the way I did and was surrounded by other cultures," Lawson said. "I learned how quickly it was for people to classify others and put them in a box because they are different."


Knipfer, a senior from Ellicott City, has traveled to Europe, Costa Rica, Canada and Saudi Arabia, where he got his idea for the paper he presented.

While in Saudi Arabia, witnessing the disparities among the ways of life for different sects, Knipfer said he learned a lot about "citizen diplomacy." For his paper, Knipfer made recommendations to the Saudi Arabian government on how to create more equality between the classes.

Smith also used his paper on clarifying the historical context of fighting between two sects for his senior thesis. He said he learned the importance of applied theory and applying the information he was researching.

He said through his interactions with people from around the world, he realized some of the prevailing misconceptions people have about "others," anyone who is unlike them.

"I spoke with some of the professors who were from Iran, and you can tell they thought we hated them based on what we see on the news about Iran," Smith said. "They were insular. You can learn facts and information about a group, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't know they people."

Reach staff writer Krishana Davis at 410-857-7862 or krishana.davis@carrollcountytimes.com.

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