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New ‘Coffee Shop Talk’ series at Institute of Islamic Studies facilitates discussions on tough topics

Anver Emon

“I think the study of Islam can be a litmus test for the quality, health and robustness of our democracy,” says Professor Anver Emon.

In moments of horrific hate-fueled violence like the terrorist atrocities at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 50 people were murdered while at worship, it can feel as though putting complex thoughts and feelings into words is impossible.

But a new discussion series hosted by the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) at the Faculty of Arts & Science aims to change that.

The Coffee Shop Talk series will open up difficult conversations in a welcoming, inclusive environment where “we are tough on the issues but not on each other,” says director of the IIS, Professor Anver Emon, a scholar of Islamic legal history appointed to the Faculty of Law and the Department of History.

The idea for a bimonthly discussion group on contemporary issues affecting Muslim communities was put in motion by Emon along with IIS postdoctoral fellow Catherine Larouche and IIS administrator Nambogga Sewali.

Conceived as an informal, non-academic conversation between students of all levels and disciplines, faculty, alumni and external community partners, the name of the series carries a double meaning, referring to both the casual environment of a coffee shop and the kind of workplace discussion known as “shop talk.”

“We’ll meet regularly over coffee,” says Emon. “The idea is that we read one or two newspaper articles to centre the conversation, and then people talk in and around that topic.”

Want to know about future Coffee Shop Talk sessions? Subscribe to the Centre for Islamic Studies mailing list.

Emon hopes the series will accomplish a few goals: to question and reframe dominant narratives about Islam, to engage Arts & Science undergraduates more deeply in key roles and “to take what we do internally at the IIS and share it broadly, bringing more people into our community.”

Who belongs and who doesn’t in a democratic society?

“I think the study of Islam can be a litmus test for the quality, health and robustness of our democracy,” says Emon.

“Thinking about how Islam and Muslims are represented is an important part of not only telling new stories about ourselves but also looking at the stories we have told thus far and their impact on how we think about who belongs and who doesn’t.”

Coffee Shop Talk will explore “really complicated and hard questions,” says Emon. “No one wants to talk about how people get radicalized. Does it matter whether you’re a radical right-wing extremist or a Muslim extremist? Who’s doing the radicalization, how is it happening, where is it happening? Those are uncomfortable questions but aren’t the only ones we should be asking. Hopefully a forum like this will help us ask better questions, which can then inspire students to undertake more challenging research in their classes.”

At the inaugural Coffee Shop Talk—attended by students, faculty members and alumni—Emon raised questions like: Has something shifted with the violence in New Zealand, or will we continue to underestimate white supremacy? What questions have been asked in the wake of the shootings that have made you angry? What questions do you feel should have been raised and were not? What does the work of countering radicalization involve? At the second session, attendees discussed Quebec’s proposed legislation to prohibit public sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work, as well a new law in the Muslim-majority country of Brunei that threatens to punish homosexual sex with death by stoning.

Creating opportunities for undergraduate students within the study of Islam

As a young student of South Asian background growing up in California, Emon was subject to the stereotypes of the culture and the era, in which the academic study of Islam was not considered a prestigious scholarly path. His parents wanted him to study more traditionally “respectable” disciplines like business, engineering or the sciences.

“My parents have since come to realize that the academic study of Islam is actually a very important feature of how we tell our histories,” says Emon, noting that “we’re now beginning to see a younger generation attracted to the liberal arts for that reason.

“Without a proper study of these subjects, we will continue to see the proliferation of antagonistic narratives that make events like the ones in New Zealand possible.”

As a collaborative research hub, the IIS does not have many opportunities to engage with undergraduate students. Emon hopes Coffee Shop Talk will change this.

Students of all disciplines with an interest in the study of Islam, white supremacy, radicalization, immigration and global politics will have a chance to shape the conversations taking place at future Coffee Shop Talks.

Starting this fall, the series will invite undergraduate students to convene future sessions “inverting the teacher/student model, and helping to guide undergrads in designing their own research questions,” says Emon.

Emon believes that participating directly in framing research and discussion is one way undergraduate students can reap the full benefits of a university education, regardless of where their paths in life will take them after graduation.

“In a democratic society like ours, the media, politicians and corporate interests can’t help but think of the bottom line, or electoral cycles, or both. Universities remain one of the few places where there is a space for taking risks, for thinking beyond the bottom line and the next election.”

“We should take these risks with an aspirational sense of what’s possible, even if it may not always be realistic. Universities are a space where thinking long-term and imagining a world that is better is something we all ought to be doing.”

As Coffee Shop Talk aims to create a space for talking openly and “thinking wildly and broadly,” Emon hopes that undergraduate students will not only contribute to the conversation, but will help frame the kinds of questions we ask each other as we work together to make the world a better place.