Dr. Saliba Sarsar,
Professor of Political Science and Associate Vice President for Academic Program Initiatives at Monmouth University in New Jersey

Keynote Speaker, 30th Annual ECCSSA Conference, Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, New Jersey, March 26, 2004

The Social Sciences and Our Age of Crisis

Saliba Sarsar

A good education ought to help with the mastery of reality and with the guiding of the world of experience. Sound analyses ought to assist with the formulation of effective public policy.  Words and statements we use are prerequisites for the pursuit of knowledge and truth.  Dialogue and understanding are necessary for the promotion of justice and peace.

The 20th century witnessed individual scholars devoting their careers and intelligence agencies in Western countries investing billions of dollars to comprehend the Chinese and Soviet images of world order.  Yet, Sinologues failed to foresee the Tianamen Square massacre and its aftermath and Sovietologists failed to predict the downfall of the Soviet Union.  It seems that history is now repeating itself.  

The issues facing our interdependent communities and globe are formidable.  They are inherently systemic and transdisciplinary.  As Fritjof Capra states, The major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation.  Whatever the problem is…it has to be perceived as being connected to the others.  In order to solve any single problem, we need systemic thinking, because these are all systemic problems, interconnected and interdependent. Addressing community and world issues and solving problems, therefore, necessitate multidisciplinary approaches and dialogue and concerted actions.  

Yet, our world of work, creativity, and caring is constantly being hindered by others and by our reluctance to challenge the norm, the ordinary, or the taken-for-granted.  Institutional structures and processes, narrow disciplinary specialization, powerful organizational barriers, and tenure and promotion rules encourage a silo mentality.

Social scientists, in addition, are often ignored, especially in policy making.  Their ideas are not taken seriously.  As Jean-Eric Aubert of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development writes: …the findings of social sciences are often dismissed as being too theoretical, too ambitious, or too unpalatable.  The methods of research are also often attacked for their lack of rigor, and critics are quick to point out that the people who make the important decisions pay little attention to what social scientists have to say anyway.

Moreover, evidence is adopted or disregarded based on ideology and politics.  In the Urban Institute Annual Report of 1993, titled “The Case for Evidence-Based Policy,” it is argued: Public policy in the United States in recent years has increasingly been conceived, debated, and evaluated through the lenses of politics and ideology-policies are Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, free market or government controlled.  Discussion surrounding even much-vaunted bipartisan initiatives focuses on the politics of the compromise instead of the substance or impact of the policy.  The fundamental question-will the policy work?-too often gets short shrift or is ignored altogether.

Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council, adds:  Social science recurrently intersects with public controversies, and too often governments respond by trying to repress the work of scientists who raise uncomfortable questions or present data that disturb the dominant.

Lisa Anderson, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, further clarifies this tension between social scientists and practitioners.  In Pursuing Truth, Exercising Power: Social Science and Public Policy in the 21st Century, she writes:

Social scientists are often dismissive of the lack of analytical rigor that typifies the conduct of public policy…while policy practitioners are bemused by the theoretical pretensions of social science…. Yet there is a mutual expectation among scholars and practitioners that, if only each would recognize the merits, the culture, the demands of the other's domain, science and policy would both be better for it.

As a political scientist, with specialization in international and Middle East affairs-one who tries to humanize politics, not politicize humanity, I watched with keen interest the way scholars and practitioners have dealt with our national tragedy on 9/11 and the world since.  Some of the mistakes made and ways to address them are illustrated below.

Following 9/11, there was a rush to explain what happened and to distinguish between the evildoers and their beliefs and backgrounds.  American citizens, some of Arab Muslim descent, joined the chorus to extend their sympathies to all affected and to condemn terrorism and its perpetrators. “Why do they hate us?,” others asked, and President George Bush declared, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

“Islam 101” became a convenient way to understand the motivations and mysteries of “the other, the different.”  ABC, CNN, and even Oprah, among others, ran programs to educate the “uninformed.”  A journalist for CBS's “60 Minutes II” interviewed taxi drivers from Middle East origin in New York City, but the interviewees were from Pakistan, with one exception from Egypt.  Responses on other programs placed Afghanistan in the Middle East, or equated Islam with peace and Jihad with Holy War.  American and European officials are increasingly thinking of Afghanistan and Pakistan as located in the Greater Middle East.

All concerned must think more carefully about their definitions and statements as they search for truth and understanding, and as they act.  First, understanding starts with factual knowledge, not wrong impressions or opinions, and with deep listening.  Condensed or synoptic lessons do not scratch the surface and can even distort meaning.  Once the dust settles, misunderstandings based on miscomprehension can lead to divisiveness and distance people from each other.

One, although no full agreement exists as to the exact boundaries of the Middle East, most area specialists believe that the term originated during World War II when Great Britain categorized lands west of India as the Middle East.  Today, this area encompasses the non-Arab states of Iran, Israel, and Turkey, and the Arab countries of Southwest Asia and North Africa.  The Middle East contains neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, and the overwhelming majority of Afghanis and Pakistanis are Muslim but not Arab.  However, a substantial number of Arab Muslims joined the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in their war against the Soviet Union and remained behind when the Soviet armies withdrew.

Two, the word Islam does not automatically translate as peace but “Submission” to Allah, or God.  It is related to the Arabic words “taslim” and “istislam,” meaning surrender or resignation.  Implied is that when one submits to God, one is in peace.  When one is a true Muslim believer, one follows the five basic pillars of Islam:  Shahadah or declaration of faith that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God's Messenger”; Salah or prayer at five specific times each day; Zakah or almsgiving; Sawm or fasting during the month of Ramadan; and Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca once in a believer's lifetime-one lives in Dar al-Salaam, or abode of peace.

Three, Jihad-the Muslim concept meaning striving in the path of God, which non-Muslims interpret as meaning “holy war”-is more akin to Just War.  In a personal context, jihad or Greater Jihad involves struggling against evil in one's heart and becoming a better Muslim.  In an ummah (Muslim community) context, jihad or Lesser Jihad promotes the notion of a continuous struggle against all infidels, one that maintains the spirit of communal solidarity alive and united against outsiders.  Shia Muslims, or members of the main Muslim minority, as opposed to members of the Sunni majority, actually make jihad a basic duty, in addition to the five pillars.  Violence and war are also allowed in Islam to deter aggression, evil, and injustice.  The Qur'an states:

O ye who believe!  Enter into Islam whole-heartedly; and follow not
 the footsteps of the Evil One; for he is to you an avowed enemy. (Sura 2:208)

Additionally, to those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;-and verily, God is Most Powerful for their aid;- (Sura 22:39)

But Islam also instructs humanity to practice and live in peace.  Peaceful coexistence, supremacy and pursuit of justice, fairness, and reciprocity are all basic principles for human conduct.  The Qur'an states:

O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing,
and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart
 from justice.  Be just: that is next to Piety: and fear God. For God is well
acquainted with all that ye do. (Sura 5:8)

Moreover, toleration balances jihad.

Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which you worship; nor do you worship
 that which I worship.  And I shall not worship that which you worship, nor will
you worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my
religion. (Sura 109:1-6)

Second, if scholars and practitioners are to impart knowledge and promote a genuine understanding of “the other,” what they say has to be well measured and relevant.  “Specialists” invited to share their views on TV programs said little of substance.  A quick review of ten important books on Islam (e.g., Islam and the West; Islam: The View from the Edge; Muslim Politics; Islam: The People & the State; Islam and Democracy), written by established authors and published in the 1990s, indicates no mention of either Usama Bin Laden or al-Qa'ida.  The research was obviously incomplete.  Since 2001, plenty of books have appeared on this and related topics, such as The Crisis of Islam and Unholy War.

One, while recognizing that philosophic wisdom usually comes late, scholars on Islam and the Middle East must exit from their ivory towers in order to shed light on reality and examine many sources of value creation and reflection.  Relational thinking, joined with an interdisciplinary perspective suitable to the issues being addressed, will bear many fruits.  We must balance our focus on “high” politics, economics, and the military with our focus on ethnic passions, nationalist aspirations, the role of myth and religion, the impact of language, the needs and wants of ordinary people, the lives of women and children, and the creativity of artists and poets.

Two, scholars and practitioners must be honest, not apologists for this or that cause or group.  If understanding is to arise, then “the good, the bad, and the ugly” must be examined.  To say that each of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam means peace is not enough and does not address the complexity and essence of each religion or the differences that exist between beliefs and practices.  Like most other religions, the three religions advocate compassion, peace, justice, and peace in their sacred texts.  However, they also contain justifications for self-defense and even war.  As Martin E. Marty aptly writes in “Words to War By”:

…if Christians wanted to be literalists, they would not only not have found
 justification for their myriad wars but for any wars `in the teachings of Jesus.'  
Jesus is not, however, the whole of Christianity. Our cannon stretches from Genesis
 to Revelation, and includes all the books in between…. Read Exodus 15:3 with its
 joyful discovery that `Yahweh is a man of war.'  Read Deuteronomy 7,20, and many
pages in the Prophets.  Yes, there are passages commending and celebrating peace
(Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3).

Three, while we can work for a dialogue of civilization, there is nothing wrong with being concerned about a clash of goals and strategies between peoples.  There are value conflicts, and the way to attend to them is to come to terms with them.  Analyzing the conflict between consumerist capitalism and religious, tribal fundamentalism, he writes:
"Moral preservationists, have no choice but to make war on the
present to secure a future more like the past: depluralized, monocultured,
unskepticized, reenchanted."

While finding radicals far exceeding the ideological framework of Islamic revivalism, John L. Esposito cautions us not to follow simplistic explanations.  According to him, analysis “requires more than generalizations, reliance solely on newspaper reports or movement-issued documents, isolated events, or government reports.”  Vartan Gregorian goes further than most analysts of Islam by urging states, societies, and intellectuals to intervene in order to prevent Islam and other religions from being subverted by various parties and states.  He calls upon “enlightened citizens” to advance understanding, tolerance, and peace.


Knowledge and the instrumental means to cope with the many problems faced by humans, some of their making and some not, are readily available.  Yet the unexpected can arise and challenge our theories and values, as with Tianamen Square and the Soviet collapse, or with the increasing spread of terrorism.  We must be ready to anticipate and address change, not promote complacency or ignorance.  In our interdependent, complex world in which most people have common interests, there is a need for dialogue and an emphasis on shared values, structures, and processes for decision-making with those who wish to grow and advance; and, steadfastness against those who hate and intend to harm.  An honest understanding of “the other” will go a long way toward creating a more informed and, hopefully, a more responsible human polity.  

We, in academe, we in the social sciences, have much to offer, especially in our age of crisis.  Truth and power do not exist in a vacuum or separate domains.  Each of us has an important role to play.  We need to be more knowledgeable and understanding. We have an important responsibility to examine the different, and to connect with “the other.”  We must make a commitment and take risks to question the past and present and, help build a better tomorrow.  We must make ourselves and others more relevant and ready for our 21st-century world.


Biographical Sketch of Saliba Sarsar

Saliba Sarsar was born and raised in Jerusalem, a multi-ethnic, multilingual, conflict-ridden, peace center of the world!  At age 11, he lived through the Six-Day War, an experience that led him to engage in volunteer work as a youth and in later years to focus his studies and community activities on conflict resolution, reconciliation, and peace building.

Sarsar completed his elementary and secondary education at Christian Brothers and St. Joseph's in the Old City of Jerusalem.  He received an A.A. degree from Brookdale Community College in 1977 and a B.A. in political science and history interdisciplinary, with summa cum laude, from Monmouth College in 1978.  In 1984, he earned his doctoral degree from Rutgers University in political science, with specialization in international relations and Middle Eastern affairs.  His dissertation focused on Egypt's Anwar Sadat's policies toward the State of Israel, especially his conciliatory approach between 1975 and 1977.

Sarsar is currently the Associate Vice President for Academic Program Initiatives and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University.  As Associate Vice President, he provides main direction for general education, experiential education, study abroad, Honors Program, Global Understanding Project, and Governor's School for Public Issues and the Future of New Jersey; has administrative responsibility for outcomes assessment of student learning; and acts as the point person on accreditation.

Between 1994 and 1999, Sarsar was the Associate Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.  He was also the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Public Issues between 1993 and 1996.  As Special Assistant to the President for Leadership Initiatives in 1993-95 and as Assistant Dean for Leadership Initiatives in 1990-93, he had overall administrative responsibility for the implementation of Monmouth University's five-year comprehensive plan to Educate for Leadership and Social Responsibility.  These initiatives have brought about curricular and co-curricular programs, including ones in conflict resolution and mediation, human relations, volunteer and community service.

Sarsar is a frequent speaker on Middle East relations.  His articles have appeared in such journals as Clio's Psyche, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Middle East Quarterly, Jerusalem Quarterly File, Scandinavian Journal of Development Alternatives and Area Studies, Journal of South Asian and Middle East Studies, Journal of Leadership Studies, and Leadership & Organization Development Journal.  He is co-author of two books: Ideology, Values, and Technology in Political Life (1994) and World Politics: An Interdisciplinary Approach (1995).  He is editor of Education for Leadership and Social Responsibility (1996).  He has just completed guest editing a special issue of the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, focusing on Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Sarsar's first book of poetry, titled Crosswinds, was published in 1999.  The poems include impressions of a teenager experiencing Jerusalem under Jordanian and Israeli rule, and maturing in a land of “between war and peace.”  He has just completed his second book of poetry, Seven Gates.  It is his personal journey into the depth of dialogue, inclusion, and peace.

In 1993, Sarsar co-founded Project Understanding in Monmouth County, New Jersey, an organization that brings Arab Americans and Jewish Americans for dialogue and peaceful coexistence activities.  In recognition for his work, he received in September 2001 the Humanitarian Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice.  On April 6, 2003, he was featured in The New York Times, “His Mission: Finding Why People Fight-A Witness to Mideast Conflict Turns to Dialogue and Peace.” Section 14, New Jersey, pages 1, 4.  He was Scholar-in-Residence at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem during Summer 2003.

Sarsar is an American citizen.  He is married to Hiyam Zakharia, also of Jerusalem.  They reside in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, with their two young daughters, NoorEvelyn (6 years) and Hania (5 years).  He can be reached at sarsar@monmouth.edu.

Back to Speeches and Commentaries