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Center for Middle East Studies looks to enhance understanding

Turmoil in Syria. Elections in Egypt. A Twitter revolution in Iran.

So much news; so little context.

That’s the dilemma the new University of Denver Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) aims to address. Via public programming and research, the CMES hopes to provide the context that will enhance understanding of a much-misunderstood corner of the world.

Housed at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, the CMES is directed by Nader Hashemi, assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic politics and author of “Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

“In many ways, I would say it’s a dream come true,” Hashemi says of the center, noting that it offers extraordinary opportunities for students and scholars to explore the region’s societies, political systems, economies and international relations.

“Students will be able to attend conferences and lectures by people who are at the cutting edge of scholarship,” Hashemi says. They’ll also be able to meet some of the region’s major newsmakers. For example, a recent conference on the Syrian crisis featured leading members of the Syrian opposition, people who may assume significant roles in a post-Assad government.

And in March, when the center turns its attention to the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, students — and interested members of the public — will be able to learn about the conflict’s ramifications for the Middle East and its peoples.

Public- and student-focused programming like this is what entrepreneur John DeBlasio had in mind when he used funds from his Global Peace and Development Charitable Trust to create the center.

“You never hear about Iraq anymore, do you?” he asks, noting that his founding gift seeks to remedy just that kind of information gap.

A 1989 graduate of West Point, DeBlasio served with the Army Reserves in Iraq in 2003–04, advising the transitional government on everything from public services to transportation and logistics. He went on to spend the next few years conducting business in the Middle East.

His time in the region altered his thinking about its political challenges and prospects.

“In 2001, I was very naïve. I looked at everything from this very myopic view,” he recalls. To him — and he suspects, to many Americans — the Middle East’s challenges boiled down to little more than the Palestinian question.

In time, DeBlasio came to appreciate “the enormous diversity of the region and the complexity of the issues and their relevance to American national security.” He also came to wish the best for the region’s many countries and peoples. When casting about for a program to support, he looked for institutions and people with an optimistic mindset.

“There are people out there who are less than sanguine about the future,” he says, adding that he wanted no part of a gloom-and-doom vision.

Instead, DeBlasio wanted to back a program that shares his belief that “individual rights and liberties are universal” and that “there is no exclusive lock on that, just because we are Christian-based or Judaism-based.”

“The program fit me,” he says of the Korbel School and its emphasis on advancing human prosperity and security.

To date, the CMES’ programming has included a photography exhibit, “Yemen Unveiled”; a lecture on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; and a forum debating whether war with Iran can be averted. In February, the center partnered with, among others, the Lamont School of Music’s Expanding Horizons Initiative and the Muslim Student Alliance to stage a performance of traditional Iranian music.

The research agenda encompasses a vast array of topics, including: contentious politics and revolution; democratization and human rights; and political and economic development. Hashemi also plans a special focus on the relationship between religion and democracy in Muslim societies.

“We’re still a work in progress,” Hashemi says. To help spur progress, Hashemi has hired noted journalist and editor Danny Postel to serve as associate director.

Postel — who served as senior editor of openDemocracy, an online magazine of global politics — has extensive experience studying and writing about the Middle East. He served as co-editor, with Hashemi, of “The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future” (Melville House Publishing, 2010).

Together, the two plan to make the center a lively resource for educational programming, cyber outreach and thought-provoking publications. Already, the center has a busy Facebook page that doubles as a clearinghouse for articles about recent developments. Its YouTube channel hosts videos of CMES events, allowing people around the world to participate in programming.

Other items on the drawing board could involve departments and divisions across campus. For example, Hashemi is looking to introduce additional opportunities to study the Middle East’s challenging languages, a film series, and a special library collection of historical and political resources.

If all goes according to plan, the CMES should help the University attract more students and scholars interested in the Middle East. “It’s hopefully going to translate into putting Denver and Korbel on the international map,” Hashemi says.

Although the CMES has been staging educational and cultural programs since September 2012, it will celebrate its official launch at a Feb. 26 ceremony in the Sié Chéou Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, room 150. Korbel Dean Christopher Hill and noted scholar Vali Nasr will deliver brief remarks. For more information, contact Douglas Garrison at 303-871-4314.