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Researchers earn inaugural Minerva Award

February 20, 2009

Arizona State University is one of seven U.S. universities selected from 211 applicants to receive a Minerva award for a research project titled “Finding Allies for the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse.” 

Spearheaded by Mark Woodward, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, the project is funded by the Minerva Research Initiative, a program that focuses on areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy. In addition to ASU, the other research universities to receive a Minerva award include: Princeton University, San Francisco State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Monterey Institute of International Studies, University of California at San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin.

“Earning one of the first ever Minerva awards is a testament to the hard work of faculty involved with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in advancing basic research approaches that have the potential to enhance the wisdom and effectiveness of U.S. policy with regard to the rest of the world,” says ASU President Michael Crow.

The Minerva Research Initiative is a new Department of Defense program. By supporting university-based basic research, the initiative is aimed at improving the Department of Defense’s intellectual capital in the social sciences and humanities. Awards are for an initial five-year period with a five year-option for renewal.

“This award is recognition of the innovative ideas of the faculty involved in this project.It will support a large collaborative effort that crosses disciplines and continents in order to deepen understanding of the ideas and practices within Islam that counter extremist and exclusivist interpretations,” says Linell E. Cady, director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the Franca Oreffice Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies. 

The total amount of the awards to the seven research universities is expected to be as much as $50 million. The individual amounts are still to be determined. 

The project is a collaborative effort that involves ASU faculty members from religious studies, communication, political science, mathematics, sociology and computer science disciplines; and across the globe including Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.  “Everyone involved brings unique expertise and experience to the task at hand,” Cady says. “Carolyn Forbes, assistant director at the center, has played an indispensable role in coordinating the proposal of this diverse and far-flung team.” 

The aim of the ASU project is to describe and track diverse strategies that Muslims in West Africa, Western Europe and Southeast Asia use to counter and thwart the advance of what Woodward terms “Wahhabi colonialism.” 

“Many in the part of the world I study are becoming increasingly concerned by what they see as an attempt by Middle Eastern groups to use wealth and prestige to establish an exclusivist, puritanical understanding of Islam as the voice of Islam. While this understanding of Islam is not inherently violent, it does, in some cases, provide theological cover for violent extremists,” Woodward says. 

Woodward, a cultural anthropologist, has studied Islam and politics in Southeast Asia and Indonesia for the past 30 years. He has also been involved with the Political Instability Task Force, which has worked to develop global forecasting models for the outbreak of religious and ethnic violence and other forms of political instability. 

“This has given me the opportunity to learn from leading scholars in the field and deepened my understanding of and appreciation for the importance of transdisciplinary approaches in the analysis of complex social phenomena,” Woodward says.

In addition to Woodward, other ASU researchers involved in the grant include, from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: professor David Jacobson, a sociologist in the School of Government, Politics and Global Studies, who brings expertise in globalization and the transformation of political patterns; professor Steven Corman in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, who focuses on strategic communications, discourse analysis and organizational networks; and associate professor Tom Taylor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics; and from the School of Computing and Informatics in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering: assistant professor Hasan Davulcu and associate professor Arunabha Sen who with Taylor investigate new approaches to data mining and computational modeling of cultural phenomenon.

Partner institutions include a team from the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern University led by Islamic studies scholar and historian Muhammad Sani Umar and a team from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po (France) led by sociologist Riva Kastoryano. Kumar Ramakrishna with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang TechnologicalUniversity in Singapore is also part of the team.

The Minerva award is an example of the economic benefit a research university like ASU can bring to its state. Each year Arizona's universities pump more than $1 billion into the state's economy through their research activities, which are funded by the U.S. government and other entities. Research money brought in by universities is restricted money that can only be used for the research activity it supports. It cannot be used to compensate for cuts in other parts of the university’s budget.