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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

This weekend I attended large chunks of the AALS (Association of American Law Schools) conference, a gathering of law professors from around the nation.

The first panel I attended was on reading comprehension among students.  Much of the discussion struck me as common sense: ask students where they got something in the text, give lots of feedback, etc.  But one exercise called a “think-aloud” report was kind of interesting.  We broke out in groups, and each of us had to read something in a case file; my group was assigned a complaint.  We had to answer the following questions:

1.  What is this document? What techniques did we use to identify the document and its subject matter?

2.  How is it structured? How do we get the “lay of the land” about the document as a whole?

3.  What is important about the document?  What information am I supposed to be gathering from it? What techniques did we use to identify the key pieces of information?

4.  If I had to give a 30-second “elevator pitch” about the content of the document to someone unfamiliar a with it, what would I say?

Then I attended an environmental law panel; the most interesting speaker was Dr. James Cervino, explaining the link between sea ice melt, sea level rise, and violent storms.  He argued that cold water makes storms less violent, and that warmer water and melting Arctic ice were likely to turn smaller storms into hurricanes. In addition, sea level rise destroys vegetation, which is dangerous because vegetation protects areas from storms: that is, areas with lots of trees, etc. are less likely to be devastated by storm surge.

Later in the weekend, I went to a joint panel of the sections of Islamic and Jewish law.  The most interesting discussions were about Turkey, which has followed a very different model from both the more militantly Islamic Arab states and the secular west.  First Russell Powell of Seattle discussed Turkish public opinion: only about 20 percent of Turks favor Sharia law, and when asked to detail what that meant, many of them favored fairly moderate interpretations of this concept.  And yet Turkey is governed by a more or less religious party.  How come?

Asli Bali of UCLA explained the history of post-Ottoman Turkey: rather than separating religion from the state (like Western democrats) or attacking it (like communists) early 20th century Turks were faced with an ethnically diverse but heavily Muslim state, since Muslims had been ethnically cleansed from Greece and exported to Turkey (just as many Christians were forced into Greece).  How could Turkey turn this mix of peoples into a nation?  The Turks responded by having the state take over religion.  On the one hand, public schools were always full of religious education, indoctrinating young Turks to be Sunni Muslims and thus creating a religious Turkish identity.  On the other hand, religion in the public sphere was frowned upon; women were discouraged from veiling themselves, Islamic political parties were nonexistent.  Imams were licensed by the state, which regulated the contents of sermons. Turks were to be Muslims, but not too religious.

In mid-century, Turkey emphasized religion a little more as a response to Communism – perhaps one reason for the growth of the AKP (Turkey’s dominant, sort-of-Islamist party).  One example of AKP policies: alcohol. In a truly Islamic state, alcohol would be banned.  In Turkey, the AKP taxes it heavily and forces package stores to close at 10 pm, which is somewhat controversial.  Even though these policies would probably be considered moderate in the U.S., supporters and opponents both referred to these policies as examples of Sharia law – a view that I suspect would surprise most Saudis! (I note, however, that the overwhelming majority of Turks do not drink alcohol).


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