Newsletter on Middle East Studies

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Writing approaches for scholars of Middle East and North Africa to enlighten the Western reader

Richard Peres

My three years of living in Turkey, researching and writing Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still, [*] was a transformative experience. With each passing month my preconceived notions of the Middle East and generalities about Islam were shed, replaced by a more complex and nuanced reality of cultural practices, religion and politics. Each day I involuntarily compared and contrasted America and Turkey, discovering stark differences and strong commonalities at every turn. These insights were helpful in my writing and research, as I tried to enlighten Western readers via a recent event in Turkish politics relating to Islam and religious freedom.

However, during my visits home the opposite occurred. A mere half-day trip on Turkish Airlines immersed me in a different world coloured in broad powerful strokes by the entertainment media. Zero Dark Thirty grossed more than $100 million and received many film industry awards; similarly, the television series Homeland garnered many plaudits from critics and was highly popular. Both works seemed to personify Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis of twenty years ago in which he noted that the fundamental problem for the West was Islam. Since 9/11 the ‘thesis’ is exacerbated in a context where the mainstream media in the West typically employs language rife with negative connotations and misnomers, particularly relating to Islam when reporting on the MENA region.

How can we as students, teachers and contributors to the field of Middle Eastern Studies counteract this trend that is fueled by a flood of communication? If I limit myself to the communication world only, for one thing, relevant academic writing in the field of Middle Eastern Studies should also benefit and influence a world that is for the most part clearly non-academic. Put another way, academics are not going to help the world much if they mainly talk to each other and do not interact effectively with the rest of the world, a world that is rife with religious prejudice and political conflicts along the secular-religious divide.

I also suggest that MENA scholars, in extending their sphere of influence in their academic lives making their works accessible to non-scholars in language and writing style, should take part in activities, conferences, presentations, and publications that go beyond the academic world. Garnet does that also by its multiple imprints. We have our differences, for sure, but the cultural–religious–political conflicts that exist in the world are far greater and more dangerous.

The challenge seems overwhelming because the CNN commentator who fuels post-9/11 prejudices with sloppy descriptors when reporting on an uprising in Egypt, for example, reaches more people in a few minutes than a hundred or perhaps thousand academic lifetimes.

Another communication approach is to consider the human component in research and writing regardless of the extent to which one’s work is based on data collection and analysis. In Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still I increasingly focused on humanizing and personalizing the experience of Merve Kavakci, the first headscarved woman elected to the Turkish Parliament, because I was struck by the vast gap between her vilified public persona on the part of secularists and Kemalists in Turkey, and the kind, educated and sympathetic person I knew. Not unlike Islamaphobic people in the West, they viewed her as a fundamentalist, radical Islamist and agent provocateur when, in fact, she only wanted to take the seat to which she was duly elected. Would this approach negate her venomous image among half of the Turkish population? While it’s difficult to counter simple notions with complexity, I adhered to my approach. Even when I got the chance to explain my book in person to those who disliked her, I was pressed hard to overcome their skepticism.

A further approach for MENA scholars is a simple but oft-forgotten one: always define your terms. I think the most misused terms regarding the MENA region is ‘Islamist’, i.e. a devotee of ‘Islamism’, meaning political Islam. In Wikipedia there are 17 definitions of Islamism and, in fact, dozens of other variations based on different degrees of incorporating Islam in the political sphere and support for a myriad of Islamic philosophers and political leaders over the ages. The Prime Minister of Israel refers to the Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and his party as Islamist and yet Erdogan advocated a secular government during a recent visit to Egypt, which was greeted with jeering from the crowd, and during his ten-year rule has not implemented any aspect of so-called Sharia law. The term without further definition and explication has the same meaninglessness as ‘Christianist’ when referring to the Democratic Party in the US or the Labor Party in England.

Until our academic publications regularly become ‘best-selling movies’, we can play a significant role making this a more peaceful world by fine-tuning our approach to communications.

[*] To be published in paperback this summer by Garnet Publications

Mubarak, Morsi, and then?

Muriel Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is a political journalist specialising in economic, political and cultural development in the Arab and Islamic world for thirty years. She is the author of two books published by Ithaca Press Through the Wall of Fire, Armenia – Iraq – Palestine: From Wrath to Reconciliation, and Madmen at the Helm: Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring.

In his famous novel Animal Farm, George Orwell satirized the outcome of the Bolshevik revolution and Stalinism. His allegorical tale showed how a gang of animals had risen up against the exploitative farmer and seized power, only to reproduce the political structures they had sought to eliminate.

Madmen at the Helm Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Madmen at the Helm Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Something similar may be unfolding in Egypt. After the 2011 revolution, in which mass forces mobilized nationally over 18 days and forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign, an interim military government came in, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammad Morsi, declared winner of the May–June 2012 presidential elections. Now, less than a year after assuming power, Morsi, who pledged to be the president of all Egyptians, is being denounced as ‘no better than Mubarak’, even the ‘new pharaoh of Egypt’. Masses of Egyptians, including many formations that constituted the revolutionary movement that ousted Mubarak, are again taking to the streets this time demanding Morsi’s downfall, carrying posters which explicitly identify him as the reincarnation of the ousted dictator. Some are calling on the military to intervene, at least temporarily, to oversee a transition to democratic rule.

In my book on the psychological aspects of the Arab upheavals,[*] I posed the following question: are dictators, most often characterized by narcissism and other personality disorders, born or are they made? Are they doomed by traumatic childhood experiences and other social conditions to become tyrannical leaders, or are they well-meaning individuals who, once assuming political power, turn into such? Is it the case that ‘power corrupts’?

Egypt, as I witnessed during a recent visit to Cairo, provides a good case study. When he was inaugurated last June, Morsi, a leading figure of the Islamists so long persecuted by Mubarak, enjoyed public support. This was the case despite the fact that the electoral process had not been free from controversy, regarding the procedures leading to the vetting of candidates and the actual voting and tallying.

It did not take long for Morsi to fall from grace, and it was all of his own doing. His first big mistake was to overrule the Supreme Constitutional Court by calling the dissolved parliament back into session. This was the beginning of a continuing challenge to state institutions, the judiciary and military. On 22 November he issued a declaration in which he decreed (à la Mubarak) special powers to the president, i.e. to himself. Thus, all his decisions, decrees, laws etc., were protected from changes or cancellation. He also arrogated the right to take any measures he deemed necessary to protect the revolution. Although public pressure forced him to retract some of these measures, he did not fully receive the message. Instead, he rammed through a constitutional draft put together by an Islamist-dominated rump constituent assembly, announced a referendum and then new elections. Morsi proceeded to fill all possible political as well as civilian positions with people from his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, or, Ikhwan in Arabic. Egyptians call this the Ikhwanization of political and public life and compare it most unfavorably with the nepotism and favoritism characteristic of the Mubarak era. Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood put its people in ministries, but also in leadership positions of businessmen’s associations, religious and civil society organizations, etc. As Mustafa El-Labbad from the Al Sharq Center for Strategic Studies told me in an interview, through this Ikhwanization process, businessmen associated with the Brotherhood are reaping benefits as they did earlier; they are the same ‘compradors, only this time bearded.’

When I asked my Egyptian friends why Morsi was making such egregious errors, jeopardizing the power he and his movement had so long aspired to, the answer I got was: ‘it’s ideological.’ In fact, if these reports are reliable, Morsi’s Brotherhood government would like to introduce a number of demands that can only be understood as issuing from ideological concerns. Among them are the calls for eliminating a traditional Egyptian spring festival, changing the national anthem, removing music from school curricula and the like.

Egyptians of all political tendencies are demanding responsible leadership to lead the country into a new era. This means restoring public order and economic security, and finally introducing institutions of truly representative government. The number of people killed during demonstrations has been rising and the economy is on the verge of collapse. Unless the Morsi regime wakes up to political reality, it will be as readily dispensed with as was the Mubarak regime. Elections called by Morsi for Parliament cannot take place if the opposition, which, though not unified programmatically, represents a secure majority of the population, successfully leads a boycott. And if the economically and politically important governorate of Port Said, which has become a center of protest, refuses to take part, then the elections will be meaningless. Even if the polls were to be held, if only the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties were to take part, and if they were to ‘win’, that would be a Pyrrhic victory, which international bodies would have great difficulty in acknowledging.

What awaits Egypt is something that George Orwell did not contemplate in his fictional scenario: a new revolution. Although it is politically heterogeneous, the opposition can find its unity in a commitment to representative government. Civil disobedience has spread across the country, intellectuals and artists are issuing statements demanding Morsi’s resignation. And the opposition is also wielding that invincible weapon of humor. The most popular weekly television show is ‘The Program’, featuring Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian answer to American political satirist Jon Stewart. Youssef devotes most of his show to biting ridicule of Morsi and the Brotherhood. The 6 April Movement, which was at the forefront of the revolution, launched an initiative to send Morsi to the moon and collected over 20,000 signatures, placing his name on an online competition sponsored by the Axe Apollo Space Academy. Novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid was quoted in Al-Ahram weekly in late February, saying: ‘If he is not getting the message from the demonstrations, and if he is not getting it from the jokes wanting to send him to the moon, then he might get it from the statements addressed to him directly.’ He added: ‘Morsi had his chance, but he failed to make anything of it. His performance shows that he is totally disconnected from what is going on in the country. He must really come from the moon, and he might as well go back there.’

[*] Madmen at the Helm: Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring, Ithaca Press/ Garnet Publishing, 2012/2013.

MSc in Advanced Arabic planned for September 2013 by the University of Edinburgh

A one-year MSc in Advanced Arabic is planned for September 2013. The Edinburgh MSc will be the first of its kind in the UK, designed for those already with a significant amount of Arabic but who wish to go to a higher level.

The programme will consist of three core language courses. Advanced Arabic 1, taken during the first semester, consists of ten hours class per week. In the second semester Advanced Arabic 2 is made up of four weeks of intensive Arabic instruction at the American University of Cairo, followed by three weeks working on a special project in Egypt. You will then return to Edinburgh for eight weeks of further Arabic instruction in Advanced Arabic 3.

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Travel Grant from the Association for Studies in the Middle East and North Africa (ASEMEA)

The Association for Studies in the Middle East and North Africa (ASEMEA) has announces a Travel Grant Program for interested Ph.D. students, post-Docs, and junior faculty studying any facet of these regions. Funds provided through this program may be used to cover expenses associated with attending the ASMEA Sixth Annual Conference to be held in Washington, D.C. on November 21 – 23, 2013. The conference provides an opportunity for professors and students to present their research, hear from leading thinkers, and network. Applications and proposals to present new, unpublished research are being accepted now. The deadline for applications is April 30th. [Read more]

Transnational Media, Regional Politics and State Security: Saudi Arabia between Tradition and Modernity

Mohamed Zayani
British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
Vol. 39, Iss. 3, 2012

Saudi Arabia is a crucially important media player in the Middle East, commanding modern, sophisticated and far-reaching media systems. Driving the Saudi media hegemony is what may be loosely termed ‘a security imperative’ which is tightly connected to internal dynamics, geopolitical considerations and regional rivalries. Empowered with its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia pursued a dual media strategy, operating state-controlled and circumscribed domestic media systems which insulate the population from undesired external influences and uphold the religious sensibility of the kingdom while developing decentralized, open and modern transnational media systems abroad capable of safeguarding the kingdom’s interests and promoting its foreign policy. Instrumental as it may be in the kingdom’s comprehensive security approach, though, the media have proven to be an inordinately complex asset. Although remarkable in many respects, the liberalization of Saudi media engendered a number of conflictual dynamics which are potentially consequential.

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The “Arab Spring” and EU’s Immigration Policy: A Critical Sociology on the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility

Sergio Carrera
Journal of Middle East Studies
Jan 24, 2013

Following the outbreak of what has become commonly known as “the Arab Spring,” the European Union (EU) proclaimed its intention to strengthen its external migration policy by setting up “mutually beneficial” partnerships with countries in North Africa ― the so-called “Dialogues for Migration, Mobility and Security.” These Dialogues have been placed at the heart of the EU’s renewed Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM), the Union’s policy framework encompassing the international relations components of EU immigration policy. A growing body of scholarly literature and policy debates has focused on the GAMM since then. One of the key questions has been the extent to which this new official narrative covering the EU’s immigration-foreign affairs nexus can effectively meet its purported goals of initiating a new phase of EU’s immigration policy not solely by centering on the fight against illegal immigration, but rather by establishing a truly “global” policy coverage and understanding of the issues at stake in human movements across borders and by playing more efforts at establishing legal channels of immigration and protecting migrants’ human rights.

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The Memory Keeper: Gender, Nation, and Remembering in Syria

Faedah M. Totah
Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies
Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2013

The public visibility and political activity of women remain contentious social issues in the Middle East. Where women are encouraged by the state to be politically active, their ensuing visibility is perceived as threatening to the local male-dominated social order, which in turn hampers their efficacy as political agents. In this article I explore political commemoration in Syria as a socially sanctioned venue for apolitical political activity that allows women nonthreatening public visibility. I focus on the work of Dr. Nadia Khost in commemorative practices in Damascus to illustrate how gender can be utilized effectively to negotiate local power hierarchies and social norms. I conclude with a discussion of the ways in which the public visibility and political activity of women are sanctioned when perceived as reinforcing rather than challenging the local sociopolitical order.

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The Druze: Lifting the shroud of secrecy

Ithaca Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the world rights to The Druze by Abbas el Halabi.

Unlike traditional Islam, Druze doctrine has a mystical character that makes its truths openly available only to a select few wise initiates. This has led to their reputation as being secretive, ritualistic and mystical, which in turn has lead to misunderstanding and persecution throughout their history.

In this book, Abbas el Halabi attempts to shed light on the historical, religious, cultural and social heritage of the Druze, in order to present an accurate picture of them to the world. In the author’s words, he has sought to ‘lift the shroud of secrecy, refute the exaggerated fables and restore the truth by presenting a contemporary cultural approach’.

The Druze examines various aspects of the life of the Lebanese Druze community. In Lebanon, Druzes’ commitment to their religious identity has always been accompanied by a powerful historic and patriotic awareness of their status as Lebanese. The esoteric aspect of their faith and the Esprit de Corps that has bonded them in the face of threats to their identity, land or culture, have made them a fascinating case study on the survival of religious minorities in the Middle East.

Abbas el Halabi, himself a member of a prominent Lebanese Druze family and closely involved in Druze public affairs in Lebanon, attempts to separate facts from misconceptions, to elaborate on their political role in the history of the region, and consequently to evaluate their chances of survival going forward, in an era where religious tolerance and political democracy are still at a nascent stage.

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Arabic Language (Tenure-track Assistant Professor)

Beginning July 2013. Two-year appointment renewable. Five courses per year. Ph.D. in hand by time of appointment preferred. Field of specialization is open. Applicants must have a firm commitment to undergraduate teaching and submit evidence of same, including course evaluations. For a complete description of job requirements, go to: click on “News and Events”, “Faculty Job Openings”. Submit letter of application, dossier, statement of teaching philosophy, course evaluations, a sample syllabus of an advanced undergraduate course and three letters of recommendation by March 1 to Cynthia Hall, ( Administrative Coordinator, Department of Romance Languages, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC 27109.

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