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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Revolutions and Teaching the Middle East and Islam

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

One can argue that the revolutions in the Middle East are a wake-up call for the academics, media pundits, and politicians to align their thoughts with the realities on the ground. The revolutions succeeded in toppling powerful rulers, articulated laud and clear long–standing struggles that are normally and traditionally associated with Europe and North America: labor movements, women rights, jobs, better wages, freedom, democracy, etc.
Analysts in North America and Europe did not expect revolutions in the region, and those who did, did not expect them to come from these seemingly irrelevant and unlikely actors and to be this widespread and peaceful. My question is simple: Why? Prediction is of course difficult and revolutions are not predictable. Nevertheless, we should take a moment to reflect on what academia and the media had preferred to explore and investigate to pinpoint some of the deficiencies in the existing discourse concerning the Middle East.

There are two interrelated discourses informing how the history of the modern Middle East is taught. One is the Euro-centric triumphalist, linear, modernist, and even presentist approach, which produces nothing other than a sad story and our apology for it: decline, dependency, chaos, underdevelopment, stability by dictatorship, Islamism, fundamentalism, terrorism, failed modernity, and so on—all in all a grim prospect for the region. Apart from the obvious Orientalizing and Othering nature of it, this discourse propagates a thoroughly anticipatory narrative leading up to European-American exceptionalism and Middle Eastern dependency. It also prompts teachers and students, who by and large come out of a tradition saturated by Orientalist and Colonial myths about the region, to use “culture” and “religion” as a frame of analysis to explain why modernity “failed” in the Middle East, which you might call the “what went wrong syndrome.”

The second is therefore civilizational-cultural discourse. It is almost always the case that after starting the history of the Middle East from the rise and decline of Islam, the narrative introduces a titanic struggle between “modernity” and “Islam” that is supposed to continue until present time.  The fact that recent knowledge production in Europe and North America has developed primarily in the context post-9/11 exacerbates the reliance on culture and religion to explain the supposed queerness of Muslims and Arabs. Even among liberal pundits, academics, etc. the discourse seems to maintain its integrity in two widespread apologetic narratives. The first goes that Islam is not an inherently violent religion; fundamentalism and terrorism are marginal historically, demographically, intellectually, and politically. The majority of Muslims belong to more peaceful Muslim movements and currents of thought and despise bin Laden's type of extremism. The second goes that "Westerners" should to develop and nourish cultural and religious dialogue and understanding so that we overcome the temptation to think that all people are like "us". Muslims have the right to be different and think differently. Secularism may not be a universally applicable experience, certainly not in Muslim societies. So the lesson is that the "Westerners" have to learn, understand, and accept Muslims and Arabs as they are, without imposing their "Western" categories on them. It is obvious that both narratives affirm rather than deny the basic premise of the conventional wisdom that when it comes to Muslims and Arabs, all is about "culture" and "religion."

What the revolutions are doing is that they make us see some of the socio-economic dynamics in the Arab world: labor organizations, students, women, professional groups, in another word the civil society with its attendant diversity and vibrancy, which, despite our ignorance of it, has been an integral part of political reforms in the region since the late nineteenth century. The fact that the revolutions are generating a powerful counter-narrative offers a window of opportunity for us to replace the traditional totalizing, essentializing, and excoticizing narrative about the region with a more humanistic, universal, and decentralized approaches.

We must find ways to historicize “culture” and “religion” and meaningfully integrate economic and political structures, geo-political and strategic history, ethnicities, confessions, geography, social classes, labor, student, women movements, constitutional history, political thought, theory and practice of law, the life of “simple people” into our syllabi. There is a great deal of benefit in setting up a new pedagogic agenda (including new readings and textbooks) that benefits from post-colonial, post-oriental approaches, addresses global modernities, and critically engages the ways in which we can construct a decentralized narrative of world history.


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