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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Regional Uprisings and Middle East Scholarship: Some Thoughts on What We Can Do Better

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  1. What is your view of the recent protest/revolutionary movements in the region in the past 3 months?

Regional events have forced a shift in the public discourse of politics as well as in the strategies of regimes and opposition groups alike in all Arab states. Whether additional states will experience mass-based mobilizations calling for regime change or actual regime change remains to be seen and depends on the historical legacies specific to each state, along with both structural conditions and contingent factors. Nevertheless, recent developments have made it possible to imagine alternatives to the existing Arab regimes in ways that go much further than was previously the case. These developments have opened up future perspectives that these regimes have long foreclosed. This has primarily occurred in two ways. On the one hand, we have witnessed the collapse of the eternal aura these regimes/leaders have maintained. On the other hand, empirical evidence has challenged the false choice between authoritarianism and chaos (a choice that Arab regimes and their supporters always allude to). This new imaginative possibility could very well lead remaining regimes, their formal opposition, and those sectors of the population not co-opted by either to alter the strategic calculations that had thus far maintained the status quo. Whether these transformations will translate into anything structural in terms of systems of rule and economic development models remains to be seen.

  1. What opportunities do you see today in terms of setting a pedagogic agenda that goes beyond old paradigms? Or that goes beyond assessing dominant paradigms? (and is any of this necessary in the first place?)

Recent events have dealt an empirical blow to a variety of problematic paradigms and assumptions that much analysis of the Middle East draws on. This is particularly the case with respect to Orientalism, Islamaphobia, and Neoliberalism. However, dominant discourses are quite flexible in their ability to allow for exceptions, create disclaimers, and redirect the logic of argumentation. One example of this is the rush by many neoliberals and liberals throughout the Middle East to argue that the problem with the economic reforms of the past two decades was not so much in conceptualizations (i.e., free markets are the supreme model) but rather in implementation (i.e., state monopolies were simply replaced with private monopolies as opposed to real competition). Furthermore, if the history of social theory teaches us anything, it is that general transformations in the dominance of explanatory paradigms/assumptions have much to do with transformations in international and regional power relations. Consequently, while the impact of recent developments continues to be assessed, it is perhaps best to participate in the continued dismantling of these dominant paradigms rather than to simply assume their demise.

  1. Even if you’re not teaching the Middle East, how did the emergence of these movements influence what you are (or will be) teaching? Could the study of the revolutionary movements in the Middle East constitute a critical contribution to the disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences?

In most of the literature, Middle East studies has been depicted as borrowing from developments in the study of other regions or from broader disciplinary breakthroughs. Furthermore, the celebration of regional revolts/protests as vindications of the modernity and/or the democracy-potential of the region has unintentionally reinforced the notion of the region playing either catch-up to the rest of the world or as a field within which existing theories are applied. However, recent developments do offer the opportunity to restructure this relationship. While not necessarily requiring a reversal of the above-mentioned dynamics regarding theory and research, recent events provide important opportunities to contribute to theory-making. This could be accomplished in a number of ways, including identifying the relationships of recent events to global media networks (including social networking sites and satellite television), transformations within neo-liberal governance, and the various macro- and micro-practices of contentious politics in varied political, economic, and social settings.

  1. Finally, in light of the recent developments, are there new questions, subjects, historic periods, and themes that are important to examine in the study of the region, and might they be replacing other subjects of inquiry?

What was perhaps most striking about discussions in the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution was the lack of detailed comparative analysis of the factors that undergirded the dynamics of the unraveling of the regime and the existence of similar or different dynamics in other regional states. Here, I am particularly interested in the difference in the leader-party-army relationship of various regimes (think Egypt vs. Syria vs. Yemen), the legitimacy structures (both positive and negative) underpinning difference regimes (think Egypt vs. Syria vs. Jordan vs. Saudi Arabia), the nature of the armed forces (think Yemen vs. Tunisia vs. Libya vs. Bahrain), and the homo/heterogeneity of domestic populations (Tunisia vs. Syria vs. Bahrain). If anything, the plethora of speculation about where similar regime change would be possible and the analytic logics that rationalized such positions seemed largely void of in-depth and empirically-based knowledge and rather more dependent on either generic notions of the authoritarian state or stereotypical understandings of specific countries. Finally, if the quality journalistic and scholarly analyses of protests and revolts are any indication, recent events have highlighted the marginal status of states like Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen in the broader field of Middle East studies. While I am cautious against justifying research agendas based on contemporaneous exigencies, the disproportionate ability of the Middle East studies community to offer empirically-grounded analyses of Egypt as opposed to Bahrain, Libya, or Yemen (to name the most glaring) should be taken as a starting pointing for posing some tough questions regarding research sites.

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