Behind the Headlines

GW experts explore what’s really happening in the Middle East.

By Jamie L. Freedman

It’s nearly impossible to read the newspaper without coming across articles highlighting the volatile situation in the Middle East. Beset by intense political and economic stuggles, the complex region is attracting widespread scholarly attention at The George Washington University.

GW is quickly gaining a reputation as a leading Middle East research center, with some 13 faculty members focusing most of their teaching and related work on the region. The University’s Institute for Middle East Studies opened last year. Housed at the Elliott School of International Affairs, the research organization sponsors conferences, workshops, public lectures, and faculty and student studies aimed at fostering a deeper understanding of Middle Eastern history, culture, politics, and economics.

“Coupled with our new MA in Middle East Studies, we now have a critical mass of scholarly interest on the Middle East at GW, and we all hope that the institute will become widely recognized as a center people can turn to for analysis and understanding of issues related to this politically charged region,” says Nathan J. Brown, professor of political science and international affairs, who directs both new ventures.

An expert on Middle East politics, as well as democratization, constitutionalism, and rule of law in the Arab world, Dr. Brown says that a number of interdisciplinary research projects are in the pipeline at GW. “We have pinpointed some clusters of common research interest among faculty members—political Islam, Iraq, Palestinian politics, the Gulf, and the politics of media in the Middle East—and are putting the bricks in place to conduct collaborative research,” he says.

Islam and Politics

Political Islam is the bailiwick of Dr. Brown, who is currently working on his fifth book, Islamists and the Electoral Process in the Arab World. “There’s a tremendous growth in interest in this country about Islamic politics following 9/11, but the issues raised go back much further,” says Dr. Brown, who is focusing his research on the challenges posed by the creation of independent Islamist social and political movements in the Middle East. “While there’s a natural and very understandable tendency to view the Middle East primarily through a security prism, it’s equally important to advance understanding of politics in the Arab world—and academics are perhaps best equipped to shed light on issues like Islamist political movements, which have become increasingly more prominent over the last generation or two.”

Dr. Brown, a nonresident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, collaborates on several political Islam-related projects with Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs. Dr. Lynch is one of five full-time faculty members with extensive experience in the field hired last year to join GW’s distinguished roster of Middle East experts. A political scientist by training, he comes to GW from Williams College, where he was renowned for his expertise on the Arab media, Jordan, Iraq, and the Islamist movements. His blog Abu Aardvark receives some 2,000 hits a day.

“Nathan Brown and I have done a lot of research both collectively and individually on political Islam,” Dr. Lynch says. “For example, last fall, The Journal of Foreign Policy published a memo I wrote to the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood about how to talk to America, which received a great deal of attention in Egypt.” In October, Dr. Lynch traveled to Cairo to meet with the group, helping to push the dialogue forward, although he acknowledges that “vast political problems remain.”

Nathan J. Brown

Jesica McConell

Dr. Brown is simultaneously hard at work researching and writing about the brotherhood’s controversial draft party platform, which was unveiled last year. “Both Nathan and I are trying to broaden the discussion and look beyond al-Qaida in order to help our students and the public understand the diversity of Islamic politics,” Dr. Lynch explains.

In May, Dr. Brown and Dr. Lynch convened the second annual workshop of scholars focusing on Islamist politics, bringing together a dozen academics from throughout the United States to exchange ideas, discuss current research, and push forward academic research on the topic. The Elliott School has hosted a wide range of other forums on the Middle East this year, including a workshop coordinated by Dr. Lynch about strategic issues surrounding Iraq and a conference on Iraqi refugees and humanitarian issues.

At GW, Dr. Lynch continues his work as a leading expert on the Arab media—a research topic that has gained widespread attention. “A lot of people are very concerned about anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Many believe that the Arab media contribute to building anti-American attitudes and, on the flip side, that the media can help push forward democracy and democratization,” he says. “One of the jobs of academics is to step back from the policy debate and figure out how we can actively test what’s actually happening. It’s an important reality check on both our hopes and fears.”

Examining Iraq

Iraq—a burning issue in our nation’s consciousness—is the chief focus of Dina Khoury, associate professor of history and international affairs, whose research centers on the commemorative politics of war. “I’m currently conducting research for a book I’m writing for Cambridge University Press about the impact of war and violence on Iraq and how it shaped a whole generation of Iraqis,” she says.

Dr. Khoury notes that Iraq has been fighting wars almost continuously for the past 28 years, beginning with the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), which mobilized every Iraqi male between the ages of 18 and 45, killing 4 percent of the population. The first Gulf War followed in January 1991—an aerial war that devastated the country’s infrastructure. “The social impacts of these many years of war and sanctions have been horrendous, creating cultural shifts, widespread social problems, and traumatization similar to what the United States suffered after the Vietnam War,” she explains. “Surprisingly, these issues have generally not been systematically addressed by scholars.”

Dr. Khoury is filling that void through extensive research for her upcoming book, Postponed Lives: War and Remembrance in Iraq. She spent last summer in the Middle East conducting oral interviews with 26 Iraqi exiles and refugees—both intellectuals and soldiers—who are now living in Syria and Jordan. She plans to return to the region next spring to continue the interview process. “Rather than focusing on the battles and other events of the various wars, I’m talking to the refugees about their experiences living on the front, whether they questioned the wars they fought in, and what the government revealed to them about the reasons behind the wars,” Dr. Khoury says.

The second part of her research involves delving into the extensive Iraqi government archives housed at the Iraq Memory Foundation in Washington, D.C. “I was granted access to the documents, which were moved to Washington for safekeeping after the downfall of the Ba’thist regime, and encompass official papers on a wide range of issues,” Dr. Khoury says. “I am the first scholar to work with a number of sources, including the literature of the Ba’th Party.”

Equipped with a Guggenheim Foundation grant and two grants from the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, Dr. Khoury is devoting the entire academic year to her research. “My work is motivated in large part by the sense that we know very little about Iraq’s contemporary history,” says Dr. Khoury, a native of Lebanon whose childhood was shaped by civil war. “The impacts of war have been given a back seat to the effects of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. My research is, therefore, a good segue into Iraqi culture and society of the past several decades.”

Gaza and Palestinians

The tumultuous Gaza Strip takes center stage in a soon-to-be-published book by Ilana Feldman, assistant professor of anthropology and international affairs, who came to GW from New York University this past fall as part of the wave of new hires specializing in the Middle East. In Governing Gaza, Dr. Feldman analyzes the civil service in Gaza during the British Mandate (1917-48) and the Egyptian Administration (1948-67), shedding light on how government persists, even under difficult conditions. Drawing on extensive archival research in Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem, and London, as well as two years of ethnographic research with retired civil servants in Gaza, Dr. Feldman explains how government authority was produced and challenged and how the details of everyday rule shaped the people and place of Gaza.

Dr. Feldman’s research focus recently shifted to the Palestinian experience in humanitarianism since 1948. “For a significant percentage of the Palestinian population, humanitarian relief has been the most consistent feature of life in the years since displacement,” she says. “My research explores the implications of this long-term relief condition for Palestinian society and the political community.”

Both Dr. Lynch and Dr. Feldman are pleased they made the move to GW to help expand the University’s Middle East research enterprise. “One of the reasons I came to GW is that it’s exciting to be part of the creation of a program that I believe has the chance to become a premier center for Middle East studies in the Washington area,” Dr. Lynch says. “It’s great to have the opportunity to create something from the ground up and to make an immediate impact.”

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