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Archive for February, 2008

By Julia I. Bertelsmann

Julia I. Bertelsmann ’09 attends Harvard College and is an Economics Concentrator in Eliot House.


The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 was the latest, most dramatic manifestation of the crisis facing the idea of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. Political violence is not unique to Muslim countries, of course, but political Islam poses a unique challenge by asserting that God, not man, is the source of law, and that (male) religious leaders are the sole bearers of political legitimacy.

Everywhere in the Islamic Middle East, the democratic gains of the past few years are being reversed or threatened, and hostility towards democratic institutions is palpable. As Palestinian human rights activist, Bassem Eid, puts it in this issue, “Creating a human rights organization under an Arab regime is like committing suicide.”

Despite sometimes affecting the appearance of democracy, as Cindy D. Tan ’08 describes in this issue, Iran continues to persecute dissidents. The Iranian government recently detained and brutally tortured a group of students in the notorious Evin Prison. Not content with attacking domestic critics, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime has detained Iranian-American academics as well. Like the earlier arrests of British sailors in the Shatt-al-Arab and their staged appearances in traditional garb before television cameras, the most recent political arrests remind the world that Iran’s democratic institutions are a pretense.

Hezbollah continues to menace the Lebanese government, which recently faced down a threat from Al-Qaeda but still cowers in the shadow of resurgent Syrian power. And Iraq has become more stable in the past several months but still remains as fragile and fragmented as ever before. In this issue, Jonathan S. Greenstein ’10 argues that rentier states, Iran and Syria, have learnt how to profit from provoking unrest in Iraq and Lebanon without being held responsible.

Khartoum continues to foment genocide in southern Sudan and Egypt adds to the suffering of Darfur refugees through violent, racial persecution, as Abigail R. Fradkin ’09 reports. Blocked by China and the Arab world, however, international institutions are struggling to hold Khartoum accountable.
Across the Muslim world, and most particularly in Islamic states, rampant misogyny manifests itself in “honor killings,” lashings, and other forms of brutal oppression, as the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby detailed last month.

In this issue, Palestinian intellectual, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, reminds us that politics is the art of the possible. Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, among others, have argued persuasively that there is nothing inherent in Islam that prevents Muslim countries from achieving stable democracies. And, indeed, there are several examples of success. Indonesia has made the transition from authoritarian rule; Turkey remains an example of success in the Islamic world.

Yet Turkey’s stability has rested on a strict separation of religion and the state, enforced by the courts and, occasionally, the army. The election in September of Abdullah Gül as Turkey’s first Islamic presi-dent raised fears that political Islam may yet undo the achievements of the past eighty years. As these debates have raged, American foreign policy has struggled to face up to the new challenges.

Pakistan represents the clash of two often-contradictory U.S. for-eign policy goals, which are themselves the product of a clash between U.S. institutions. The Pentagon strategy is exemplified by President Pervez Musharraf, who broke his pledges on democracy but is an ally in the war on terror. The State Department strategy was carried by Bhutto, who pursued democratic reform despite the risks.

Both security and democracy are essential to the future of the Mid-dle East. But the U.S. has been uncertain about how to balance these two priorities, to make them reinforce rather than harm each other. In contrast, China’s economically-oriented approach to the Middle East has been far simpler. As Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 writes in this issue, China’s goals may conflict directly with American concerns.

The potential for conflict has been realized in Sudan, where China, through its oil-based ties to the Khartoum regime, has contributed indirectly to the atrocities in Darfur. The U.S. is one of the few nations to have condemned the genocide as such, but has not intervened, partly because Khartoum has assisted the War on Terror and because of the delicate peace between north and south Sudan, among other causes.

What the U.S. is suffering from is a lack of clarity about whether (and where, and when) democracy and human rights are more impor-tant than security and stability. Backing away from the region, an option some Americans seem inclined towards, is neither realistic nor responsible. Clear, visionary leadership is needed—both in the Middle East, and in the West—to define the region’s goals, and fight for them.

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By Madeline H.G. Haas, Junior Editor
and Gabriel M. Scheinmann, Associate Editor


Syro-Palestinian Pottery. The Muslim Mediterranean City. Jewish-Arab Encounters: The Classical Age. The Imperial System: Byzantine Society and Civilization. The Female Body and Islam: Religious Doctrines in Changing Societies. These are the “Middle East Related Courses” recommended to Harvard undergraduates by the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They may all be very good, but they hardly constitute a curriculum that could produce scholars of the contemporary Middle East. Today’s students, who are taking up the study of Arabic in droves, want to understand Sunni-Shia conflict, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the complexities of Middle Eastern societies and governments. They should be offered courses that provide them with the necessary knowledge and insight.

We therefore call on Harvard College to expand the Committee on Middle East Studies into a body that offers degrees to undergraduate students, to hire more Middle East Studies professors, and to provide a wider selection of classes on the modern Middle East. Harvard has the resources and capacity to lead the academic world in tackling the critical problems of our time and should respond to the rising interest of students in a region of vital importance.

Harvard offers dismally few classes on the contemporary Middle East. Only four were offered by the Government, History, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) departments combined this fall. Two of those were taught in the Government Department by a visiting professor from the American University in Cairo. Harvard seldom offers classes concerning modern Israel. Next semester is the exception: two classes on Israel will be offered, again in the Govern-ment Department, this time by a visiting Kennedy School of Govern-ment senior fellow. The History Department seems to believe that Middle Eastern history ended in World War I. It offers only one class concerning Middle Eastern history in the 20th Century.

If the Committee on Middle East Studies (MES) were to expand and become like other area-studies committees, such as the Committee on African Studies or the Committee on South Asian Studies, it would become the go-to place for students who are passionate about study-ing the region. In addition to listing all relevant classes in other de-partments, MES should offer create small, in-depth junior tutorials on the key issues that students want to understand today: Arab politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy and human rights, the role of U.S. foreign policy, and the challenges posed by Non-State actors. MES concentrations should require students to achieve proficiency in one or two commonly spoken regional languages (such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Hebrew).

Harvard should also do more to attract and nurture first-rate pro-fessors of contemporary Middle East Studies. Although the field is excessively politicized, Harvard must make the effort to recruit pro-fessors devoted to balanced research and teaching. Today, the Gov-ernment Department offers most of the relevant courses in the field, but it does not have a single tenured professor in any subject con-nected to the Middle East. It should be commended for consistently attracting visiting professors and fellows of a high caliber, but in future Harvard should aim to become a hub rather than a spoke of Middle Eastern scholarship.

The exponential growth of student enrollment in Arabic language courses since September 11, 2001 forcefully demonstrates rising student interest in the region. While the Institute of Politics and Weatherhead Center have done much to spur debate across campus, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has remained stuck in antiquity. In the midst of a Curricular Review, FAS has a historic opportunity to bring Harvard to the forefront of national scholarship in a field of crucial international importance.

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