MOSTAFA MINAWI: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for coming on an early morning on a Sunday. We really appreciate it. And I think it's a very important conversation to be part of, but still-- Sunday morning, that's a lot to ask.
It gives me great pleasure to be the chair of the first panel. And I would like to introduce both our guest professor, Juan Cole, and our own Cornell's professor, Esra Akcan. Professor Juan Cole, for those that are involved in Middle Eastern studies in general, really needs no introduction.
But for those outside of the field, I will briefly introduce Professor Cole, because his books, and achievements, and awards-- I would spend 10 minutes just actually reading them. So I'm just going to go for the basic. Professor Cole is a Richard P Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three and a half decades he has sought to put the relationship of the West and Muslim world in historical context.
His most recent book is The New Arabs, How The Millennial Generation Is Changing The Middle East, which came out in 2014. He also authored Engaging The Muslim World, which came out in 2009, Napoleon's Egypt, Invading The Middle which came out in 2007. These are only the last three or four books. There are many more.
He has translated the works of the Lebanese-American author, Kahlil Gibran. He has appeared on numerous TV programs talking about the Middle East, so everything from PBS, ABC, The Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, et cetera, et cetera. One of the greatest achievements for us in the field is that Professor Cole was able to bridge the academic and public intellectual role beautifully. We all-- those that are interested, in academics in the Middle East that are interested in doing this, usually model it on Professor Cole's way.
His blog is widely read, because it kind of puts what's happening in current events in the Middle East in a historical context. And for those of us that are involved in the Middle East, that usually get very frustrated when we watch CNN, and talking heads giving their own expert opinions, we usually turn to his blog to feel a bit of like, all right, there is sanity in the world. Please read this.
And we share it widely. He also tweets widely. And we're really, really thankful for that.
His talk today is called "The Construction of the Middle East in the American Academy." But before we go there, I would like to introduce the respondent professor, Esra Akcan. Professor Esra Akcan is the Associate Professor in the Department of History. She's also the Director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies.
Her research on modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism foregrounds the intertwined histories of Europe and Western Asia. Her latest books are Architecture in Translation, Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House. Another book is Turkey, Modern Architecture and History. And the latest book that is coming out is called Open Architecture, Migration, Citizenship, and Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg. And it's coming out in 2018.
She has over 100 academic articles and contributions to textbooks. And the awards that she received over the years are too numerous to count. Before coming to Cornell she was at University of Iowa, Chicago. She taught at Humboldt, at Columbia, at New School, at Pratt, and at METU. Please help me welcome both of our panelists.
JUAN COLE: Well, welcome, everyone. Thanks so much for getting up and coming on a Sunday morning. I'll try not to make my sermon too long.
I want to talk about how we got where we are in the academic study of the Middle East and the United States. First thing to say is pretty obvious, if you think about it, is that the Middle East is not a place. It's been pointed out that it's not like India or China which, has an obvious reality, although you can deconstruct those two. India is, after all, the Indus Valley, which is now not in India, and so forth.
But what in the world the Middle East is is even more difficult to discern. So it is true, on the one hand, that India or China are constructed just the same way the Middle East is. I think it's also true that the Middle East is not an obvious geographical construction in the way that they are.
Moreover, what we now call the Middle East in European languages hasn't-- and indeed, this has now gone into Arabic and Persian-- has not always been the way it's been called in the past. So Bonaparte didn't think he was invading the Middle East. He thought he was invading the Orient.
I toyed with using that in my title. But I thought that the idea of Napoleon in Taiwan would have been really confusing to my audience, since the meaning of the word "Orient" has shifted. The Comte de Gobineau, major 19th century intellectual, who was deeply involved in the invention of the Aryan racial theory, served for three years as an ambassador in Tehran. And he wrote a book about the religions and philosophies in Central Asia. So he was living in Iran. He thought he was in Central Asia. He didn't think he was in the Middle East.
So where does this come from? Well, probably it comes from the India Office in Britain. Because the British crown jewel in their empire was India.
And so what they were mainly interested in in the rest of the world was, was it a place that you could get to India through? And the Middle East was such a place, so it was the Middle East, with India being the East. And of course, in the 19th century, the Victorians would say they're going out to the East, by which they meant India.
And so geographically speaking, my professor [? Nikki ?] [? Ketty ?] once asked, in the middle of what is Morocco? Morocco is in the far west, and further west than any place in Europe, but we call it the Middle East. But on the other hand, if you were interested in getting to India, you would come through the Straits of Gibraltar.
So that's the Middle East on the way to the real East, which was India. However, the British may have been talking like that in the mid 19th century. They didn't seem to write it down much.
Another important, I think, event historically speaking in the construction of the Middle East was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which was then sold to the British under duress in 1876, and remained a British possession until 1956, allowed heavier goods and weaponry to get to India from the Mediterranean. And that made Egypt, which had been important to British India policy all along, even more important. And so it's no big surprise that in 1882, they just took it over. And there were many pretexts for doing so, but I think security for India was probably what was in their minds.
But with regard to the actual use of the term, it appears first to have been used by Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902 a major naval theorist at Annapolis, an American. And he says, "The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen"-- so he's claiming to have invented it-- "will someday need its Malta as well as its Gibraltar." That is to say, Malta and Gibraltar are gateways to someplace else-- to India. The Middle East itself will need such gateways.
"Naval force, which has the quality of mobility, which carries with it the privilege of temporary absences, but it needs to find, on every scene of operation, established bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security. The British Navy should have the facility to concentrate in force if occasion arise about Aden, India, and the Persian Gulf." Mahan had this theory that there were a few major arteries in the world that, if you were a great power beginning in the 1500s, you would always want to have them-- the Straits of Hormuz, the Bab el Mandeb opening to the Red Sea, and the Straits of Malacca off of Malaysia.
Well, he's not wrong. And the US Navy has all of that, and a few things more besides. So he's predicting Bahrain. Right
The headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain, exactly what Mahan had in mind. And so the term "Middle East" has its origins in naval military thinking about Western hegemony. And we shouldn't forget that.
Then it was picked up by a journalist, Valentine Chirol, who wrote a book on Middle East, Middle East Question, Problems of India and Defense." And again, the title of the book is like a neon sign flashing at us. What is important about this place is India. It's the way to India for British naval thinking and military thinking.
And implicit in some of this thinking is that not only is the Middle East geographically kind of the way to India, but it also is a security problem because full of Muslims. And from the great Indian Revolt of 1857, '58, which the British were pleased to call a mutiny because it began in the Bengal army, the British security thinkers-- the equivalent of our terrorism experts today on CNN that Mostafa was complaining about-- had a thing about Muslims. Islamophobia was central to British colonial security thinking.
And they would write books with titles like, Can Indian Muslims Be Loyal To The Queen? As though there were some reason for which they should be. And so Chirol also was thinking along these lines. And when he wrote in 1902-3, he was concerned about whether the Ottomans were reliable partners, what would be the impact of the Baghdad railroad which the Germans were behind, and so forth. So the Middle East was not only a geographical area, mainly appended to India for logistical reasons, but it was a geographical and demographic area appended to India for security reasons.
Now, you can make a case for the Middle East as an object of study, I think, on various grounds. You have a geographical element, in the sense that it is an area linked by a number of bodies of water-- Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea-- and in some ways also demarcated by barriers like the Sahara Desert. It is an arid zone, and so material culture is strongly shaped by aridity.
Middle Eastern innovations in water management have been important. Personally, I don't think it's any mystery that when the Castilians took over southern Spain, it went into an economic down spiral, because the Castilians were used to rainfall agriculture. And they had no idea how to run Andalus, whereas the Arabs and the Berbers who had been there before knew exactly what to do with it.
Pastoralism has had an outsized importance in the region. It's not been unimportant in India and China. But in India and China, it's viewed as something coming from the outside. Whereas in the Middle East, on the order of a third of Iraqis were probably pastoralists as late as 1850, similar, probably 25% in Iran, more like 10% in Egypt. But pastoralists have been a big part of the story of Middle Eastern history all along, and even into the modern period.
And then again, how to deal with lack of rainfall, river irrigation, underwater canals-- all of these things have been very important in material culture. And then there's a common heritage of Islam, and to some extent, Judaism and Christianity, common heritage linguistically, and of history itself. And so the people we talk about in the Middle East today mostly lived under the Abbasid caliphate, although not the Moroccans.
And let's say they either lived into the Abbasids or the Umayyads. And of course more recently, the Ottoman Empire had much of this region, although not Iran. So history, language, religious culture-- all of those things tie the region together in some ways.
Initially, the United States was not a world power, let us say. It was an expansionist, and a militaristic, and white nationalist power. But it was concentrated on performing those characteristics in North America. And so American expansion was towards the west on the continent, rather than mostly abroad.
A lot of historians would demarcate 1898 as the moment for the invention of the American overseas empire, when it takes the Philippines, briefly Cuba, poor, poor Puerto Rico, which is still suffering with us, and so forth. And so the Middle East was not on the American power horizon in that era. And people in the region were aware of this, and tended to see the United States, I think very naively, as potentially a neutral player or an honest broker.
From the point of view of the American academy, the Middle East was where the Bible was born. So of course, early American anthropology often involved going and living with the Bedouin in Palestine in hopes that that would give you insight into the children of Israel so you could read the Bible better. And of course, Arabic has cognates to Hebrew that might help understand obscure words in the Bible. Everything was focused through biblical knowledge.
Palestine archeology was very important in the early American academy, and also missionary work. So in the mid 19th century, famously, a committee met at Princeton with the intention of bringing the people in Najaf and Cairo and Beirut over into Presbyterianism. Why they thought that the Middle East needed more Calvinism, I don't know, but that was a very major effort.
And it was a disappointment and a surprise to them when it crashed and burned. There is still a small Lebanese Presbyterian community which looks back fondly on those days, but it didn't take. But that was another point of interest in the region.
And of course, created the American Protestant college in Beirut, which became the American University of Beirut. Cornelius van Dyke did important 19th century Arabic philology as part of his missionary work. And so the Dutch of upstate New York intersect with the story in important ways.
And then of course, I think less important than the American academy but still not without importance down the road, was the budding Zionist movement, mainly at this time a European phenomenon, mainly rejected by American Jews, but not completely without its adherents. Interestingly enough, in the early 20th century, a lot of the most Islamophiliac literature that was produced-- articles about the glories of Andalus and so forth-- tended to come from Jewish Americans who, at the time, it was common to think about-- under the influence of European racial theory-- to think about the Jews and the Arabs as fellow Semites. And so the glory of one redounded to the glory of the other. And famously, when some of the first Zionist settlers went to Palestine, they called themselves Palestinians.
The Middle East did have a position-- literature from the area had a position in American popular culture, as well as in more serious writing. The transcendentalists-- Emerson, Whitman, and others-- were influenced by Hafez. You had the Omar Khayyam phenomenon once Edward Fitzgerald had translated that poetry.
And indeed what one forgets now how central the Khayyam corpus was. My experience is that anyone under 50 doesn't know what I'm talking about. Anyone over has memorized some of it.
But Omar Khayyam was a corpus of Persian poetry of a skeptical and hedonistic libertine bent. Mark Twain said it was his favorite book. T.S. Eliot began writing poetry under its influence, so on, and so forth.
And you had the 1,001 Nights were also extremely influential. Mark Twain's Travels, in which he said things that did not reflect well in the region, were influential. But then it starts to come into American politics.
And so during World War I, when the United States entered World War I, it began being a power. And Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, one of the central theses of which was that the Middle East, the formerly colonized peoples of the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburgs, should gain their independence, so the Czechs, the Hungarians. And maybe Wilson didn't intend to include the Egyptians and the Syrians, but once the Egyptians and the Syrians saw the Fourteen Points, they said, hey, what about us, and were deeply disappointed when the Versailles Peace Conference and its satellite conferences, such as San Remo decided, that the Middle Easterners were kind of like a 15-year-old who wasn't quite ready to get behind the wheel of a car. And they insisted on imposing a new round of colonialism on them.
Another important turning point came in the 1930s when an American-- well, when the Americans were somewhat involved in the discovery of petroleum in Saudi Arabia. And when the Saudis were attempting to escape British hegemony, and thought that an American alliance-- again, that thinking the US is not an imperial power and so will be an honest broker-- the Saudis were inclined to have the Americans take care of the petroleum. So you get Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, out of this relationship, which starts to become important in world politics almost immediately, because during World War II, Saudi petroleum played a role in the victory of the Allies.
And Roosevelt was quite aware of this, met with King Saud on a destroyer after the war, and cemented the alliance Standard Oil was one of several oil Western oil companies that dominated the Iraqi petroleum industry. After the CIA coup against the Shah in '53, American petroleum companies took part of what had been British Petroleum's share in Iran. And then as the British withdrew from the region militarily, as their empire declined through the 1960s and early '70s, by the early '70s, the British were mostly out, and the Americans were replacing them navally. I talked about that.
The region, of course, bulked large in the United States during the Cold War when the US emerged as one of two great powers, two superpowers. The 1958 Sputnik satellite launched by the Soviet Union put a scare into the American public, and especially into its political class, that the United States was falling behind, and that our mathematics was not good enough. Our level of it was not good enough, or the extent of our training of our students was not good enough.
And not only technical skills, engineering, the kinds of things you would need to put a satellite into space, but also that the Soviets were competing with the United States on the level of soft power, trying to get the sympathies of people throughout what was beginning to be called the Third World. And so the United States Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, which became, over time, the kernel of Title VI, which supports a lot of the Middle East and other areas studies programs. It's a Cold War institution.
It's now under a great deal of pressure because, of course, the Cold War is over. And anti-intellectualism has reemerged as a major strand in American political life. Myself, I'm hoping for a Chinese moon base. I think that's what you would need to get Congress back into supporting academic study.
And then, because, partly, of this federal support, but also foundation support-- Mellon and others, the Ford Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council, and Zachary Lockman has a big book on this-- you begin to get centers at major American universities for the study of the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, important blocks of territory in the global South over which the Americans and the Soviets were competing. And one of the important such centers was founded in '61 at the University of Michigan. What was different about these centers was formerly, Middle East had been the bailiwick of the Near Eastern Studies departments, with that old biblical approach to the region people studying Hebrew, Arabic as an ancillary to Hebrew, philology.
You would typically put the study of the Assyrians in such a department, but then also, maybe, over time, some modern study, whereas the Middle East Studies departments or centers coming out of this nexus of the Social Science Research Council and the foundation community and Washington were very contemporarily oriented. And so my predecessor, Dick Mitchell, Richard P Mitchell at the University of Michigan, I think may have been the first major historian of the Middle East, mainly worked on the Middle East, whose appointment was in the history department rather than in a Near Eastern Studies department. And so separating out the study of the region disciplinarily into the departments, but then coordinating the faculty in various departments through a center, was the new model.
And of course, a lot of the intellectual ferment in the study of the Middle East was also impelled by the refugees from Hitler, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who had had their own tradition of a very sophisticated approach to the study of the Middle East. So von Grunebaum at UCLA was important. And then ultimately, Leonard Binder ended up there, and so forth. So there end up being about 17 of these National Research Centers supported by the federal government.
How am I doing on time? I'm sorry.
MOSTAFA MINAWI: 10, 15 minutes.
JUAN COLE: OK, so I would argue that the next big thing that happened, aside from the Cold War and this kind of organization of interdisciplinary centers at the universities, was the 1965 Immigration Act. Now in 1924, the US Congress passed what I think of as essentially a Nazi Immigration Act, in the sense that it was based on racial hierarchies. Between 1880 and 1924, you had a big wave of immigration in the United States, which was different from the earlier German and Scandinavian immigration of the early to mid 19th century, in that it was heavily Mediterranean and Eastern European.
And the 1880 through 1924 period was when the Lebanese came, was when the Italians came, was when the Hungarians and the Poles came, and the Jews among them. And so something on the order of 20 million people came in that era at a time when the population in the United States was 100 million. So it was an enormous and very important wave of immigration.
The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, where it took over Indiana, was, in some ways, a response to that wave of immigration. There were anxieties about all of these male working-class people. Many of them hadn't brought family with them, and how they formed a danger to the white Protestant women.
And at that time, the Poles and the Italians and the Irish were not considered fully white. They may be latently so, or the Catholic working class was not coded as fully white. You had to be Protestant for that.
Well, by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the law that they put in was based on the population of the United States as it was in 1880. So it was an attempt to shape further immigration, to go back to the white immigration of the mid 19th century before the Catholic, and Jewish, and Muslim aliens began coming. Because about 10% of the Lebanese and Syrians who came were Muslim.
And it gave quotas to countries. So the quota for Lebanon went down to 400. And all Asians were excluded-- exception of Japan, where I think they allowed a couple hundred in a year. And even that was gotten rid of after a while.
And so that's why-- and I think there's some evidence now that the Nazis looked at this law when they were formulating their own policies. So that's why I call it the Nazi Immigration Law. And by the 1960s, it had become embarrassing and there was pressure on Congress to redo it. And so they redid it so as to make a-- to get rid of the country quotas, which had been invidious racially.
And so from every country in the world, 25,000 people could come a year. Not that many would actually come, but that would be the upper limit. And it was per country.
And so it actually advantaged the Middle East over, say, India, because India is one country, whereas all of the Middle Eastern countries could potentially send 25,000. And because the people who did this law were still mainly white racists formed by Jim Crow in Congress, they shaped the law in hopes that they could still keep the majority of the immigrants coming from Norway, and Germany, and so forth. And they made it easy for the people to bring their relatives-- relatively easy.
Well, it turned out that Europe flourished in the 1960s. And the Germans and the Swedes didn't particularly want to come to the United States anymore. It's nice in Germany and Sweden.
And who wanted to come was people from the Middle East, and from Africa, and from Latin America. And then moreover, the white nationalists had made it easy for the Swedes or the Germans to bring more relatives, but that backfired on them, because then the Latinos, and the Middle Easterners, and so forth brought their relatives instead. Now when you hear Mr. Trump complaining about chain migration, that was built into the 1965 law in hopes that it would be European chain migration. It's only now that it turned out not to be European chain migration that chain migration is bad. So these debates that we had in the early '20s continue with us.
But there's strong push factors, of course, in the region, that caused a lot of immigration to the United States from '65 forward. You had the Afghanistan war. You had the revolution in Iran. You had, of course, the ongoing tragedy of Palestine. And then there were pull factors, so that people who got a good education and had skills could come from the region.
And so in my lifetime, I've seen-- because I remember the 1950s when America was very white bread, and where you would drive up to-- my father would drive up to a gas station, and white guys would come out and wash his windshield, and fill up his car for him. And now it's hard-- of course, robots are mainly doing those things. Now it is hard to imagine that Protestant whites would do that kind of labor, because you had all of this immigration of people who then filled the socioeconomic lower niches of society.
So an enormous change happened, of course, at all social levels. So the wealthiest immigrants are South Asian, both Muslim and Hindu, and more so even than the Europeans. And then heritage communities formed over time, some of them quite wealthy, who began endowing chairs. And as Alec and the Koch brothers kinds of institutions convinced state legislatures to cut off the public universities from funding, public universities more or less privatized.
They were looking for endowments. They were gaining experience in dunning alumnae. So the endowments of the heritage communities in Middle East Studies became more and more important, and are starting, I think, to shape the field, sometimes in what one might think of as skewed ways.
So for instance, the wave of immigration from Iran after 1979 was mainly from the upper echelons of Iranian society economically, and people who had been formed by the Pahlavi culture of exaltation, of the Achaemenid period in pre-islamic Iran, and the kind of Iranian Persian nationalism. And so, despite the importance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are no endowed chairs in the study of it, whereas there have been, I think, at least five or six recent endowments for the study of ancient Iran over in California. So one of the difficulties the field is going to have is that we're going to end up studying things that maybe don't intersect very well with the real world, because the values of the immigrant endowing communities.
I love ancient Iran. And I've been working on my middle Persian. So I'm not slamming it. It's very important.
But let's just say that I don't think it's quite as important as the Iranian Revolutionary guards. So in any case, by the 1960s, mid-1960s, an academic institution was formed, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, which tried to become a professional association for people involved, if not full time, then devoting a substantial number of the times to the study of the region. Initially, it was just like 100 people or so, almost all white males.
There were some Jewish members and a few Arab-Americans. And some of them had old friendships, ironically enough. Someone like Farhat Ziadeh, who was a Palestinian, recently passed on, almost a centenarian when he died, had, I think, when Schmuel Dov [INAUDIBLE] came to the United States, he stayed with Farhat Ziadeh. They'd been on opposite sides in '48, but once they got to America, they were all Levantines together.
So they were all in this MESA. And they made a gentleman's agreement, as I understand it, that MESA would not have panels on the Arab-Israeli conflict, because they were afraid of fisticuffs and that the thing would be torn apart. So there was kind of a gentleman's agreement, you won't go there.
And over time, the organization grew to some 2,000 members. Because of the '65 Immigration Act and because the heritage communities produced scholars, since naturally enough, they're interested in their own heritage, MESA over time has become more and more diverse. And now there's a motion before it to change that rule about staying out of politics, and to have your organization be able to address these issues.
I think especially, people wanted to join the BDS movement, the Boycott Sanctions Divestment movement against Israel. I think because of its current demographic character, MESA may well adopt such a measure. I think it will cause the organization and many of its constituent parts to be cut off by Congress if it does. But that gentleman's agreement that was made in 1966 is now falling apart. And we'll see what happens as the organization moves into the real world.
And then, of course, let me just end with 9/11. Ironically enough, if Osama bin Laden had hoped to push the Americans out of the Middle East, he didn't succeed, let us say. And in many ways, whether it is a natural reaction to a terrorist attack of unprecedented character and casualties on American soil or as a pretext for doing things that the Washington elite would have liked to do in any case, but were forestalled by the Vietnam Syndrome, it was very odd that the Americans, when the American public is not enthusiastic about going to war, the Washington elite calls that a syndrome, as though it's pathological to want peace.
The Vietnam Syndrome had prevented them from emerging as a neocolonial power at a time when they had no real check on their-- they were with the French called a hyperpower, and the French did not mean that complementarily. In the early zeros, the US could do what it wanted. And now it had a pretext to do what it wanted. And then I don't deny there were security issues involved.
But as a result of Washington's swinging around to running two major Middle Eastern countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and shaping powerfully several others, the number of people studying Arabic in the Middle East expanded from 2,000 to 35,000. It's not quite at the level of China, where there's a difference between studying in a place because you're afraid of it and studying it because you think you're going to get rich off of it. So China still has more people studying its language. And it's not like Spanish, which is, after all, useful in trade, in so many ways in the Americas.
But still, when I started my blog in 2002, one of the reasons I could emerge as prominent in the public sphere was that I was one of the very few Americans who could read Arabic, and was trained to think analytically about the region. And I talked to people at the State Department. I said, how many people do you think are in the State Department, which, at least it used to have 16,000 employees, I said, who had Arabic roughly at my level, because I'd lived in the region for a long time. And I was told by one high State Department official that he thought about 12. I think that's probably right.
Now, we'd go to these briefings in Washington, DC because we were trying to get the bureaucrats up to speed on the region so they didn't do something stupid. And it would be me, and some old guys who only knew Russian, and a couple of recent graduates from Dartmouth or whatever who had studied Arabic. So it was not a pretty picture.
But 9/11 has had a big impact on shifting around the Middle East to be a major concern of Washington, DC, and therefore, a major reason for undergraduates to want to study it to get a job with Washington, DC, but also generated ancillary kinds of jobs with regard to the security industry, and countering violent extremism, CVE, and so on and so forth. So that's where we're at now, I think, in the academy is, I think, the big shaping mechanisms for our intellectual environment are coming from endowments from the heritage communities on the one hand-- which are mostly cultural in character and sometimes very divorced from the current realities of the region-- and from the security establishment in Washington at the other, which are very focused on how would you kill an al Qaeda member.
Neither of them are very amenable to the great intellectual projects of the academy to concerns with disciplinary, to the concerns with socioeconomic studies. There's almost, I mean aside from Zach Lockman and [? Joey ?] [? Bannon ?] and their students, there's very little being written about social history, about labor movements-- things that are absolutely central to understanding a place like Egypt which has 400,000 textile workers. And the attention is on Islamics, and security, and so forth.
And so the field has grown. It's vigorous. But it's being pushed in directions that seems to me are not commensurate with the realities of the region. Thank you very much.
ESRA AKCAN: Thank you very much. As you probably expected, we have listened to a tour de force, a long-standing, informed historical review, which verifies that the category of the Middle East has been constructed by commentators from outside. And if I may add, more often than not, had been less about the experience of those who live in its vague borders than about the European, and then North American commentators' intention to control what they simultaneously designated as the other.
In Juan Cole's writings, we see very clearly the legacy of European colonialism in the construction of the term "Middle East" as a category, and the American Cold War policies in [INAUDIBLE]. If we know that there's a lot in a name, shouldn't we also know that inheriting a name from the colonial regimes also implies inheriting a mindset that tries to rob local rulers of their autonomy and citizens of their own agency? So when I look from the perspective of my own discipline, I see more reasons not to treat this term as a perpetratable category, especially if it's the single category in the academy, even though, obviously, the challenges to do that are very obvious.
I think exposing the constructed and the deconstructable nature of terms in academic fields that we take for granted calls for an institutional critique. The prejudgments attached, or historically attached to words such as "Middle East," I think, calls for alternative ways of seeing and understanding the world. And I think they require-- these prejudgments require a discussion of these areas as heterogeneous and changing parts of an interconnected world, rather than one as a single and self-contained entity.
So I would like to highlight two points in Juan Cole's presentation today that I think move us toward such an undertaking. One of the unique things that one realizes when reading or listening to Juan Cole is the impossibility of understanding the region called "Middle East" without understanding the history of the region called South Asia. Many commentators, as you know, have underlined that the borders of the Middle East are very vague. They have been very vague. They could extend to North Africa, Afghanistan, sometimes the Balkans.
But from Juan Cole, we also hear the intertwined histories of areas named as Middle East and South Asia. We hear from him that the term "Middle East" was possibly used as early as 1850s by the India Office as an extension of British colonialism in India, was connected to the Maritime Movement in colonial times. We also learn that MESA, what has become MESA, originally intended to be part of the Association of Asian Studies.
And speaking of the colonial legacy, I can't help but mention, just in a parenthesis, in his other writings, Juan Cole has commented how the tradition of the state of emergency laws in the Middle East is also a legacy of colonial regimes, where the military used the state of emergency to have extreme power over locals. As someone from Turkey-- and Mostafa told me to mention Turkey in a [? pen-- ?] as someone from Turkey that is suffering from yet another state of emergency rule these days, I cannot help but notice the irony in the situation, where the Turkish rulers, who have built popular consent with an anti-imperialist agenda, is now robbing citizens of their civil liberties by practicing a tradition that is inherited from the colonial times.
So to me, all this testifies to the need to move towards a less siloed, and more intertwined, and more global study of the world's history. I think we need to develop multiple ways of looking at the world that could be provisional, that may also be imperfect, but that would shake the reified and unproductive categories.
And the second point I would like to highlight in today's presentation is the central place of spatial imagination and regional planning in the construction and reification of the term "Middle East." Juan Cole identified the construction of the Suez Canal and the [? Bharat ?] Railway-- it was in the PowerPoint, at least-- and the [? Bharat ?] Railway as pivotal moments in this history. However, scholars seldom consider infrastructure studies, city planning, and architecture as disciplines to turn to in interdisciplinary conversations.
And this made me think that providing perspectives from my own discipline could indeed be an appropriate response to today's presentation. And the organizers of the conference have also stated that they would like to gather expertise and perspective of different scholars to interrogate the ways that the knowledge about the Middle East. Is produced. So in that spirit, perhaps in my remaining five minutes, I can report from my own discipline, which is the history of art, architecture, and urbanism.
Those of us working on modern and contemporary art, architecture, and urbanism in a place that falls within the borders of the region called Middle East often find ourselves in a predicament. It is not rare experience that we do not know which box to check in a publisher's survey or an academic institution's website when we are asked to identify our scholarly field. Islamic art and architecture is a category that has been invented during the shaping of the artist history as a discipline in the 19th century. And it has survived till today as the major academic field where the art and architectural and urbanistic production of the Middle East is studied.
However, any period roughly after the 18th century is excluded from the institutionalized academic field of Islamic art and architecture. Many established scholars of the field have actually advocated for this temporal framework. Additionally, countries now established on lands covered by the field of Islamic architecture are also excluded from the study of modern and contemporary architecture as well. So why is modern Middle Eastern art, architecture, and urbanism such a misfit? It doesn't fit to both of the categories, their institutionalized versions.
So failing to check a box might seem mundanely inconsequential, but I actually would like to argue today that there's something liberating in the inability to identify a category for what one does. And I dare to suggest that we embrace it as a starting point. We have to take these outsider's conditions seriously as an institutional problem with the academic frameworks of knowledge, rather than a problem that should only bother those who don't fit.
The double marginalization of modern architectures and urbanism in Middle East motivates, I think, nothing less than a genuine institutional critique of art history as a discipline, as well as the established canons of modern architectural history, theory, and criticism. First, the exclusion of modern from the field of the Islamic perhaps may be justified because of the limits of a religion-based category in coming to terms with, say, the secular works of the modern times. Modernism has dismantled the explanatory power of some of the established categories in the field that have been shaped in relation to earlier periods.
However, this omission blocks the opportunities for equally significant studies on modern and contemporary arts, architecture, and urbanism to find an academic home where they can flourish. It also generates the perception of an exaggerated gap between the modern and earlier periods, thereby helping to perpetuate the orientalist understanding of modernity as an exclusively Western phenomenon. Second, the exclusion of non-western-- another problematic term-- but the exclusion of non-western modernism from the architectural canon is predicated on the assumption that the world is divided into a few self-contained cultures, and the assumption that modernity was an exclusively European or North American invention which was disseminated to the rest of the world, and thereby erased other, presumably frozen cultures, or at least rendered them unworthy of scholarly study.
Such a conception treats modern architectures and cities around the world as derivatives of Western modernism, failing to come to terms with the global dimensions of modernity. Upon closer examination, however, I think there is enough evidence to rewrite the past in a much more intertwined way by foregrounding across geographical conversations, even though the West and the Middle East have been perceived and constructed as separate entities during this history. It simultaneously seems necessary to think about concepts or methodologies that help us come to terms with these intertwined histories.
For instance, the identity of the Middle East is homogenized and essentialized in many media presentations, but the locally and globally produced differences have set many of these places apart throughout history. Today, for instance, an urbanist would find that the urban conditions in Istanbul are much more similar to, say, San Paolo than Jerusalem, Dubai to Beijing than [? Bharat. ?] Most often than not, the cities and countries designated as the Middle East involved in dialogue with the world, with the European and North American professional scene.
In other words, there is no unavoidable reason to treat them together as a distinct and separate category. So I would like to suggest that the predicament of the modern Middle East's architectural historian may provide us with at least two openings, one for the sake of intertwined history, the other for the sake of interdisciplinary study. What seems necessary is more dialogue between the studies on several parts of the world in all periods and hence, the rethinking of the current area studies categories that are used not only in art history, but also in other disciplines.
And given that the continuing geopolitical hierarchies in the contemporary world whose institutions in power and those with a gun seem to perceive a benefit in perpetual war between West and Middle East, I think it seems ever more necessary to demonstrate these intertwined histories of both, and to challenge the categories themselves in a way that might lead to the reshaping of the academic disciplines. Given that the perpetration of the clash of civilizations argument produces more wars and more clashes of civilizations, the perpetuation of separate categories may also produce more separations and less try to avoid that. So after all, I think all of us need to take seriously that some of us cannot find a box to check. Thank you.
JUAN COLE: Thank you.
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The Middle East, the Academy, and the Production of Knowledge conference took place on Sunday, November 12, 2017 in G10 Biotechnology Building.
Since Edward Said's seminal study Orientalism almost forty years ago, scholars have been aware that the Middle East is not just a site for study, but one invested with multiple meanings on the politics and pitfalls of how to study a place, generally. Situated at a crossroads of geographies, religions, and histories, the Middle East is contested terrain in every sense, and on a daily basis.
This conference brought together a group of scholars from within and outside the United States, who looked at this trope across a range of disciplines. Through this gathering of expertise and perspectives, they interrogated some of the ways that knowledge about the Middle East is produced, and shed critical light on that knowledge. What does the Middle East mean in the modern academy? Who produces this knowledge, and toward what ends? Participants looked at these formulations and others over the course of a stimulating - and provocative- day of collective discourse.