Lessons from the Modern Middle East

Omnia El-Shakry, May 2010

Orientalism, Islamic revival, Palestine/Israel, the gendered discourse of the veil, the Iranian revolution, the politics of oil, torture and terror—could there be a more controversial list? Yet these are precisely some of the thematic topics that I routinely cover when I teach my Middle East in the Twentieth Century course. To complicate matters even further, not only do scholars of the modern Middle East deal with inherently politicized subject matter (in addition to widespread cultural stereotypes), but we also have to deal with the messy and delicate issue of how students perceive our own cultural, ethnic, political, and religious identification with the region—or lack thereof. Despite (or perhaps because of) all of these nettlesome issues I have found teaching the modern Middle East a profoundly rewarding experience, in large part because areas of controversy arose precisely where I least expected it, and students responded to such controversies in ways that I would not have imagined possible. In what follows, I try to suggest productive strategies for engaging, and not quashing, controversy in the classroom.

One of the first issues I address in the classroom is the question of the diversity of student interest in the region. I begin with a simple, and anonymous, task. Distributing index cards to each student I ask them to free associate the very first things that come to mind when they hear the terms “Middle East” and “Islam.” On the other side of the card, I have students list the reasons for their interest in the course. I can then use these anonymous responses to explore all of the things that have brought us together in the classroom, which range widely—from Middle Eastern heritage, to military deployment in Iraq, to planning to write a science fiction novel set in the region. Elucidating this type of diversity for students helps them to see that as a group we are as diverse in our origins as in our interests.

Anonymity serves a further purpose in that oftentimes students may be too timid to voice opinions or make statements that they feel may be perceived as stereotypical in any way, for example, that they are interested in the relationship between Islam and violence. I have found this to be especially marked in Northern California, and it often inhibits the open discussion of stereotypes that need to be discussed, rather than dismissed out of hand. I have found that it is important to set the tone for the course in this way—so that students feel that they may discuss any issue, so long as it is done respectfully and opens up the classroom to a broad range of viewpoints.

In my experience the best strategy for engaging controversy productively has been the use of thought-provoking, and at times controversial, visual material. For instance, Sut Jhally’s 1998 documentary on the distinguished public intellectual, Edward Said (author, famously, of Orientalism, among other books, and professor, until his death, at Columbia University) in which the director relates the question of Orientalism to contemporary processes of racialization, has spawned the most vibrant and extended classroom discussions. In point of fact, it is Jhally’s linking of historical discourses of Orientalism to present day racial prejudices that enable students to relate the question of Orientalism to contemporary questions of race, difference, and identity. But perhaps the most interesting and unexpected effect of using a slightly dated documentary is the fact that the principal example which Said uses to discuss contemporary prejudice against Arabs is the example of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, detailing how he was immediately called upon by the media to discuss the bombing, even though, as events later demonstrated, it was an example of “home-grown terrorism.” I use this slight, but very glaring anachronism, to open up a discussion for students to talk about 9/11 and the question of terrorism, racial profiling, and surveillance. This provides an opportunity for students to voice concerns regarding the interconnection between terrorism and the Middle East. Rather than react negatively or derisively to such equations, I have found it far more productive to allow the students themselves to react to each other in a dialogical style of debate. As an interlocutor, or moderator, I then intervene where appropriate, to correct misstatements or exaggerations of fact, and introduce recent empirical research on terrorism, for example, that argues that suicide terrorism is not primarily a product of “Islamic fundamentalism.”1

This early discussion of religion sets the stage for our week on contemporary Islamic movements in which we can explore the various 20th-century trends in Islamic revival. I introduce students to many of these ideas through a focus on specific historical figures, and while I do survey a range of historical thinkers, I also use the opportunity to focus on contentious and influential thinkers, such as the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966). In large part because Qutb’s name has circulated in the mainstream media as the theoretical ideologue of Islamic radicalism and terror, I have found this to be, by far, one of our most controversial topics. In a lecture I present an overview of Qutb’s entire body of work—which include his early writings on social reform (writings that I have used in my own research); his trip to the United States in 1949; his writings on Islam, social justice, and capitalism; and his more radical political writings. In surveying the totality of Qutb’s oeuvre, students receive a very different picture of a committed scholar whose interests were deeply philosophical and centered on the question of human freedom and servitude. Indeed, a more fastidious chronological understanding of Qutb’s life illustrates that his political radicalization occurred not because of his visit to the United States, but, rather, from his political imprisonment and torture under the Nasser regime—the secular nationalist regime that finally had him executed in 1966.2

But in contravening the type of easy teleology that students may encounter on NPR or the New York Times, narratives that wish to present Qutb as a poster boy for Islamic terrorism—do I lack “balance” in my presentation? I would argue that the question might be something of a red herring. If, indeed, our task as educators is to do “more than merely summarize contemporary debates,” then it behooves us to complicate such public debates, which so often truncate historical evidence for the sake of political arguments.3

The question of Qutb’s torture by the Egyptian state allows us to place the question of terror and torture side by side once again in our discussion of anticolonial nationalism and the Algerian war of independence (1954–1962). In covering colonial Algeria, I screen Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers to help students visualize the anticolonial nationalist struggle through the perspective of anticolonial agitprop. It is a riveting film that students find openly ideological, and surprisingly engaging, and I pair it up with a reading of a September 2003 New York Times article, “What Does the Pentagon See in the Battle of Algiers?” exploring some of the reasons behind the 2003 screening of the film.4 The film sparks a broad ranging debate on the nature of terrorism, the supposed necessity of torture, and inevitably, the students draw their own connections, much as did the Pentagon, to the contemporary war in Iraq.

I want to end with a somewhat different type of challenge—the question of the composition of the classroom. Although arguably the student body has become ever more diverse in the aftermath of 9/11, Middle East courses do tend to have a large percentage of students who are of Middle Eastern heritage. Thus, for example, in discussing the events of the Iranian revolution, students of Iranian descent may reflect the political or ideological background of their parents—and can range from ardent supporters of the Shah’s modernization projects to radical Marxists. The challenge of lecturing on the Iranian revolution in such a heated context (and it has indeed been heated) is to present compelling historical narratives that are not reductive stories of autocratic modernizers, religious zealots, and radical Marxists; while simultaneously including students in the conversation who may have very few preconceived notions about Iran prior to the Islamic revolution of 1979. Once again the introduction of complex visual material may help and here I use Shirin Neshat’s visually arresting, albeit problematic, series of photos entitled Women of Allah (1993–1997) in which she juxtaposes the feminist poetry of Forough Farrokhzad to images of women in chadors in a meditation on the nature of spirituality and martyrdom in contemporary Iran. The debates sparked are wide ranging, unsettling notions of gender and veiled docility, but also calling into question the artists’ visual use of the chador.

I must point out that these discussions can be tense. Clearly, it would be easier as educators to shy away from controversial topics, or to present more reconciled and less complex views on certain subjects, and we might find ourselves better liked by our students if we did so. But, in the end, we might be doing them a disservice if we did not foster disagreement and challenge their thinking in ways that led them to question received ideas, accepted narratives, and easy generalizations.

Omnia El Shakry teaches modern Middle East history and world history at the University of California at Davis. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford Univ. Press, 2007).


1. Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005).

2. I am indebted to Ellen McLarney’s rethinking of Sayyid Qutb’s oeuvre, in “Sayyid Qutb’s Liberation Theology,” paper presented at Stanford, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, 2006.

3. www.aaup.org/AAUP/comm/rep/A/class.htm.

4. www.nytimes.com/2003/09/07/weekinreview/the-world-film-studies-what-does-the-pentagon-see-in-battle-of-algiers.html.