Scholars highlight untold stories of the Middle East
The Crown Center for Middle East Studies kicked off its 14th year by inviting four Crown Center Research Fellows to highlight the untold stories of the region.
The discussion was moderated by Crown Family Director of the Crown Center Shai Feldman (POL) and Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST). Sohrabi explained that the panelists’ research shows stories and developments that are “not necessarily visible to those of us that read newspapers or listen to the news.”
Crown Center Sabbatical Fellow Daniel Neep spoke first, challenging the traditional narrative of how and why the Syrian civil war occurred. He believes the media has “reduced [the civil war] to geopolitics… [and] dynamics of sectarianism: ancient religious groups who hate each other, and that’s why we have conflict in Syria today.” This narrative, he explained, is tied to the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement in which Britain and France divided up the Middle East into spheres of influence, or areas in which each state would have power and that are commonly seen as establishing modern states. As the common narrative goes, these countries were artificially created to suit European great powers’ interests rather than to reflect ethnic or religious identity and were therefore doomed to fail.
To highlight the inaccuracy of this version of history, Neep pointed to “waves of statebuilding” in the region happening from the nineteenth century onward, especially in the 1950s through the 1970s.
“What I want to suggest is perhaps the conflict in Syria today is not the weakening of the Sykes-Picot state from World War I. It’s the weakening of this post-World War II state,” Neep said.
He also stressed how recently the Syrian collapse into civil war occurred and how quickly people lost knowledge of what Syria was like before the conflict. “It’s taught me … that civilization is thin. We lose it very quickly.”
Hind Ahmed Zaki, the Harold Grinspoon Junior Research Fellow, challenged another oft-discussed aspect of the Middle East: women’s rights. Even though “it seems like everybody is talking about women in the Middle East,” Zaki said that these discussions are stuck in a binary view that sees only oppression and empowerment.
To challenge this, Zaki stressed the diversity of women’s experiences across the region.
She explained that political scientists often see that “the status of women is the result of what happens in politics.” Her research examined it the other way around. “Can we look at the status of women as something that actually affects those political processes?” The answer, she believes, is yes.
While the first two speakers focused on underrepresented aspects of well-known issues, the next two speakers discussed topics which are rarely mentioned in mainstream coverage of the Middle East. Neubauer Junior Research Fellow Yazan Doughan researches corruption in Jordan and local reform efforts. In his discussion, he talked about wāsta, a type of day-to-day bureaucratic corruption in which citizens receive resources via favors from people they know in the bureaucracy.
Wasta holds an “ambivalent status” in Jordanian society, which sees it as both good and bad, according to Doughan. Many see wasta as a form of corruption and want it eliminated, but at the same time they expect that they will need to use it in the future. Doughan also said it is seen as virtuous to give wasta to friends and family as it is an important way to secure employment in Jordan, where the unemployment rate is high and 60 percent of the jobs are bureaucratic.
“This ambivalence around wasta and its connection to corruption says something about what is going on [in Jordan] ... It tells us that there is a certain uncertainty about what constitutes justice [there],” he said.
Crown Center Junior Research Fellow Hayal Akarsu ended the discussion by analyzing police reforms in Turkey.
“You would probably ask, ‘What reform are you talking about?’” she said. The first untold story of the region is that any such reforms exist. Akarsu explained that while Turkey has a history of police using disproportionate force, the government and social programs attempted to address the problem with a series of reforms beginning in the 2000s.
Yet while these reforms still exist today, starting in 2015, the authoritarian government started to manipulate them, according to Akarsu. For instance, police officers can use mechanisms developed recently as reforms to legally justify their abuses of power, allowing them to “reclaim violence … in a more expert way,” she said.
Following each panelists’ explanation of their research and the untold stories they have discovered, the moderators and the Fellows took part in a Q&A period, delving deeper in the specifics of their research and conclusions. As each panelist discussed their untold story further, it became clear that they had only given the audience a small glimpse into the worlds that the mainstream media does not discuss.