Middle EastPolitics

Global Middle East: Into the 21st Century

By Tuesday 21 September 2021 No Comments

Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera (eds.), Global Middle East: Into the 21st Century (University of California Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera (AB & LH): Even though we, two Middle East studies enthusiasts, had thought for some time about the need for such a book for teaching and informing a general audience, the proposition for it originally came from the University of California Press. The Press had established a series called Global Square, edited by the anthropologist Mathew Gutmann from Brown University and historian Jeffry Lesser from Emory University, to produce edited volumes on the globality of the world regions. When Mathew reached out to us to do the Middle East volume, we had no doubt that we wanted to take it on. We both felt that a multifaceted take on the global dimensions of the region has been missing. Of course, there are plenty of volumes on globalization and the Middle East, highlighting for instance, international relations, history, and culture. But we did not know of a book that took a multilayered approach and included social, economic, artistic, scientific, cultural, intellectual, and religious globalities from leading experts in all these fields. We took up the challenge of collecting an array of diverse work from world experts in a single coherent volume. We were particularly adamant to produce texts that were concise, accessible, jargon-free, and imaginative, without compromising scholarly rigor. Those who remember the publication, ISIM Review (published in Leiden, Netherlands, in the 2000s) of which we both were part (Linda as Editor and Asef as Director of the Institute), will better understand this concept.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AB & LH: The book is, broadly speaking, about the globality of the MENA region, global-in and global-out. It shows how a large array of social, political, economic, cultural, and intellectual formations in the countries of the region are the products of a dynamic set of interactions, impositions, and exchanges with the rest of the world. Ever since the idea of “global” or “worldliness” has been part of people’s consciousness, the region has been immensely influenced by various global forces and has also profoundly impacted developments in other parts of the world, including what is generally called the “West.” When we speak of the circulation and flow of ideas or cultural registers, we are mindful of the power relations that often govern such global dynamics.

The book chapters cover diverse manifestations of globality, with topics ranging from God, Rumi, food, film, fashion, to music, sports, science, and to the flow of people, goods, and ideas. The book also explores social and political movements from human rights, Salafism, and cosmopolitanism to radicalism and revolutions. Given that the book covers so many different topics, the literatures it addresses are quite immense. But all chapters converge in one way or another on addressing the complex processes of global flows, exchanges, and interactions. Each chapter includes “further readings” for those readers interested in learning more on each theme.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AB: For me, working on this volume happened while I was involved in writing a different book on the Arab revolutions. My own chapter “Global Tahrir” in this volume is very much connected to the themes of my other book project. Otherwise, this volume has been an intermission from other projects of the past ten years.

LH: This volume reconnected me in very positive ways to different phases of life and work: being an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in Middle East studies when I was discovering for the first time many of the themes that are represented in this book; serving as the director of the Middle East Research Competition (MERC) in Cairo where I worked with dozens of scholars on developing their research in the social sciences and humanities; preparing eclectic issues with scholars from around the world for the ISIM Review; and teaching on the region, which I continue to do. I see this book as a continuation of interests and work.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AB & LH: In curating this volume, we have been adamant, as we pointed out earlier, to produce concise, accessible, jargon-free texts with scholarly rigor. Such texts would be useful not only for specialists but also for the informed lay readers interested in the global interconnectedness of the Middle East and North Africa, or broadly in the processes of globalization. But most of all, the volume is meant for undergraduate students taking courses in Middle Eastern cultures and societies, Middle East history, anthropology, cultural studies, global studies, and the like.

We are hoping that our readers will internalize the simple fact that countries and regions rarely develop in isolation but rather in complex interaction with others, and the MENA countries are not an exception. We want the students to think both historically and globally, to be conscious of time and place, rather than seeing the world in terms of simply here and now. Thinking historically would equip students to appreciate that what they see going on today is not the natural order of things. We also want them to think globally, to appreciate the fact that their perceptions of society, politics, and life are not necessarily the standard pattern, but only one among many that people in other parts of the world may experience.

We also want to generate more curiosity and interest about the people, cultures, and history of the region. We are hoping that the book Global Middle East could serve as a kind of guide, take our students to Middle Eastern societies and show them that life experiences may vary, but also that there is so much they share with other people. We hope to show how much of their histories are interconnected.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AB: I have been working on the Arab revolutions for the most part of the past decade. My earlier book, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (2017), took primarily a macro political and comparative historical perspective to make sense of these political happenings. But I was also eager to understand what these revolutions meant in the social realm, at the grassroots level, among the ordinary people. I was somewhat convinced that this micro grassroots perspective would give us different ideas about what transpired in the Arab world and the meaning of revolution broadly. My work around these issues, both empirically and conceptually, has resulted in a new book which is scheduled to be published fairly soon.

LH: I just finished a book that brings together three decades of research on Egyptian education, youth, and international development interventions, titled Educating Egypt, to be published in 2022. I am also currently working with researchers and other international stakeholders on documenting, researching, and advising on a major education sector reform currently underway in Egypt, as director of the Education 2.0 Research and Documentation Project (RDP).

Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 3, 4, 20)

Rarely do localities, countries, and regions develop over centuries and millennia in isolation; rather, they develop in complex interaction with others. The societies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region also referred to as North Africa and West Asia (NAWA), are not an exception. Their economic, political, cultural, scientific, intellectual, and artistic formations have come about from a complex set of flows, innovations, interactions, and exchanges with those outside and within the region. Ever since the idea of “global” or “worldliness” has been part of people’s consciousness, the region has been immensely influenced by various global forces. It has also profoundly impacted the political, economic, scientific, artistic, and intellectual developments in other parts of the world, including what is generally called the “West.”

Yet the Middle East has long been viewed from an “exceptionalist” lens in much of the Western press, cinema, television, literature, and scholarship. This exceptionalism depicts peoples and societies as being resilient to change, entrapped by their own history, culture, and religion, and prone to tribalism and nativism. In such a view, culture and religion rarely change, and con- temporary conflicts are often attributed to stubborn religious and sectarian rivalries dating back centuries, if not millennia. […] Only rarely do analysts take into consideration how the role of geopolitics, multinational entanglements, arms sales (which are among the highest in the world), military interventions, climate change, technological advances, social media networks, high rates of internal and external migrations (the list goes on) influence, transform, and alter societies, from all directions.

For a short period during the Arab Uprisings of late 2010 through 2013, a break with the mainstream narrative occurred. Media from much of the Americas and Europe celebrated the protestors as global models of pro-democracy, nonviolent warriors from progressive youth movements. However, the so-called Arab Spring soon turned into what countless analysts prosaically dubbed the “Arab Winter,” and a return to the old paradigms of regional stagnation and sectarianism ensued. This resorting to stereotypes to understand the region while sidelining crucial developments in geopolitics, markets, technology, social policies, climate change, grassroots movements, and other dynamics is partially rooted in what Edward Said famously termed “Orientalism.” This refers to a systematic body of knowledge production that constructs a totalizing image of the Middle East as an object of prejudice. It considers Muslim-majority populations as static, while neglecting differentiation and change brought about by exchanges among various societies and peoples in the region. […]

Why should we get surprised about the globality of the Middle East, if not for the all-too-common and widespread assumptions about the innate parochiality and nativism of the region stuck frozen in time? Indeed, a large part of this discourse about globality or parochialism of the Middle East has concerned the modern era, the era of nation-states, when the territorial borders came to shape national and cultural hierarchies. […] Before the very designation of the term “the Middle East” by European colonists, the region was integral in at least “three global Muslim empires that ruled half of the civilized world: the Mughals, the Safavids/Qajars, and the Ottomans.” The region we currently call the Middle East was historically the loci of widespread trade, travel, exchange of goods, people, capital, and cultural products that all together lend itself to the integration of cultures.

Perhaps notions of diffusion, of give-and-take, are too simple to capture the complexities and myriad ways cultural landscapes have been interconnected. Consider how much, as Dabashi shows, Persian philosophy, poetry, prophets, and figurative symbols found their ways into the works of thinkers like the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon, into the Hebrew Bible, in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or Mozart’s Magic Flute. These display not simply the influence of Persian culture on the European literary consciousness—the opposite of which would be that infamous Westernization of the rest. Rather, they point to the operation of a “transnational public sphere,” a sphere of the circulation of cultural registers that is embraced by nations without borders but emasculated by the states with walls. The challenge is to retrieve such inter- connected cultural worlds that Europe repressed by universalizing itself and provincializing the others.

Looking from this lens, the notion that certain knowledge “belongs” to a certain culture, society, or country may seem too simplistic or even irrelevant. Although it is undeniable that local cultures influence the mode, direction, or even the value of knowledge production, the narratives of astronomy, algebra, or Rumi, or of food, fashion, and music described in this book show that knowledge, ideas, or artifacts are often the outcome of accumulated layers of old, new, and ongoing additions, modification, and transfigurations, coming from sources and places beyond where they originated. In the age of the nation-state and the current outflow of offensive nationalism and nativism, nations may take pride in this or that discovery, idea, or famous personality.

But in truth there is no totally pure people, thought, or culture with a fixed geography. In the large span of time and space, humans have moved around, gained new experiences, and their ideas have circulated over time and in the expanse of this planet. From this standpoint the homeland is our shared world to which all of us—peoples, knowledges, and ways of living— belong. The claims about which notable figure or ideas belongs to which place and time are often associated with desire for power, superiority, or otherwise resisting power and building hegemony. In the current global order marked by hierarchy and dominance, peripheral nations or liberation movements may deploy cultural symbols to gain recognition. But recognition is one thing, ownership is another. Otherwise what is the relevance of the question of where Rumi belongs—to Persia, Afghanistan, the Arab world, or Turkey? Why should it matter? For in truth, he belongs to all of these lands, his space was borderless, his speech multiple, and his poetry universal. In this sense, he belonged to our world, to everyone, and perhaps to all times.


Watch the Zoom book launch of Global Middle East here.