MESA and the Arab Uprisings: A Missed Opportunity?

<!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0cm; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:Cambria; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} a:link, span.MsoHyperlink {mso-style-noshow:yes; color:blue; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed {mso-style-noshow:yes; color:purple; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} @page Section1 {size:612.0pt 792.0pt; margin:72.0pt 90.0pt 72.0pt 90.0pt; mso-header-margin:36.0pt; mso-footer-margin:36.0pt; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} In the past two years, the peoples of the Middle East have experienced the most significant political, social, and cultural upheaval that the area has seen since the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) was founded, back in 1966. Yet, in perusing the programfor this year’s MESA meeting, scheduled for mid-November in Denver, one could be forgiven for thinking that 2011 and 2012 were years much like the previous 45 of MESA’s existence. Members have proposed a substantial series of panels analyzing the Arab uprisings and their aftermath. The MESA Secretariat has ventured to organize a special session entitled “How the Arab Uprisings Have Made Us Rethink What We Knew about the Arab World,” featuring several of the field’s leading scholars. But for all these efforts to address the events of the last two years, there is little evidence that the Arab uprisings have led MESA to reconsider the way in which Middle East scholars study what they study – for instance, the way in which they engage with the peoples about whom they write.

One might reasonably ask whether such engagement is, in fact, necessary: The organization is, according to the description posted on the MESA website, “a private, non-profit, non-political learned society.” Further, the organization’s mission statement identifies MESA as an “association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom.” There is, in that description and mission statement, no explicitly stated responsibility to the peoples of the Middle East – except, perhaps, in the areas of intellectual exchange and academic freedom. And on the latter score, much to MESA’s credit, the organization has long taken vigorous action to defend academic freedom throughout the world.

But I still cannot help but wonder whether MESA has missed a critical opportunity in the past two years – an opportunity to reshape the manner in which the organization relates to the peoples of the Middle East. To my mind, in light of the Arab uprisings, both MESA members and MESA as an institution need to ask themselves whether they bear an ethical obligation to the peoples they study – and if so, what specific, tangible form that ethical obligation might take.

After all, Middle East scholars make their living through the excavation and analysis of the heritage and lived experience of Middle Eastern peoples. A cynic might cast this as an exploitative or, indeed, parasitic relationship, in the absence of a meaningful sense of exchange or interchange between scholar and subject of study. And there remains, of course, the problematic genealogy of the field and the organization, rooted in histories of colonialism and Cold War rivalry, the traces of which are not easily excised from our practice as scholars.

To my mind, mitigating the manifold imbalances of power between scholars and their subjects of study has taken on a particular urgency in these eventful past two years for several reasons. First, there is, simply put, a moral imperative for action: If Middle East scholars fail to advocate for the peoples of the Middle East as they endure such difficult times of transition, who will? Second, there is the invaluable expertise that Middle East scholars bear, and which they could muster to aid the peoples of the Middle East in these times of transition. Third, there is the need to acknowledge the collapsing frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between scholars and subjects of study – for countless members of MESA regard themselves as of the Middle East, with families and residences in the Middle East. The model of scholar heading to ‘the field’ no longer holds and, accordingly, scholars no longer can, or indeed wish to, stand aloof from the momentous transitions that Middle Eastern peoples are experiencing.

And so the question becomes: What can one ask of MESA in these circumstances? My own response is: a great deal more than is currently the case. I would urge MESA to look to Jadaliyyaas a model for what is possible. Jadaliyyahas enabled the dissemination of scholarship in formats accessible to publics not simply in North America but, through aggressive efforts in translation, to Middle Eastern publics as well. Further, through intensive cooperation with a worldwide network of activists, scholars, and news organizations, Jadaliyya has entirely transcended the distinction between ‘experts’ and ‘the field.’ As a model for the dissemination of scholarship – or, perhaps more aptly, scholarly communication – Jadaliyya has few equals, and represents an experiment entirely worth emulating.

At the end of the day, though, perhaps the greatest step, both symbolic and substantive, that MESA could take towards transcending the distinction between ‘experts’ and ‘the field’ would be to hold the MESA meeting in the Middle East. Admittedly, this endeavor would prove an enormous logistical challenge – but it is, to my mind, not only well worth the effort, but crucial to MESA’s future. For MESA to continue to hold traditional annual meetings in the United States is to endanger not only the organization’s relevance, but to ignore the organization’s changing constituency.

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