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MEI blog & the Sins of Middle Eastern Scholarship 21, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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I’ve followed Michael Collins Dunn over at the Middle East Institutes’s blog since its beginning in January this year. Overall, it is one of the best blogs on Middle Eastern affairs. It is a selection of educated and manifestly knowledgeable ruminations of various aspects of Middle Eastern politics and international relations in the broadest sense. To my mind, the best post so far is, in fact, a link that Dunn posted in April to a blog by Professor of Political Science, Eric Davis. This post is entitled “10 Conceptual Sins” in Analyzing Middle East Politics” gives a critical and insightful run-down of the grave errors that are made by Western scholars when looking at and analyzing the Middle East. As Dunn beseeches his readers, you really ought to read the article if you’ve got any interest in ME IR at all. Below is a brief recapitulation of Davis’ ‘sins‘ and a word or two, usually taken from his text, briefly explaining them.

Sin # 1: “Presentism.” – Not “taking history seriously” and believing in stereotypes to a large degree.

Sin # 2: Overemphasizing the ethnic and confessional identities, the “ethnoconfessional model.”

Sin # 3: The idea of a “communal mind.” – “If a political scientist from Iraq, Egypt, Iran or any other Muslim country in the Middle East were to come to the United States and assert that, if s/he knew the ethnic, racial or religious background of an American, s/he could tell us what that person’s ideology and political beliefs were, Americans would find such a notion ludicrous, to say the least. Yet many analysts of Middle East politics base their assessments of the region’s political dynamics on the social background of the political leader or activist in question.”

Sin # 4: The excessive focus on elites

Sin #5: The myth of “Islamic fundamentalism.” – “the notion of a radical Islam at the root of much if not all of the Middle East’s problems is pervasive in the Western media.”

Sin #6: Seeing the Middle East politics through binary thinking. –  For example, “the Council of Guardians in Iran, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad constitute a set of unsavory political leaders, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, as many public opinion polls have demonstrated, Iranians by and large are very supportive of democracy, especially the educated middle classes.

Sin #7: Failure to learn the history, language and cultures of the region. –  For example, “would we take seriously a correspondent who was bureau chief in Washington, DC, for a major daily newspaper in Iran, the Arab countries, Turkey, or Israel if s/he did not speak English?”

Sin #8: The failure to consider political economy – For example,  “the percentage of young people under the age of 25 is as high as 60% in countries such as Iraq and Iran, and a very large percentage of them are unemployed or under employed.”

Sin #9: Failure to account for exogenous influences and “neighborhood effects’” on the region’s politics.

Sin # 10: Why can’t they be like us?

….

Dunn comments on several of the sins here, here and here.