Just back from Montreal, after a quick one and a half day cameo appearance at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. I seem to have brought back a nasty bug with me - should I blame Canada or MESA? Ugh. "Friends", I blame all of you.
The highlight of the conference for me was presenting the annual Malcolm Kerr award for best dissertation in the social sciences. The dissertation award is named in honor of Malcolm Kerr, author of The Arab Cold War - still one of the best books written on Arab international relations after all these years - and father of NBA star Steve Kerr. In 1984, while President of the American University of Beirut, Kerr was shot to death in his office, a murder for which the Islamic Jihad group took credit. I served on the committee last year and chaired it this year, which has meant reading about 20 of the best Middle East themed dissertations in the social sciences over the last two years. A lot of good stuff out there. Last year's winner was Columbia University's Mona el-Ghobashy for her study of human rights and judicial activism in Egypt. This year's winner was Max David Weiss of Stanford University's History Department, for his study of the evolution of sectarianism in the Shia community of Lebanon during the French Mandatory Period. Look for both to be great books soon.
The emotional highlight of the session came during the thunderous standing ovation as Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archive, walked down the aisle to accept the annual award from the Committee on Academic Freedom for his tireless efforts to salvage those essential institutions.
In case anyone cares (and if not, stop reading!), I wasn't presenting any papers this year, but I chaired a panel and dropped in on three others. My panel featured papers on Israeli foreign policy in the late 1950s-early 1960s, the Carter Administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Moroccan foreign policy (the combination sort of made sense). I sat in on a panel of mainstream political science which would have looked quite at home at the APSA, with papers on why opposition parties participate in obviously hopeless elections, Jordanian public opinion towards democracy and authoritarianism, and NGO pathologies. In the afternoon, I sat in on part of my colleague Dina Khoury's panel on the difficulties of writing oral histories in and about Iraq. I missed the panel focused on Steve Heydeman's "Upgrading
Authoritarianism" paper, but since Pete Moore and Jason Brownlee's rather ferocious critiques got hashed out at some
length ahead of the panel on both Sunday and Monday nights I feel like I was there. But I await a field report: any casualties?
By far the most interesting panel I saw was the last, featuring a number of young European scholars who have recently conducted fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. Stephane Lacroix offered a fascinating account of the organizational and mobilizational role of the jama'at (Islamic groups) in Saudi politics, Thomas Hegghammer spoke about the externalization of jihadist violence in Saudi Arabia,
Amalie le Raynard Amélie Le Renard (thanks for the correction) spoke about the rapidly changing ways in which young Saudi women can use public space, and Stefan Hertog spoke about the role of wasta in the Saudi economy and political system (Bernard Haykal and Greg Gause commented). Some fascinating material there, the fruits of solid fieldwork in a country which has not in the past been particularly open to such research. There were a number of other political science panels that I missed
since I was only there for a day, which covered topics ranging from
Islamist movements to Gulf security to Islamic political thought. Anyone who was there feel free to chime in with their votes for most interesting panels... self-promotion discouraged!
That's about it - no particular fireworks, scarcely a sign of the variously "outrageous" stuff which MESA critics like to fulminate against, just fairly mainstream political science covering a good range of important topics by scholars who know the region well, and the usual conference conversation about Middle East politics and academic rumor-mongering on the margins. Maybe I just hang with the wrong crowd.