I'm still decompressing from this year's Middle East Studies Association annual conference, which was punctuated by a last-minute "pinch hit" talk that I had to write and deliver elsewhere in town on the last day. This was an unusually good MESA meeting, I thought, with a number of high quality panels and good attendance from a broad spectrum of participants -- especially European scholars, though unfortunately not as many scholars from the region as I remember from past years (at least not on the panels I was able to attend). Some random thoughts emerge on reflection from the last few days.
My MESA kicked off with the special session which I organized on the state of the field of the International Relations of the Middle East. I plan to write up that session in a seperate post, including the text of my remarks, but for now I'll just say that I thought it went very well. First off, the standing room only, overflow crowd (I'd estimated 250-300) attests to the clear interest generated by the topic and the participants (Lisa Anderson, Laurie Brand, Greg Gause, Gilles Kepel and Shibley Telhami). The panel grappled with two distinct but related problems facing the field: shortcomings in its engagement with the academic field of International Relations (especially in the leading journals), and its problems engaging the policy realm -- two very different problems, admittedly, which may be better kept distinct. I presented some sobering evidence of the field's failings on the academic side (backed up with the results of a comprehensive survey of 15 leading journals done by GWU graduate student Rachel Whitlark) and an argument for why it matters. The panelists discussed both the academic side and the policy side, with particularly sharp disagreement about whether the Arab-Israeli conflict should be more or less central to the field's concerns and about the appropriate weighting of policy vs academic discipline. Gilles Kepel also offered some thoughts from a European perspective - noting in particular how the presence of a large Muslim community shapes French approaches to the subject - along with multiple complaints about the temperature of the room. Let's just hope that the discussion actually helps spur some progress -- several of us tried to offer useful suggestions for both senior scholars and graduate students -- and isn't just another of, as Greg Gause put it, our subfield's episodic bouts of self-flagellation.
I also chaired a panel on Wahhabism and Saudi foreign policy, attended by about 125 people at a rather late hour in the conference. The size of the audience attests to the demand for quality research on these topics, and also speaks well to the respect commanded by young European scholars such as Thomas Hegghammer, Stephane Lacroix, Laurent Bonnefoy, and Bernard Rougier. Hegghammer offered a counter-intuitive revision of the nature of and reasons for Saudi support for the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, focusing heavily on Abdullah Azzam and the "Muslim Brotherhood" trend rather than on the official Saudi ulema. Lacroix presented a more general argument about the domestic political bases of variations in Saudi policies towards religious projects abroad, with a particularly interesting look at the struggles between competing trends at the Islamic University of Medina. Bonnefoy presented an exceptionally detailed, well-constructed account of the limitations of Saudi attempts to influence Yemeni salafists. I had hoped for a more direct intellectual confrontation between these three scholars - all of whose work deeply complicates any conception of a unified Saudi masterplan or of the easy reception of these Saudi efforts by their intended audiences - and a fourth panelist, Naveed Sheikh, whose paper (extracted from a forthcoming book), had presented a fairly strong argument for such a "masterplan". Unfortunately, the strong version of his argument did not really materialize in the presentation and little direct engagement between these positions really emerged. The final paper by Norman Cigar, focused on the military strategic text of al-Qaeda figure Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, didn't really fit the panel but was a fascinating contribution in its own right - though several people questioned the significance of such texts (it was David Patel, I think, who wondered whether there was an inverse relationship between successful campaigns and campaigns which produced a lot of such texts).
Beyond my own panels, I heard some really interesting presentations this year (and quite a few stinkers, but that's the nature of such things and I won't dwell on them). Some of the highlights: A roundtable on Islamist movements featuring Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Nathan Brown, Josh Stacher, Charles Kurtzman, Peter Mandaville, and Frederick Volpi generated more interesting ideas than the usual panel, perhaps because of the freedom offered by the format. Melani Cammett of Brown University presented some early data from her fascinating project unpacking the specific nature and impact of social service provisions by sectarian movements in Lebanon - including innovative use of GIS data to demonstrate where and to what populations such services are actually being provided. David Patel presented a thought-provoking, if not completely convincing, argument about the long-term impact of the failed 1999 Sadrist uprising - which, he argued, led to the complete dismantling of their movement and networks and set the stage for the younger, less experienced generation to assert power 4 years later (how a thoroughly dismantled movement was nevertheless able to assert itself so immediately when Saddam fell remains unexplained, though). Peter Sluglett, Eric Davis and Dina Khoury presented papers from a project overseen by my old friend Magnus Bernhardsson on the 1958 Iraqi revolution. There were others, but those are the ones which really stuck out for me.
One of the revelations of the conference, to me at any rate, was simply the growing quantity and high quality of the work presented by younger European scholars. In addition to Hegghammer, Lacroix, and Bonnefoy, I would mention Elvier Corboz (on the al-Khoei foundation), Laurence Louer (the Shirazziyin in the Gulf), Thomas Pierret (Islamic charities in Bashar al-Asad's Syria), Paola Rivetti (the Iranian student movement), Reider Visser (Basra), and others. From the outside, this suggests a real dynamism and creativity in European Middle East studies which compares favorably with American Middle East Studies -- would be very curious to hear from those more familiar with the wider context about the reasons and depth of the trend. (Speaking of Europeans, I didn't see the much-rumoured fist fight between Gilles Kepel and a French graduate student but I assume that it will soon enter MESA lore in fully-documented form.)
This personal travelogue of MESA is not meant to be comprehensive or to intentionally leave anyone out. Since I was on the program committee this year, I tried to pop in on as many as I could, and only sat through a couple panels in their entirety -- and I still missed many I would have liked to see. I particularly regret having to miss several panels focused on political science questions which were inexplicably cross-scheduled against each other, several panels on the new Arab media, and several panels focused on the Iraqi refugee and humanitarian crises. And so I eagerly invite any other participants to email me or post comments with their own highlights from the conference - a good way to draw attention to compelling new research.