About this group

Middle East Study Group
Grand Lake Neighborhood Center
Oakland, California

This website contains some of the summaries and historical chronologies I have handed out for use in an ongoing community-based study group on the Middle East. We meet each Saturday at the Grand Lake Neighborhood Center in Oakland. In general, we spend the first hour discussing current events, using selections from Juan Cole’s blog and other news reports for the previous week. In the second hour we discuss some ongoing topic or historical subject. What follows is a brief sketch of the work we’ve been doing since we started meeting in the spring of 2002.
--Dave Robbins

A few days after 9-11, I attended a symposium at UC Berkeley. Several speakers addressed a then-standard question-- “Why do they hate us?” Joanna Macy, the Buddhist peace activist, suggested that it required a different level of engagement than the media were giving it. She asked us to go back to our communities and teach each other about the history of the Middle East, so we could have some sense of what those peoples have been through. Her challenge kept returning to me over the next few months. Finally, since there’s a city-funded neighborhood center nearby, I set up a meeting time to see if others were interested. I soon found myself doing library research for weekly gatherings of 10 to 12 people. It’s been an unfolding adventure ever since.

Since most Americans have grown up knowing little or nothing about Islam and the Middle East, and since the so-called “war on terror” has no apparent end point, the current increase in anti-Islamic attitudes is sadly predictable. In this context, I take it that the task-- both informationally and ethically-- is to try to see the Middle East from their standpoint, which requires ongoing work. How can we gain a usable understanding of their experience of history, which is far from monolithic, yet pervasively shaped by imperialist interventions since the late 19th century? What follows is an account of my effort to address this need.

It's important to be clear about what this experiment has actually been like. The number participating has varied between 6 and 12 each Saturday. People do not always read the handouts beforehand. Newcomers are embarrassed about not being “sophisticated” and require support and reassurance. “Just hang in there-- over time, things will become more familiar!” The need to go over “basics” never ends, since “new” people come and “old” people leave, for reasons that do not always relate to the group, but to time pressures and sunny Saturdays. In many ways, it's quite unlike a university setting. For one thing, I'm not a Middle East expert-- I depend on the texts I select to guide us through. Also, there are few shared expectations. Things simply unfold, often very surprisingly, in a changing context of people and interests. Nevertheless, the task as I see it is to somehow occupy the knowledge gap between the urban community and university-based understandings of the Middle East. Some such ongoing work seems to me essential for American citizens today, with so much at stake for the world throughout that region.

The sequence of topics

I began by showing The Battle of Algiers and placed it in the historical context of the Algerian struggle for independence. We then examined Franz Fanon's theory of anti-colonialism and violence as another expression of the Algerian struggle. Then we contrasted this with Gandhi’s theory of revolutionary non-violence, seeing how it emerged from within the context of India’s independence movement. We particularly emphasized Gandhi's involvement in the Muslim Khilifat Movement, which was a failed effort to unify both Hindu and Muslim forces in an anti-imperialist struggle. Inevitably, this took us into the history of Pakistan. Tensions between fundamentalist and modernist Islam could then be clarified by contrasting the ideas and careers of Abul-Ala Mawdudi (a major influence on the Islamist thinking of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt) and Fazlur Rahman, whose liberalizing program of Quranic interpretation received Ayyub Khan’s backing in the 1960s. Islamist opposition and political shifts led Fazlur Rahman to leave Pakistan for a teaching career at the University of Chicago, where he wrote and published Islam and Modernity (1982). Fortuitously, at the very time we were discussing this text, Amina Wadud drew upon Rahman’s hermeneutics of the total intent of the Quran in a lecture I attended at a local mosque. Hearing Wadud inspired me to use key sections of her Qur’an and Woman (1999) for discussions of women’s issues. We also drew upon more critical feminist texts by Fatima Mernissi and others.

We then turned to Afghanistan, using Ahmad Rashid’s Taliban as a guide to the historical and political complexities of that country, as it evolved from the Afghan-Soviet conflict into a civil war and a triumphant Islamist regime. I focused on the career of Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, using texts on his days of student activism as part of a Muslim group at Kabul Univ. in 1966-70. The Muslim Youth Organization included Ahmed Masoud, a future rival, and was led by another future rival, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik law professor who had studied at Al Azhar in Cairo, where he developed contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to his translations of Sayyid Qutb texts into Persian. In 1978 in Peshawar, Hikmetyar was briefly mentored by Mawdudi. The point of interest was the interconnections among diverse Islamist leaders and texts, even as rivalries were emerging that exploded after the Russians were driven out.

Discussions of Iran began with a focus on the 1906 constitutional reform movement, a liberalizing effort that was resisted by the Qajar monarchy but became the reference point for later dissenting movements. We looked at the secular modernist movement that backed Mossadeq’s nationalist program before it was crushed by a CIA-inspired coup in 1953. What would Iran have become if the U.S. had not intervened? Two figures—Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini—served as contrasting focal points for our discussions of the Iran revolution. We spent considerable time and effort learning something about the history and theory of the Shiite imams, but it is a subject we need to return to.

Shifting focus to Iraq required a preliminary period of study and discussion about the role of Britain in reshaping the Middle East before, during and after World War One. Here David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace proved to be a valuable guide, and it has continued to be a crucial reference. We studied Sharif Husain’s Arab Revolt and read texts by and about T. E. Lawrence, then scheduled a showing of Lawrence of Arabia followed by a public discussion of the issues it raised.

Our study of Iraq emphasized the connection between Faisal’s Arab Nationalist fighters (joining him in Iraq after being driven out of Syria by the French) and the militarist orientation of the secular nationalist regimes that followed, dominated by two figures-- Nuri al-Said and Saddam Hussein. Texts by and about Sati al-Husri, a major theorist of Arab Nationalism who shaped Iraq’s educational system in the 1920s, prompted a more general discussion of the history of Arab Nationalism. I also used Chibli Mallat’s discussions of Muhammad Baquir al-Sadr, the revered Shiite activist and thinker who was executed by Saddam in 1980, to familiarize people with the history of Shiite resistance movements in Iraq. The connections with contemporary events and figures multiplied over time.

Since the beginning of the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, I have handed out extracts from Juan Cole’s website for use in a first half hour of open discussion of events in Iraq. Earlier, we had used selections from Cole’s studies of Shiite history and rituals, so we brought an initial degree of trust to his analyses of contemporary Iraqi politics that has only grown with regular use of his website.

We then shifted to a study of the Sudan--partly because of the terrible events in Darfur, and partly because it provides a bridge to key aspects of Islamism. We studied the rise of the Mahdi in the 1880s, noting his importance for Islamist anti-imperialist movements ever since. The dramatic defeat of Gordon at Khartoum showed the immense difficulty the British had in subduing the Mahdi rebellion. Extracts from Winston Churchill’s first book, The River Wars, showed the brutality of Kitchener’s successful campaign against the Sudanese. Churchill’s text also provided excellent examples of the rhetoric of imperialism. Success in war was seen as proof of the continuing vitality of the British people, as well as of the progress civilization had made beyond the stage of the "still savage" races. They now would receive the benefits of British "tutelage" (the key term in the Mandates). Our study of the more recent history of the Sudan focused on the early 1990s, when the Islamist Hasan al-Turabi invited Osama Bin Laden to shift his work (and considerable revenues) to the Sudan. Bin Laden and his entourage came in 1993 and left for Peshawar in 1996. His stay, which created a base for Islamist gatherings in 1993-94, had a negative impact on Turabi’s alliance with the military leader Bashir, and the regime came under considerable international pressure. Issues of racism appear to have been a factor in Darfur and in the northerners’ campaigns against southern Sudanese tribes, leading us to compare several texts on Islamic slavery.

Our discussions of Egypt enabled us to learn something about the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. We focused on Muhammad Ali’s military supremacy and occupation of Syria (1831-1840) and the Europeans’ subsequent economic influence while “protecting” the Empire until World War One. We spent considerable time on the Urabi uprising in 1882 and the subsequent British occupation, looking at it from both British strategic and Egyptian nationalist viewpoints. The key text in our study of modern Egypt proved to be Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution, published a year after the 1952 revolution. Nasser envisions a heroic anti-imperialist role that seems to be simply waiting for him to act out, like a script. He sees Egypt placed at the head of Arab, Islamic and Third World movements by the logic of history. As we follow Nasser’s rise and fall, the “logic of events” that should have brought a far-flung alliance of purpose turned out to involve Nasser in Cold War tensions and unbexpected rivalries (e.g. Qassem’s opposition in post-revolutionary Iraq) that undermined his political ambitions despite his immense popularity on the Arab street.

Some of my review handouts pertaining to our work with texts about Israel and Palestine appear below. More will be added as they are put on disks.

Given the intensity of political feelings on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and my concern to keep the focus on history, I made two basic decisions about our work on this. Early on, I decided to postpone Arab-Israeli issues until people were fairly familiar with Middle East history. (As it turned out, our studies of Iraq and Egypt both required attention to events in Palestine, which proved helpful.) Second, at the outset of our discussion of Zionism, I realized that we had to engage its history at a level of detail that would enable people to feel comfortable with future references to any phase of it. That's just an ideal, of course, as is the hope that one might thereby get “beneath” the stereotypes of argument. Yet, it worked for us, even though our weekly numbers went down. Not everyone found the slower pace agreeable, or wished to think historically rather than through political arguments. Nor was everyone pleased with my decision to begin with the so-called New Historians-- Morris, Pappe and Shlaim, and other Israeli scholars who challenged traditional views of the 1948 war since the late 1980s. Inevitably, the focus on revisionist scholarship brought us into a prolonged study of early Zionism, starting with Gershon Shafir's analysis of the emergence of the Histadrut and the kibbutz out of a “Hebrew labor” movement that excluded Arab workers. Biographical texts on Ben Gurion and Berl Katznelson recalled the Eastern European revolutionary context that shaped the youth of the second aliya. A crucial reference here was Josef Frankel's account of Ber Borochov's Marxist program for the Russian Jews who brought his Poalei Zion political party to Palestine after the failed 1905 revolution. How did Ben-Gurion translate this ideological background into the quite different version of socialism institutionalized by his labor coalition? Here Ze'ev Sternhell's analysis of the labor movement in ideological terms made a useful complement to Shafir's economic analysis, which derived the Zionists' “nationalized” WZO-funded worker settlements from the failure to compete with cheap Arab labor. Finally, we used a variety of texts to become familiar with oppositional peace activists within the Zionist movement-- especially Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and the JNF leader Arthur Ruppin, who initially helped found the Brit Shalom peace movement, then abandoned it as unrealistic.

As a basic reference, I used Charles Smith's Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. However, aside from Rashid Khalidi's well-known article on Palestinian peasant resistance before World War One, we were learning about Palestinians through Israeli texts. While this can be remedied to some extent, there seemed to be far less material on Palestinian history to work with. And while there is some acknowledgement, at least in Israeli revisionists texts, of the need for a single history that is fair to both sides, it is hard to imagine what that would look like. Inevitably, we find ourselves viewing the conflict by alternating between two distinct narratives, each driven by its own experience of history and struggle.

During the summer of 2006, we naturally turned our attention to Lebanon, where ongoing Israeli attacks seemed to be forcing that country, for the moment at least, into unity through shared suffering and opposition. We needed a basic chronology for the civil war and after, and I have included mine here, despite its length, for any use it may have for anyone. However, given what Vali Nasr calls “the Shia revival,” we wanted to learn how that has come about in Lebanon, as the background to Hezbollah’s emergence there. I used the life narratives of Musa al Sadr and Fadlallah as historical lenses, emphasizing Fadlallah’s early ties to the Iraqi Dawa movement, which we had already studied. (In retrospect, Fadlallah’s work with Bint al Huda on the Dawa’s publications in the early 1960s appears to lie behind his liberal views on women’s rights.) My text on Musa al Sadr and Fadlallah, which is posted here, includes summaries of several key handouts.

By good fortune, someone brought in George Packer’s September 2006 New Yorker article on Abdullahi An-Naim’s ongoing project for liberalizing Islam, based on Mahmoud Taha’s Sufi-oriented teachings in the Sudan before he was executed in the early 1980s. After working with texts by both Taha and An-Naim, there was some interest in exploring the history of Sufism. The contrasting viewpoints of Fazlur Rahman and Seyyed Hossein Nasr served to foreground a basic tension between Arab (orthodox) and Persian (heterodox) perspectives, respectively. Since Rumi is a key figure in this discussion, and since almost everyone was familiar with Coleman Barks’s Rumi translations, it seemed useful to draw upon this interest and bring several areas together—the larger medieval Islamic context of Rumi’s career in Anatolia, current translation issues as a factor in interpreting Rumi’s poetry, and the basic question of Sufism as a liberalizing force. (Vali Nasr argues that in many parts of the Muslim world, local Sufi movements are far more significant than modernism as opponents of Islamist tendencies.) Two handout writings are posted here—one on Rumi’s historical context and a longer one outlining a variety of perspectives on Rumi’s work, concluding with a note on the importance of Edith Wolper’s recent study of dervish lodges as populist civic centers in late 13th century Anatolia.