Turkey on the World Stage

As I mentioned in a previous post, I wanted to expand my discussion of the Department of International and Area Studies’ annual symposium into two posts. This post will address the other lecture I attended, one on the role of Turkey in Middle Eastern and international politics, with a particular emphasis on the idea of “Neo-Ottomanism.”

This lecture began with a discussion on the history of Turkish foreign relations following World War II. In general, Turkish foreign policy seemed  to revolve around allying with the West for various security reasons, especially during the Cold War. To the West, Turkey seemed to represent what they wanted the Middle East to be like: secular, democratic, capitalistic, and willing to work with the West. This so-called “Turkish Model” was supposed to be the ideal, spread across the Middle East. It also did not hurt that Turkey was on relatively good terms with all of its neighbors.

However, following the end of the Cold War, the interests of the West and Turkey began to diverge, and the AKP was elected to power in Turkey. This political party sought to invest in a more economically-driven foreign policy, specifically looking to invest in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, hence “Neo-Ottomanism.” This party also defined Turkey’s stance in Syria, which led to the relatively more rocky relationship between Turkey and the United States that we see today.

The Failure of Al-Qaeda in the Fertile Crescent

The University of Oklahoma’s Department of International and Area Studies hosts an annual symposium to discuss Middle Eastern politics. This past week, I was lucky enough to attend two of the talks. This post will be dedicated to the first one, and I will soon upload a second post addressing the other lecture, as they were both detailed enough for their own reflection!

The first lecture centered on a discussion of why al-Qaeda failed in the fertile crescent (principally Syria and Iraq). The speaker, Cole Bunzel of Yale University, began with a detailed account of the historical interactions between Syrian rebel groups and al-Qaeda, particularly focusing on Jabat al-Nusra. He then broke down what we know of the individuals involved and their roles, not an easy feat considering how secretive most of these groups are, especially with their leadership positions. He detailed the communications between the various groups, highlighting the disagreements and eventual breakdown of the relationships.

Primarily, Bunzel found that al-Qaeda’s failure in the fertile crescent region was a result of organizational and structural flaws, especially within al-Qaeda’s ranks. However, he noted that stark internal ideological disagreements (particularly about how to handle the Syrian Civil War) and the primacy of local concerns drove a wedge between al-Qaeda and the various groups in both Syria and Iraq. Bunzel ended the talk with a powerful and important contention: that al-Qaeda is not necessarily a movement like it claims it is, but rather it is simply another organization.

The Role of Kalighat

At the beginning of the semester, I was able to attend a talk by Dr. Moodie of the Religious Studies Department on the role and transformation of Hindu temples in India. Her presentation focused on a specific temple, the Kalighat Kali Temple in West Bengal. Throughout the presentation, Dr. Moodie emphasized the historical, social, and religious contexts of the temple, and highlighted its current role in not only religious and political discussions, but also economic ones. The temple provided a livelihood for many individuals; however, current renovation plans would serve to further divide the wealth gap in the region, appropriating the temple as a tourist attraction meant for the middle class and the wealthy, as opposed to a site of employment for lower income individuals.

Consequently, the majority of Dr. Moodie’s research focused on how these diverse and disparate groups viewed and used the temple. While I originally attended the talk to learn more about the  specific practices at the temple, I came away with a greater knowledge and appreciation of the local society. The presentation provided a good opportunity to learn more details about life in India on an individual level, and how traditional structures and institutions interact with globalization and more modern concepts, like tourism. It was a wonderful snapshot and explanation of a particular community at a particular time.

Image result for kalighatImage taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalighat_Kali_Temple

Reflection: The Arabic Flagship Program

As I am nearing the end of my time at the University of Oklahoma, I wanted to reflect on my experiences, particularly with the Arabic Flagship. The Flagship program has remained a mainstay throughout my undergraduate experience. I first joined the flagship at the end of my Freshman year, but I truly started at the beginning of my Sophomore year. The flagship provided an opportunity for me to meet other like-minded students and focus on my love for Arabic. Looking back, I can see how much the Flagship helped improve my Arabic skills and appreciation for Middle Eastern history and culture.

Some of my favorite memories from my undergrad career are a direct result of the Arabic Flagship program: meeting up with friends to practice belly dancing, attending performances of Arabic music and dance, learning Arabic calligraphy, and, of course, participating in the Arabic talent show. The program provided a space for us Arabic students to commiserate of the trials and tribulations of Maha, help each other through particularly difficult sections of Arabic poetry, and practice our Arabic until it became second nature. With the Arabic Flagship, I found one of my most cherished homes at the University of Oklahoma. I found belonging, connection, and kindred spirits. As I enter into my final days at the university, I want to thank the Flagship program for all its done for me—for all the memories and all the support.

Egypt Club

As part of the Arabic Flagship program, I am required to participate in a culture-focused club. I pretty much always join Egypt Club, for a lot of reasons: I am fascinated by its history, I learned its dialect of Arabic, it has a huge impact on Arabic media and cinema, and I love the people who run it and are in it. Every semester is such a positive experience, and I always come away feeling like I learned more about the culture and the experiences of Egyptians.

While every meeting is informative and a lot of fun, I think the most interesting was a collaboration with the Arabic Film Club, as we were able to watch a screening of Bassem Youssef’s documentary Tickling Giants. For those who do not know about Bassem Youssef, he is essentially the Egyptian John Stewart, and believe me, he would love that moniker! He was originally a doctor, but began hosting a small, satirical program called El-Bernameg (which is literally “the program/show” in Arabic) around the time of the Arab Uprisings in 2011. He is a huge admirer of John Steward, so his show is basically The Daily Show, but in Arabic. Fun fact: he was actually a guest on The Daily Show once, and later John Steward guest starred on El-Bernameg!

The documentary was incredibly informative (and funny!) and followed Bassem Youssef’s experience of starting El-Bernameg, trying to keep it on the air in spite of Egypt’s harsh censorship, and fleeing from Egypt. If anyone is interested in Egyptian politics, satire, and great people, I would certainly recommend this documentary!

Arabic Talent Show (Again!)

Of course I had to attend OU’s Arabic Talent Show this semester, the Arabic program’s semesterly event to display how far its students have come. While I was unable to perform this year (as I usually do), it gave me a different perspective to watch the whole event play out. As I finished my Arabic minor last semester, I am not currently in an Arabic class. Consequently, I was able to watch the performances from an outside perspective. In the past, it was me showing off my Arabic, practicing waaaay too much, and being proud that I could understand some of the program. However, this year, I was able to see that experience for other people. It made me so happy to see the new Arabic students perform their songs, happily singing and dancing even though they did not understand all the words. While I could still laugh at the jokes about Maha (a fictional student in Al-Kitaab, the Arabic textbook we all use), I felt more detached, as I was no longer actively involved. In a way, it felt like me moving on–a feeling I suppose I’ll have to get used to for my Senior year.

Despite these somewhat melancholy feelings, the talent show is always a lot of fun! I was able to reconnect with my old classmates, practice my Arabic, and learn about new songs and words. And the food was amazing, ًطبعا. Now that the semester is winding down, I just want to say this to the talent show and Arabic program:

!شكراً لكل مساعدتكم وكل الذكريات

Rohingya Crisis

Earlier this semester, I was able to attend a screening of Frontline’s documentary on the Rohingya crisis (“Myanmar’s Killing Fields). I wanted to attend this event in particular, as I know some about the situation in Myanmar, but I was hoping to learn more. The documentary certainly helped with that. However, as a warning, it does have some graphic depictions and the survivors explain in detail the horrors they endured. If you would like to watch it, the link is here.

The documentary did a good job of explaining the background of the situation, including its political, ethnic, and religious roots. The film largely focuses on the survivors and the experiences of the Rohingya–which I greatly appreciated. I feel that the news we hear about the Rohingya crisis is often very sterile and devoid of actual experiences and stories. While this could be because of Myanmar’s current stance towards journalists and the media, I appreciated that Frontline was able to take such a focus.

The event also included a discussion at the end of the screening, where we could all give our reactions to the film and debate the issues surrounding the crisis and our thoughts on why they persist. This part was particularly rewarding, as I got to learn from others and share my own thoughts on the matter. The conflict is so complex, it was incredibly useful to break it down with other people and try to better make sense of this horror. After watching the documentary, I feel that I came away with a better understanding of the situation and the current crisis of the Rohingya population.

Review of “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped”

Kuran’s article attempts to explain why the Middle East, which was rather economically advanced in the past, is now viewed as underdeveloped when compared to Europe. The theory he presents is that Islamic institutions, while not actively preventing economic development, eventually did act as barriers to economic growth in the Middle East due to “unintended interactions among [themselves]” (Kuran 2004: 72). Kuran provides convincing evidence in the first half of his article about how specific institutions (inheritance law, individualism, and waqfs) could have hampered economic development along a Western model in the Middle East; however, the latter half of his paper includes broad and/or unsubstantiated claims and requires multiple assumptions to reach his conclusions.

The first sections of the paper do a good job of explaining relevant economic institutions and providing general background for the argument, a crucial element as the reader must understand these concepts if they are to follow his argument. Specifically, the comparisons between Europe and the Middle East that Kuran offers as evidence throughout the article are useful and convincing. It makes sense that, given the Bible neglects inheritance law, European economies would develop various inheritance models that would eventually favor passing on wealth to a select few, while Muslim economies would follow Islamic inheritance law thereby distributing wealth to many; it is then logical that these varying practices would result in wealth accumulation for the Europeans and wealth dispersion for Muslims that would later affect each’s economic development (Kuran 2004: 79). The first half of the article contains similar evidence and examples (particularly comparisons between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities) that convincingly support Kuran’s contention that some Islamic institutions hindered Western-like economic development.

However, the second half of Kuran’s argument relies on several assumptions to connect the above evidence to his ultimate conclusion about the persistence of underdevelopment in the Middle East. The clearest assumption underlaying his argument is that Western intervention in Middle Eastern economies is not a large factor in the region’s current economic situation, as he neglected to mention anything relating to colonialism or imperialism and simply blamed the unfortunate aging of Islamic institutions. In fact, he even cited trading agreements that Europe ultimately exploited (“capitulations”), as “bilateral treaties” that non-Muslim minorities could simply access to advance economically (Kuran 2004: 85). While he criticized the “fragmented agricultural land” created by Islamic inheritance law, he also neglected to mention colonial practices that took land from the native population, as seen in Algeria under French colonization. Furthermore, Kuran operates under the assumption that the Western economic model is desirable and that every region should adopt it, copying its institutions and norms (Kuran 2004: 86, 89). However, there is no discussion of whether such an economic system is right for the entire Middle East, if individuals in the region desire it, or if the Islamic model has any beneficial attributes (such as its emphasis on equity). The lack of such conversations is a glaring weakness in Kuran’s argument, as it neglects the voices of those who live in the region.

The article leaves the reader with several questions: Why does the Middle East need to develop in the exact same way as Europe? Why is individualism in the Islamic context a liability, while it is a virtue in Western economies? What was the true role of Europe in the Middle East’s economic history? While Kuran does not offer answers to these questions, his article does provide a historical overview of both the Middle East and Europe’s economic development, as well as an in-depth description of Islamic economic institutions, which ultimately helps to situate class discussions on the economies and interactions of these two regions.


Citation: Kuran, Timur. “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 71-90.

Middle East and Democracy

The “Future of the Middle East and Democracy Promotion” discussion focused on democracy and its future in the Middle East, particularly following the events of the Arab Spring in Syria and Palestine, as the two speakers had experience in those regions. The talk began with Rami Khouri detailing several issues that he believed plagued the Middle East and made democracy promotion difficult: the Arab-Israeli conflict, virtually continuous military intervention by western powers, incompetent and oppressive governments, widespread poverty, and colonial/imperialist intervention. I thought this discussion was especially poignant, as it touched on many issues that we focused on in class, from the conception of poverty to western intervention. I appreciated that he mentioned not only outside forces (such as western intervention) that posed a barrier to democracy, but also internal forces (such as authoritarian governments). However, there was never a discussion about whether democracy was really the best option for the Middle East or if there are any other forms of governance that might fit better with the population. The panel assumed that democracy was the best and most desirable option. While that may be true for the individuals present, I would have appreciated a comment addressing this belief.

Although, when discussing democracy promotion, I thought it was significant that Qutaiba Idlbi emphasized the importance of any sort of political change coming from the people, perhaps with the support of the international community. Grassroots movements and popular mobilization are incredibly important for sustainable change, so I thought his inclusion of this point was critical to the larger topic of political change in the Middle East.

Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.

However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.

As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.

Image result for mashrou leila