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Nezar AlSayyad
Center for Middle Eastern Studies Chair Nezar AlSayyad, in the conference room that he designed for the center; he is also a professor of architecture and planning. Photos by BAP

Middle East 101: Q&A with Professor Nezar AlSayyad, chair of UC Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies

AlSayyad talks about the Middle East's political and cultural diversity, women's rights, why Arab states oppose Iraqi regime change, and why Islam is here to stay.
15 October 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - With the U.S. Congress authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the Middle East is on everyone's minds. Yet few of us can name all the countries that make up the region, or even begin to describe their histories and governments. As part of an ongoing series about the region, we turned to one of UC Berkeley's experts, Nezar AlSayyad, who has been chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies since 1995, for a crash course in the Middle East.

AlSayyad did his undergraduate work in architectural engineering at Cairo University, a master's in town planning also at Cairo, followed by another master's in architectural sciences at MIT, and a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in the history of architecture and urbanism. Although directors of Middle Eastern Studies programs often specialize in history or political science, AlSayyad's urban history background is not that unusual: several Middle Eastern centers in the U.S. are currently headed by faculty from art history, architecture, or urban planning.

UC Berkeley's program, however, stands out for several reasons. The university's curricula has included Middle Eastern Studies for more than a hundred years. The Center offers courses in Arab, Islamic, Jewish, and Israeli Studies as well as in languages — among the most diverse offerings at any university.


Tell us where the catch-all name "Middle East" comes from, and to what it actually refers.

    Middle East Map
View a map of the Middle East

The Middle East is the only area-study discipline that lacks easily drawn geographic boundaries, as in Latin American or Southeast Asian studies. The Middle East is the "middle" of what and "east" of where? Of course, it’s east of Europe — east of the former empires that colonized it — although technically it's also south. The reason they called it the "middle" is because they also had the "Far" East.

The issue of what actually constitutes the middle is still up for debate. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we in Middle Eastern Studies suddenly inherited all its southern republics. Why? Because the people in those republics speak Turkic languages and in terms of culture, are much closer to Turkey than to Russia. So at least according to the U.S. Department of Education, which funds most Middle Eastern Studies centers, the borders of what we called the Middle East extended all the way from Morocco in the far west to Uzbekistan in the east, and from Chechnya in the north to Sudan and Somalia in Africa.

Without a common geography, language, ethnicity, or even religion, what unites this group of countries?

Like much of the Third World, it's a very specific history and heritage of colonialism, institutions that were left behind by either the British or the French when they colonized these countries. There's also no doubt that Islam is another factor that in a sense unifies the Middle East. Although Islam is not the religion of all countries in the Middle East, nor does the presence of Islam make a country Middle Eastern, by and large the history of the Arab empire does happen to be also a history of the Islamic empire. And it is an empire that extended in a very short time, less than 200 years, to encompass precisely this territory that I am talking about.

    Nezar AlSayyad
'Clearly there are Middle Eastern governments that are very dictatorial, such as Saddam Hussein's. There are governments that are oppressive. There are also ones that are trying their best.'
—Professor Nezar AlSayyad, CMES chair

Another defining similarity is the nationalist struggles that many of these countries have engaged in to free themselves from their colonizers. But this last point is connected to something else, which is maybe a fourth factor: the emergence of a particular geography of political structure. Much of the contemporary Middle East is divided into specific nation-states with international borders that they did not choose, that were imposed as a result of international deals the British and French made with tribes, monarchies, and other regimes earlier in this century. Again, the Middle East is not an exception in this regard — much of the third world was also carved up the same way, but I think you see it more in the Middle East.

You also have to remember that most Middle East countries did not receive their independence until the 1950s and 1960s, unlike other regions such as Latin America, which became independent at the turn of the century and have had time for both unsuccessful and successful experiences with self-government. In the Middle East, that's really not the case. In these countries we have gotten to see only two, maybe three generations of self-governing elite. Egypt, throughout its entire modern postcolonial history, has been governed by only three men. So has Saudi Arabia.

And yet their governments are very different. Of the Middle Eastern governments, which are the least and most stable — that is, enjoy the greatest degree of acceptance among their citizenry?

Well, that depends on what you mean by "stable." Certainly in the U.S. right now, there are people who do not accept the legitimacy of the last election's results. Does that mean the U.S. does not have a stable government?

In the Middle East, there's a considerable range. There are governments that are obviously very dictatorial, such as Saddam Hussein's. There are governments that are oppressive, because they have social or political structures that oppress the population, either using religion or other forms of social control.

There are also ones that are trying their best. Morocco has liberalized quite a bit, both in terms of its democratic institutions as well as its political structures. Today, one can talk about Morocco, and even Lebanon, as democracies. It's a strange kind of democracy, because it has ethnic and religious representation almost embedded in its constitution, but there's absolutely no doubt that it is a democracy.

I would also point out that some of the governments that do not necessarily give political rights to their citizens, or that don't have a structure for political rights yet, have often afforded their citizens a decent level of social and economic rights. It's very difficult to think of the United Arab Emirates, for example, as a place where there's democracy. But in reality citizens of countries like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates have possibly more press choices. They hear our CNN, the BBC, and their own Al-Jazeera. And they can make up their mind about what to believe. That is indeed a form of free press.

After Afghanistan, many Americans seem to believe that Islam equals repression of women. Can women work freely in most Middle Eastern countries?

Even in Saudi Arabia, women are free to hold jobs. But there are social traditions and specific conditions in some Arab countries — like many others in the third world — that have not allowed women to work or to be full citizens. However, in others like Egypt, for example, women have held jobs since the 1920s and a woman served as cabinet minister as early as the 1950s.

In terms of voting, in the case of Egypt, women have the same rights as men. In Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, they do not. Aside from legal rights, there are a lot of social pressures that inhibit women's progress. For example, in Iran, the legislature recently passed a law that allows women to get a divorce. But the implementation of this law still has major obstacles along the way, mainly because their religious leaders have the right to veto it, and they will do everything that's possible to block it.

Next page: Do most citizens of the Middle East desire democratic government?

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