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Focusing on the Arab World

Despite upheaval in the Middle East, Harvard continues to lack regional experts

By Barbara B. Depena and Sirui Li, Crimson Staff Writers

Media and public attention centered on the demonstrations that swept the Middle East in the past months, which toppled two regimes and inspired hope for democratic change across the region.

But at the College, students have had limited opportunities to take up the recent upheaval on an academic level.

This spring, however, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations announced the first undergraduate degree offering focusing exclusively on the modern Middle East—as a secondary field.

The gap in contemporary Middle East studies became evident in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences struggled to accommodate the spike in student interest. At the time, Harvard committed itself to taking bolder steps to meet its shortcomings in course offerings.

But some professors say that more than ten years later the College is still ill-equipped to offer a comprehensive undergraduate education on the modern Middle East.

“The University has been trying to increase Middle East studies since 9/11,” says NELC Director of Modern Languages William E. Granara. “It hasn’t been that successful because it hasn’t made the best effort possible.”


Professors say that the recent upheaval has only served to renew the rising student interest in the contemporary Middle East that dates back to the September 11 attacks.

At the time, professors recognized that the faculty resources and course offerings did not match student demand.

“For the last ten years, there has been a lot of interest,” says Ali S. Asani ’77, chair of NELC. He says that there was a spike in Arabic-language course enrollment in the years following the attacks.

But the school failed to retain some experts in the field and was slow in creating an academic path for undergraduates interested in studying the modern Middle East.

Last fall, FAS brought in Malika Zeghal, a scholar in contemporary Islam, in an effort to remedy curriculum gaps.

But Granara says that the appointment serves immediate needs but is not indicative of a larger commitment on behalf of the University to hire scholars specializing in contemporary Middle East studies. He says that potential positions will instead likely be allotted to openings in the study of other regions.

“They may be trying to replace professors, but they are not adding,” he says. “Although it is a wonderful appointment, in light of recent events, and in light of student demand, one appointment is unsatisfactory.”


The Government Department has not had a Middle East expert in its ranks since visiting Professor Emad Shahin left in 2009, and has not had a tenured position in the field since Nadav Safran retired about 20 years ago.

The department has approached the study of the region through a theoretical lens that draws upon its experts in fields like democratization and political movements.

Government Professor Steven R. Levitsky, a comparative political scientist, says that he will include material on the contemporary Middle East in his popular course, Government 20: “Introduction to Comparative Politics.”

“Gov 20 now includes a lecture on the Iranian revolution, a lecture on the prospects for democratization in post-Hussein Iraq, half a lecture on authoritarian stability in the Middle East, and part of a lecture on consociationalism in Lebanon,” he says. “There will be additional material on democratization in the Middle East.”

But he says that a Middle East expert would be an important addition to the department.

“Our inability in [the Government Department] to hire a Middle East expert has been a real problem,” he says.

Some professors say that the focus on theoretical studies does not offer a comprehensive understanding of the issue, particularly for undergraduates.

“If you want people to be theoretically informed, that’s fine,” Granara says. “Undergraduates need to learn the nuts and bolts of modern Arab politics, and they won’t necessarily find that in theory.”

Eva R. Bellin ’80 was assistant professor of government at Harvard before she accepted a position at Hunter College in 2003. Although hailed as an “expert” of contemporary Middle East studies by former colleagues at Harvard, Bellin says that she left because she did not expect to be offered tenure at the University.

“To be hired in a tenured position at Harvard you have to be an undisputed star in your discipline,” says Bellin, now a professor at Brandeis University.

Political scientists who study the contemporary Middle East face obstacles that “make it difficult to put together a portfolio that would establish the scholar as an undisputed star,” she says.

In addition to the challenging research environment and the difficulty of the Arabic language, Bellin notes that these scholars must be able to consider various methodologies within an already specialized discipline.

“Unfortunately the field of political science is divided along political and methodological grounds and this makes it doubly hard to build consensus around what constitutes excellent scholarship,” Bellin says.


This May, NELC announced that it would offer a Middle East Studies secondary field as an experiment and potential precursor to a new concentration in the fall. Professors hope that the new secondary concentration will accommodate the growing undergraduate interest in the region.

As chair of NELC, Asani says that he has prioritized building an undergraduate concentration on the contemporary Middle East. He said in an email to The Crimson that while the University has served as a “leading center for Middle East studies since the 1950s,” it lacks undergraduate opportunities. “NELC is attempting to expand its coverage of the modern periods,” he explains.

In the past, NELC has focused on the ancient Middle East and relied on faculty in other departments to teach topics related to the modern region, he says.

Asani says he is optimistic that the department will offer a full concentration by next year.

Although Asani says the development of a secondary field was not inspired by the recent political unrest, the secondary may help accommodate the renewed interest in the region. He says that Zeghal’s hiring—bringing her from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School—has served as “an extra impetus” for constructing the undergraduate path that focuses on the region.

But professors say FAS still lacks senior faculty members in modern Middle East politics, particularly in the Government Department.

“We have tried to hire [contemporary Middle East professors], but thus far without success,” Levitsky says. “It is really a shame.”


As NELC continues to develop its undergraduate offerings, individual faculty members across FAS say that the recent Arab upheaval will inevitably guide their course curricula.

Government Professor Grzegorz Ekiert says he spent the “entire semester discussing revolts in the region” in his new course, Government 1115: “Protests and Politics in Comparative Perspective.”

History professor Roy P. Mottahedeh ’60, chair of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies program, notes that his “bread and butter teaching is before the 1500s.” But he says even he plans to alter his course on Islamic political thought to reflect the recent protests.

“We are thinking about what is happening in the broader world,” FAS Dean Michael D. Smith says. “We are always evaluating what to provide in our college curriculum.”

—Staff writer Barbara B. DePena can be reached at

—Staff writer Sirui Li can be reached at

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