The Political Science of the Middle East: Theory and Research Since the Arab Uprisings
Edited by Marc Lynch, Jillian Schwedler, and Sean Yom.
Oxford University Press, 2022.
Paperback, $29.95, 320 Pages.

Reviewed by Samuel Sweeney.

The last ten years have upended the Middle East, quite obviously, with civil wars or regime change disrupting many of the region’s countries since widespread protests started in late 2010. But the disruption didn’t occur just in the region. On a much smaller scale, and with less devastating consequences, it also upended the study of the region in political science departments across the world. A new book, The Political Science of the Middle East, tries to capture the inevitable course corrections that have been required in that field given the Arab Spring, its fallout, and the inability of political science to predict similar major events like 9/11. The book shows that there is much good and interesting research being done on the region, much of which never reaches the ears of policymakers or journalists. On the other hand, the book also shows the ways in which academic study of the region often misses the heart of the matter.

Edited by Marc Lynch, Jillian Schwedler, and Sean Yom, the book contains contributions by fifty scholars, broken up into thematic working groups to focus on topics including authoritarianism, sectarianism, Islamism, economy, and migration. The editors say in the introduction that they “present this book as a definitive statement of MENA [Middle East and North Africa] political science, including its critical progress over the past decade, the lessons it has taught the rest of political science, and the cauldron of new ideas still animating regional studies.” So, what has the political science of the Middle East done in the last decade to respond to the regional turmoil?

The book is open about the failures of political science to predict the 2011 Arab uprisings, and identifies areas where gaps in knowledge occur. For example, the chapter on international relations states that “the dynamics of proxy warfare in the post-2011 Middle East highlight several gaps in existing research. Three themes constitute direct challenges to existing debates and present avenues for further research.” The five co-authors of this section identify those three themes as “conflict delegation,” i.e. why states choose to support proxies rather than intervening directly themselves, “conflict and war evolution in the international system,” and “the agency of non-state actors in the international system.” In other words, the last ten years of conflict have demonstrated gaps not just in the study of the Middle East but rather in international relations as a whole, given how states like Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, and others intervened in Syria at varying times, for different purposes, and using very different approaches.

But despite the unique avenues of research presented in the book, there remain revealing points that show why the West so often misunderstands the Middle East. Primarily, these center around culture and religion. Academics have rightly moved away from understanding cultural traits as inherent or unmalleable. The book’s chapter on authoritarianism rejects the “outmoded political culturalism familiar to political science, in which the term refers to group traits or essences supposedly inhering in particular communities, nation-states, or regions.” However, that does not mean that cultural traits play no role in political or social outcomes, a fact that these and other scholars prefer to ignore.

For example, in northeastern Syria, where I run a small non-profit near the city of Hassakah, there are Assyrian Christian and Arab Muslim villages side-by-side. One can sit in an Assyrian household, listen to a family conversing in Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic, as it is called by scholars), though with all present also able to speak Arabic, and where the women will have prepared the meal but will then sit at the table and eat with the men after serving the meal. A kilometer away, one can sit in an Arab household, with only Arabic as the possible language of communication, where the women will have prepared the food but will not be seen during a guest’s visit. (The women will appear outside the home wearing a hijab, but during a guest’s visit they are usually nowhere to be seen). Food will be delivered by children so that the women remain unseen, and all will sit on the floor to eat. Scholars will rightly point out that these differences are essentially aesthetic and not substantive.

However, these surface-level differences, which make neighboring villages feel like different worlds, bely a deeper difference that becomes apparent over time, and which in many cases is a direct result of religious practice (which modern scholars like to discount as a factor in social outcomes). I was recently sitting in a mechanic shop in Hassakah with an Arab gentleman, who wanted the American government to stop sending airplanes to Syria because Arabs had no need for them and would never produce a pilot who could fly them. Send your women instead, he said, because that is an area where Arabs can make better use of America’s riches. He left, and the owner of the shop told me the man had been married eleven times (but to no more than four at a time, of course). I did not ask how many children he had fathered with these eleven women, but no doubt it was a substantial number, and no doubt he was unable to take care of them all financially.

In contrast, most eastern churches make divorce either very difficult or completely prohibited (religious authorities in countries like Syria are responsible for marriage and other similar matters for their respective flocks). While it may have other negative consequences, the relatively rare occurrence of divorce among Middle Eastern Christians means that it is much harder to find the type of social problems that are rampant in Muslim society, and this disparity is directly related to religious rules and practices. To pretend otherwise is to ignore something that is obvious to farmers in northeastern Syria, even if it escapes respected scholars, and which is just as often pointed out by Muslims as by Christians.

Another area where modern scholars show their disconnect to the actual Middle East is in their treatment of sectarianism. Reflecting the conventional wisdom in modern scholarship, the authors of the section on identity and sectarianism say that “scholars have long debated the relative importance of sectarian identity at crucial junctures in the history of the Middle East. Albeit not irrelevant to political and social dynamics, sectarian identity was seldom the dominant identity marker before the advent of European colonial control.” They are right to point out that sectarian identity is often more fluid than it seems at first glance, but there is a major overcorrection that has occurred in modern scholarship of the Middle East (and elsewhere), and statements such as these fly in the face of the facts.

Sectarian identity does indeed fluctuate in importance in the Middle East, but it is always present not far under the surface, even in times of peace (when sectarianism and sectarian identity usually become more subdued). A good example can be found in the linguistics of the region. In Baghdad, for example, scholar Haim Blanc showed in the 1960s that Baghdad’s Arabic speech could be divided into three distinct dialects: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. Such a situation shows how integrated sectarian divides are, namely that people living in the same city learn to speak the same language differently based on sectarian divides. While this divide may differ in political significance from era to era, it is something that is learned from childhood, and not merely a tool that is used in times of war to stir up unrest, as implied in the above statement that sectarian identity became more important after European colonialism. And this is not new.

A much more enlightened statement comes from Iraq’s premier sociologist of the 20th century, Ali al-Wardi (d. 1995), who wrote in his magnum opus Social Surveys from Iraq’s Modern History, first published in 1969, about the conflict between the Sunni Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Persian Safavid Empire starting in the 16th century. Al-Wardi wrote that “the people of Iraq at that time did not know modern political concepts such as patriotism, nationalism, or independence. Instead, what primarily motivated them was sectarian solidarity. As such, they didn’t consider the Iranians or the Turks foreigners who sought to occupy their country and benefit from its riches, but rather each group looked at the country that represented their sect as if it was the protector of the true religion and the savior of its flock.” In other words, al-Wardi says that Iraqi Sunnis sympathized with the Ottoman Empire and their Shiite countrymen with the Safavids, based on their sectarian identity. It is no surprise that al-Wardi’s works are experiencing a significant revival in modern Iraq several decades after his death, as he understood the true nature of Iraqi society and was adept at explaining it to general readers, much more so than modern Anglophone scholarship.

The fifty scholars who contributed to The Political Science of the Middle East have provided a useful guide to their field in the wake of the disruptive events of the last decade. It is a good corrective to certain dubious narratives and misconceptions that are picked up by the media, activists, or think-tank analysts who are often guided by ideology more than a solid understanding of the region’s realities. However, the book also reveals the deep disconnect that remains between the Middle East and those who are tasked with understanding it, a disconnect that seems unlikely to change in the near future. Religion and culture remain the primary sticking point for modern scholarship on the region. Scholars bend over backwards to avoid discussion of these topics, and in doing so miss the most pressing issues facing the Middle East today.

Samuel Sweeney is a writer based in the Middle East. He is president of Mesopotamia Relief Foundation, which works in northeast Syria.

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