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Hey guys, hope everyone’s doing well!  I’ve had an incredibly busy week over here with classes kicking off in full force at AUC and my Arabic classes starting in Mohandiseen, just across the river from me.  Despite that, or maybe because of it, it’s been a great week.  It has been good to finally get into the swing of things over here, and my classes at AUC have been great so far.  I’m taking three classes: Islamic Law Reform, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, and an introductory seminar on Middle East Studies.  My Arabic classes are at a school called the International Language Institute and are three hours a day, 5 days a week.  In the hopes of convincing those of you who think I’ve lost it in coming over here that I’m still sane and know what I’m doing, I want to tell you all a little bit about my classes, and why I’m taking them.

Islamic Law Reform, which might sound a little dry to you if you’re not particularly interested in the region or religion, is actually incredibly cool so far.  While studying one particular area of the world may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the Middle East in particular might not attract so much scholarly attention back at home, understanding what this class is about is exactly why we need more people in these fields.  I’m essentially getting a crash course (a fairly extensive one at that though, I have an absurd amount of work already) in the historical — and later in the semester, more modern — philosophy of Shari’a Law.  Think Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Jefferson, whomever — but Muslim rather than Christian or agnostic, and basing their theories on their religion and its interaction with the rules and policies of their states.  The goal here is to understand the context behind the current changes and controversies in Islamic Law and gain a better understanding of what scholars and sheiks actually teach as acceptable.

For example, is stoning women to death for adultery actually approved of under Shari’a Law?  How do divorces and inheritances work in the Islamic world?  What about fatwas, the religious verdicts which many at home associate with death sentences leveled against someone by the entire Islamic faith?  What are they exactly, and where did they come from?  The best type of understanding of something comes from an understanding of its history, evolution and context today.  At least that’s my opinion.  I’m hoping to gain that type of understanding of Shari’a law, or at least break the surface of that type of understanding, with this class.  Hopefully, for those of you interested, this blog can serve to pass on some of that understanding.  In our interconnected world today we need to be able to understand these types of cultural differences, and not just in the Middle East.  Not only do people working in foreign policy need to understand it, but we as a people need to try to as well.  Our ignorance of other cultures is detrimental to our strength, position and prestige around the globe.  If that doesn’t mean much to you, however, think of the benefits of a better understanding in a more personal way and consider the international aspect of business today.  It isn’t conducted in the same manner around the world, particularly when Islam is a part of the equation.  As business becomes more interconnected worldwide, opportunities abound for people able to appreciate and work in different places with different customs, tendencies and legal regulations.

My Middle Eastern Studies seminar has also been pretty interesting so far, though we’ve only had one actual class in addition to our introductory meeting.  As opposed to being about the Middle East as a whole, as I originally thought it would be, it’s actually more about the study of the Middle East in academia.  Essentially a study of the study of the Middle East.  The goal is to address questions about the role of area studies in academics, and specifically the Middle East.  From what I can tell so far I think that it will prove to be a good class to require all MA candidates to take in their first semester, as it’s designed to give a framework of the strengths of the field, as well as it’s shortcomings.  For example, unknown to me until last week, about 15 years ago, as the effects of the end of the Cold War were first starting to be felt in academic circles, many Middle East specialists feared that area studies, i.e. specializing in one area of the world, were heading out of fashion.  The fear was that the necessity and value of having experts who specialized in a particular region would be thought of as no longer necessary without the threat of the Soviet Union and their aggressive actions in the remote corners of the world.

Many worried that people in power at universities throughout the country wouldn’t see the benefit of studying other peoples and parts of the world extensively in the post-Cold War, peaceful world.  It was essentially a fear that, having defeated the Soviet Union, we Americans would presume to know everything worth knowing and decide that there was nothing else we could gain from extensive study of other parts of the world.  Needless to say, this was not the case, and thankfully this fear did not come to be.  Today, most of America’s top schools have thriving Middle East, Latin American and Asian Studies departments.  The result of the fear, however, was a large degree of literature and debate within the Middle East Studies field about how to stay relevant academically if area studies were to loose their importance.  A large degree of the debate argued for greater communication with other areas of study and closer relations with other academic fields.  In the end, the debate led to closer relations with academics of the more traditional social sciences, i.e. economics, sociology, anthropology, etc. and essentially forced what was rapidly becoming a very small and reclusive academic niche to reorient itself with, and reintegrate itself into, the traditional social science disciplines.  The fear completely changed the way many of these programs are run and how the Middle East is studied by Americans as a whole.

I’ve already learned an important lesson from the class, or at least seen a real world example of the importance of something which I already knew: when doing research, writing, or even just studying, it’s important to look for the connections between what I’m learning about the Middle East and what is going on elsewhere around the world so that I don’t get caught up in my own little area of expertise, only writing about and knowing things of interest and value to only a small, self-selecting group of people.  After all, studying the Middle East is only studying one of many of the histories of the world (paraphrasing one of my readings here) and to forget that would be to forget the important things other places have to offer, making me not only unable to relate to other people studying similar things in different places, but also a hypocrite, saying that I’m studying the Middle East to learn about the rest of the world, yet ignoring the rest of the world in favor of the Middle East.

Alright, time for me to get some sleep.  I’d tell you all about my comparative politics class as well, but it was canceled last week for the Eid so I don’t really have anything to say.  Just got back from an Arabic rap concert though — as underground and bootleg as you can imagine — so I’ll write about that tomorrow.  It was actually pretty cool, despite the fact that I couldn’t understand a damn thing.  Take care all.

– T

Categories: School
  1. Katie Plofchan
    September 18, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of your classes. I find it humorous and a bit perplexing that anyone would question the validity of getting a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies in today’s world.

    An Arabic rap concert, huh? Pretty wild. I bet that was quite an experience!

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