Islamic Political Movements

Having begun on Tuesday with a video from DAM, today I showed them one of Subliminal’s videos.

Today’s big issue: Islamic political movements.  One of the four big questions we have been addressing all semester is the nature of the state, and this week they read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of ibn Fattoumeh. The main character journeys the world looking for a just society, noting the variety of states in the world and the ways in which they (do not) adhere to the kind of polity that idealists would have sought.

I began in a different place, though.  What causes human rights violations in the Middle East?  I showed them Wikipedia’s answer (the Douglas Adams fans chortled):

I explained that pundits and policy-makers had been using “Islam” as an explanation for all they find confusing or disturbing about the Middle East.  Instead of providing the sorts of answers we would expect when analyzing uprisings or rioting or government abuses in, say, France, certain public “intellectuals” substitute “Islam” for analysis when discussing the Middle East.

I showed the students a series of slides with too-long quotes from Amnesty International.  Each detailed government abuse, torture, poverty, police brutality, lack of freedom, discrimination based on gender, origin, or religion–all real, measurable issues that compromised human rights and well-being.  The culprit was not “Islam” but both secular and religious governments in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Then I illustrated US support for many of those same governments:

I wanted them to think about the variety of possible responses to these problems, but instead of asking them to produce a list, I provided one–something I will change next time I teach this course.

I argued that, even though Islam was not the explanation for the problems in the region, which were quite complex but can certainly be analyzed, some people in the Middle East see Islam as the solution for those problems.  They argue that, since neither the secular Western states nor the socialist bloc had created sustainable and just regimes, it was necessary to turn to a new way.  Islam, they argue, offers alternatives to corrupt and unjust governments–and to nearly all those things that Amnesty International had documented.  Islamic politics would rely on existing institutions and provide an “authentic” alternative to the failed policies of the past, in their view.

I pointed out that, though the Muslim Brotherhood had begun in Egypt in the 1920s and the Wahabbis had begun more than a century before that, the 1980s had become the heyday for religious politics around the globe (the BJP won elections in India, the religious right in Israel, the Christian Coalition in the US, the Islamists in the Middle East).  And right now, the notion that religion belongs in the US government seems to be gaining adherents: Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had just announced that all rights come only from God.

Unfortunately, although I noted that there are important differences among Islamic political movements, I did not have time to describe them.

I did tell the students that the US has long had close ties with Islamic political movements and (self-described) Muslim governments.  The longer historical context of the Cold War and US intervention in the region was evident when I pointed out that support for such (non-communist) resistance movements had even been official policy.  When asked whether he regretted “having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?”  Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, famously responded, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

Sadat and Saddam: The 1970s and 1980s

For some reason, recent history seems much harder for me to synthesize.  What are the biggest issues of the 1970s and 1980s?  How can one present them to beginning students who don’t know much about the region, without eliciting significantly more controversy than analysis.  By the time we get to the 1970s and beyond, students already have fixed ideas and a stake in the narration.

Instead of doing an overview of the 1970s and 80s, I decided today to focus on two secular autocracies and try to connect them to the big issues of the era.  I realized they hadn’t hear Fairuz yet, a serious deficiency on my part, so they arrived to her singing one of the songs my Damascus women friends seemed to consider almost an anthem.

The “quiz” today was the same one that Viji gave her students a few weeks ago, and their responses were similar.  I told the students about the experiment she had done in class, and how thinking about issues at a deeper level would help students learn.  I explained that when I asked them to respond to a poll, I had hoped to encourage the kind of engagement that would help them participate more actively in the kinds of analysis historians do, but now it seems I may have been (inadvertently) helping them learn and remember the issues we were talking about.

I began by reviewing the importance of the past in understanding the violence in Lebanon in the 1970s, talked briefly about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the Israeli occupation of the south, the Syrian occupation of much of the rest, and the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut, for which a memorial exists down the road at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Then I asked the students to think about all they had learned so far about the region.  Based on that, what kinds of challenges faced Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s?  Here are their Poll Everywhere responses, appropriate and complex, as a word cloud:

I began with Sadat’s Egypt, the high costs entailed in being neither at war nor at peace, and the 1973 war that managed to solve none of those problems.  Neither did the “opening” to capitalist investment.  I described Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the result of food riots that followed the imposition of IMF austerity measures.  (In past years I have had to describe the demands for austerity measures, but the students seem to know lots about them these days.)  I introduced the Muslim Brotherhood as both an economic and a political force, and ended with the assassination of Sadat.  (They now know the names of all of the Egyptian presidents since 1952!)

Then on to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Context comes first: the Cold War, and the various ideological options available to people in the 1970s Middle East: communism, state nationalism, Arab nationalism, Islamism.  The Ba’ath party made sense in this context. The rising price of oil we had already talked about (and they seem to have talked to their parents about) provided the emerging Iraqi dictator with a lot of income to spread around.  I talked about rapidly improving child mortality rates under his rule, and the sorts of improvements that would have been reflected in the improving health of children.  But I also showed them a series of images reflecting the growing cult of personality, and concluded with the 1980 invasion of Iran, trying to provide the background they would need for the week’s reading, Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.  The Iraqi invasion of Iran, I pointed out, brought together most of the issues we had focused on since the end of World War I: disputes over borders, questions of belonging, Nasserism and nationalism, and fear of popular revolution.

Their questions will provide a transition to Thursday:

Revolution in Iran, Continued

The students had read three primary sources this week: a chapter from US Ambassador William Sullivan’s memoir, a few short chapters from the Shah’s memoir, and two short speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini.  Fortunately, I had a very bright student come to my office during office hours on Wednesday.  He seemed surprised that anyone would follow the “irrational rantings” of someone like Khomeini.  William Sullivan’s writing was much more measured, much more believable.  He wanted to know how he should be reading these.

His questions made me realize I was making some important and unwarranted assumptions about the way students read the documents I assign.  I decided to spend lecture on Thursday trying to help them figure out how to read historical texts.

Instead of music, I opened with ABC news stories about the hostage crisis, explaining that the legacy of that drawn out affair had left their parents’ generation with a longstanding antipathy toward Iraq.

I knew, after talking with my student, that I had to make them understand that, while Khomeini may have seemed to them like a ranting crank, he had been viewed as a respected leader by many, many Iranians.  I showed them a brief news clip to make the point.

I asked them to think about how one could account for the differences among the three authors they had read.  What made their views so different?  I was impressed with their list:

  1. Motives of the author
  2. Author’s experiences
  3. Chronology (before or after the event)
  4. Author’s agenda/Advocacy/justification
  5. Tone

I had come in with three A’s: Author, Audience, Agenda.

I divided the huge hall into three groups.  One would analyze the Shah’s writing, another William Sullivan’s memoir, and the third would focus on Khomeini’s speeches.  I asked them to come up with the five most important claims in each piece, and to draw a map describing the relationships among the three men.  After a few minutes, I asked each group of six or seven to send a spokesperson to another group to compare what they had come up with.  My goal was to arrive at a consensus among all the small groups working on each man.  Unfortunately, there was too much chaos and not enough time to share among most of the small groups.

Nonetheless, their reports were really fascinating.  Each group took “their” person seriously and explained his point of view, though only one produced a map.

Update: I found myself exhilarated by their work on the assignment in class, but at the same time, haunted by the idea that I should be really lecturing.  I was awake during the early hours of the morning replaying the class, wondering whether it really is more effective to have them figure things out, remembering how seriously they engaged with the discussion in their groups and at the same time worrying about the students who have told me or the TA’s that they learn better from lectures.  I was struck when attending a discussion section after my partly sleepless night when one of the students repeated my three A’s in analyzing a source.  Maybe they needed the practice?

Yet, once again, I fear I left them with the sense that each document, all information is equally valid.  That is where I must begin on Tuesday.

Revolution in Iran

Just back from Spring Break and March Madness is upon us.  Basketball is a preoccupation at Carolina for the next few weeks (we hope), even more than it usually is .

This week is devoted to the Iranian Revolution, and I began by telling the students that this is really, really, REALLY important.  One cannot understand US policy in the region without recognizing the complete alienation that resulted–on many sides.  I welcomed them with a music video by one of Iran’s preeminent rock stars, Googoosh, who earned the respect of many by remaining in Iran after the revolution for many years.  (Please note: many of the images in the blog are clickable and will take you to the videos used in class.)

Spring break is very long, even longer than the week that marks it on the calendar.  To review where we had been before the break, I asked the students to think about the two biggest issues and two most important events in the region between World War I and the revolutionary period we covered right before spring break.  The result really surprised me: it seems that, though many included other issues and events, everyone included the creation of Israel.  It didn’t seem that I had spent very much–or even enough–time on this, so I was quite surprised.  (I wondered if this was a result of the Daily Tarheel’s coverage of the student walk-out during David Horowitz’s talk on campus the night before.)  The wordle was so unanticipated that I didn’t know how to respond.  I will return to it next week, I think.

I began my lecture with a review of Mossadegh and the Shah (from before break), then re-introduced the Shah in the context of the 1971 Persepolis ceremonies.  Although we haven’t yet talked about the 1973 war, I introduced the oil “weapon,” describing the longer trajectory (since 1947) during which producing countries had been demanding more control over and higher prices for their petroleum exports.

Rapidly growing oil revenues helped the Shah fund his White Revolution, as well as encouraging corruption and allowing the growth of an expanded military and a repressive police force.  The results, I pointed out, were quite dissimilar from the goals.  The students got to hear President Jimmy Carter toasting the Shah at a state dinner, while reading Amnesty International’s 1975 report that “The Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts, and a history of torture which is beyond belief.”   Then they got to hear the shah deny torture while talking with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

The problem is to convey the complex nature of events.  We think of this as an “Islamic Revolution,” so I wanted to introduce them to some of the demands articulated by the Shah’s opposition.  At the same time, they needed to know that religion did play a role, or more accurately, a number of roles.  After a three-minute introduction to the seventh-century division that led to the emergence of Shi’is, I explained the importance for Shi’is of having sources for emulation and the problem of legitimate rule after the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam.

Revolutionary Middle East, Thursday version

I was pleased with the format Tuesday, with the students’ participation in constructing the narrative and thinking about the implications.  But I couldn’t figure out how to provide enough background for their discussions.  They were reading too broadly this week (what was I thinking?): a Nasser speech, Fanon on torture, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and two chapters from Nadje al-Ali’s wonderful book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present.  Their journal was to be on whether these events really constituted revolutions.  So I had to provide at least the background for the Algerian war, Iraq 1958, Nasser 1952, Mossadegh 1953, and the Suez Crisis.  It seemed to me that they all fit together, but they were obviously too much for one lecture.

I wanted to focus on France and Algeria for the welcoming music, but since I couldn’t decide which Rai to play, I did two, beginning when only a few students had arrived.

I had decided that I would begin the lecture with a Poll Everywhere poll on the biggest issues of the era.  I would take their responses, create a word cloud with wordle, and then talk about the issues raised by the biggest words (most frequently used in the students’ responses) in order.  I had prepared the PowerPoint to be flexible.  But the system was down!   (Poll Everywhere was very apologetic, claimed this wouldn’t be repeated.)

Face to face with the problem of technology: sometimes it doesn’t work.  It took me most of the hour to regain my footing.  But what followed was not my finest hour as a teacher.  I was flustered, and reverted to a standard lecture, in chronological order.  Iran, oil and the cold war (Mossadegh 1953) followed by the Sinai Suez Crisis (Great Powers, Super Powers, Nasser and Israel), and the Algerian revolution.  The only redeeming elements:

First, I love this BBC clip on the 1956 Sinai-Suez crisis, especially when thinking about 2002-3 and Iraq.

And second, I juxtaposed de Toqueville and a colon legislator on the effects of the French on Algerian society.

I scrambled to the end, trying to remind us all of the big picture concerns as I finally wound down and hoping that they would think about the bigger issues in discussion sections.

Constitutions

Today’s welcome video was a brief clip from the terrific film, “Crossing the Bridge–The Sound of Istanbul”

The class was tremendously enlightening.  After a week that had included two public lectures in addition to the usual work, I fell back on my previous teaching style.  There was so much to “cover,” what with the Urabi Revolt in Egypt, the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, and the “Young Turk” revolution in the Ottoman Empire, that I spent the whole class lecturing about the events.  I tried to tie it all together by emphasizing the belief of many members of the elite that a constitution would be the silver bullet that could strengthen Middle Eastern powers to be competitive with European states.  (The irony: although members of the US government pretended that they could introduce democracy through invasion at the start of the 21st century, people in the region had believed a whole century earlier that they could withstand foreign intervention if they only had constitutional regimes.)

Despite my enthusiasm for the topic and all of the techniques we teach new lecturers (moving around the room, lots of eye contact, dramatic voice changes, repeating important points), it was clear that I lost the students.  This was the first time all semester that they were not engaged– some actually fell asleep.  By the time the lecture was over, only one posted a question.  The only student who approached me afterward asked for a glossary so they could follow better while I sprinted through events.

I suppose it was a good test of the new system.  Some of the students had seemed to want more traditional lectures, and I had begun wondering about the efficacy of taking so long to focus on fewer things, unable to “cover” as much as during previous semesters.  This was an eye-opening “failure”: had I focused on underlying questions, they may not have “learned” about all three constitutional efforts, but they may have remembered the big ideas.  In discussions after class with the TA’s, I began thinking about how I should have done it.  Perhaps comparing the underlying notions of governance and the governed that had informed the medieval “Circle of Justice” ideals with the early twentieth-century constitutional demands that had been assigned as their reading for the week?  I also learned that it takes much more time for me to re-imagine the histories that I don’t research as problems to be explored instead of events to be narrated.

 Perhaps part of the problem had been UNC’s devastating one point defeat at the hands of arch-rival Duke in the last second of last night’s game.  In an effort to lighten the mood, instead of a map quiz, I did a review of the recommendations for Ottoman renewal.