Professors discuss Middle East turmoil

By Alex Claxton

The international news cycle has been in an uproar over recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. Protests have erupted due to the spread of a viral video depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad in a negative light. In Libya, a U.S. ambassador was killed in the midst of a particularly violent protest.

In light of these events, a discussion panel took place Wednesday in ARH. One of the professors speaking at the event, Caleb Elfenbein, History and Religious Studies, described the goal of the event as a way to have an interdisciplinary conversation about the many different facets of the protests.

David Harrison, French; Matt Johnson, History; Kamal Hammouda of the Muslim Prayer Group; Danielle Lussier, Political Science; Caleb Elfenbein, History and Religious Studies; and Mervat Youssef, French and Arabic; participate in a panel on Middle Eastern turmoil Wednesday in ARH. Photo by John Brady

“I’ve done events like this in the past and we were asked to put something together, and maybe there would be time after for question and answer, but this time around it’s just going to be question and answer. I think the idea is that there are so many threats to what’s going on right now, and really the questions transcend so many different contexts,” Elfenbein said.

Matt Johnson, History; Kamal Hammouda, community member and leader of the Muslim Prayer Group on campus; Danielle Lussier, Political Science; Mervat Youssef, Arabic and French; and Elfenbein were all present for the event.

The talk opened up with a brief summary of the occurrences leading up to the protests and a description of the many protests that are currently ongoing. From there, the conversation was mostly guided by the questions of audience members.

The discussion in large part was an exploration of the U.S. relationship with Muslim communities around the world. Youssef brought up the American government’s lack of response to 2011’s Arab Spring, positing that there could be underlying resentment of the American government in the Muslim world contributing to the fierceness of the protests.

“Part of the narrative that I’ve been hearing… is that people haven’t forgotten the reluctance of the United States to take a very clear stance on what was going on in the beginning of the uprising in 2011… This is one of the things that is still lingering, and is a way for mobilizing against … [what is] perceived to be an American movie,” Youssef said.

Further into the conversation, an audience member raised the point that the discussion so far was largely from an American point of view, and only considered the narrative from an American perspective.

Johnson happily responded to the audience member’s assertion, giving those in attendance a broader scope in which to view the protests. He presented two other narratives: the instability of inequality and differing interests within the larger Muslim world.

“These protests, so to speak, though anti-Americanism was the mobilizing frame… have to do with inequalities and political disenfranchisement that people were still experiencing post-Arab Spring,” Johnson said. “Political transformation doesn’t necessarily equal social transformation.”

The remainder of the talk covered such topics as the Muslim world’s perception of the relationship between the American people and their government as well as the underrated presence of non-violent protesters.

The event wound down with a discussion of how the protests are being presented by the media, and each panel member gave a few of their favorite resources for developing a more nuanced view of foreign affairs. This conclusion echoed Elfenbein’s previous statements about the necessity of interdisciplinary thinking in today’s complex world.