PROJECT ON DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST OFF TO A GOOD START


How do religious and historical contexts form and inform the contested notions of democratic governance in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa? To what extent is the meaning of democracy shared? What roles do social movements, the military and security organizations, and the media play in transformation in the region? These are just some of the questions that participants in the newly launched Project on Democracy in the Middle East (DIME) will consider in the months ahead. Over two dozen faculty members and graduate students from multiple dis- ciplines on campus, including Political Science, Law, Religion, Geography, Public Administration, International Relations, Jewish Studies, and Social Science, have signed on to the project which is supported by a seed grant from the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs.

As an interdisciplinary working group that will investigate both the Arab and non-Arab Middle East, the project’s goal is to develop fresh and cooperative thinking on governance issues in the modern Middle East. “All too often, democratization in the Middle East is approached from a rational choice perspective that dominates the social sciences, and especially Political Science,” says project director Miriam Elman. “While this perspective cannot be ignored, it is not the whole story. Understanding the contemporary Middle East in general, and the reasons why authoritari- anism persists in particular, requires a cross-disciplinary approach that will compel scholars and practitioners to think ‘outside the box.’” In addition to bringing together faculty and graduate students with diverse disciplinary and country expertise, the project also aims to facilitate an inter- faith dialogue that steers clear of the partisan and deeply politicized agendas that unfortunately characterize other projects on the Middle East. “At our last meeting, I looked around the room and was struck by the diversity of the participants,” says Elman. “Our project includes an equal number of men and women; Christians, Jews, and Muslims; and people who were born and grew up in Israel, the United States, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey. That’s not your typical grouping for an academic project of this sort.”

DIME’s programs for the fall semester include discussions of key readings on democratization in the Middle East; a conversation about faculty research; and a guest lecture on the effects of war and militarization on women’s political participation in the Arab Middle East. In store for next semester are presentations by graduate students and a conference on “Democracy, Religion, and Conflict: the Dilemmas of Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking” set for March 26, 2009.

For further information on the project or to join, please contact Dr. Miriam Elman, Associate Pro- fessor of Political Science at melman@maxwell.syr.edu.