Understanding the Modern Middle East


Middle Easterners today are caught between memories of the past and frustrated hopes for the future. They struggle to find solutions to crises of economic stagnation, political and social repression, and cultural identity. In recent decades Islam has become central to this struggle, and almost every issue involves fierce, sometimes violent debates over the role of religion in public life.

Understanding the Modern Middle East, developed as a sequel to the very successful Understanding Islam program, was a reading and discussion program that used a single text as background for a series of lectures and discussions examining these issues. In BETWEEN MEMORY AND DESIRE: The Middle East in a Troubled Age, R. Stephen Humphreys integrates the medieval and modern history of the Middle East to show how the sacred and secular are tightly interwoven in its political and intellectual life.

Humphreys discusses the conflicts over power and resources that engage Middle Eastern politicians and looks at the major ideologies that have shaped these conflicts. He focuses on the impact of Islam on public life and examines Muslim ways of thinking about the “secular” versus the “religious.” What values does Islam promote? What challenges does it pose to “ordinary” politics? What resources does it bring to the struggle for social justice?

Humphreys recognizes the Western tendency to dismiss Middle Eastern politics as an incoherent tale of violence and fanaticism, and his book is especially valuable for its analysis of the deeper issues behind the headlines. These issues include the region’s apparent inability to evolve democratic institutions, conflicts rooted in the peace settlements after World War I, and the unresolved debates over which cultural and moral values should drive Middle Eastern policy.

Between Memory and Desire reminds us that Middle Easterners remember the past in specific ways: the shame of the colonial era; the disappointments since independence; and the glory of the Middle Ages, when Muslim achievements were respected throughout the world. Even if these memories are only partially true, in defining the past, they also define what the future ought to be.

How the program worked:

Understanding the Modern Middle East was a reading, lecture and discussion program offered free of charge through your public library. Sessions were generally scheduled on weekday evenings from 7-9 PM, and libraries chose three or four lectures from the scholar and lecture catalogue <<link to catalogue>>.  Topics included, but were not limited to: women in public life, the reorganization of the Middle East During the Post World War I period, military dictatorship, US foreign policy, jihad, Islam, imperialism, and fundamentalism.  Participants bought their own copy of Between Memory and Desire or borrowed a copy from a limited number loaned to the library, and used the text as background reading for the entire series. Scholars from local colleges and universities  presented 45-minute talks on topics explored in the book, and then led a discussion with participants for the second half of the session.