MESA 2008: put Said on the backburner

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is the promised post on MESA, a bit late due to my busy schedule in the States. The 42th annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association as usual included hundreds of panels on diverse issues in the field. It may be hard to draw out trends from that smorgasbord of new research, but I’ll try.

Just like last year, one of the best attended and most talked-about panels was on new trends in the study of Saudi Arabia. This year’s Saudi panel included two of the young researchers, Thomas Hegghammer and Stephane Lacroix, who organised last year’s tremendous “new directions in the study of Saudi Arabia.” This time they, along with a host of other brilliant scholars, were asking whether the global spread of Saudi Islamism can be attributed to a Wahhabi masterplan, or to an “accident of globalisation.” Their answers were somewhere in-between, provided through detailed analysis of the different groups of salafists and wahhabi activists and thinkers from the late 1970s to today and their intricate links with the Saudi authorities. Look out for the excellent (fellow Scandinavian) Hegghammer’s forthcoming book on the topic, which will be out with Cambridge UP next year. The panel chair Marc Lynch has a more detailed write-up of the different papers here.

Another striking event for me was the incoming President of MESA’s address. Unfortunately it was strikingly…disappointing, in my opinion, and perhaps indicative of a trend in the field. Mervat Hatem spoke about the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism on Middle East studies and about power and knowledge in general. The first reason why I found it disappointing is that these addresses should offer at least some kind of overview of the field of Middle East Studies, which Hatem’s didn’t. Secondly, her rendition of this important question offered nothing new (do we really need to be taken through Foucault and Said again?) and was overly uncritical in its celebration of the book, I thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the focus on Western misrepresentations of the “Orient” is still relevant – particularly in an American context. And Said’s intervention was certainly needed at the time, even if it vilifies several Orientalists whose work had much more real insights into Middle Eastern societies to offer than most present-day Middle East scholars. But Mervat Hatem’s talk was typical for those in the field whose focus on misrepresentations in a Western context sometimes leads them to forget social reality in the Middle East. Hence, she cited the recent UN Human Development Reports as examples of how Western conception of “modernity” and “development” are internalised by Arab intellectuals to critique their own societies in a way which she found “Orientalist”.

Really, that’s so off the mark. The problems with education, gender inequality and authoritarianism in the Arab countries are real and pressing, and cannot be written off as Orientalist constructions. As one of my university professors once said to me, “put Said on the backburner” and focus on people in the Middle East instead. I understand that Orientalist fantasies are alive and kicking in parts of Western societies, and in the States more than anywhere else. Representations do matter, for sure. But I don’t think that they should be the main concern of Middle East studies anymore in 2008. Instead, let’s take a hard, balanced look at the other forces that have shaped the history of the modern Middle East, like the young researchers on the Saudi Arabia panel and many more did so excellently at MESA.    

One response to “MESA 2008: put Said on the backburner

  1. Pingback: CUMINet · Orientalism: something like a disclaimer

Leave a Reply