Middle East and North Africa Research Paper

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The term ‘Middle East’ first came into use early in the twentieth century, and after World War II it gradually supplanted the nineteenth century term ‘Near East’ as a geopolitical and geocultural designation. Both terms have been repeatedly criticized for their Eurocentric origin and point of emphasis, yet the ‘Middle East’ continues to survive as a term for lack of better alternatives. It supplanted older designations such as the Levant, which designated the eastern Mediterranean and included present-day Turkey and Greece. Geographically, the Middle East encompasses West Asia, including Iran and Turkey, and North Africa, including the Sudan. Some scholarly journals extend its boundaries further to include Afghanistan and the horn of Africa. While in modern history the region has been divided among more than two dozen States, many historians and social scientists assume its various parts to contain roughly homogenous cultural patterns and sociological profiles, shaped by a shared history. Middle Eastern culture is frequently discussed in religious rubrics, and religiosity (specifically Islamic) is frequently thought to capture what is essential about Middle Eastern culture in general. An earlier tradition in Western social science regarded Middle Eastern society culturally as tradition-bound and sociologically as a tribally identified and ethnically segmented premodern mosaic kept together normally by an authoritarian State.

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The social scientific study of the region we now call Middle East is actually quite old, although its history is very uneven. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who spent most of his life in North Africa, was the first person anywhere to use the term ‘sociology,’ which he understood as the science of the life cycles of urban civilization. His theories, which emphasized the role of social solidarity and the weakening of that solidarity over time as civilization became more entrenched and oriented toward surplus and luxury, anticipated by centuries European theories of civilizational cycles, expressed most loudly by Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler. Ibn Khaldun’s work must also be understood in the context of his time, which was characterized by conflicting claims of legitimacy, unstable political orders, recurrent Mongol invasions, the political fragmentation of the Muslim world, and the demonstrated incapacity of sovereigns to claim monopoly over the loyalties of the faithful everywhere, as had been roughly the case in the first three centuries of Islam.

An important feature of Ibn Khaldun’s perspective consisted of combining the study of society and history, in the underlying belief that a sociology of civilization could only be based on an adequate philosophy of history. This continues to be the spirit characterizing much of the sociological investigation done in the Middle East itself, where many practitioners are just as likely to be historians or philosophers, and where questions of culture, religion, heritage, and modernity are inseparable from a myriad of contemporary social issues.

The modern professional study of the Middle East began in the nineteenth century from two directions. In the East, there arose an intellectual movement which came to be known as the nahda, whose significance has been pointed out in a recent flow of important studies by Albert Hourani, Hisham Sharabi, Aziz al-Azmeh, and Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm, among many others. That movement was essentially an eclectic mix of reflexive native commentators whose thought was in tune with urban middle-class sentiments and in communication with European modernity. They sought to revive what they regarded to be a dormant spirit of science and liberalism in Islam, while seeking politically to modernize the Ottoman State. In Europe, by contrast, the study of the Middle East was far more scholastic and confined to a small circle of orientalist scholars who, in the course of the nineteenth century, became increasingly better acquainted with the classic texts and archaeology of the region, especially following Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. The orientalist approach was highly antisociological and anti-theoretical. It focused almost exclusively on ancient history and disregarded contemporary society, which was thought to be largely static in terms of its cultural patterns, and thus accessible through knowledge of the classic texts founding it. Influential trends within orientalism viewed oriental society culturally as static, antirational, unphilosophical and anti-scientific; sociologically as mosaic of floating tribal and ethnic solidarities; and politically as predisposed to authoritarianism.

This approach gained further ascendance within sociology itself with Max Weber’s ventures into the study of oriental cultures, including Islam. In common with the reigning orientalist tradition, Weber’s approach to the question as to why Muslim societies (along with Buddhist and Hindu ones) had not developed capitalism as Europe had done, referred to the Qur’an and sayings attributed to Muhammad, and assumed the cause of social change (or lack of it) to be internal rather than external to the culture. While Weber was more interested in social theory than were orientalist scholars, who were preoccupied with philological and textual concerns, Weber nonetheless replicated the basic image of oriental society as a self-enclosed and distinct cultural cocoon, interpretable by its classical texts and definable in terms of its difference from the European experience of liberal capitalism.

The subsequent rise of modernization theory, closely associated with the Parsonian paradigm in sociology, set aside for some time the question of culture, emphasizing instead the normative convergence of societies along the path of modernization. Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society (1958) is a classic work in this genre with respect to the Middle East. While steeped in orientalist assumptions that Middle Eastern society, culture, and personality was largely tradition-bound and anti-rational, Lerner’s work sought to detect venues of the modernist challenge arriving to society from without. Like many theorists of modernization, Lerner understood it as simply ‘Westernization.’ Another important text of modernization theory was C. A. O. van Nieuwenhuijze’s The Sociology of the Middle East (1971), a detailed and lengthy study which portrayed Middle Eastern society as a set of parallel societies converging upon a cultural core. This further justified the old view of culture as an independent variable when approaching Middle Eastern societies.

With decolonization, the increased presence of the US in the region, the Cold War, the creation of the State of Israel, the rise of Arab nationalism and the Arab defeat in 1967, Middle East studies itself became a veritable battleground. A new generation of scholars was determined to contest what they regarded to be a distorted image of the region and its peoples in both academic and public settings. The rallying cry was issued by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), which immediately galvanized the field and continues to be referenced today as a founding text in postcolonial studies generally. A sophisticated critical appraisal of the academic and high culture representations of largely Middle Eastern societies, Orientalism was conceived by Said as part of a trilogy, which included two subsequent books on the media coverage of Islam and the Palestine question. Said sought to reveal classical orientalism, which modernization theory did little to contest, as the intellectual regurgitation of common stereotypes based less on social and historical realities than on the tendency of European intellectuals to imagine a distinction between Europe and the rest of the world.

While Said’s analysis was directed largely at mainstream trends in Western scholarship of the Middle East, another set of scholars set out around the same time to contest the heritage of orientalism in leftleaning scholarship. The main point of contention here was Karl Marx’s thesis of an ‘Asiatic mode of production,’ distinct from European feudalism in its propensity to stagnate after a founding phase, needing a strong central State for its maintenance, and incapable of producing mercantile surplus that could found a basis for capitalism. While his method was fundamentally different from Weber’s, Marx nonetheless reached the same conclusion regarding the foreignness of capitalism to the orient in general, and thus positing the need for an external stimulus, such as European colonialism, to introduce the bases of bourgeois accumulation and, in turn, the precondition of proletarian socialism. In spite of the brevity and inconclusive nature of Marx’s own remarks on this theme, which addressed sporadically the encounter between India and Algeria with European colonialism, his assessment of the lack of internal capacity of oriental societies for capitalism and thus revolution has reigned well into our times. For example, Shlomo Avineri, a Marxist Israeli political theorist, has argued that Israel, by introducing into ‘traditional’ Middle Eastern society the same forces of destruction of ‘Asiatic’ patterns, would also add a revolutionary stimulus to the sum total of productive forces in the region.

This line of thinking was contested in a number of widely-referenced works from the recent past. They include Maxime Rodinson’s Islam and Capitalism (1973), which took both Weber and Marx to task for failing to appreciate the paramount role of the urban merchant class throughout the economic history of the Middle East, for their propensity for partial appraisal of Islamic economic doctrines, for their tendency to confuse religion and culture, and for treating Islam, in particular, as a monolithic force. Rodinson argued that the Muslim world in general had a historically strong merchant capitalist class, and that, if anything, Islam was more of an aid than an obstacle to its interests. Mahmood Ibrahim took the argument further, arguing in Merchant Capital and Islam (1990) that the rise of Islam itself must be understood in terms of its connection to the interests of merchant capital and long-distance trade. The argument was also made in Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony (1989) where, using a world-system perspective, she shows both the centrality of the Middle East to premodern world systems and the evolution of common modes of capitalist thinking and planning among commercial classes throughout the world well before the rise of the West.

The academic attacks on the leftist variety of orientalism were sealed in a number of other works which sought to demonstrate the capitalist vitality of Middle Eastern societies in early modern times. These include Peter Gran’s Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760–1840 (1979) and Surayah Faroqhi’s Towns and Townsmen of Ottoman Anatolia (1984). In Marx and the End of Orientalism (1978), Bryan Turner attempts to revalidate Marxist analysis and the mode-of-production approach to Middle East studies by repudiating the Asiatic mode of production thesis altogether and presenting a more tenable historical and theoretical alternative. An overarching treatment of the subject matter from a much broader perspective is Halil Inalcik’s Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire: 1300–1914 (1994).

Those studies also occasion the beginning of the application of a political economy framework to the study of Middle Eastern history and society. In his pioneering The Middle East in World Economy: 1800–1914 (1981) and subsequent works, Roger Owen identifies major global economic factors at work in the final century of Ottoman domination; factors which reshuffled the social structure within the region. Owen argues that Europe’s increased demand for agricultural commodities during that period strengthened coastal parts of the Middle East at the expense of internal ones, and produced small local elites tied to European commerce. Those elites failed, nonetheless, to invest back in agriculture and industry, thus causing a development in the direction of dependency rather than modern, locally-rooted capitalism. Owen’s thesis marks an avowed application of dependency theory, hitherto common in Latin American studies, to Middle Eastern studies. A similar approach which situates the history of Iran, omitted from his analysis by Owen, in the context of the world system is John Foran’s Fragile Resistance (1993). Other political economists such as Yusif Sayigh (1979), Abbas Alnasrawi, and Jacqueline Ismail do the same for other parts of the region.

Some works in this genre stand out because they attempt to connect political economic analysis to historical formations in the culture at large. In The Arab Nation (1978), Samir Amin outlines the basis of a pan-Arab nation in a historical, far-flung urban network maintained by a commercial warrior class, that generated the surplus upon which it depended from long-distance trade rather than from the adjoining peasantry, which remained unincorporated. This feature meant that the fate of the Arab nation would always be dependent on factors external to it, and thus explained why the Arab nation readily entered the modern era in the logic described by dependency theory.

Of particular concern in studies of the political economy of the Middle East is the question of the nature and role of the State. The fact that for much of its history the Middle East was governed by loose, territorially expansive States rather than confined city-states, meant that local civil society, social networks and even identities could exist and evolve at a distance from State doctrines. The historian Roy Mottahedeh, for example, has shown how medieval Muslim society in Buyid Iran could function without the trappings of the State as such. While in general the term ‘nationstate’ would not adequately describe Middle Eastern polities, there were notable attempted exceptions. These involved projects aiming at building nationstates along the European model, as in nineteenth century Egypt and Kemalist Turkey following the dissolution of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of World War I. The State Mehmed Ali set out to build in Egypt early in the nineteenth century paralleled the European State in its extension of the range of its social roles, its curtailment of clerical prerogatives, the strengthening of direct state presence in the countryside, its reliance on regular levies and taxes, and the introduction of educational and health reforms. As in Europe, that kind of State began to assume for itself many functions that had historically been within the domain of civil society.

But such state experiences tended to be the exceptions, and even the Egyptian State was unable to demonstrate credibly its sovereignty in the face of colonialism. On the other extreme of experiences of state formation is the Persian Gulf region, whose political history until modern times had known only ephemeral States at best. In State and Society in the Gulf and the Arab Peninsula (1990) Khaldoun H. al-Naqeeb identified the pre-eighteenth century political economy of the Gulf as a ‘natural economy,’ because all its components, including long-distance trade across the Indian Ocean, lacked the services and supervision of a centralizing state apparatus. AlNaqeeb’s thesis was that such a natural economy was eventually destroyed by British imperialism, which supported the rise of new dynasties and authoritarian, rentier States. Such States thus had to be run (until today) as official or unofficial protectorates.

This reality, coupled with the newness of all Arab States in the Levant and North Africa, has led some commentators like Michael Hudson in Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (1977) to identify the question of legitimacy as the central problem of postcolonial polities in the region. This stance essentially dismisses the relevance of much of the common practice in political science writing on the region, which generally takes States as normative categories of analysis, focuses attention on diplomatic history and games theory, and pays little attention to ideologies, social movements, political parties and organizations, and also to such questions as political alienation and, above all, legitimacy.

New directions of research thus began in the early twenty-first century to address more complicated issues regarding the nature of the State in the region. At least three directions of research can be identified in this connection. One involves projects oriented toward studying the historical sociology of the State in the Middle East, spearheaded by Elia Zureik, Talal Asad, Huri Islamoglu-Inan, and Khaled Fahmy. Another concerns civil society which, in the context of Middle Eastern studies, is usually seen as both an antidote to the State and a factor in democratizing it. Major works in this direction are led by Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s series of reports on civil society and democracy in various countries of the region, and similar collections of reports edited by Jillian Schwedler and Augustus R. circa 1995. A third direction of research focuses on state rituals and symbolism, a good example of which is Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi’s study of the Iranian post-revolutionary State, Staging a Re olution (1999). Also significant in this genre is Lisa Wedeen’s The Ambiguities of Domination (1999), which employs ethnographic methods to study the nuances of popular responses to state symbolism in Syria. Earlier important studies in this genre by Sami Zubaida (1989), Ernest Gellner (1981) and Clifford Geertz focus on the state appropriation of popular beliefs, and demonstrated how the State tends to cause religious ideology and symbols to become more rigid and orthodox when it adopts them for its own use.

These studies have helped move the center of gravity in the sociological study of the Middle East away from a focus on formal institutions and historical continuities, to a focus on the determining relations between social structures and social movements. Hanna Batatu’s classic The Old Social Classes and the Re olutionary Movements of Iraq (1978), as well his more recent work on Syria, combine Marxist and Weberian perspectives to show how modern social movements could be understood in terms of the transformation in the basis of status groups from tribal, religious, and official dignitaries to landed aristocratic and merchant capitalist classes.

Batatu’s landmark study hails from a new trend which rejects a well-established view of religion as preconstitutive and internal to the culture. That view is common in orientalist tracts, but also in a tradition of sociological commentary ranging from Reuben Levy to vs. N. Eisenstadt, and is well represented in the contemporary Fundamentalisms Project, edited by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby. More recent trends by such anthropologists as Talal Asad (1993) and Ralph Coury treat both Islam and culture as dependent variables, and stress the historical dynamism and multiplicity of both. With respect to modernity, Talal Asad shows how religion itself can foster modernizing tendencies, and Ernest Gellner, who had otherwise stressed the similarities across Muslim societies and the preconstitutive role of religion, also comes to argue the special closeness of Islam to the spirit of modernity, and its ability to encompass various types of social structures.

Many observers, however, continue to be deeply interested in the dynamics operating between more permanent historical social structures and contemporary ideologies and social movements. Sami Zubaida’s work stands out in this regards as an exposition of the complexity of determining forces, and for demonstrating the need for an integrated analytical grid of cultural, sociological, comparative, and historical knowledge to apprehend the nuances of modern movements. Other scholars emphasize the determining role of specific sub-State social formations, such as the Ottoman Millet system, whereby various religious communities related to the State as recognized and legally autonomous corporate bodies. Main research questions in this regard concern the extent to which such a system gave rise to or inhibited the full expression of modern movements, such as nationalism, sectarianism, or secularism.

Scholars of the region are increasingly inclined to regard seemingly ‘premodern’ identities expressed in the political culture of the region as actually modern inventions. They also tend to stress the rootedness of modern social movements in external stimuli, such as colonialism and foreign influence. An important recent example of this scholarly trend is Ussama Makdisi’s The Culture of Sectarianism (2000). Focusing on nineteenth century Lebanon, Makdisi shows how confessional identities along which the modern Lebanese system was built were manifestations of various processes of modernity rather than expressions of reaction to it, and how they were fostered by Western intervention rather than emerging on their own. Elizabeth Thompson’s Colonial Citizens (2000) shows how it was the intrusion of colonial powers, rather than indigenous traditionalism, that had been detrimental to both women and liberal thought generally in Syria and Lebanon. Lacking roots in the colonies and conceiving of them as largely tradition-bound territories, colonial powers weakened indigenous liberalism, because the latter adhered to anti-colonial nationalism, and strengthened, through its compensatory alliance with them, the more conservative forces, whose influence had been declining before the advent of colonialism.

Many commentators also view the emergence of modern nationalism, in particular, in the context of colonialism rather than that of indigenous developments. Because of its extremity, the case of the Palestinians is usually cited as the most evident, but by no means the only, illustration of this centrality of external intervening factors to the framing of modern identities. An important study in this regard is Rosemary Sayigh’s Palestinians: From Peasants to Re olutionaries (1979), which uses oral history to show the growth of nationalism due to external colonizing pressure. A more recent work along these lines is Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity (1997), which shows the gradual emergence of that identity in reaction to Jewish nationalism in Palestine. Similarly, in examining the Palestinian Intifida, Samih Farsoun and Jean Landis reject the relevance of most trends in social movement theory, emphasizing instead the global context of Palestinian struggle.

The pivotal geopolitical status of the modern Middle East, which entailed massive foreign intervention and a plethora of movements of resistance as well as political fragmentation, gave rise to a rich tradition of engaged scholarship on social movements. Khalil Nakhleh, (1977) a Palestinian sociologist, has rejected outright any possibility of non-reflexive, detached, ‘normal,’ or ‘nonnative’ sociology under current circumstances in the region. Other scholars have sought to outline oppositional social movements in terms which endow them with an under-explored sense of agency. Examples of this approach include Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman’s Workers on the Nile (1987), and Anouar Abdel-Malek’s Contemporary Arab Political Thought (1983), which moves away from cultural and structural determinism altogether and stresses the priority of agency under modern circumstances.

Apart from questions of colonial encounter and political economy, an important line of emphasis in studying social movements in the Middle East concerns how they make use of cultural symbols. Julia Clancy-Smith’s Rebel and Saint (1994) shows how resistance to colonialism in North Africa used icons and authorities from traditional settings whose function in society had until then been quite apolitical. In a nuanced analysis of the new veiling and work environments in Cairo, Arlene Elowe Macleod (1991) shows how the veil today, far from being simply a patriarchal imposition, is actually used proactively by women to express various messages combining both accommodation and protest.

These studies stem from a very weighty orientation in Middle East studies, particularly in Middle Eastern countries, toward questions of heritage and its connection to modernity. Many important contemporary commentators, such as Fazlur Rahman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Syed M. N. al-Attas, and Ismail alFaruqi have revisited classical Islamic philosophy and science in a quest to reveal a specifically Islamic philosophy of knowledge and science in tune with modernity. More politically-inclined contemporary philosopher-activists (frequently Shi’ites), such as Ali Shariati, Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, and Morteza Motahhari, have also revisited classical sources extensively in order to show the compatibility of Islam with modern ideologies, notably socialism and anticolonial nationalism. The same is true of Tayyib Tazzini’s and Hussein Muruwwah’s secular reading of the heritage. The voluminous contributions of the latter, who was killed by Amal fighters in Beirut in 1985, were geared toward showing how classical Islamic philosophy and thought had always housed ‘materialist’ perspectives and methods in tune with Marxist dialectics.

Many other commentators are equally interested in voluminous, encyclopedic surveys of classical thought, but emphasize as organizing principles discursive, semiological, and hermeneutic rather than sociohistorical approaches. These include Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri’s analysis over many volumes of the structures of knowledge in Arab culture and the poet Adonis’s (Ahmad ‘Ali Sa‘id) equally critical study of imitation and originality in Arab culture, The Permanent and the Changeable (1974). While many of these studies seek to discover through historical investigation a root cause of contemporary ‘stagnation’ or ‘backwardness,’ many more seek to reveal through the same method the dynamism and adaptability of the heritage to various social structures and ideological claims. This latter approach to the heritage had required an abandonment of the philological and preconstitutive approach of orientalism. Among the most important founders of this critical approach is Muhammad Arkoun, whose pioneering studies of the Qur’an have emphasized the value of other than purely philological approaches to the holy text, such as anthropological, sociological, and semiological approaches. Mohammed Bamyeh’s The Social Origins of Islam (1999) builds on that tradition of combined methods of reading, arguing that the growth of Islam was precisely due to an ability exhibited at its founding phase to accommodate the worldviews of different and even discordant social classes and types of social structure. Abdul-Kabir al-Khatibi echoes a similar theme when he argues that Islam must be seen as a sort of ‘compromise’ religion, and that its historical vitality stems from that attitude rather than from an alleged orthodox base and orientation.

In light of these new perspectives, the question arises again as to why this demonstrated dynamism of the heritage has not lent itself to a more vocal communion with liberal European modernity. Many responses to this question tend to dismiss it outright, citing as its faulty premise a Eurocentric tendency to outline various historical trajectories as more sharply differentiated than they actually were. In his critique of Eurocentrism, Samir Amin builds on and extends Martin Bernal’s thesis in Black Athena (1987). Amin contests European fabrication of a monopolistic claim on Greek heritage, as well as the construction of European history through a direct line that flows from Greece to Rome. This perspective, according to him, ignores the larger Mediterranean contexts of classic civilization and the continuity and further development of Greek political and philosophical thought, as well as mathematics, medicine, and science in the Islamic world during Europe’s Middle Ages.

Criticism of the tendency to view Middle Eastern or Islamic history in terms too distinct from other world histories has also been levied by the urban historian and sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod (1989) who, after her initial study of Cairo, came to repudiate the notion that there was anything specifically Islamic about the ‘Islamic city.’ For others, such as Jabiri and Hichem Djait, (1974) the point became less relevant, as they identify the important lines of demarcation with respect to modernity not along large East West types of categories. Rather, they prefer subregional categories, such as Arab Mashreq ( Western Asia and Egypt), vs. Arab Maghreb (rest of North Africa). Djait argues that the relatively more intense and enduring colonialism experienced by the Maghreb caused a more cultural proximity to modernity, since all illusions about self and society were destroyed through a colonial uprooting that had not been as severe in the Mashreq. The latter, being politically more advanced, had obtained its independence earlier than the Maghreb and proceeded to be governed by dictatorial regimes. That condition, according to Djait, favored the construction of more illusions about self and society in the Mashreq, and thus more relative distance from the spirit of modernity.

Within discussion of the proper attitude to modernity, the question of gender has had a particular resonance. The feminist sociologist Fatima Mernissi attained fame by blaming Islam itself for perpetuating a retrograde attitude toward women. An alternative trajectory within feminist writings on Islam, represented in the works of Leila Ahmed, Nawal Sa‘dawi and Denise Spellberg, offers more complex readings of the role of women in Islamic history and places more emphasis on the agency of women. More recent trends have de-emphasized the alleged role of traditional religion even further as an explanatory factor. Deniz Kandiyoti’s (1991) work has contributed to shifting attention away from religion as such and into patriarchal structures as sources of the oppression of women. Hisham Sharabi’s pioneering study Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (1988) singles out structural changes within the Arab World as well as elsewhere within the past century that had led to ‘neopatriarchy’ instead of modernity. Neopatriarchy is explained by Sharabi as a form of patriarchy produced by dependent capitalism and social change lacking in a sense of authenticity. Thus neopatriarchy tends to distort modernization and nervously presents itself as the only valid option.

Given the magnitude of social, political, economic, and cultural transformation in the Middle East over the twentieth century, many social scientists will find some literary works very useful in apprehending change in certain areas. Three particular novelists stand out for their ability to reconstruct history and society in more overarching and encyclopedic ways than has so far been possible in the social sciences, and thus are worthy of greater attention. Adbelrahman Munif’s (1989) multivolume epic Cities of Salt reconstructs in elaborate and patient detail the coming into being of Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, following the discovery of oil in the country by Western companies. The novel documents transformations in social relations and customs, the introduction of wage labor on top of an austere, semi-nomadic economy, the emergence of a dynasty and a State, the resulting tensions between authenticity and inauthenticity in public imagination, and other fascinating details which are usually glossed over in more dispassionate sociological and historical writings.

Gamal Ghitani’s historical novel Zayni Barakat (1990), set at the time of Ottoman takeover of Egypt from the Mamluks early in the sixteenth century, reconstructs elements of continuity and change in political structure as well as in the relationship between spiritual and political authority over the time-span of the two systems. Finally Nobel laureate’s Naguib Mahfuz’s prolific career is dedicated to an elaborate and highly nuanced reconstruction of social psychology and its connection to mores and traditions. Characters in Mahfuz’s works, who frequently mimic middleand lower-middle class inhabitants of Cairo’s neighborhoods, are usually shown as agents of their own destinies rather than as victims of established structures, and are capable of using a wide reservoir of proverbs and customary allowances of deviance to justify their actions. This holds true even in their attitude toward fate. In analyzing one famous story by Mahfuz, Halim Barakat shows that when characters claim what they are doing to be ordained by some fate, they are usually using the language of fatalism as a tool of self-assertion, rather than as an explanation of their powerlessness with respect to established patterns of relations and social expectations. At both the macro and micro levels, these works combine research orientations central to understanding Middle Eastern society and history. These orientations involve political economy, social and institutional structures and mentalities, and the flexible morality governing every-day, street-level interactions.

1. Conclusion

The study of society and history of the Middle East has gradually moved from focus on homogeneity and continuity to more elaborate discussions of the impact of many determining factors. It is now commonly accepted that due to its historical centrality to historical world systems and its contemporary geopolitical significance, Middle Eastern society and history cannot be understood apart from global trends which influence the region and are influenced by it as well. The studies are most revealing when they go above or below contemporary state jurisdictions and emphasize instead the historically autonomous mode of self-organization of civil society, cultural communities, travel, and trade. Middle Eastern society has historically been defined more so by the hybridity and diversity resulting from the above factors, than by the social engineering of States.


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