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Check out this written coverage by two of our talented volunteers for the 2018 conference!
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Spotlight Panel: The Trump Presidency and the Middle East
By Sidney Faix, King’s College London
Panel participants: Dr Ian Black, Prof Toby Dodge, Dr Jasmine Gani, Frances Guy, Dr Shabnam Holliday, Prof Raymond Hinnebusch
The annual British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) conference took place from 25 – 28 of June 2018 at King’s College London as it was hosted by the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. On Tuesday, one of the spotlight panels was The Trump Presidency and the Middle East. The panel consisted of wide ranging scholarship from academics and specialists, which is discussed below.
The panel was chaired by Prof Raymond Hinnebusch, a professor of International Relations and Middle East politics at the University of St. Andrews. He opened the proceedings by placing Trump within the wider context of the United States (US) in the Middle East and comparing him to the past four presidential administrations. The early 1990’s witnessed unchecked US military superiority and the claims of Bush Sr. and Clinton deliverance of public goods. By the end of the 1990’s US hegemony decline and Bush Jr. tried to rescue it not with public goods, but military force. Obama’s approach was termed as ‘hegemony light’. Obama did not micromanage, only reacted if directly threatened, and revised the idea of diplomacy and public goods.
Prof Hinnebusch then described Trump’s presidency as a reaction against the Bush Jr. period with the instinct to get out of the region. However, Trump also reacts to Obama’s legacy, the Iran Deal, as it him into the region. Prof Hinnebusch concluded his opening remarks by commenting on Trump’s contradictory actions and positing if Trump had any strategy.
Prof Toby Dodge is Director of the London School of Economics (LSE) Middle East Centre, Kuwait Professor and Professor in the International Relations Department at LSE. He addressed how Trump is an analytical problem for academics, and how Trump’s personality and Twitter use erodes at his official capacity and direction. Prof Dodge broke down his assessments into incoherence, ideology, and militarization. The incoherence of the Trump presidency is seen through his frustration with Iran and how he evidently does not understand the finer details. Prof Dodge pointed out how any presidential administration can only focus on one big policy at a time, and for Trump the Russia scandal has become omnipresent and demanded his attention.
Ideologically, Prof Dodge argues against the understanding that Trump has none. He argues that Trump’s media over the past forty years shows consistency in a simplistic American first ideology. Trump shows no interest in existing institutions and his trade war drags along his outlook on international relations. Dr. Dodge remarked that Trump’s ideology was essentially “shaped by instincts into a world view.”
Lastly, Trump’s militarization of his presidency was discussed. Prof Dodge points out the exclusion of policy makers and advisers in favor of military men in the National Security Council. The State Department is indicative of these attitudes and direction. The military men abide by a different type of conduct from civilian advisers as he is the Commander and Chief. Prof Dodge concluded that Trump is a symptom of a wider global problem. It would be comfortable to see his presidency as an aberration, but that viewpoint would ignore the structural changes that changed America’s role in the world and why his core supporters remain loyal.
Frances Guy is a British former ambassador and UN Womens representative. She is now head of Middle East region at Christian Aid. She explored if there is any practical effect on the ground for women in the Middle East. There has been no dramatic change in continuum that is the US and human rights, as the US ignores human rights when suited. However, Guy remarked that there feels to be a change in emphasis. Middle Eastern leaders now feel less pressure when they crackdown on their own country and US has lost its defense of human rights. The scale of which Trump acts towards human rights has also changed. Though the US had long entertained pulling out of UNESCO, it was Trump who did it. The US also pulled out of UNRA and UN Human Right Council and cut funding for abortion. Guy concluded that Trump’s policies are not directly changing the lives of women in the Middle East, but his acceptance of clampdowns by Middle Eastern leaders is where the real damage is.
Former Middle East, diplomatic, and European editor for the Guardian, Dr. Ian Black is a Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE. His presentation focused on Trump’s policies for a peace process for “the world’s most intractable problem”, Palestine and Israel. He cited John Kerry in 2014 when Kerry said he gave up on the process and how Trump quickly demonstrated he was “ignorant, indifferent, and reckless” about the issues. Dr. Black addressed how Israel was welcoming to Trump from the beginning and how the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was Trump’s most damaging act thus far.
Dr Black concluded his remarks by discussing the “romance” between Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There are signals and leaks that point to developments in producing “an outside in deal’, with Saudi Arabia perhaps backing a Palestine semi-state with its capital in Abu Dis and Gaza being treated as a separate issue. Dr Black acknowledge Trump not following diplomatic order and positioned if other people could salvage his actions.
Dr Shabnam Holliday, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth, focused on Trump and Iran. She stressed the importance of historical context within the theoretical framework of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the grassroots level reaction of Iranians for what some hoped would bring Iran out of isolation. Dr Holliday looked at how the Iranian regime needs to be seen as by and for the people, and that Trump’s policy has allowed the capacity between opposing factions in Iran to unite against a common enemy.
Dr Holliday then assessed what she thinks Trump’s aims are for Iran’s economic situation. Trump has stated he has “no problem” with Iranian people, but he greatly contributed towards Iran’s hyperinflation. However, maybe Trump’s aim is to destroy the Republic, thus damaging Iran’s economic situation is a sure method. She concluded that she is not one for predicting, but it should be of great concern where this situation goes.
The last panelist to present was Dr Jasmine Gani, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her presentation focused on Trump and Syria, specifically in regards to how Trump is dealing with the decline of US hegemony in the Middle East. Trump’s use of airstrikes is not an alteration in action or policy, even though he directly targeted the Syrian regime for the first time in six years. It demonstrates his contradictory policies as he does not support Syrian opposition groups. Trump’s airstrikes are different from Obama’s because Trump goes for the “shock and awe” effect. Analyzing different major airstrikes and the dynamics of how and why give insight into Trump’s message. Dr Gani deduced that Obama’s airstrikes were used to draw a red line, but Trump’s airstrikes are now a green light for the Syrian regime to know what and what not to do.
Dr Gani briefly addressed the US and Russia in the region, and how she believes the danger of escalation between them has decreased, and if a confrontation does occur, it will likely be by accident. Dr Gani concluded her presentation with potential future options: leave the situation to Russia, topple Assad, keep Assad but target infrastructure and airspace, or no ground troops but take the airspace. She remarked how Trump is “obsessed with outdoing Obama”, has willingly devolved powers to authoritarian regimes, and that political theory will not suffice to analyze his presidency.
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‘An Editing of Life’: Literary Genre and Poetics across the MENA
By Teal Mingledorff, SOAS
Panel participants: Dr Syrine Hout, Hilary Kilpatrick, Prof Paul Starkey
On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, the BRISMES annual conference featured the panel, “An Editing of Life: Literary Genre and Poetics across the MENA”, which explored a range of narrative voices in Middle Eastern literature, and was chaired by Dr. Hilary Kilpatrick, a Lausanne-based scholar of Arabic literature. Dr. Paul Starkey, who serves as head of the Arabic department at the University of Durham, opened the panel with his presentation, “Crossing Genres: Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq and the Problem of Classification.” Dr. Starkey highlighted Shidyaq’s “unclassifiable book”, Leg Over Leg (1855), describing the author’s life as a “peripatetic Mediterranean odyssey”, and his work as a philological rumination on differences between eastern and western civilisations. Shidyaq morphed Leg Over Leg into its own literary genre, granting him a reputation as the father of modern Arabic literature. As stated by Dr. Starkey, Leg Over Leg employs a variety of narrative modes, from straightforward personal impressions—“We left Cairo at 8:00 a.m.”—to religious justifications for Shidyaq’s journey into the world of the Franks, drawing upon the widely-cited hadith, “Seek knowledge even unto China.” It seems Shidyaq concerned himself more with social structures than formalities, moulding his work into what Dr. Starkey dubbed an amalgamation of Menippean satire and fictional autobiography, ultimately fashioning a voyage of self-definition.
Shidyaq’s prose juxtaposes events, moving his plot sideways and rendering it difficult to pigeonhole. Dr. Starkey indicated how categorising this text remains less important than examining the ways in which it compares to other pieces of art and literature. He suggested that an intertextual reading “might help us better understand how Shidyaq’s individual developments contributed to nineteenth century Arab and European cultures through Arab literature.” During Dr. Kilpatrick’s subsequent presentation, “The Khaliya Affair: A Case of Confessional Identity”, she chimed in agreement with Dr. Starkey, emphasising how important works such as Shidyaq’s “must be dealt with thoroughly, a necessity rarely accomplished.” Expanding on how similar nonconformist literature and poetry was able to connect at a down-to-earth level with societies of past centuries, she posed aloud: “Were such pieces read or transmitted orally by average people, and how were they received?” What we do know, she revealed, is that in previous eras, “most literary works were distributed through letters until popular demand surfaced years later, at which point some were published.” We can gather this was due to scholars and “men of letters” receiving few distinctions at the time, despite the prolific pen of each.
The panel culminated in “To Paint and Die in Arabic: Code-Switching in Rabih Alameddine’sKoolaids: The Art of War”, a presentation by Dr. Syrine Hout, professor and chair of the department of English at the American University of Beirut. Dr. Hout defined code-switching as the alternation of two or more languages within a conversation, and applied the term to the bidialectalism of Mohammad’s dialogue, one of the narrators of Alameddine’s first novel, Koolaids. Stylistically distinctive as a postmodern work, Alameddine’s interpretations of the life of Mohammad liken the Lebanese Civil War to the “war” experienced by those who suffered during the San Fransisco AIDS epidemic of the nineteen eighties and nineties. AIDS dementia causes Mohammad to revert from English to his native Arabic, underscoring the role of multilingualism in identity formation. Dr. Hout identified the three core components of Mohammad’s life as art (painting), language (Arabic) and death (AIDS). For Mohammad, to paint in Arabic means to be ready and willing to die in Arabic. “Why do individuals express emotion in one language rather than another?” Dr. Hout asked. “Because,” she said, “In situations of high emotion, language controls you.” Initially written in English, Koolaids has been translated into at least forty languages, though, ironically not yet into Arabic. “Speaking of code-switching!” quipped Dr. Hout, articulating her final point about the complexities of translating the emotional facets of language embedded in a text, particularly one as acerbic and confrontational as Alameddine’s. On the whole, Drs. Starkey, Kilpatrick and Hout covered the obstacles of “putting in the box” literature of a formless nature, explaining the futility of attempting to delineate cross-genre works that defy rigid codification.