Middle East historian at Stanford University for more than 20 years, prolific author on the region and former president of the Middle East Studies Association, Joel Beinin is the new director of AUC's Middle East studies program.
Educated at Princeton, Harvard and the University of Michigan, Beinin, who speaks Arabic well, is not new to the Arab world or to AUC. He was a student at the university's Center for Arabic Study Abroad in 1969.
"I've been interested in the Middle East for as long as I can remember," Beinin said, citing Arab decorative arts, language and politics as subjects that drew him in. "I was fascinated by the Arabic language and started to teach it to myself before I enrolled in the university."
After visiting the region on and off over the next few decades, Beinin returned to AUC in 2001 as a distinguished visiting professor, and in 2004-05 he came as a visiting research fellow. "I had a really good time here. I had good relations with a lot of people, both inside and outside the university," he said, explaining why he decided to join AUC.
The current political climate also attracts him, Beinin noted, pointing out the presidential elections and related protests that have been going on over the last few years. "It's an exciting time to be in Egypt," he said. "There's a considerable broadening of political opportunities and a lot of movement happening."
Beinin also believes that as a scholar on the region, there are obvious advantages to living in Egypt. "There's an academic way of understanding Egypt and the Middle East, which is perfectly valid if it's done well. And then there's living the experience," he said. "Just by interacting with people as things are happening you get a very different sense of what's going on. There are certain things you get out of it that you can't get from a distance."
Living in Egypt and witnessing how society evolves, including both events and people's reactions to them, has made an impression on Beinin. "There is a greater sense of immediacy," he said. "Something as simple as walking from the Al Ahram building to AUC and seeing what books are being sold on the street corners, or just getting a falafel sandwich at a popular restaurant can open your eyes to a lot of things. People see that I'm a foreigner and start talking to me. It's important to stay in touch with people and stay in touch with what Cairo and Egypt feel like."
While Beinin has found himself the target of American right-wing media for bringing an uncommon perspective into academia, the forthright professor believes that living in the region for six years has helped shape his attitude since he was able to see things firsthand and interact with people directly. "I never define myself as pro-Arab or pro-Palestinian, but I worked hard at studying Arabic and have lived for considerable stretches of time here," he said. "I have an affection for the culture and many friends here."
He added that while many foreign observers treat the region from the perspective of their own interests, a deeper understanding is necessary. "I don't approach Egypt as a foreign policy problem or as some place in a regional strategic plan," he said.
A prominent historian and researcher, Beinin has made numerous contributions in various academic journals and books. He has also written and edited seven books on Egypt, the Arab-Israeli conflict and social classes in the Middle East. His current research focuses on the new global economy and the political economy of Islamic social movements. With AUC's Middle East Studies program, he plans to focus on its interdisciplinary nature.
"We have an innovative intellectual agenda that seeks to overcome some of the narrowness that any discipline imposes," he said, adding that the program is looking to reach outside AUC. "We want to increase the public visibility of the program. In particular, we want to be in touch with Egyptian intellectuals both to learn from them and to share our interdisciplinary approach to studying the region."
Beinin has been an active member of the Middle East Studies Association for many years and has witnessed firsthand the evolution of the field. He explained that the demand for Middle East studies in academia hasn't always been secure. After the end of the Cold War, people questioned whether or not area studies, which focus on a particular region such as the Middle East using an interdisciplinary approach, could offer the same academic rigor as a single discipline such as history or political science. "September 11 put an end to that debate," Beinin said. "It became obvious for national security reasons that people need to learn languages and have some sort of comprehensive understanding of Muslim societies."
The attacks of September 11 not only increased interest in the region, but also brought more scrutiny to the field. "After 9/11, I gave a number of lectures in the United States about why it happened. A lot of people were upset when I suggested that U.S. foreign policy over the years has caused resentment, specifically with regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. support of autocratic regimes and the imposition of sanctions on Iraq. Some people thought explaining the reasons was excusing terrorism," he said.
While Beinin focuses much of his research on Egypt, the Arab-Israeli conflict is also prominent in his work. He believes that resolving it is essential for the well-being of the region, but isn't optimistic about the direction it is heading. "Israel wants Arab governments and the Palestinian Authority to recognize its right to exist, but it isn't willing to talk about establishing a truly independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem. … Can there be meaningful negotiations in those circumstances?" he asked.
Looking at the current state of the region and the various conflicts, Beinin sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as the most important. "Ultimately, the resolution of this conflict is required for development in the Arab world and in Israel too," he said. "It's the single biggest thing that could make things better."
Beinin's willingness to talk about and stand behind his views has drawn the spotlight on him at Stanford, causing professors and students alike to both praise and attack him. "I have not hesitated to express my opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is a big taboo in the United States, not so much in academia, but in the broader society," he said, adding that the media, politicians, religious leaders, policy-making bodies and even economic powers, such as the arms industry, exert indirect and occasionally direct pressure on scholars. "As a PhD student, I was told not to write about the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said.
However, it is his outspokenness that has made him popular among students. Marwan Hanania, who is working on his doctorate at Stanford under Beinin's supervision, praises this quality. "His style is very direct," Hanania said. "He says it like it is and does not sugarcoat what he says. I find this approach to be refreshing because it's honest."
Indicating that it is more complex than just being on this side or the other, Hanania added, "Joel is unique because he has not been afraid to speak out against injustice even though this has neither won him many friends nor made his family and communal life any easier. While Joel has shown a commitment to issues such as alleviating the plight of the Palestinians, his views are complicated and, in my view, strengthened by the fact that he is not wedded to this or that ideology. … He is critical of both Israelis and Palestinians when either side is wrong on a certain issue."