American perceptions of Islam and the Middle East have until recently been shaped by the figure of Osama bin Laden, said Dr. Hamid Dabashi.
Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, recently critiqued the way the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic worlds have been perceived in the U.S., when he delivered the keynote address at this year's Southwest Graduate Conference in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.
His talk was titled "Osama bin Laden Doesn't Live Here Anymore"--a nod to his argument that that perception is changing now.
"Fortunately we are at the moment that the rise of the Arab Spring has radically altered that image," Dabashi says.
Dabashi was also critical of the sanctions against Iran, which are toughening. President Obama recently approved new sanctions that target Iran's biggest oil buyers, in order to persuade them to reduce their imports of Iranian oil.
However, ordinary Iranians are feeling the pressure, not the Iranian government, Dabashi says. He says he is also not convinced that Iran is in fact developing its nuclear program.
"All the assessments, including United States intelligence assessment from 2007 to 2012, does [sic] not support the possibility that Iran is actually developing a nuclear program," he says.
It's unfair to single out Iran, Dabashi says, when other countries in the region, like Israel and Pakistan, already possess nuclear weapons. Nuclear disarmament is the only sensible solution, he says.
But the issue isn't just about Iran. Dr. Leonard Hammer, visiting professor of Modern Israel Studies at the University of Arizona, says Israel's major fear is not that Iran would attack Israel with a nuclear weapon.
"I don't think it's in the Iranian interest to attack Israel with nuclear weapons, political rhetoric aside," Hammer says.
Israel's greatest concern is that if Iran did develop nuclear weapons, they could find their way to groups considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. and Israel, Hammer says.
Yet according to Dabashi, the Israeli government is using the Iranian nuclear issue to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians for a peace settlement.
Hammer says he doesn't think that the Iranian nuclear issue is being used to such an extent by the Israelis, though he says it's clear the current Israeli government doesn't want to deal with the Palestinian issue.
Under President Obama's new sanctions, major importers of Iranian oil have until June 28 to show a substantial reduction on imports of Iranian oil, otherwise their financial institutions could be cut off from the U.S. banking system.