The Crown Center for Middle East Studies celebrated its annual kick-off event with the inauguration of Prof. Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST) as the first Charles (Corky) Goodman Chair in Middle East History. Last Thursday, Sept. 13, a panel discussion on the state of the Middle East took place in Rapaporte Treasure Hall, following Sohrabi's lecture on "The Role of History in Understanding Today's Iran."
"Perhaps what we are seeing is not only about the ideological nature of the Islamic republic, but it is an ambition, and it is a thought that is by now woven into the fabric of political and nationalist thought in Iran," said Sohrabi. "Perhaps Iran's security outlook is not mere ideology but much, much deeper." She spoke about the power of history in giving us choices in times of strife, particularly when it comes to Iran's conflicts and the need to understand its background.
In her new position, Sohrabi looks forward to acting as a link between the History department and the Crown Center.
Sohrabi's new chair is one of three recently endowed faculty positions established by the Crown family, who also founded the center in 2005. "Their generosity will also help in the process of a long-term University goal of providing a permanent home for the Crown Center," said University President Frederick Lawrence of the donation.
Sohrabi has been a professor of Middle East History since 2008. Her most recent position at the Crown Center is associate director of research. She was selected for this newly established chair through a vigorous yearlong search process. The search was seeking a candidate to engage in a part-time research and part-time academic commitment.
"Naghmeh really earned it. She is a superb scholar ... She has been a great mentor to students," said Associate Director of the Crown Center Kristina Cherniahivsky in an interview with the Justice. "She really is a person who goes beyond what's expected to give her students the best possible experience. She will often throw away her entire syllabus she has used in a previous year, because something happened that made her rethink the way she needed to approach a course."
"Most of my favorite moments revolve around my students," said Sohrabi in an email to the Justice. Among those students she says she cherishes are those who persevere in her courses and who she sees both graduating four years later and going on to exciting work, and also those who have the courage to diverge from their planned career path, as she did.
Cherniahavisky said the Crown Center's objective in events such as this one is to provide a "context or framework in which to place events that are happening on the ground" in a setting that will allow people to give their opinions freely.
After listening to Sohrabi's lecture, David Handler '14 agreed in an interview with the Justice, saying that he thought the lecture shed more light on the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East, than the media's portrayal of many aspects as purely good or bad. He is not studying in the field of Middle Eastern Studies, but decided to attend the event in hopes of gaining a new perspective.
Prof. Shai Feldman (POL), the director of the Crown Center, was the moderator of the panel discussion that followed Sohrabi's lecture.
The panel was comprised of Abdel Monem Said Aly, senior fellow at the Crown Center and chairman of the Center's board, Profs. Kanan Makiya (NEJS), Nader Habibi (ECON) and Eva Bellin (POL). The discussion focused on whether or not the Arab Spring has come to an end.
Said Aly set the tone for the conversation with his categorizing of "the good, the bad, and the ugly" in the Middle East. He named the good as democracy, whose path is hindered through this "transitional period" by security problems, the economic crisis, the constitutional dilemma and a transitional justice. The bad is the constant power struggle between Islamists who want to take charge of the streets and the gradual transition of the state's tools during a chaotic revolution.
The ugly arises as the "Spring" is turned into a "[Canadian style] winter." said Said Aly, referencing the dominance of Jihad groups with the spread of Al Queda in Mali, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Yemen. He made reference to former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's term "constructive chaos," saying that these countries of "the New Middle East" are certainly sites of chaos, but not necessarily construction. With repeated occasions of "violence for violence's sake," even a soccer game can act as a trigger.
The conversation led to the topic of development and whether or not there is truly progress towards democracy in these Arab Spring states. The speakers agreed that it is too soon to tell.
Bellin, discussing Tunisia, where she spent time completing her Ph. D. through fieldwork with Princeton University, said that "democratic consolidation" has not yet occurred, but that it is certainly not going to happen overnight.
"I am baffled by the strategic planners here that they are ignoring how to clip the powers of the Iranians where it should be, where the threat is taking shape." said Said Aly, stressing that it will not work to strengthen the countries of the gulf and "make an Arab Spring in a tribal society." He also reiterated the fact that Iran will try to hit Western interests that lie in the oil and Israel.
When the state of Syria was touched upon, the panelists disagreed about what should be the terms of the United States' intervention. Makiya believed there was a "deliberate whipping of sectarianism" by the Syrian state.
"Of course every humanitarian impulse should be to stop the bloodshed," said Makiya. He has suggested setting up a safe haven for Syrians, which he believes the United States would be unwilling to do. Bellin stated only that she believed the United States cannot intervene militarily, but must continue to participate diplomatically, regardless of its lack of success to date.
There is a video of both the lecture and panel on the Crown Center's website.