(Originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 29, 2014.)
The week after President Obama announced a stepped-up military campaign against jihadists in Iraq and Syria, the online magazine Jadaliyya responded. An essay by the Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi argued that the so-called Islamic State was born of the United States' 2003 war on Iraq, local despotism and the thwarted hopes of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Jadaliyya's editors were also busy in September publishing regular updates and letters of support for Steven G. Salaita, whose job offer from the University of Illinois had been rescinded over his tweets criticizing Israel.
That direct engagement with both political and academic issues is typical of the magazine, multilingual, multidisciplinary review of Middle Eastern studies.
Established a few months before the Arab uprisings began, Jadaliyya (the Arabic word for "dialectic") has become a reference for many professors in the field. It also reaches beyond the academic world: Updated daily, the site has about half a million unique visitors a month, and its articles are widely shared on social media. It aims, in the words of the founding editor, Bassam S. Haddad, to offer a scholarly, left-of-center "counterdiscourse" to the mainstream conversation about the Arab world.
Analysis of that world is already plentiful in the media, in blogs by individual academics and in specialized publications. But rather than viewing the region through the lens of United States foreign-policy debates, Jadaliyya includes contributions from artists, activists and academics from many disciplines. Though it publishes in four languages (English, Arabic, French, and Spanish), Arabic readers make up a third of its audience, and most of the editors are of an Arabic background. The goal is to "write about the region from an inside-out perspective," said Mr. Haddad, who directs the Middle East studies program at George Mason University in Virginia.
In September, Jadaliyya ran an interview with Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini activist who was recently arrested; an article about the reopening of synagogues in Algeria; an essay on the built-in obsolescence of Internet activist groups in the Arab world; and translations of letters and poems by the Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim.
The magazine has received grants from the Open Society Foundations but is powered by a dedicated team of volunteers. A core group that sleeps little is "focused on Jadaliyya on a 24-hour basis," Mr. Haddad said. He and a co-editor, Ziad Abu Rish, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Ohio University, "are obsessed to the point that our partners want to leave us for that reason."
Jadaliyya is not the only project keeping Mr. Haddad busy. He is also executive director of the Arab Studies Institute, an independent research center; a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington; and a documentary filmmaker.
Other editors include the Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon, who teaches literature at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and Sherene Seikaly, an assistant professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Several of Jadaliyya's senior editors were in graduate school together at Georgetown and collaborate on the more scholarly Arab Studies Journal, founded by Mr. Haddad in 1992. The team is a "high-functioning collective," said Elliot Colla, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown and culture editor at Jadaliyya.
"I couldn't say there's a dogma; in fact there's a lot of argument and debate," said Mr. Colla, "but there is a political project."
That project is described by readers and contributors variously as progressive, pro-Palestinian and post-Orientialist. It is critical of both Western interventions and Arab dictatorships — and committed, Mr. Colla said, to people from the Middle East "speaking for themselves, representing themselves."
"We are all people who grew up in the wake of Said," he noted, referring to the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, whose book "Orientalism" was an influential critique of Western stereotypes of the Arab world. Articles on Jadaliyya are often skeptical of American foreign policy and focused on the impact of colonial and postcolonial power relations.
The upheavals that have taken place in the Middle East since 2011 have helped the site build an audience. At times of crisis — such as the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 — editors work around the clock to translate statements, interviews and news reports.
Such moments have also caused the most intense debates on the site: In Egypt's case, was the army justified in deposing a democratically elected Islamist president, after mass protests in the streets? Was the move a step toward democracy or a return to authoritarianism? "It's important for scholars to engage broader issues in ways that are responsible and bring more knowledge, context, history to these discussions," Mr. Haddad said.
In some cases, the publication takes a clear stance: For example, it was strongly critical of Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip this past summer and of the military coup in Egypt. In other cases, such as the uprising and civil war in Syria, Jadaliyya has tended to publish articles that emphasize how intricate the conflict is.
"Trying to explain that complexity, we were hammered by all sides," said Mr. Haddad, who was born in Damascus. "Only time made our position more legitimate and less criticized."
Despite such debates, one professor of Middle Eastern studies, who requested anonymity for fear of straining relations with colleagues, described the site as "friends publishing friends on issues they all agree upon."
Mr. Haddad said that the magazine did "not pretend to be an open forum for all views." But "within the perspective that we support," editors are conscious that "we may still afford more variety."
Jadaliyya's reception has been largely positive among scholars of the Middle East. Because of the variety of its content, the site "can have far more diverse readership and broader impact," Nathan J. Brown, president of the Middle East Studies Association and a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, wrote in an email. "And it can also be a bridge for new (and younger) voices or those with more specialized expertise to enter into broader discussions."
"It's a huge resource and anyone would be foolish not to make use of it," said E. Roger Owen, a Middle East historian at Harvard University, who said he regularly included links to articles from the site on his syllabi.
If there is one common criticism it is that the site, in its determination to be prolific and relevant, sometimes sacrifices quality for quantity.
"Not every single thing on Jadaliyya is perhaps quite ready for prime time, and some things could, in my opinion, have usefully been subjected to a bit more editing," said Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. But it is "a very lively site that's broken new ground by attracting both academics and nonacademics, with material not just in English, and that's over all an enormous achievement that I hope can be sustained for the longer run without everyone burning out."
Jason Brownlee, an associate professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said that some of the articles on the site were strong, but that when scholars wrote "in academic language, just hastily," they risked producing "second or third-rate op-eds."
These kinds of pieces were unlikely to have much impact either inside or outside academia, Mr. Brownlee said. He wondered whether graduate students and young academics might be better served by saving their ideas and energy for publication in scholarly journals.
In the meantime, those involved with the four-year-old site appreciate it as an alternative venue. Last summer, Mr. Colla wrote a piece about watching satellite television with his Iraqi wife's relatives, who had resettled in Jordan. The extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had just captured the Iraqi city of Mosul. Mr. Colla's post described the sectarian bias of the news coverage, as well as his in-laws' mocking of Iraq's hapless army.
The article was personal, off-the-cuff and insightful. Mr. Colla said he could not imagine where he might have published it before Jadaliyya.