Peter Sluglett, National University of Singapore

(appeared in IMES, April 2013, Vol. 35 Issue 1)

A Turbulent Year

Looking back on 2012, which had just ended when I wrote the original draft of this article, evoked a mixed bag of emotions. In Burma in April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, as part of what seems so far to be an ineluctable process of transition to civilian rule. In November, in spite of what media hype presented as likely to be an extremely close call, Barack Obama was easily reelected President of the United States–an election in which I had a special interest as a newly minted US citizen, voting for the first time. Neither Israel nor the United States attacked Iran, a prospect that even seems to be receding, although neither party has ruled out that scenario entirely. Otherwise, apart from feel-good events like the Olympics, I am not sure that there was a great deal to celebrate. Others may disagree, and I will return to this theme later.

For the past year and a half, I have been attached to the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, living in a lively and vibrant city, very far from both the United States and the Middle East. It is a pleasant and in some sense almost effortless place to live–little in the way of the grinding poverty visible in parts of, say, Cambodia or Indonesia, a friendly and fairly open multi-ethnic society, a relatively open intellectual environment, and a place where things almost always work. Five million people are crammed into 274 square miles–so the subway at rush hour provides a Tokyo-like experience. The National University of Singapore ranked 40th in the international league table of universities, between the Australian National University and Washington University in St. Louis in 2011. At some point in the early 2000s, about 8 per cent of GNP was being funnelled into the university. The variety and range of food is greater than anything I have experienced anywhere in the world, and we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what is on offer. Almost daily rain waters broad lawns and a variety of trees on a very attractive campus (and one of the oldest public Botanic Gardens in the world), although it takes time to acclimatize to the humidity.

Most people in Singapore do not know much about the Middle East, although in a fine display of even-handedness the country has diplomatic relations with Iran, Israel, Turkey and all Arab countries. Like many other resource-poor states, Singapore’s main interest in the Middle East is the security of its own and its neighbours’ oil supplies; the government is clearly concerned about possible insecurity in the Gulf, events in Iran, the effects of the Arab revolutions, and so on. A lecture I attended recently by the Deputy Prime Minister began with the words: “Diplomacy and defence in Singapore are twins”; a small country cannot threaten others, and Singapore generally maintains good terms with its much larger neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia. There is a lively cultural life, and Singapore’s location means that it is less than three hours’ flight away from some particularly memorable sights, sounds and smells and beaches. I very much enjoy living here.

In general, as Fred Donner’s presidential address made clear, it’s difficult to be very confident about the future of our field, or as confident as I once was. I am all too well aware of the difficulties which young people now face in entering this most enjoyable and satisfying profession, and I wish I could persuade myself that they will eventually find academic life as relatively straightforward as I have. But I find myself writing many letters of recommendation for some quite brilliant young people for the same few positions; the only obvious growth is in security studies, “terrorism studies”, and so on, which have not interested the young people for whom I am writing the letters. Although we have not fallen off the fiscal cliff, I presume that the sequester means that the severe curtailment of Title VI funding will be reversed, which means that enrollments in our field will decline. It seems difficult to convince lawmakers that this yo-yoing of government funding for less commonly taught languages and area studies is against the national interest. The only crumb of comfort I take is that survey courses on Islam or Middle Eastern history are quite widely available at a increasing mass of tertiary institutions all over the United States, and to a comparable extent in Europe. I have little sense of the quality of these courses, but if more people are interested in studying the field, I can only hope that this will yield dividends in the long run. Funding, of course, is another matter.

Let me go back to my first thought, what we have to be happy about, or celebrate. Late in 2011 I wrote: “Over the last few months I have felt a certain frisson of  excitement as I listen to the news each morning: which seedy dictatorship, princedom, shaykhdom, or kingdom will be the next to feel its people’s wrath? All through the spring of 2011, the new York times devoted a quarter page every day to a round-up of Middle East events, with a couple of sentences on the latest developments in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and so on. After some 45 years’ engagement with the Middle East, mostly at academic arm’s length, it is immensely refreshing and exciting to live through these extraordinary events."

Now, in April 2013, I’m a little less confident. Let me qualify that. Needless to say, I have no nostalgia for the past, the good old days of Ben ‘Ali, or Qadhdhafi, or Mubarak. They have gone as a result of a series of quite remarkable manifestations of “people power.” And I agree with the sentiment expressed by Sheri Berman in the latest Foreign Affairs to the effect that all revolutions are messy and take many years to settle down: we are at the beginning, rather than anywhere near the end, of a long period of transition. “There is little reason,” she says, “to expect the Arab world to be a permanent exception to the rules of political development.” It is also the case that the regimes that have come to power over the last year that trouble many of us are the part of the legacy both of the colonial state and of the post-colonial state. Authoritarianism cannot be removed by fiat. That is a perfectly rational and I would guess accurate assessment. After all, the opponents of Mubarak, or Qadhdhafi, or Asad, really only agreed on what they did not want, which was equally true of the ill-assorted coalitions that sprang up to counter the colonial states in Egypt, or Iraq in the 1950s, only to disintegrate within a few months, leaving the armed forces in charge almost everywhere.

The fact is that most of the readers of this newsletter are sitting in relative comfort on campuses far removed from the streets of Cairo, or Tunis, or Damascus. Most of us don’t have to endure the constant disruptions, or outbursts of anger and hostility, shops closing, school years interrupted, economies not showing any visible signs of improvement, unemployment rates as high as ever, and so on, and so on. Of course we rejoice that the tyrants have been overthrown, we empathize, we try to explain, we want to shelter persecuted academics or graduate students as best we can. But I recall the dedication in the front of Shaul Bakhash’s book on the Iranian revolution, the Reign of the Ayatollahs, published in 1985, which reads “…to my Iranian friends, who loved the revolution, not knowing it would not love them back.”

I think that this sentiment may well find an echo among the veterans of Tahrir Square or in Tunis. It does not matter if things have not turned out as we might have liked, but it does matter if the way things have turned out has succeeded in alienating any sizeable number of those who were prepared to give their all for a better life, a better society.

I suppose the jury will be out on this for a long time.

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