Lisa Anderson Article Reflection: The Problem With How We Study the Middle East

In her article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”, Lisa Anderson addresses the problems with the ways that scholars attempt to understand the political dynamics of the Middle East. Anderson explains that many political scientists exclusively engage in Western discourse, projecting American institutions onto other areas of the world. These people view democracy as the ideal path for every nation, so they are obsessed with why the Middle East is so lacking in it. Taking this Western-focused approach fails to address greater historical and cultural factors at play and hinders political scientists’ ability to understand why certain political phenomena happen in the Middle East.

The Economist

A specific area where this has consequence is scholars’ misinterpretation of Islamism. Being so prevalent in the region, understanding Islamism is essential to get an accurate picture of social and political life. However, many of the intricacies of Islamic culture are brushed over when scholars engage in Western discourse to study them. One scholar precisely describes this phenomenon in an assessment of Middle East studies, where he writes, “the languages of political Islam, for example, can appear in Western scholarship only through a process of translation that enables them to speak in terms of the modernizing discourse of the West” (Mitchell 2003, p. 24). This is not productive when analyzing the role Islam plays in democracy and political trends between different Arab nations. 

This type of Western discourse towards the Middle East was especially prevalent after World War 2. After the war, most Middle Eastern countries were gaining independence from European imperial powers and had therefore only been recently reorganized in a European image. This caused many people to see the Middle East as if societies were starting from scratch, overlooking vast historical influences on the region. Anderson writes, “…the novelty and frailty of the European-style states of the region and the continuing importance of local, nonstate political forms and dynamics would prove to be a powerful but largely neglected feature of Middle East politics for most of the second half of the twentieth century” (Anderson 192). Instead of analyzing these factors, many assumed that modernization was expected to produce political democracy and economic prosperity, similar to the United States in the 1950s. For the most part, this was not accomplished. 

Additionally, political scientists have given external actors, namely the United States, too much power with respect to the Middle East. Karawan writes that “The field of Middle Eastern studies suffers from an excessive preoccupation with the United States and its policies toward the region,” and then explains how underdevelopment, the absence of democracy, the role of military elites, the rise of fundamentalism, and the persistence of Saddam Hussein in power have all been attributed to U.S. actions and desires (2002, p. 101). Again, this approach is too narrow and brushes over the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. 

More recently, the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11 are of great interest to political scientists because they challenged authoritarianism deeply entrenched in the region. The causes and effects of the Arab Uprisings are still studied today, although frequently through a Western lens, as these protests were perceived to be centered around democracy. Although democracy was one factor, it wasn’t the only reason for mobilization. Economics, including perceived inequality, had a large impact as well. Understanding the mass mobilization of people against authoritarian regimes not strictly in terms of democracy brings political scientists and students closer to comprehending the details that shape politics in the region. 

Protesters gather in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Image

In this course, it will be important to challenge our understanding of Western institutions and norms with regard to the Middle East. We must move away from these Western-centered conversations and take a greater look at the history of Middle Eastern countries, especially in regard to the Ottoman Empire and European imperial powers that dominated the region. We must also examine Islam, its culture, and its relationship to politics. In doing all of this, we will begin to understand the complexities of politics in the region.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Lisa. “Searching where the light shines: Studying democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 189–214,


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  1. Political Scientists’ failure to understand the complex histories of the MENA region stood out to me the most in this article. Rather than account for the legacy that the Ottoman Empire or European colonization had on the region, analysts have viewed newly independent states as brand new. Not only does this distort our understanding of the Middle East, but it also undermines the sovereignty and autonomy of the MENA region states. While reading this section I thought of the Russian perspective of Ukraine, in that many Russians view Ukrainian and Russian history as one and then make their own reservations about the status of Ukraine as an independent nation. This obviously proved to be very dangerous.

  2. Myra, I totally agree. It seems so counterintuitive to consider the region, or any of the countries within as “new.” Even if cultural history was not taken into account political history seems especially pertinent. I can imagine it would be difficult to make IR theories without information like history. I wonder what other regions/studies this failure to consider history also applies to?

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