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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Current Developments in Middle Eastern Politics and Religion

Our final luncheon colloquium of the semester featured Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Professor Feldman discussed a side range of current political developments in the Middle East. He began by noting the importance of the current geopolitical context, namely the effects of a unipolar international system (with the U.S. as the sole superpower); growing demand for oil in India, China, and Russia (which disinclines them to antagonize Iran); and the resurgence of Russian nationalism (partly as a reaction to NATO expansion).

Feldman then placed the Middle East within this broader context, highlighting several key points. First, Arab states have been weakened by the rise of sub-state movements (e.g Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas) and the decline of local national media outlets. Second, insurgents can win easy victories against weakened Arab states by exploiting the asymmetry of expectations: merely avoiding defeat against more powerful adversaries can appear as victory. Third, he argued, the American project of democratization as a means to promote peace has clearly failed. Fourth, it is also clear that Turkey will play an important role in the future of the region given its unique, secular political system. Finally, there is the paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a vast majority on both sides knows that the only way forward is a two-state solution premised on the 1967 border and a divided Jerusalem, but very few know how to proceed given the current weakness in their respective leadership.

Feldman’s presentation generated a number of questions, particularly about peace between Israel and Palestine. Feldman stressed his belief that the key building block to peace in that conflict—namely strong political leadership on both sides—is lamentably absent.