Monday, February 25, 2008

The Islamist Entanglement

The situation in the Middle East poses a substantial challenge to those who seek to understand what exactly our government has been doing there over the last few years. At times, the deeper significance of these actions seems a mystery. Let's take a look at a small sample of headlines from the BBC:
  • Claim UK troops 'executed' Iraqis
  • Hamas urges EU Israel pressure
  • Israel to vanish, says Hezbollah
  • Kuwait warns on Lebanon travel
  • Iranians spar with Israel at UN
  • US slaps sanctions on top Syrian
  • W Bank building 'bias' condemned
  • Ahmadinejad Imam row grows
  • Palestinians 'may declare state'
etc., etc.

Clearly, the number of players local to the Middle East is quite large and, combined with the interaction of various Western countries such as the UK and US, there seems to be no lack of complexity to the situation. Add to that the fact that the region's issues did not arise yesterday but have a long history, it becomes a non-trivial problem to study and understand what exactly is going on there and why. I like to think I know more about the Middle East than many Americans, since I lived in Israel for a few years, and have read a good amount about the history of Israel and its neighbors. However, even I get overwhelmed by the number of facts, dates and the sheer complexity of it all.

Fortunately, there is now a new resource available to make sense of the region: Scott Powell's course on the Islamist Entanglement. Scott Powell, who also happens to be my daughter's history teacher, has, via a generous arrangement, allowed me to blog on each of the upcoming 10 lectures of the course. Registration is still open and all lectures will be digitally recorded and available, so feel free to join now. The Islamist Entanglement is part 3 of Scott's A First History for Adults and I have not taken the first two parts. However, based on having now listened to the first lecture, I think that Scott reviews enough relevant history so that I can enjoy part 3 without having to listen to the previous parts.

After an excellent orienting introduction, the first lecture in the course focused on the history of Britain's relationship with the Middle East. Britain was one of the first major European powers to get deeply involved in the Middle East and the effects of its influence are still evident. The pattern of Britain's involvement was guided substantially by its imperial interests, until those ended shortly after World War II. Scott discusses the origin of British involvement in the region, its sometimes conflicting motivations, and the reason for the decline of its involvement. The next lecture will focus on the history of the United States in the Middle East.

I was impressed with Scott's ability to create the sense of an overall story with specific causes leading to specific effects. Scott is quite properly ruthless in only allowing relevant facts to play a role in the story he tells. As a result, while there is still an abundance of dates and events, I never felt lost while listening to the lectures. The milestones that he outlined at the beginning served as anchors to strongly ground the overall story.

A key element of Scott's approach, the five key dates or milestones for the history of the Middle East vis-a-vis the West, are crucial signposts to the history's important trends. The first date is 1683. The date refers to the failure of the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks. This event marks the beginning of Western Ascendancy after a previous period of about a thousand years of increasing Islamic threat. The other dates also refer to pivotal events in the history of the interaction of the Middle East and the West. Scott presents the important concrete events that point to the overall trends that shape history. He intends to review the same historical periods from the perspective of different countries throughout the course, thus reinforcing the trends, as well as the concrete events and dates. This promises to allow one to build up one's knowledge about this important history with each lecture. I'm very much looking forward to the next lecture.

Update: Fixed date.


Rational Jenn said...

Hey, I'm taking this class, too! My first one--I'm excited.

How does your daughter enjoy his classes? We are a couple years away from his classes for kids, but I'm intrigued.

Gideon said...

She loves them. While they are obviously simplified and at the appropriate pace for the age group, they are quite substantial. I have been listening in and I have learned a lot.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Sounds interesting. I will have to check this out. Although I have read quite a few books, too, and I have spent a lot of time in Israel, I still get caught in the complexity of the situation.

Gideon said...

If you do decide to sign up, be sure to mention you saw it here. The second lecture was yesterday and is already recorded and posted. I will blog on it as soon as I get a chance to hear it.