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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 24th, 2015

Teaching Practices of Middle East Politics: Potentials and Challenges

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 24th, 2015

Teaching Practices of Middle East Politics: Potentials and Challenges

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by Guy Burton

This memo was presented at a workshop in Rabat on ‘The Ethics of Political Science Research and Teaching in MENA’, organised by the LSE Middle East Centre and King Mohammed V University in Rabat on 9-11 June 2015.

Blue Mosque Square, Istanbul, 2014. © Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho,
Blue Mosque Square, Istanbul, 2014. © Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho,

In this piece, Guy Burton looks at ‘area studies’: the teaching and study of Middle East politics, which is distinct from teaching the study of political science in the Middle East more generally.

He reflects on his own experience of teaching Middle East politics, as well as looking at what others have said on the subject by reviewing some of the scholarly literature. Because this piece is based on English-language sources, with its origins in US universities, some of the observations may be less relevant to a local audience.

What kind of students study (Middle East) politics?

What expectations do we have of these students studying political science generally and of the Middle East more specifically? What about those inside the region and outside?

Students take Middle East politics courses for various reasons. Tetreault (1996) reported that student interest depended on whether the region was in the news and that levels of prior information varied. Some have spent time in the region while others are just looking to complete the required number of credits. Kirschner (2012) also saw the same, with the difference that in 2012 much of that information was due to students having family members in the armed forces.

What is Middle East politics and how has it been taught?

What should be included in courses on Middle East politics? Broadly, there appear to be two main ways of teaching: on one side the ‘thematic’ approach and on the other the more ‘historical’ or ‘empirical’.

By thematic I mean teaching theories and concepts in the political science discipline and applying those to the case of the Middle East. Hudson (2001) pointed to several: the state, civil society and democratisation, religious ‘fundamentalism’, political economy, identity, community and ethnosectarian political culture, gender, informal and local politics. By contrast, the ‘historical’ approach emphasises the history and politics of specific countries, or of sub-region, such as the Levant, Maghreb or Mashreq.

The advantage of the ‘thematic’ approach is that it can allow for comparison, enabling students to identify important dimensions which may be present in one state or society, but not another. Moore (2013) uses a version of this through his political economy-oriented analysis of the region, emphasising ideas such as state-led economic development, rentierism from oil, remittances or tourism. For him the advantages is that it links elites and publics, states and societies together, providing a way to examine why some regimes collapsed during the Arab Uprisings and others did not.

The ‘historical’ approach presents the opposite of the thematic path. An advantage is its narrational style: students will have a more comprehensive account of the detail of the region’s key events and actors and a country’s trajectory to the present. This can help students with little prior knowledge gain a grounding on the region. It can also be ‘humanised’ in a way that impersonal themes like political and economic institutions, cannot. Moore (2001) and Tetrault (1996) suggest the use of reports, interviews and cases which can offer a first-hand account of a particular topic.

That challenge is compounded when trying to teach recent events where there is no consensus yet. In the wake of the 2003 Iraq war, Russell Burgos (2008) was asked to teach a course on the subject. He found lots of detailed journalistic accounts and memoirs, which lacked a broader, long term perspective. He therefore tried to use this material while also placing it into broader themes of the soldiers’ war, the civilians’ war, the Iraqis’ war, etc.

More recently, the same can be said about the 2011 Arab Uprisings. Iskander (2013) reported that the region and its politics was in flux, yet there a relative absence of scholarly material to explain it. Established accounts and tropes, for example, Arab societies’ acquiescence and Islamic exceptionalism were being swept aside. As a result, teaching the ‘new Middle East’ constituted a challenge to existing paradigms, highlighting the importance of various themes, such as social movements, political parties and countries’ political economies (Medani 2013).

In addition to having the right approach, getting the material to support the course right is vital. Tetrault (1996) noted that a key challenge in teaching the Middle East (in the West) is in breaking down many of the assumption associated with the ‘other’. This includes dealing with the idea of Orientalism, and that many of our (Western) perceptions and views of the Middle East based on our reading and study of it tell us more about our own educational and cultural baggage than it does about what we have observed.

My impression is that articulating and analysing the concept of Orientalism is less of an issue among the former. In Malaysia, where my classes are a mix of both types of student, I tackle the subject head on in the first class. Making sense of it can be difficult, so I often make use of other media, including artistic representations from the past to the present, as well as Jack Shaheen’s documentary, Reel Bad Arabs, as a way of getting the concept of Orientalism across, in a visual way and linking it to political assumptions and action.

Beyond Orientalism there is one other theme which can pose challenges in the classroom: political Islam. Kazemzadeh’s (1998) observations regarding how to teach the subject remain relevant. A lack of consensus on how best to teach political Islam means that it can be understood in three different ways: (1) whether it is a political threat; (2) whether it can be compared to other religious phenomena; or (3) if it can be analysed through other political science methods, e.g. class analysis. If a teacher disregards the lack of consensus and bases lectures and classes around the educator’s preferred paradigm this could make it easier to teach, but it would prevent students from seeing that differences exist. The other way would be to teach around the different paradigms; but this might have the effect of saying to students that all explanations are equally valid.

What makes teaching more effective and results in improved learning outcomes?

In the 1980s Radwan (1987) reported that politics teaching in the region meant distance between teacher and students; class sizes were so large as to limit individual contact while a culture of deference discouraged students from critically engaging with what the teacher said.

This form of passive learning stands in contrast to current ideas. Today teacher training and guidance promotes ‘student-centred learning’. Borrowing from Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, it is a journey. The environment required for such learning entails more engagement and one-on-one interaction between teacher and student, whether through more contact hours, through greater use of smaller and more participatory classes and through office hours.

However, there are trade-offs as well. Simulations take time, leading to pressure on other teachers and classes owing to limited resources (e.g. several classrooms to mimic separate groups). Less time may be available to study other aspects of the region’s politics. It may be difficult to grade when work is being done collaboratively or unevenly and without clear learning outcomes. Also, the simulation may lead to oversimplification of particular issues and inappropriate student responses. At least one educator factored this in; Sasley (2010) built failure as a possible outcome in her simulation of peace negotiations, which may make the process both feel more realistic as well as provide a distinct learning experience for those taking part.


It is not my intention to offer either a definitive set of conclusions or recommendations. Rather my aim is to introduce the topic of teaching and learning politics of and in the Middle East. To that end I have considered some – not all – of the questions we posed for this session of the workshop, offering some insights into how university teachers – myself and others – have approached the matter.

Central to all these questions posed is the importance of establishing a constructive environment in which students can develop both their understanding and critical skills about the discipline generally and the area studies of politics and IR in the Middle East in particular. As learners engage with material in different ways, it is necessary for teachers to provide information, forms of contact and engagement in different ways to accommodate them.

There is no one way to provide this, but as educators we need to be reflective and consider what our teaching objectives and goals are and how best to realise them. This should be at the forefront of our minds when designing our courses and the types of learning activities we will use.

Guy Burton is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus (UNMC). He teaches courses on Global Political Economy and International Development, International Organisations and the Politics and International Relations of the Middle East.

Other memos from the workshop


  • Burgos, Russell. 2008. Teaching the Iraq War. PS: Political Science and Politics, 41(1): 173-178.
  • Dunn, Joe. (2002) Teaching Islamic and Middle East Politics: The Model Arab League as a Learning Venue. Journal of Political Science, 30: 121-129.
  • Hudson, Michael. 2001. The Middle East. PS: Political Science and Politics, 34(4): 801-804.
  • Iskander, Adel. 2013. Teaching the Arab Uprisings: Between Media Maelstrom and Pedantic Pedagogy. PS: Political Science and Politics, 46(2): 244-247.
  • Kazemzadeh , Masoud. 1998. Teaching the Politics of Islamic Fundamentalism. PS: Political Science and Politics, 31(1): 52-59.
  • Kirschner, Shanna. 2012. Teaching the Middle East: Pedagogy in a Charged Classroom. PS: Political Science and Politics, 45(4): 753-758.
  • Medani, Khalid Mustafa. 2013. Teaching the “New Middle East”: Beyond Authoritarianism. PS: Political Science and Politics, 46(2): 222-224.
  • Moore, Pete. 2013. The Bread Revolutions of 2011: Teaching Political Economies of the Middle East. PS: Political Science and Politics, 46(2):225-229.
  • Radwan, Ann. 1987. Research and Teaching in the Middle East. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 491: 126-133,
  • Raymond, Chad and Sorenson, Kerstin. 2008. The Use of a Middle East Crisis Simulation in an International Relations Course. PS: Political Science and Politics, 41(1): 179-182.
  • Sasley, Brent. 2010. Teaching Students How to Fail: Simulations as Tools of Explanation. International Studies Perspectives, 11: 61-74.
  • Tetrault, Mary Ann. 1996. Deconstructing the Other: Teaching the Politics of the Middle East. PS: Political Science and Politics, 29(4): 696-700.
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