Making Sense of the Middle East Conflict

Dr. Heather Keaney, associate professor of history and director of the Istanbul Semester at Westmont College, recently visited Gordon to shed light on the turbulence in the Middle East by sharing Sunni scholars’ response. In a lecture hosted by the Division of Social Science, she provided context to the unrest, crystallized Islam for the Christian audience, and used the prestigious Al-Azhar University as a reference point for understanding the Arab Spring.

In her talk titled, “Islamists to the right of me, heretics to the left of me, and I’m stuck here in the middle with tyrants,” Keaney explained that Al-Azhar is trying to defend the identity of the Sunni community from extremists and heretics through its unconventional allegiance to the tyrants of the region who didn’t want the Arab Spring.

The complexity of the issue traces back a while. Keaney discussed the political climate in the region a year prior to the Arab Spring of 2011: “We saw that Latin America was democratizing. Asia was democratizing. And the air in the Middle East just seemed calcified with either monarchies or military dictatorships.”

In fact, Keaney was one of the demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, Egypt, in January 2011, attempting to topple the country’s corrupt dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It was here that Keaney dealt firsthand with the ideology of Al-Azhar, which at that time condemned the masses on the streets for protesting an Islamist government.

“On the other hand, the Arab Spring also kicked off protests in Syria, which sadly have now continued and descended into the Syrian Civil War,” Keaney said.

Somehow, the fight for a better life has had the opposite effect on justice-seekers in the Middle East. But in Egypt, the successfully defeat of Mubarak has led to democratic elections.

Al-Azhar’s later response to the situation was, as Keaney put it, “We were wrong. We had nothing against the demonstrators. We just didn’t want bloodshed. So, our commitment was to unity, not to tyranny.”

By Dan Simonds ’17, communication arts