Fresh insights on old controversies in the Middle East

March 12, 2015

After years of rapid growth in research and programming, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) working group at the Buffett Institute celebrates another milestone in 2014 with the publication of On the Ground: New Directions in Middle East and North African Studies.

Edited by the Director of the MENA studies program and Buffett Institute affiliate Brian Edwards, the publication also has the distinction of being the first collaboration between Northwestern University, Evanston campus and Northwestern University in Qatar. The themes of On the Ground emerged from a series of conferences on MENA studies beginning in 2010 and held in partnership with the Buffett Institute. The group met for a final symposium in September 2012 in Doha, Qatar, with the faculty and students of NU-Q.

A more effective approach towards a new type of revolution

The last few years have seen incredible growth, destruction, turmoil, and power shifts in the Middle East and North Africa, and in his introduction Edwards argues that having a fresh set of eyes for these issues leads to more innovative, relevant research, and enhances inter-cultural understanding. The multi-disciplinary approach of the MENA working group allows for a more meaningful analysis of an extremely diverse, culturally complex part of the world that is often misjudged.

The book’s ten chapters, eight of which were written by Buffett Institute faculty affiliates, advance arguments in new research currently in progress at Northwestern. Chapters are intended as jumping-off points for discussion, and attempt to bring new insights on important topics that need an updated perspective.

The first half of On the Ground takes aim at the widely accepted notion that the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East were impossible to forecast by scholars of the MENA region, and therefore took the academic world by complete surprise. As Edwards explains, “Through research before and after the Arab uprisings, these [Northwestern] scholars, working in a range of disciplines, offer a variety of well-drawn examples of how Middle East scholarship, particularly when it focuses on the local and the individual, can open up understanding of the pressures that revealed themselves on a large scale in 2010 and 2011.”

The second half of On the Ground addresses cultural issues resulting from globalization, transnational migration, and the intermingling of cultures across the MENA region. These chapters are meant to challenge readers' ideas about how culture is circulated, digested, and repurposed in a region that is frequently dismissed by Westerners as being “stuck in the past.”

Questions for a new conversation on MENA studies

On the Ground deals with thought-provoking questions that guide and inspire the groundbreaking research of its authors. Here are just a few examples:

  • Is there a better way to address current conflicts, particularly in the Middle East where many people identify with multiple religions, than framing them as being purely motivated by religious differences?
  • Are authoritarian governments like Syria’s abusing and overplaying the idea of “protecting religion” in order to go to war on their own people?
  • What causes some groups (particularly those active during the 2010/2011 uprisings) to use violence to advance their cause while others in the region do not?
  • In a politically unstable region where states often draw strict national borders with little regard to cultural diversity, what happens to the indigenous groups who can no longer migrate freely within their own communities?
  • How and why did some Islamists gain a more conservative outlook in the 1920s?
  • How do American cultural institutions, from film to social media and the Internet, change and acquire new meaning when they are consumed in countries regarded as anti-American such as Iran?
  • How is Islamic law shaping and influencing new constitutions currently being written in the Arab world? With the emerging trend of nations copying each other’s constitutional language, will important nuances be lost?
  • How will digital technology, the increasingly rapid circulation of cultural products, and our newfound ability to edit and tailor widely circulated media to individual cultures affect the approach to comparative studies in the 21st century?

You can read On the Ground: New Directions in Middle East and North African Studies for free at

Africa, Middle East, Peace/Conflict