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Emergence of the Modern Middle East from Tel Aviv University on Coursera

Review by Doris Smith. I’m a long-time web developer (and sometime English teacher) from California, currently living in Turkey. I’m also a MOOC-addict with passions for history and literature, as well as more techie subjects. Took the course? Write your own review here. Read all reviews.


The rise of the Islamic State, brutal and fanatical. Civil war in Syria. The tumult that has followed in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. And, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict. For nearly 100 years, the Middle East has been home to conflict, much of it sectarian. Yet, under the Ottoman Empire (the “sick man of Europe”), the Middle East had been comparatively stable. What happened?

Coursera, in conjunction with Tel Aviv University, offers a two part course, The Emergence of the Modern Middle East, that describes what happened. Part one (four weeks) covers the dawning of nationalism and secularism from the nineteenth century through end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, while Part two (five weeks) brings the story up to date, including the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and (brief) coverage of the “Arab Spring” and the Islamic State. (As an aside, I must say that I don’t understand why the course is split into two parts. It seems unnatural and completely unnecessary.)

The Emergence of the Modern Middle East Promo

WHY?

Since last year marked the centenary of the start of World War I, I’ve been reading and taking other MOOCs about the War. Learning more about the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, in particular, whetted my interest to learn more about this region.

The history of Middle East was never part of the history curriculum when I was in school. I blush to admit it, but I used to have trouble keeping Iran and Iraq straight in my mind. (Actually, until I took this course, I don’t think I realized that Iran is not an Arab state.) And, while I understood, in theory, the Sunni-Shia split, I never was entirely clear who was which. This course looked as though it could be a valuable corrective to my ignorance.

THE PROFESSOR

Professor Asher Susser, PhD (Tel Aviv University, 1986), is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and former Director of the Center (1989-1995, 2001-2007). In 2006 he received the Faculty of Humanities outstanding teacher’s award.

He is an excellent lecturer: concise, detailed, completely in command of his material. The lectures are very well organized. I especially like the fact that he provided complete PDF transcripts of each week’s material, complete with the illustrations and sidebars from the lectures.

He also extremely even handed: in particular, in his coverage of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict 

He also extremely even handed: in particular, in his coverage of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, I could not detect any sign that he favored either side. (Granted, that may be a measure of my ignorance, and an Israeli Jew or Palestinian would be able to find evidence of bias.)

Moreover, he is the only lecturer I have ever known whose shirts have a cult following. He wears, in these lectures, beautifully pressed, long-sleeved, pastel shirts, which aroused much admiration in the discussion forums. In an announcement at the end of class, he told us that they are a cotton-polyester blend that he (or perhaps it’s his wife) purchases from a small haberdashery, owned by a Mr. Horowitz, in his home town of Kfar Saba.

I would happily take another course with Professor Susser on any subject whatsoever.

THE COURSE

The course provides an overview of the history of the Middle East over the past two plus centuries (since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798). Along the way, it discusses the Ottoman legacy in the region, the rise of nationalism in the Middle East, the high-handed and arbitrary geographical division of the Middle East following WWI, the establishment of Israel, the problems of internal cohesion of the Arab states, issues of religion and state, and the evolution of Islamist politics, and (briefly) the Arab Spring.

Professor Susser’s main thesis is that the move towards nationalism and more secular government that started to arise in the 19th century was predominantly a top-down implementation of Western ideas. But these ideas never really took root, and tribal and sectarian bonds remain far more important to self-identity. (“The states of the Middle East organize themselves these days in alliances on the basis of their religious affiliation, the Sunni states versus the Shi’I states”.*) And it is these traditional bonds that political Islam is bringing to the fore at the expense of the imported Western ideas of nationalism and secularism. He makes it clear that while Islam is not opposed to modernity, it will not tolerate being marginalized.

Applying this thesis to the Arab Spring, in particular, makes its aftermath much more intelligible. It was presented (largely by Western media) at the time as a triumph of democracy over autocracy. However, as Professor Susser observes:

“Essentially, we can see against the background of the “Arab Spring” the emergence of neo-traditionalist political forces that come in the form of political Islam, sectarianism and tribalism. It is these that are far more demonstratively leading in the “Arab Spring” rather than the democracy – autocracy confrontation.” 

The class is entirely self-contained: it has no prerequisites, nor is there a text. (The course description does offer suggestions for supplemental reading.)

GRADING

There is a quiz midway through, worth 30% of the grade, and a final exam, worth the remaining 70%, for each of the two parts. These are multiple choice exams; there are no essays, short answers, or peer reviews involved. While both quizzes and finals cover only material that was discussed in lecture, some of the questions could be… let us say “subtle”. The wording could sometimes be very precise, and I found it easy to misread a question or to miss a delicate nuance in the answer. Other questions I thought were rather trivial: is it really important to know the name of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood?

While the quizzes could be attempted multiple times without penalty, the final may be taken only once.

COMMITMENT

The syllabus suggests two to three hours per week, which I would say is accurate. There are no required readings or outside materials, nor “homework”, so the time commitment is really just that of watching the videos and taking the quizzes. Each week’s lectures add up to about ninety minutes of video, but I would occasionally pause the video to digest the more complex ideas.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

The Emergence of the Modern Middle East is a concise, balanced, and fascinating overview of the history of this tumultuous region. I found it invaluable in increasing my understanding of not only how the Middle East got to where it is, but how (and not if) political Islam is likely to shape its future.

WHAT NEXT?

Some of us from this course are signed up for the upcoming Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World, to be offered through Coursera by Dr Ebrahim Afsah, M.Phil., MPA, of the University of Copenhagen.
Another course that several of us have expressed an interest in is FutureLearn’s two part course, The Holocaust, part 1 and part 2 , to be offered by Tel Aviv University.
And, there’s another Coursera course offered by Tel Aviv University, The Rise and Fall of Jerusalem, that might be of interest, although this course is not currently scheduled.

*These quotes have been taken from the PDF transcripts of the Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the Emergence of the Modern Middle East presented by Professor Asher Susser and Duygu Atlas of Tel Aviv University (Spring, 2015).

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