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Putting "Culture" Onto the Middle East Agenda

May 17, 2010 // 12:00pm1:00pm
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Since the issue of culture is often neglected in studies of the Middle East, there remains a need to recognize the importance of culture and to meaningfully incorporate understandings of culture into analysis of the region, according to author and scholar Andrea Rugh. Rugh explained why there is little written about culture in a systematic way and the real consequences that such limited writing has on policy and people.

The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Rugh, Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey Into the Middle East and The Political Culture of Leadership in the United Arab Emirates, on May 17, 2010. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program, moderated the event.

To emphasize her primary goal, Rugh highlighted how she is looking for ways to put culture gently back on the agenda, specifically in the Middle East. She noted that part of the problem in including culture is the vagueness of the term. Rugh defined culture as a conceptual framework or worldview to organize life and guide behavior that includes patterns of shared expectations and assumptions. She reviewed anecdotes from her two recent books that were designed to uncover patterns of behavior in the Middle East in order to provide a greater understanding of culture in the region.

Rugh also discussed how American officials have belatedly recognized that their lack of understanding of culture has affected U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. She underscored three missteps in Afghanistan related to cultural policy that included an insistence on centralized government and on a strong presidential form of government – both of which ignored the Afghan tradition of local initiative – as well as a constitution that required provisions of American or Western notions of democracy without considering the role of the Islamic clause in the constitution and shari'ah law.

Regarding efforts in Iraq, Rugh remarked that sensitivity training for troops is certainly positive because it is imperative to maintain an awareness of cultural factors when operating in foreign countries, but she also noted "how difficult it is to master the details of culture."

Rugh commented on the difficulty of knowing where to turn for information about culture because anthropologists generally do not write for the public. They avoid public writing for several reasons, she said, including concerns of oversimplification, distrust of government and fear of complicity, tendencies to focus on universal values, and self-consciousness in writing about the Middle East due to Edward Said's critique of "Orientalism," or the Western study of Eastern cultures.

Within the available literature on culture, Rugh indicated there exists significant distortions, particularly with regards to women's studies in the Middle East, because this literature often portrays women as victims of Islamist values and traditions. In addition, Rugh discussed the "nice girl construct" that places limits on women's behavior in order to appear good to others and to preserve a positive reputation, a construct to which women throughout the world adhere. Thus, she argued, women in the Middle East and elsewhere are not simply passive victims of cultural norms.

In concluding her talk, Rugh reiterated the need to develop a fuller understanding and more complicated sense of the Middle East before embarking on projects or supporting reforms in the region.

By Kendra Heideman, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program

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