The Arab World Today: Like Europe in 1848? 1917?

Since 2011, The Arab Middle East has undergone revolutionary change.  The carnage unleashed today by the Egyptian military against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi may slow or accelerate, but will not stop, that change.

Today’s New York Times invoked the revolutions that convulsed Europe in 1848 -  The revolutions were suppressed in the short term but they unleashed a dynamic that ultimately created new regimes, toppled others, and altered the map of Europe forever.

Perhaps a better parallel should be drawn between Egypt today and Russia in 1917, when there were two revolutions – that of the moderate Mensheviks in February and the radical Bolsheviks in October.  Compared with the salafists, who have strategically lent and withheld support from the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi is a moderate.   If Egypt slides into civil war, with massive defections from the military and pitched battles between armed factions, will Morsi regain power or will there be a second revolution, even more Islamicist than the first?  Is Morsi Egypt’s Kerensky?  If so, who will be Egypt’s Lenin?




Scholarship as Spectacle: Ben Urwand, Reza Aslan, and more

Scholars have never been completely immune from showmanship.   But in recent years the search by academics for celebrity appears to have become more intense.  And whereas tele-academics used to be esteemed for their erudition (consider the likes of A.J.P. Taylor and Simon Schama) today’s celebrity academics acquire notoriety for their pugnacity, for the outrageousness of their claims and the sexiness of their topics.

Consider Ben Urwand, a junior scholar just out of the PhD at Berkeley, now at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and author of a blistering attack on Hollywood movie moguls’ alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the 1930s:

And at an even higher order of magnitude there is  Reza Aslan, a gifted popular writer whose new book on Jesus doesn’t seem terribly original – many scholars have presented Jesus as a political revolutionary – but who is a master of public relations and had the good fortune to be subject to a spectacularly flat-footed interview on Fox News:

In the field of Jewish Studies, Shlomo Sand is a similar phenomenon.  His 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People was enormously popular, particularly in western Europe, but was little more than a polemic with footnotes.

The temptations of celebrity can be irresistible.  Academics tire of slaving away over scholarly monographs that few will read.  But there is an enormous difference between writing accessibly for a general audience, which ultimately benefits the entire reading public, and seeking celebrity, which benefits only the author – and, most of the time, for a very brief time.