Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Understanding the Modern Middle East: History, Identity, and Politics

Understanding the Modern Middle East: History, Identity, and Politics

Date : Sat., October 17, 2015 to Sun., October 18, 2015 Category : Butcher History Institute


Sonesta Hotel – Philadelphia, 1800 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

A casual glance at the newspaper headlines related to the Middle East reveals a litany of religious, ethnic, and political actors – each with their own histories, conflicts, and dynamics that are little known or understood. In this intensive weekend-long conference for high school teachers, we will explore the nexus of identity and politics from the pre-modern period to the current day and beyond – with lectures by some of the best scholars in the country. Teachers will return to their classrooms with a much deeper appreciation of the Middle East and its inhabitants, and for the historical and cultural underpinnings of contemporary developments in the region.



 Watch the entire conference here


Topics and Speakers

Welcoming Remarks

10/17/2015 - 08:45am to 09:00am
Walter A. McDougall

Co-Chair of FPRI's Madeleine and W.W. Keen Butcher History Institute

Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations and Professor of History,University of Pennsylvania

Alan Luxenberg

President, FPRI

Identity in the Pre-Modern Middle East (Until the 18th Century)

10/17/2015 - 09:00am to 10:30am
Jonathan Berkey

James B. Duke Professor of International Studies, Davidson College

Iranian, Arab, Syrian, Chaldean – these identities that have come to mean so much in today’s Middle East played a much different role in the region’s pre-modern history. This talk will trace the origins of modern identity in the region and how they evolved over time alongside the shifting political landscape.

Related Article(s):

Identity in the Pre-Modern Middle East

The Fall of Empires and the Formation of the Modern Middle East

10/17/2015 - 10:45am to 12:00pm
Adam Garfinkle

Editor, The American Interest

Board of Advisors, FPRI

From caliphates to empires, from Abbasids to Ottomans, the character of the Middle East and those who ruled it changed dramatically throughout the region’s history. The French, the British, the Russians, and the Americans all played defining roles in the formation of the modern Middle East. The great powers have been accused of “carving up” of the region, but they have also introduced new ideas and have had a tremendous cultural impact on the Middle East. This talk will track the trajectory of these changes and explore how the fall of the imperial system and intervention by the great powers led to the formation of modern Middle Eastern political identities.

Related Article(s):

The Fall of Empires and the Formation of the Modern Middle East

The Arrival of Ethnic Nationalism

10/17/2015 - 12:45pm to 02:00pm
Michael A. Reynolds

Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Senior Fellow - Middle East Program

With the fall of the Ottoman imperial order, the Middle East at the beginning of the twentieth century saw the arrival of ethno-nationalism as an organizing principle of political life. This talk will examine the reasons for the initial success of ethno-nationalism, its successes and failures, and its legacy in the contemporary Middle East where Islamist and liberal democratic ideas have emerged to erode, undermine, and challenge it in some parts of the Middle East and to nurture and strengthen it in other parts.

Religion and Secularism

10/17/2015 - 02:15pm to 03:30pm
Aaron Rock-Singer

Ph.D Candidate -

Religion was a pillar of pre-modern political identity in the Middle East. In the modern period, European colonial powers and indigenous reformers introduced new ideas about the relationship between religion and politics. Such debates permeated 20th century ideological conflicts in the region, which are far from resolved today. This talk will explore the evolution of this complex relationship between religion and politics in the region until the contemporary period.

Related Article(s):

Religion and Secularism in the Middle East: A Primer

Sunni Islam: What Students Need to Know

Shiism: What Students Need to Know

Religious Minorities

10/17/2015 - 03:45pm to 05:15pm
Lev Weitz

Assistant Professor, Catholic University of America

The multi-confessional nature of the Middle East has been at the heart of some of its most turbulent episodes. Who are the various denizens of the Middle East; how are they represented – and of equal importance, treated – in the countries in which they live; and is there a place for them in the future of the Middle East? This talk will examine the place of religious minorities in the modern Middle East – alongside some historical comparison of their earlier standing – and the challenges faced by these various communities.

Related Article(s):

Religious Minorities in the Modern Middle East

Women and Politics in the Middle East

10/17/2015 - 08:30am to 09:45am
Sarah Bush

Senior Fellow - Eurasia Program

From the varied forays of women in politics to the ebb and flow of the use of the hijab, women’s roles in the Middle East have greatly differed from country to country and from decade to decade. This talk will explore the changing circumstances of women in the modern Middle East through the lenses of ethnicity, religion, and culture.

Post-colonial States and the Struggle for Identity since World War Two

10/17/2015 - 10:00am to 10:45am
Samuel Helfont

Fellow - Middle East Program

Following World War Two, European power in the Middle East crumbled and a number of post-colonial states emerged. These states often justified their existence in terms of ideologies which were tied to specific identities. This talk will discuss the struggles that states such as Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, and revolutionary Iran faced as they attempted to impose identities on heterogeneous societies.

Related Article(s):

Post-Colonial States and the Struggle for Identity in the Middle East since World War Two

Thinking Out Loud About the Future of Identity in the Middle East

10/17/2015 - 11:00am to 12:45pm
Private: Joseph Braude

Senior Fellow - Middle East Program

From radicalism to reform, from post-colonial states to newly-minted caliphates – the Middle East’s contentious identity politics have both raised new challenges and revealed new opportunities. Focusing on the post-Arab uprising period, this talk will examine the nexus of identity and politics in today’s Middle East, and what we might expect from the region in the next couple decades.

Related Multimedia:

FPRI V-Notes (Ep. 1 – The Identity Machine)



Sonesta Hotel – Philadelphia

1800 Market Street PA Philadelphia 19103

Registration links

Register Deadline

Tue., September 15, 2015


Forty-five participants received:

  • complimentary overnight accommodations for those outside of the Philadelphia vicinity;
  • complimentary lunch and dinner on Saturday, plus continental breakfast on Saturday and Sunday
  • assistance in designing curriculum and special projects based on the History Institute;
  • stipends of $200 for well-developed lesson plans for posting on our website that effectively utilize the experience of the weekend conference, or documentation of in-service presentations based on the weekend;
  • partial travel reimbursements (up to $250) for participants outside the vicinity of the conference center;
  • subscription to E-Notes, FPRI’s weekly bulletin; and Footnotes, FPRI’s bulletin for high school teachers.
  • a certificate of participation in a program offering 12 hours of instruction. In addition, for those interested, college credit is available for a small fee through our cooperating institution, Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
  • Videotapes of the entire conference will be posted subsequently on our website, plus texts of selected lectures.

For information about school membership, contact: For information about future and previous programs visit: Support for FPRI’s Butcher History Institute is provided by the family of the late W. W. Keen Butcher, Robert A. Fox, H.F. Lenfest, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.