Thursday, February 28, 2019

Augustus Richard Norton - Celebrating a Life

Augustus Richard (Dick) Norton passed away after a long illness on February 20, 2019.  At the time of his passing, Dick was Professor of Anthropology and International Relations emeritus in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, and Director of the Institute for Iraqi Studies, Boston University; and Fellow, in the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford University.  He was also co-editor, with Dale Eickelman, of the distinguished series, Princeton Studies on Muslim Politics. 

As is well known, Dick was a pillar of Middle East studies and US foreign policy analysis in the MENA region.  Over the span of many decades, Dick published numerous books and articles which helped expand and deepen our understanding of Middle East politics.  His military background enabled him to formulate foreign policy positions which were well informed and often critical of US policy in the MENA region.

Dick and I both received our Ph.D. degrees in political science from the University of Chicago where we studied with the late Leonard Binder.  However, Dick was also trained in anthropology. This unique combination of political science and anthropology enabled Dick to conduct research that was often “outside the (analytic) box.”   

I first met Dick in the early 1980s.  The School of Education at the University of Michigan had received a grant from the Exxon Education Foundation to have a number of American universities, including Rutgers, engage in simulations of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Dick arrived at Rutgers to head the simulation's "Operations Center."  In this role, he was charged with reviewing any diplomatic or military effort proposed by one of the student teams - representing the many parties to the conflict - and deciding whether the proposed action was realistic in nature.  Seeing Dick in action, I knew right away that this was someone who took Middle East politics seriously.

Having served in Vietnam, Dick joined the United Nations Truce  Supervision Force in Lebanon (UNTSO) in Lebanon in 1981. This position enabled Dick to gain an in-depth understanding of the difficult lives and suffering experienced by the population of South Lebanon, particularly the Shica who have been consistently neglected but the central government in Beirut and were also caught between Israel and the PLO, which used southern Lebanon as a base of operations against Israel. 
While maintaining a critical analytic perspective, Dick developed a deep empathy for the Shica who were caught between economic and social neglect and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon after the 1982 invasion.  At the time of his research and publication, Shica politics had not yet captured the attention of political scientists working on Middle East politics.  Here Dick’s work was clearly cutting edge.

Dick’s first work on the Shica of Lebanon examined the Amal movement which had been formed to address government neglect of the south.  This book, Amal and the Shica: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon, published by the University of Texas Press in 1987. Arabic edition, Beirut: Dar Bilal, 1988,
was later followed by, Hezballah: A Short Introduction, published in 2007, and in multiple updated editions, by Princeton University Press. This prescient study has become a classic for the study of Hizballah, whose importance in Lebanese and Levantine politics has only increased over time, especially due to its role in the ongoing Syrian civil war and ties to Iran.
Following his UNTSO service in Lebanon. Dick taught at West Point from 1981 to 1993, offering the military academy’s only anthropology course.  As Dick told me, he encountered difficulty in his ability to comment on US policy in the MENA region – a policy with which he increasingly disagreed - teaching at West Point. Thus, he left Academy to join the faculty at Boston University, having resigned from the US military with the rank of colonel.  At BU, he taught courses on Middle East politics, anthropology and international relations.
Before the concept became popular, Dick convened an important conference on the role of civil society in Middle East politics in the early 1990s, with a 3 year grant from the Ford Foundation.  The two-volume study he edited, Civil Society in the Middle East, EJ Brill, 1995, which emerged from the conference, continues to be cited in numerous studies since it was first published in 1995.

Dick Norton’s publications were by no means limited to his many books.  The list of articles, book chapters and occasional papers in his CV runs to several pages.  One of my favorite pieces, which I use in courses on Middle East politics, is his “Thwarted Politics: The Case of Egypt’s Hizb al-Wasat,” which appeared in, Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, and Democratization, which was edited by Robert Hefner, and published by Princeton University Press in 2005. 

This ethnography, which entailed year-long interviews of party officials, presents a study a serious effort to establish a truly democratic Islamist party in Egypt, one which opened its doors to Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.  Even though it was thwarted by the Mubarak regime, the model offered by the Hizb al-Wasat provides a vision of what could be when Islam and democracy establish a tolerant and synergistic relationship.

In 2006, Dick was invited to join the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State, James Baker and former Representative and Wilson Center director, Lee Hamilton.  Needless to say, Dick was highly disappointed, but not surprised, that the Study Group’s suggestions for policy changes in Iraq were ignored by the Bush administration.

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Dick was able to obtain funding and establish the Institute for Iraqi Studies at Boston University.  I had the privilege of attending a number of the conferences sponsored by the Institute, including one which took place in the midst of Boston’s lockdown following the Boston Marathon bombings. These conferences brought many scholars from Iraq, Europe and the US to BU.  Dick asked me to wrote a precis of my book-length study, Taking Democracy Seriously in Iraq, which was published by the Institute.

Dick was co-founder and chair of the Conference Group on the Middle East which convened panels at the American Political Science Association meetings each year. The Conference Group was indicative of Dick’s efforts to promote younger scholars of Middle East politics through offering them the opportunity to showcase innovative research.

Following the publication of  Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, Dick invited me to lecture on my study at his senior undergraduate seminar at BU.  Both during the class and reception that followed, the extent to which his students respected him and held him in high esteem was abundantly clear.  Unlike some academics, who treat their students in an imperial manner, Dick offered an admirable role model – one which taught students not to fear their instructor, while encouraging them to be creative and think on their own.

Dick Norton was a mensch in the best sense of that word.  He treated everyone as an equal. Rather than spending time criticizing the work of others, he focused on original research and new ways of thinking about US foreign policy in the MENA region.  Indeed, in the many years I knew him, I never recall him uttering a gratuitous insult of a colleague in the field political science or Middle East studies.
Dick Norton at his retirement ceremony at Boston University in 2017
Through the high quality of his research and writing (devoid of social science jargon), the excellent instructional and mentoring skills he exhibited, and the decency he demonstrated in his inter-personal relations, Dick Norton achieved exemplary success in his life and professional career.  Would that we all could emulate his example.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Roger Owen - A Remembrance of a Life Well Lived

This afternoon I attended a memorial ceremony for Roger Owen, the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History emeritus at Harvard University, who passed away on December 22, 2018.  As many know, Roger made considerable contributions to the field of Middle Eastern and post-colonial studies.  His books on the economic history of the MENA region, and the origins and functioning of the authoritarian state, which he framed using a political economy approach, not only challenged many Orientalist tenets, but led many young scholars to develop new conceptual frameworks for studying the region. 

Both at the ceremony and reception which followed at the  Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies which he directed for many years, many colleagues, former students and family members spoke eloquently about Roger’s legacy.  It was clear from the numerous accolades that Roger touched the many lives in his 83 years.
As for myself, I was fortunate to receive funding for doctoral dissertation research many years ago from St. Antony’s College, Oxford, where Roger directed the Middle East Centre, before joining Harvard in 1993.  Coming to Oxford from Egypt, where I had been studying Egyptian efforts through the Bank Misr and the Misr Group of companies, in the 1920s and 1930s, to challenge British domination of the economy, turned out to be much more than an opportunity to study sources relevant to my research at the Public Records Office (the National Archives) in London.

Once at St. Antony’s, I soon learned that Roger was the main force behind the establishment of a study group on the Middle East which included many eminent scholars of the region. The study group was not designed to gather more “facts” but rather to restructure the manner in which the Middle East was viewed in academic circles and the normative dimensions of choosing one conceptual approach over another.

In addition to Roger, at Oxford I had the chance to meet Aziz Azmah, Michael Gilsenan, Caglar Kaydar, Philip Khoury, Samir Radwan, Barbara Smith and many other theorists whose work would profoundly affect my own. Having been exposed to the modernization theory of the 1960s and 1970s, I now found that my sessions with my Oxford colleagues allowed me to develop a new approach and situate my research in a political economy perspective.

This new perspective, facilitated by Roger’s efforts to develop a progressive intellectual community at Oxford, revolutionized my thinking. Despite being characterized as “Marxist” by the late Charles Issawi, who served as a reader of my manuscript, my dissertation was subsequently published by Princeton University Press.

The Oxford study group was, in turn, linked to a larger group which Talal Asad, then at Hull University, and Roger established.  This larger group, which came to be known as the Hull Middle East Studies Seminar, organized a number of conferences at Hull University during the late 1970 and 1980s, which attracted scholars not only from the UK but from continental Europe and the US as well.  The result of these conferences was the well-known Review of Middle East Studies series.

The activities of the Hull Middle East Studies Seminar, a group which attacked Orientalism before Edward Said’s famous book of the same title made the term famous, inspired young academics in the US to establish the Alternative Middle East Studies Seminar (with the awkward acronym AMESS) in the mid and late 1970s which founded chapters on ten major campuses with Middle East studies programs throughout the US. 

Despite dissolving during the 1980s, these US study groups, modeled on what Talal Asad and Roger had created in the UK have had a lasting impact in breaking from the traditional area studies and ideational model which had heretofore dominated studies of the region.

More recently, Roger, and  his close friend and colleague, Muhamed Almaliky of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, organized two excellent symposia on Iraq in March 2017 and March 2018.  These symposia brought together older and younger researchers, producing a rich intellectual synthesis between more established approaches to the study of Iraq with innovative concepts and methodologies of a new generation of analysts.  At the evening dinner last March, which capped such an inspirational day, Roger regaled us all with a lovely, gentle French song before we departed.

Roger never took himself too seriously.  He treated everyone he met with dignity and respect which were duly returned.  He loved sports and was an accomplished Rugby player at Oxford with a large photograph of his team affixed to a wall in his house.  At first glance, Roger could  come across as serious.  But it was never long before a joke and an impish smile, which all his friends knew so well, came across his face.    

Roger was a man of the left but he never let a rigid ideology distort his scholarship. Given his personal values and demeanor, and his scholarship, h leaves a model to be emulated by us all.