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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 167-174

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Translating Ideas of Nationhood:
A Case Study of Teaching Nationalism and National Identity in Middle Eastern History

Magnus T. Bernhardsson and Sally Charnow

In the fall of 2000, we cotaught a course at Hofstra University, a nondenominational private university located on Long Island in New York, entitled "Nation Formation and National Identity in the Middle East: Israel and Iraq Compared." Generally, the aim of the course was to introduce students to a critical study of nationalism, state building, and national identity by exploring the experience of two different nations, Iraq and Israel. Specifically, through the lens of Middle East history, the concept of nation formation was put into relief, suggesting the constructed nature of national identity. Ultimately, the experience of our course crystallized the numerous tensions and challenges in teaching Middle Eastern history, especially in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Given the complexity of the topic, we felt that coteaching this course would enable us to give our students a more compelling presentation. The strength of our collaboration rested on the broad spectrum of sources we could compile given our different training and specialties. Sally Charnow received her training in French cultural history and thus brought an expertise in European nationalism and Jewish national movements including, but not restricted to, territorial Zionism. Magnus Bernhardsson is a historian of the modern Middle East and was able to contribute materials from the Arab Middle East, especially from the period of the emergence of independent states under the mandate system and Pan-Arab national sentiments. [End Page 167]

Chronologically, the roots of the course were grounded in the "long nineteenth century" (1789-1914). In that time period, various European powers, with minimal input from the inhabitants of the Middle East, determined the future political frontiers of the Arab Middle East. As the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, intellectuals in the Middle East were attracted to ideas of reform and nationhood in Europe and in Meiji Japan. Due to our particular expertise, we looked primarily at the translation and reinterpretation of European models and modes of thinking in the Middle East beginning in the nineteenth century. We were particularly interested in how ideas and ideals developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe were transmitted and put into practice in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle Eastern geopolitical space.

For example, we analyzed the impact of Enlightenment texts on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars such as Ziya Gökalp, Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani, and Sati' al-Husri. These intellectuals embraced European ideas of nationhood, in varying degrees focusing on the cohesive nature of language (Pan-Arabism), religion (Pan-Islam), and land. These texts exposed students to a broad range of reactions engendered by European ideas and politics. Thus we emphasized the diverse and intricate experiences of scholars and political actors in the Middle East as they were forging new political ideologies in response to the seeming dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Sources, Organization, and Methodology

Two prominent themes emerged throughout the course: (1) the possibility or impossibility of importing European ideas to a non-European context; (2) the relationship between nationalism and intolerance and racism broadly defined. We used a broad array of primary and secondary sources to develop these themes.

We started the course with ourselves. Many students assume that national identity is a natural aspect of their individual and social identities. We asked the students to think about their identity: to what extent were they part of a larger community, nation, religion, or ethnicity? What factors (social, economic, political, religious, gender) influenced their values or views? Initially we asked them to interview one another during class and write autobiographies focused on these questions. We stressed to them that the aim of these autobiographies was not to detail the "facts" of their life, such as their hobbies, the whereabouts of their siblings, and the like. Rather, we encouraged them to situate themselves in the larger Long Island and American cultural context and recognize which social...


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pp. 167-174
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Archived 2004
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