Understanding the Arab Awakening

April 15, 2013
D. Hunter DiPaolo '13

Dr. NortonOn the evening of Tuesday, April 9, Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Dr. Richard Norton, professor of both International Relations and Anthropology at Boston University, presented his lecture on "Understanding the Arab Awakening."  Dr. Norton spoke about the uprisings in the Middle East since 2011, focusing primarily on Egypt and Bahrain. His lecture began with a caveat: what he was about to say about the complexities of the Middle East were generalities, since each case is different, and must be taken with a grain of salt.

What made the presentation most interesting, however, was how close to home these generalities actually hit. Some of the grievances felt in the Middle East were not so foreign in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which also began in late 2011. Dr. Norton attributed some of the recent complaints in the Arab world to a lack of jobs (despite a surplus of education), a shortage of visas to obtain jobs, and poor working conditions for those with jobs. In a sense, the main points of his lecture seem to extend beyond the Middle East and seem to apply universally on a global scale. Although the politics are dissimilar, the lack of economic security can be felt worldwide.

Aside from his public lecture on Tuesday night, Dr. Norton met with individual classes, throughout the week of April 8-12, at Hampden-Sydney College, Fuqua School, Prince Edward County High School, and the Longwood University Political Science Club. He led discussions on politics, religion, and society in the Middle East, while also focusing on researching and writing about the region, as well as careers in foreign affairs. The classroom lectures were much more intimate and geared toward the specific topics of each course. For example, while meeting with Lt. Col. Rucker Snead's class on Issues in American Foreign Policy, Dr. Norton was able to discuss his work as a government consultant. He also spoke of his anthropology background, and how that relates to understanding foreign politics. Before jumping into the Middle East, Dr. Norton let the class in on his educational philosophy. He reminded them that while it is important to know facts, ideas, concepts, in other words "things," he emphasized that education is supposed to provide one with a toolbox - the ability to know how to ask the right questions - to be able to search for and find the answers.

The enthusiasm with which Dr. Norton spoke, as well as his extensive knowledge of the politics and culture of the Middle East, made his lectures accessible and enjoyable, not to mention relevant to all, not specifically those taking political science courses. Dr. Norton presented, without condemning, a region that is generally misunderstood and surrounded by turmoil. He provided his listeners with a toolbox, equipped them with the proper tools to understand events that are occurring not only in the Middle East, but across the world. And with an ever-increasing globalization of world politics, Dr. Norton, certainly not unwittingly, gave his audiences a new way of understanding politics and economic unrest around the world, specifically here in our own country.