Professor hosts lecture on conflict in the Middle East

Allison Ribick

The event, “Is it Religion or Politics that Divides the Middle East” will occur Monday at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. It costs $10 for members and $15 non-members of the World Affairs Council. Students, staff and faculty at Grand Valley State University and other colleges can attend for free.

“It seems the Middle East is far away from where we are, but it’s dominating our media coverage,” said Sebastian Maisel, assistant professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at GVSU. “When you turn the radio on or the news, four out of five international events come out of the Middle East, and it’s usually related to some sort of violence or violent conflict.”

Maisel will give his thoughts about the religious and political conflict occurring in the Middle East as part of the Great Decisions lecture series put on by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan.

The World Affairs Council is a nonprofit and non-partisan organization that seeks to inform and engage people on international and national issues and how foreign policy affects the West Michigan community.

Topics such as the crisis in Iraq and Syria, tension between Iran and Saudia Arabia and the conflict between Sunni and Shi’i groups will be discussed.

“We need to understand that the Middle East is not a homogenous, monolithic entity,” Maisel said. “It’s diverse in terms of its ethnicity, beliefs, ideologies and political systems.”

Maisel hopes he can offer the other side of the story so people can understand the motives of people in the Middle East who are involved in various forms of violence or conflict between groups.

“Many Middle Eastern countries are actually at this point, very close to being described as a failed state, so the central authorities of the government have no control anymore,” Maisel said.

Maisel’s research focuses on social transformation processes and identity building in marginalized and minority groups in the Middle East, such as the Yezidis in Syria and Iraq, the Bedouins in Saudi Arabia and Dinka slave soldiers from Sudan. His most recent focus is tribalism and family affairs in the Arab Gulf States.

“We should not forget that we are deeply involved in these affairs,” Maisel said. “We are actively at war with some Middle Eastern countries. That’s why I think it’s important to understand the different agendas and the different interest groups in the conflict.”

Madonna Kramer, the World Affairs Council of West Michigan’s director of programming and events, said that Maisel’s fieldwork in the countries he has researched helps him understand even more about the topic.

“He brings a great depth of knowledge, more than someone who’s just researching it,” Kramer said. “He’s witnessed it firsthand.”

The Great Decisions series occurs every year and lasts for eight weeks. It discusses the eight critical topics the Foreign Policy Association defined as most significant topics happening around the world.

Kramer emphasized the importance of leaning lessons from what happens in other countries and how it relates to the United States.

“We’re not there to give you an opinion, but we are there to give you the information from which you can form your own opinion,” Kramer said.

The increase in the availability of computers, technology and travel has given individuals the opportunity to be more aware of global events, Kramer said.

“For students in particular, that’s the generation that has grown up with much more of a global learning style,” Kramer said. “There’s access anywhere in the world for you. Not everybody had that growing up, but your generation has. This allows you to understand what’s going on around the world so you can make more informed decisions.”

GVSU is among the World Affairs Council’s educational partners, which includes Aquinas College, Western Michigan University and Grand Rapids Community College, among others.

On March 23 from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m in Aquinas College’s Performing Arts Center, the World Affairs Council will put on “Through the Lens: Lessons from the Syrian Refugee Crisis” featuring Jared Kohler. Kohler is a photojournalist who documented the refugee crisis through living in refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq. Kohler is also a GVSU alumnus.

“It’s nice to see somebody that went to GVSU that pursued what he liked to do but also did it in a very socially conscious, aware aspect,” Kramer said.

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