How "Islamic Studies" Swallowed Middle Eastern Academia

Canada's Simon Fraser University
Canada's Simon Fraser University
Los Paseos
*Paul Sedra


CAIRO â€" Assistant Professor in Islam and Modernity, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, Professorship of Islamic History, Specialist on Islam and/or Muslim Societies, Cultures, Arts, Politics, and/or Philosophy.

These are just a sampling of the positions currently featured in job listings of the Middle East Studies Association. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, there was certainly an expectation among specialists in Middle Eastern studies that attention among university planners and administrators would shift to Islam and that, accordingly, there would emerge a surfeit of positions, conferences and research projects framed in terms of Islamic studies as opposed to Middle Eastern studies.

But who could have guessed that this trend would persist for quite so long and become quite so all-encompassing? When I entered the department where I earned my PhD 16 years ago, it was a Department of Middle Eastern Studies. Today, it's a Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

There is a certain irony in such a renaming. It was there, all those years ago, where I was taught that there is more to the Middle East than Islam. I learned that to focus exceptionally upon Islam in the study of the region was fundamentally to miscast the dynamics of the region's history and politics. This was, of course, the error that our predecessors in the field had made when they had studied the Koran to understand Islamist organizations, or when they insisted that "Islam had bloody borders," as if the faith were a geographical entity.

Not that change is bad

All of this is not to suggest that use of Middle Eastern studies as a conceptual framework is unproblematic or unworthy of challenge. The need to step beyond the once-rigid boundaries of area studies is as urgent as ever, if only to render visible the manifold networks and connections that have defied such boundaries through history. Nor is this to suggest that the study of Islam is unimportant or inconsequential. Indeed, with the rise of organizations like ISIS that draw so heavily upon Islam as a political idiom, the need for level-headed analysis and demystification of the life experiences of believers is as important as ever.

A Koran at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Photo: Muhammad Ghouri

But the recurrent recourse to Islam as a conceptual framework in contemporary academic circles â€" to the exclusion of alternatives â€" seems pernicious and problematic in a way that Middle Eastern studies were not. Every time I teach my introductory course on modern Middle Eastern history, the emphasis in the first lecture â€" and, indeed, in every lecture â€" is on a region that defies easy categorization in light of its tremendous diversity. Arguably, the whole point of the course is to encourage students to view the Middle East as a region like any other, and emphatically not exceptional in terms of purported propensities to religiosity or violence.

There are those who suggest that Islamic studies can and should embrace all those who live in "Islamic societies" or "Muslim-majority polities." But no matter the semantics, framing the field in terms of Islamic studies necessarily privileges the Islamic and the Muslim over the heretical and the heterodox, the sacrilegious and the secular â€" not to mention the non-Muslim. Whenever the claim is made that Islamic studies are inclusive rather than exclusive, it's necessary to press forward the challenge: How often are those who study non-believers in Islamic societies or Muslim-majority polities actually hired for positions in Islamic studies?

Whenever I come across one of the new positions, conferences and research projects framed in terms of Islamic studies, I can't help but think of the millions of Middle Easterners whom a university administrator or planner has seen fit to dismiss or disregard with a turn of phrase â€" the millions who are necessarily excluded from Islamic studies because they are not believers. And in turn I can't help but wonder, perhaps with a wisp of nostalgia, whatever happened to Middle Eastern studies?

*Paul Sedra is associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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