The biggest news out of the Middle East for the past six months has been the rise to power of a group of radicals known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The group has dominated headlines for its violence and perceived threats to North American and European countries and has led to a simplistic narrative that presents Muslims as ruled by dictators and suggests Islam is a violent religion.
But the research of Mojtaba Mahdavi, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, is attempting to combat that vision of Muslims as “the other,” a different group of people who want different things.
“I want to suggest that if you leave it to the people of the Middle East, ISIS does not represent an authentic voice of the Middle East. If you want to really understand the people of the Middle East, look to Tahrir Square.”
“If you leave it to the people of the Middle East, ISIS does not represent an authentic voice of the Middle East.”
ISIS, a small group of radicals, grew out of marginalization in Iraq and a civil war in Syria, both havens for extremists. On the other hand, the popular protests at Tahrir Square in the middle of Cairo led to the ouster of two presidents, first Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and then Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
This is what Mahdavi sees as the more general idea of people in the Middle East, people coming to the streets to protest injustice. “They are simply looking for a normal life, a dignified life, freedom and social justice.”
Mahdavi studies political discourse and social movements in the Middle East, such as the Arab Spring that spread across the region in early 2011, or post-revolutionary movements in Iran. He wants to look past the simplistic narratives of “us vs. them,” the clash of civilizations narratives that have been prevalent in both academia and the media.
“One of the major focuses of my research is to challenge hegemonic colonial universalism that suggests that there’s only one way for development, one modernity, one path, and that’s the Western one.”
Mahdavi’s research comes as much from personal experience as academic interest. He grew up in the central Iranian city of Isfahan and witnessed the Iranian revolution firsthand.
But the revolution didn’t deliver on all of the motivations it started with. According to Mahdavi, it was a revolution for freedom, social justice and egalitarian republican politics that simply could not meet the demands of the people.
“It’s not simply an abstract academic interest,” said Mahdavi. “It’s very much personal and attached to my own experience. I think it’s very relevant these days because of the changes we see in the Middle East. I think if you grew up in that part of the world, if you talk to these people, you know that these people are capable of bringing change from within.”
Mahdavi’s work brought him to the attention of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities (ECMC), and he was named the ECMC Chair of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Arts in January of this year. During his two-year position, he will develop and propose a certificate of Islamic and Middle East studies at the university, as well as run a major international conference in the fall, titled “The Unfinished Project of the Arab Spring” (https://upasconference.
The final part of his time as ECMC Islamic Studies Chair will be spent establishing a graduate scholarship for students working on history, literature, religious and socio-economic and political transformations in the Muslim context.
“The ECMC Chair-ship provides more opportunity to expand my research on these and related areas, mobilize our resources and demonstrate our capacity and potentials on Islamic and Middle East Studies at U of A. We do hope to hire well-established and authoritative scholars of the field in the future,” said Mahdavi.
For more information on Dr. Mahdavi and his research, please see: