In 1990, an umbrella organization was created to promote Middle East studies in Europe. The European Association for Middle East Studies (EURAMES) has modest goals and virtually no budget. It has published a directory of Middle East scholars in Europe (with EU funds) and has initiated triennial conferences in cooperation with its member societies. [1] The foundation of EURAMES has encouraged the creation of new national associations in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Poland. [2]

This proliferation of new Middle East studies associations indicates that European scholars do not question the validity of area studies. Nor do they privilege social science and humanities disciplines with their greater methodological or theoretical weight. They observe the improvement of scholarship on the Middle East over the past two decades in Europe and North America and are somewhat puzzled by the debates that have rocked the area studies establishment in the US in recent years.

This difference in perspective is best explained by the very different context of Middle East studies in Europe. The proximity of the Arab and Islamic world to Europe allows for a far greater degree of exchange at all levels — cultural, economic, political and demographic. The history of relations between the two regions has meant that European interest in the Middle East long predates the Cold War, and has been less colored by superpower rivalries than in the US. As a consequence, the study of the Middle East in Europe has been shaped by a very different relationship between government and the academy.

North Africa and the Middle East are Europe’s near abroad. Opposition politicians and dissidents driven into exile by their home governments often take refuge in European capitals. When the Iraqi National Congress sought a base to call for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government, or Muhammad al-Mas‘ari needed telephone lines to fax his tirades against the Saudi monarchy, they moved to London. Opponents of the Islamic Republic, from the Pahlavi loyalists to the leftist Mojahedin-e Khalq, took exile in Paris. The Kurdish parliament in exile meets in The Hague and a Kurdish satellite television station broadcasts from Belgium. The establishment, too, has a base in these cities. London is the center for the Saudi-sponsored press, where al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat are published.

As the meeting place of government and opposition, Europe has suffered from a scale of political violence that has only touched America in recent years, with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York city. Europe’s airports, trains, public institutions and places of leisure have been targeted by Middle East governments and their opponents for decades. These political realities make Middle East affairs domestic issues in Europe. In the US, in contrast, public opinion is preoccupied with the Arab-Israeli issue and the containment of pariah states. Immigration has brought the Middle East to Europe in a more enduring fashion, leading to important cultural exchanges as well as provoking the politics of intolerance. Europeans are happy to eat Persian, Lebanese and Turkish cuisine, dance to Algerian rai music, and read modern Arab authors, although they do not want to hear the call to prayer or see Middle Easterners move into their neighborhoods. Turkish migrants to Germany have made Islam the third religion of the Federal Republic, though naturalization laws prevent Turks — even those born in Germany — from obtaining citizenship. [3] In France, the North African immigrant community has posed direct challenges to notions of French identity: witness the heated debates in 1989 over the right of Muslim schoolgirls to wear headscarves in a state system which bans all religious displays. Tunisian Islamist Rachid al-Ghannouchi proclaimed that France was part of the Islamic world — or, as Gilles Kepel wrote, “Islam in France began to operate as Islam of France.” [4] Jean-Marie Le Pen has taken advantage of the xenophobic backlash to whip up support for the racist National Front. In Britain, a commission examining the representation of Muslims in the media observed an anti-Muslim hostility it termed “Islamophobia.”


There is no doubt that Europe’s colonial experience in the Middle East has colored the study of the region. While only Britain, France and Italy had imperial possessions in the Middle East and North America, virtually all European governments exercised consular and commercial influence in the region. These interests gave rise to scholarly communities, many of which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. [5] Colonialism also meant that more Europeans than Americans knew something about the Middle East, had worked there, traded there and fought there, with all the complications a colonial arrangement would suggest. The information gap between European societies and the Middle East is far easier to bridge than is the case in North America. This is apparent in the different quality of press coverage of the region today. Writers on North Africa in Le Monde assume their readers have significant background knowledge on Algerian history and politics. The same holds true for the Middle East in the British broadsheets, such as The Guardian and The Independent.

Europe’s recent history in the Middle East distinguished it from the US in several ways. Direct European domination collapsed and was displaced by the superpower rivalry of the Cold War. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US has exercised unrivaled influence in the Middle East. For Europeans, the colonial order is history, where for Americans neo-colonialism is a current reality. By the time Edward Said wrote Orientalism, the Europeans were out of the Foucaultian power-knowledge nexus within which Said situated post-war America. Consequently, European scholars do not perceive government support for area studies as fostering political domination, an issue which has fueled an important debate in the US. Research centers funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tunisia, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Amman, San‘a, Tehran and Istanbul, whose administrators and researchers draw state salaries, are seen as the backbone of serious European scholarship and not as a colonial presence.

European and US scholars also attach a different weight to Arab-Israeli affairs. There is nothing in European Middle East studies to compare with the Arab-Israeli conflict/peace process industry of American academe, or for that matter no European public support for Israel comparable to that found in the US. This, too, has politicized Middle East studies in the US to a far greater extent than in Europe.


These differences in context are reflected in the different approaches taken by European scholars and explain why they are not engaged in the same debates as their American colleagues. University courses on the Middle East are not preoccupied with correcting Orientalist biases, or with the Arab-Israeli conflict — though, of course, these are issues of great interest among European academics. One is struck by the close connection between the Orientalist study of languages and the development of modern Middle East studies. That is the case in Oxford, where the study of the Middle East emerged from the Oriental Institute. In Germany, interdisciplinary cooperation between Oriental studies and the faculties of social sciences, law, economics and geography led to the establishment of centers of research and teaching on the contemporary Middle East. [6] Similar trends have taken place across northern Europe.

The disciplines of the social sciences and humanities in Europe have not asserted their ascendancy over area studies; rather, their complementarity is accepted by social scientists in Europe. Quantitative methods (including rational choice) have not emerged as dominant approaches as is the case in the US. There is no challenge in European academe to the expectation that a scholar must use sources in indigenous languages to make an original contribution in Middle East studies. The agenda of area studies is still viewed as unproblematically valid. It applies regional knowledge from the study of language and culture offered by oriental studies faculties, combined with specific disciplines, to turn out Middle East economists, geographers, historians, legal scholars and political scientists. They turn out very differently from one European country to the next, although this has not produced important methodological differences between the European schools. It would no doubt enhance regional studies in Europe if they were shaken by some rousing debates.

Differences within European Middle East studies concern regions of study and emphasis. Thus, one review of current research trends drew a distinction between the states of southern Europe, which are more sensitive to Mediterranean questions, and those of the north which seem more focused on the Eastern Mediterranean. [7] To some extent this mirrors European Union debates. Spain, France and Italy have sought EU investment in the Arab Mediterranean lands to counter economic migration which provokes domestic instability. For instance, the EU attempted to press the Barcelona Framework as an alternative to the US-sponsored Middle East peace process as well as its related projects for regional integration in the Middle East. The Barcelona Framework envisages direct European investment in the economies of North Africa and the Levant to develop a Mediterranean free trade zone by the year 2010. Northern Europeans, however, are more concerned with the Union’s enlargement towards the former Communist states of East Europe. Bringing the focus to the Mediterranean, in scholarship as well as in economic policy, reflects a north-south divide within Europe over priorities in the near abroad.

Another aim of the Middle East studies community in Europe is to foster greater exchange and collaboration, both among academic institutions in different European countries and between European and Middle East institutions. French, British, Dutch and German research centers in the Middle East serve as areas for local and European scholars to meet. [8] These centers’ publications provide one measure of this cooperation. [9] To many Europeans, these exchanges represent a division of labor in which the Europeans bring interpretive and methodological tools to the field, while indigenous scholars provide extensive local knowledge. Moreover, the training of many Arab scholars in Europe reinforces the sense of academic community between European and Middle Eastern researchers.

Two projects in particular demonstrate the collaborative emphasis in European Middle East studies. The Casablanca-based Association de liaison entre Centres de Documentation sur Ie Monde Arabe (ALMA), headed by Andre Raymond, was created in 1996 to coordinate the activities of Middle East research centers on both sides of the Mediterranean. ALMA convenes biannual conferences drawing scholars from the north and south shores of the Mediterranean. It is currently working to produce a comprehensive CD-ROM catalogue of works published in Arabic on the Middle East.

The European Science Foundation in 1996 launched another ambitious collaborative project seeking to bring scholars together from all shores of the Mediterranean. The program, entitled “Individual and Society in the Mediterranean Muslim World,” brings together 76 full-time academics and 24 researchers at pre-and post-doctoral levels to study Islamic history, the organization of interdependent relationships, the position of the individual and the creation of a hierarchy of values that rule society. [10] The program is divided into seven working groups around specific themes to address this vast question, and within each working group members organize seminars in their home institutions to broaden the network of participants and encourage research contributing to the project. The program has funding for four years, and will generate a series of publications. These two projects — ALMA and the Individual and Society, as well as the creation of EURAMES — reveal the importance of transnational scholarly and institutional relations in Europe.

There is a distinct reorientation away from the “Middle East,” that Anglo-Saxon notion encompassing a zone stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, [11] and a shift towards the Mediterranean as a focus of study. This does not imply an abandonment of Arabia, Yemen or Iran, in which European scholars have invested substantial energy. But it does suggest a reorientation that breaks down constructed divisions between Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and defines the area of study by a common geographic factor — the Mediterranean. This could lead to a diverse and subversive scholarship, with, for instance, Algerians and Tunisians studying Italy and Greece with the same tools that researchers from the north shore use in studying the south shore. If, in the process, barriers are broken down between Europe and the Mediterranean Islamic world, it might prove an effective response to Islamophobia.


[1] Emma Murphy, Gerd Nonneman and Neil Quilliam, eds., European Expertise on the Middle East and North Africa (Brussels: EURAMES, 1993). The first EURAMES Conference was held in cooperation with BRISMES in Warwick (1993); the second in Aix-en-Provence, with AFEMAM; a third conference is planned in Louvain for 1999.
[2] The first five members were the British (BRISMES), French (AFEMAM), Dutch (MOI), Nordic (NSR) and Swiss (SGMOIK). The new societies are: DAVO (Germany), SESAMO (Italy) and SEEA (Spain). The EURAMES website provides contact information on all member societies; see
[3] Baber Johansen, “Politics, Paradigms and the Progress of Oriental Studies: The German Oriental Society, 1845-1989,” MARS (Le Monde Arabe dans la Recherche Scientifique) 4 (1994), p. 93.
[4] Gilles Kepel, Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in America and Europe (Oxford: Polity Press, 1997), p. 152.
[5] Ulrich Haarmaan, “L‘Orientalisme allemand,” MARS 4 (1994); Jan Jaap de Ruiter, “Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Netherlands,” MARS 5 (1995).
[6] Johansen, p. 90.
[7] Hassan Arfaoui and Cicile Jolly, “Les tendances actuelles de la recherche europeenne sur le monde arabe et musulman,” MARS 2 (1993).
[8] Angelika Neuwirth, “L’Institut de L’Orient de l’Association allemande pour l’Orient a Beyrouth,” MARS 5 (1995).
[9] See, for example, the publication list of the French research center in Cairo, CEDEJ, where the majority of authors in their edited collections are Egyptian scholars.
[10] Individual and Society in the Mediterranean, Muslim World Directory (Strasbourg: European Science Foundation, 1997).
[11] Arfaoui and Jolly, p. 36.

How to cite this article:

Eugene Rogan "No Debate," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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