In October 1970, a small group of anti-war activists gathered at a cabin in the deep woods of New Hampshire. Some were recently returned from Peace Corps billets in the Middle East. Others had worked in “peace church” offices in the region. The attendees were all young or youngish; they also had in common acute frustration at the desultory or distorted coverage of Middle East affairs prevalent in the United States, even in the “new left” publications of the day. Something had to be done to fill the gap, they decided, and the Middle East Research and Information Project was soon conceived.
As MERIP turns 40 — our activities formally began in the spring of 1971 — we are reflecting upon what has changed and what has stayed the same. The “new left” movement of which MERIP felt a part is long since dissolved. Our magazine, Middle East Report, can no longer stake the same claim to uniqueness. Other periodicals have arisen, and in the Internet age, high-quality news and analysis (much of it produced in the Middle East) is far more widely available. The political-intellectual tendencies for which MERIP became known are not considered to be as radical as they once were, particularly among scholars. Many more Americans and others, whether on the left or elsewhere on the political spectrum, advocate for basic Palestinian national rights, for instance, and see the damage done to the Middle East by US and other intervention in the past.
Whatever credit may accrue to efforts like MERIP’s for this heightened consciousness, the lion’s share surely belongs to history itself. The relentless recurrence of crisis in the Middle East has drawn Washington further and further in to the region’s internal politics; in parallel, US strategists have deployed more and more military assets to secure the outward flow of Persian Gulf oil, a burden that Washington took up in the early 1970s and that remains a pillar of US superpower status. The role of oil in US policy is still reliably obscured in mainstream media discourse. But after the 1973 embargo, the 1980 Carter Doctrine, the 1988 reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers, the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is impossible to hide entirely. The urgency of justice for the Palestinians also cannot be denied. Interest in learning about the Middle East has grown apace with the course of events.
Indeed, in the decade inaugurated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, everyone has been forced to become aware of the Middle East’s problems and the US relation thereto, though not everyone, to put it mildly, agrees on how to understand these things. The Middle East is the focal point of world politics and thus the center of attention. It is tempting to wax world-historical: Like the early 1970s, the early 2010s are a time of deep economic uncertainty and political discord, leading to polarization and anomie in the core and revolt in the periphery. The times are laying bare the inequalities festering within societies everywhere and their rootedness in not only global power relations but also the essential contradictions of capitalism.
Since 1971, MERIP has been committed to understanding the Middle East’s tumult through the prism of political economy, though we have given increasing (though still too little) prominence to the crucial questions of gender and culture. That perspective, while less unusual than it once was, is very much in demand, a fact that, again, is chiefly a function of the recalcitrant troubles in the region we study. We look back on 40 years of publication with pride in our overall record, humility at the task ahead and great fondness for our friends, both the doughty members of the original collective and the numerous others who have joined us along the way.
Through 40 years, through times of both trial and triumph, the readers of this magazine have been its main source of sustenance, providing both material and moral support. We thank you and salute you.