Middle East Scholars Society | College of Arts

Middle East Scholars Society

In the Winter of 2010, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students in the History Department, along with a few Political Science graduate students at the University of Guelph, started to hold bi-weekly seminars under the name of the Middle East Scholars Society (MESS), to promote a neutral understanding of the history, culture and politics of Middle Eastern and Northern African (ME-NA) countries. The seminars have attracted many professors, undergraduate and graduate students from several universities as well as government officials, political activists, and independent filmmakers to share their experiences and expertise in the Middle East and North African field with their colleagues and peers. Encouraged by the increased number of attendees and the quality of the work presented in these seminars, the College of Arts and the History Department at the University of Guelph sponsored a website for this initiative that is also being funded by a SSHRC Connection grant.

MESS is not an institute. It is an initiative that senses the increased importance of ME-NA countries after the Arab Spring, and the need for more Canadians to be trained as specialists in this region.

MESS has three major goals:

  • First, to encourage undergraduate and graduate students to study and specialize in subjects related to the history, culture, development, and politics of ME-NA countries.
  • Second, to disseminate scholarly studies and research broadly related to the Middle East and North Africa, to provide authentic news concerning the region, and to produce critical analysis of and implications for ME-NA countries in terms of contemporary events.
  • Finally, to present informative policy papers on the history, politics, economics, and culture of ME-NA countries for public consumption by policy-makers, the private sector, and/or the wider Canadian and international community.

Canada and the Middle East

Canada’s relationship with the different countries in the Middle East and North Africa is not one that is clearly studied. The Canadian government‘s political, social, and economic interests have never been very strong in the region.  As global links bring all peoples and governments closer together on a multitude of issues, it seems only fitting to begin looking at the links and decision-making processes that define them more closely.

Objectives of this page are to:

  • Provide insight into the past and present policies of the Canadian government towards the Middle East, whether it is foreign policy initiatives, economic partnerships, or related issues including immigration.
  • Offer policy analysis and recommendations for implementing and improving current policies
  • Foster commentary on issues and stories that are of  interest to those who study and observe the many linkages between the Middle East and Canada
  • This approach to studying Canada’s relationship with countries in the Middle East is meant to provide positive and meaningful analysis and to contribute to closer links and understandings of the many things that bind Canada to the region.
  • If you are interested in contributing to this endeavor, please email <MESS email>


Views on Israeli Foreign Policy from Toronto’s Queer Community: the Case of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid

By: Nicholas Miniaci 

    There exists a complexity of perspectives and discourse on Middle Eastern societies and politics. The widely discussed phenomena of Israeli policy towards Palestinians and Palestinian territory is perhaps one of the most captivating and longstanding topics in the range of Middle Eastern politics, which has generated criticism, support, and analysis from conventional and non-conventional actors in the international system. One particular example stems out of the Toronto Queer  community and the controversy surrounding the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). 

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid was temporarily banned from participating in the Toronto Pride Parade in 2010, and stirred up controversy from its first march in the 2009 Parade. The group continues to be a source of contention, whose presence has highlighted the politics of censorship and free speech (in conjunction with the Toronto Pride Committee’s search for funding), as well as the permission a minority group has to criticise the policies of states, which would otherwise uphold their rights. While not particularly discussed, the controversy surrounding QuAIA is found within the years preceding World Pride 2014 in Toronto.  The attention given to the group and its opponents is a wider demonstration of how opinions on Middle Eastern and specifically Israeli-Palestinian politics have undertaken new perspective, with discrepancies in Queer opinions and municipal governance framing interpretations of the conflict in addition to the framework of racial, religious, lobbyist, and corporate influences. This example is also influenced by semantic arguments, which- like in mainstream coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict- inform societal perceptions and give credence to dominating views to maintain corporate funding. While QuAIA is branded as an anti-Semitic hate group, QuAIA brings up legitimate concerns and criticisms of the Israeli government’s usage of Queer rights as a media campaign to improve their image. 


Carpe Diem Turkish Republic! Long-term Planning and What Canada Can Learn

By Renée Worringer

14 March 2013

I recently had the pleasure to have attended a lecture given by the current Turkish Ambassador to Ottawa, Dr Tuncay Babalı (PhD from University of Houston, Political Science), at the Munk Institute of Global Studies at the University of Toronto, entitled “Turkey and Canada in the Face of New Challenges and Opportunities”.  This lecture was in part an attempt to educate the Canadian audience, many of whom may not have had much expertise concerning Turkey’s history, politics and economics, in the Turkish Republic’s current position in the world and its future intentions and goals.  The gathering was characteristic of Turkey’s newfound voice in the world as a rising economic power and a country seeking out new relationships, new alliances, new ways to interact in the global community, in that it was also a signing ceremony – of a letter of intent between the Munk School in Toronto and the Center for Strategic Research of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Ankara  - for a joint venture in the future. 

Turkey is actively engaging in many regions in the world according to a foreign policy strategy laid out by its current Foreign Minister, Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, who holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations and is the author of several books, including Strategic Depth [Stratijik Derinlik] (see http://arsiv.setav.org/ups/dosya/9595.pdf  for his 2007 explanation of Turkish foreign policy).  Turkey’s diverse and long-term platform for economic growth, energy security and foreign relations (both political and humanitarian) will not only benefit its own population, but will, the Turkish government hopes, lead to more peaceful resolution of conflicts in various hotspots around the world.

The ambassador started his talk with a heavy amount of academic data (much of it economic in nature) that would make one realize the capacity of this country to be able to influence global affairs.  Turkey is currently the 17th largest economy in the world, and according to the IMF, it is the 6th largest economy in Europe.  Despite having been a member of NATO since 1952, and having been part of the EU Customs Union since the ‘90s, Turkey’s status since 2006 as a “Negotiating Candidate” for membership in the EU has not changed (though Croatia also applied in 2006 and is now a member).  In the face of increasing economic crises in the EU, the ambassador warned that Turkey could lose interest in the prospect altogether.  What seems to be holding the Turkish Republic’s interest in continuing to seek out EU membership in spite of what appears to many to be European racism at its core, is not just the partnerships with Europe that could spur Turkish growth, but that achieving EU membership would be the culmination of Atatürk’s vision for a Turkish Republic oriented toward Europe.  The present Turkish state is still committed to the Kemalist vision, though it is tempered by a recognition of Turkey’s Islamic and Middle Eastern heritage and the need to balance these forces through a civil democracy less beholden to the military’s will.

The ambassador pointed out that Turkey is geographically the largest country in Europe, with the 2nd largest population of the EU countries (approximately 75.6 million in 2012).  Half of the population is under the age of 30.  According to the Ministry of the Economy’s Economic Outlook (February 2013), its main export destinations are (in this order) Germany, Iraq, Iran, the UK, and the UAE; its main importers are Russia, Germany, China, the US, and Italy.  Unlike some of its neighbours who are huge oil and natural gas suppliers, Turkey is really only a consumer of these commodities; its geographic position as a corridor between oil/gas producers and export markets however places it on the routes of several current and projected pipelines (see http://www.botas.gov.tr/index.asp for maps).  They possess the 7th largest shale gas reserves in several areas of the country.  Turkey recognizes its need to ensure a diversified energy supply that will be required for continued economic growth and is thus planning to be able to acquire 30% of its electricity from nuclear power and renewables by 2023 using wind, geothermal, and other sustainable options; Turkey is seeking integration into EU and Middle East electricity networks. 

Turkey went through its financial troubles, currency devaluation, austerity measures and bank reforms in 2001 and they are on the rebound now, claiming to have a sound fiscal system with a dynamic yet stable economy which should attract international investors due to its corporate tax rates of 20%, its protections against expropriation, and its international arbitration guarantees, rating #43 in the Global Competitiveness Index.  The ambassador reiterated Turkey’s ambition to become one of the 10 largest economies by 2023, and Goldman-Sachs predictions claim it should become #9 in the world and #3 in Europe by 2050.  Among the member nations of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Turkey is estimated to be the fastest-growing economy from 2012-2017.  Describing Turkey as an “international hub,” the ambassador pointed out that a 3-hour flight from Turkey in any direction reaches over 50 countries and 1.5 billion people (read: markets!).  As an historian of the Ottoman Empire, I found myself thinking back to the reasons for Mehmed II’s desire to conquer Constantinople in 1453 and to create an imperial capital that would impress even the greatest of sovereigns as the “centre of the world.”

Turkey’s reach toward other regions, whether toward the EU, or to its Transatlantic partners (NATO), to its neighbours in the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia, or further, to Africa and South America, is not just economically-driven, but rather combines economics, politics, and humanitarian concerns.  Turkey is one of the founding members of a UN initiative in 2011 (along with Spain) called the “Alliance of Civilizations” which “aims to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions. It also helps to counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism” ( see their website at  http://www.unaoc.org/ ); this is a welcome alternative to those espousing a “clash of civilizations” paradigm.  Turkey is a donor country, having established the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) in 1992 as its aid organization.  Turkey has attempted to mediate on-going conflicts by often quietly bringing together parties who are resistant to public negotiations or in need of closed-door meetings away from the media spotlight, whether the conflict zone is Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria, Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, or Bosnia-Serbia-Kosovo.  Turkey has taken on a huge share of the burden regarding Syrian refugees in the seemingly endless violence due to the Syrian regime’s battle to retain power.  The numbers provided by the ambassador are staggering: approximately 182,000 Syrian refugees in 17 camps in Turkey along its borders, with roughly another 100,000 Syrians seeking refuge with friends and families in Turkey, so that over 282,000 Syrians are in Turkey at present.  According to the UN refugee agency’s latest data, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa has reached 1 million.  The Turkish ambassador has stated that Turkey has spent about US$600 million on aid, providing camp facilities, nurseries for babies, classrooms for children to continue schooling, with close to 350 Turkish-speaking teachers and over 800 Arabic speakers, etc.  The international community, in contrast, has provided about US$25 million.  Clearly, given Syria’s neighbours (i.e. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon) and their rather fragile circumstances, Turkey is the best equipped to handle this humanitarian crisis, though it puts tremendous strain on Turkey’s resources and more international support must be forthcoming.

The ambassador described how Turkey is seeking out direct engagement with countries globally and has intensified these diplomatic efforts by rapidly and dramatically expanding the number and location of its missions throughout the world, ranking 9th among the countries with the most embassies and diplomatic outposts.  In 2009 alone they opened 12 embassies in Africa, and this foreign policy action has led to economic growth for Turkey (and for African nations) since, as the ambassador reminded the audience, Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yolları) benefitted from these linkages by adding 31 additional flight destinations to Africa.  

Turkey established diplomatic relations with Canada in 1944 and opened the Consulate of Toronto in 2010; plans to include similar missions in Montreal and Vancouver are moving forward.  THY currently flies between Toronto and Istanbul 5 times per week and they are expanding their service between the 2 countries.  Turkey has a healthy trade with Canada but the ambassador expressed the Turkish government’s interest in expanding this relationship, one that was strengthened with the founding of and participating by Turkey and Canada in The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI)  (see  http://www.cigionline.org/ ), a multilateral think tank supporting research concerning the global economy, global security, the environment and energy, and global development. 

At the end of the ambassador’s talk, I found myself impressed with several aspects of Turkey’s “strategic depth.”  First, they have a young, well-educated and worldly diplomatic corps who are successfully carrying out Turkey’s desire to be a global actor by engaging with audiences and articulating the Turkish government’s economic, political, humanitarian and cultural intentions.  Second, it is clear this is an ambitious platform that will allow Turkey to act in its own national interests, but their activities also have positive effects for many other places in the world, whether via promoting research, development, and cooperation between countries to elicit stability and peace, or to foster economic ties and growth of the parties involved.  Turkey is seizing the opportunities that have arisen but Turkey is also creating opportunity, seeking out partnerships and not closing any doors, and Turkey is contemplating a long-term approach, rather than trying to achieve short-term gains that are not well thought-out.  In an era witnessing austerity measures in the EU, a government stalled in its aggressive partisan politicking in the US, and nations in the Middle East battling for what kind of governments they will have, the initiative expressed and being carried out by Turkey today leaves one with optimism.

The question and answer period following this talk perhaps reminded everyone of the issues still to be dealt with by Turkey, and perhaps the hesitations felt by some witnessing Turkey’s ascendancy on the world scene.  First, there is still the question of Turkey’s treatment of minorities within its borders, in a country far more diverse than perhaps is apparent when the oft-quoted “99% Muslim country” is mentioned.  Freedom of expression and human rights issues in Turkey are still at the forefront for Turkey’s critics: until the Kurds gain the recognition, the economic and social equality they demand, until discussion of the Armenian genocide can be freely held, and Article 301 of Turkey’s Penal Code undergoes serious debate, there will be hesitation internationally to accept Turkey’s position as a global leader who has acknowledged the past.  The ambassador responded to questions about these issues in a very frank manner, and reminded the audience in a sincere way of his own familial losses when his relatives were forced to leave Bulgaria and immigrate to Edirne.  Certainly the discussion of the Turkish-Armenian issue has become, at least from many academics’ points-of-view, a shared endeavour that requires the reconstruction of Ottoman events from many perspectives, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, European, etc.  In this regard I see this next generation of the Turkish diplomatic corps keenly aware of this need, and perhaps progress will be made; it is already happening at the academic level.  Second, on several occasions I have heard sceptical utterances of people watching Turkey’s emergence as a confident and influential nation: they ask, “is Turkey trying to become the Ottoman Empire again?”  “Does Turkey want to be in control of the Middle East again?  Or the Balkans?”  “Are they covering up their shortcomings in the realm of human rights with economic growth?”  For some, the legacies of the late Ottoman era in which the reins of government were in the hands of a dominant Turkish nationalist CUP clique are still too fresh a memory, and there is lingering distrust over Turkey’s true motives.  My assessment of Turkey’s behaviour is that Turkey and its government representatives know who Turkey is today, and who they aspire to be tomorrow.  There is a concerted interest in the Turkish government to define this new Turkey for the world in positive ways as much as possible. 

Voices on the Middle East

A Betrayed Revolution?: On the Tunisian Uprising and the Democratic Transition

by Leyla Dakhli

On the evening of 14 January 2011, a single man was shouting on Bourguiba Avenue, "Ben Ali hrab!" (Ben Ali has fled), celebrating the stunning victory of a revolution. In this cry, the admiration for the people, love for freedom, and sorrow for the dead was heard. He was alone in the dark, on an avenue that an angry mob invaded a few hours earlier. He was a lawyer, one of the many lawyers who supported the revolt with all their strength.
On 8 February 2013, more than two years later, a crowd invaded another site in the capital. This time it was the main cemetery and it was a sad and enraged crowd, which came to accompany another revolutionary lawyer, Chokri Belaid, a vocal critic, who was murdered outside his home.

Read more


Whatever Happened to Egypt's Democratic Transition?

by Ellis Goldberg

There is a paradigm nobody talks about much anymore in regard to Egypt: the democratic transition. The problem with the idea of democratic transition, dearly beloved by the Barack Obama Administration, most of my colleagues in political science, and the Muslim Brotherhood, was that it presumed the institutions of the state would be passed, intact, from the old regime to the new. Through elections, constitutions, and the circulation of new elites, popular sovereignty and democratic practice would re-invigorate the barren institutions of the old order. Where necessary, new ones would be created.
What, we are impelled to ask, went wrong in Egypt? What made it, as one analyst is reported to have said, the stupidest transition ever or the revolution that never was? Or did the fault lie not in our Egypt but our selves? Not least in our inability to recognize that the complicated and confusing period, lasting a decade or more, between the first observation of revolutionary upheaval and its conclusion, is both more important and more uncertain than we feel comfortable with.


The Middle East: Then & Now

The study of the Middle East involves many time-periods, topics, and cross-disciplinary endeavours. On this page we present the work of scholars and students from MESS to present some of the some of the most recent and exciting research that MESS members have been working on.

If you are interested in writing an article, or have one you think is relevant, please email us at <MESS email>



MESS is generously supported by funding from:

University of Guelph College of Arts
Department of History, University of Guelph
Department of HIstory, Wilfred Laurier University
Tri-University Graduate Program in History