The Middle East & Islam in Global Contexts

  • Students in Turkey
    Students in Turkey
  • Haghia Sophia
    Haghia Sophia
  • Haghia Sophia Interior
    Haghia Sophia Interior


The Middle East and Islam FOCUS cluster deepens students’ understanding of the region from three main disciplinary perspectives: public policy and politics, literature and religion, documentary studies and history.  In no other academic or intellectual context will students receive such a complete, well-rounded overview of the major issues confronting the study of the Middle East and Islam. This FOCUS cluster gives students unique insight into major issues in the field, as well as a thorough introduction to Islam, the Middle East, and U.S. policy in the region. Students will emerge from this cluster with a firm grasp of the main issues confronting the study of the region, its history, culture, politics, and religions.

Nothing could be more important at this particular juncture in history, as the United States carves out its own role in global politics vis-à- vis the Middle East. The cluster will help students understand the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, the Palestine-Israel conflict, ongoing tensions with Iran and Syria, the Arab spring in Egypt and Tunisia, and changing relations with Turkey and Pakistan. Moreover, we explore the issue of Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees and of the Muslim diaspora within the U.S.’s own borders—and across the world.

Students will cultivate a clear understanding of how the Middle East and Islam have played crucial roles in the development of human civilization, and continue to play a critical role in the development of human culture both inside the United States and far beyond its borders. This FOCUS cluster comes at a time where the Middle East and Islam are of critical importance to understanding our global future, as well as our global past.

Our FOCUS courses will help deepen and complicate students’ knowledge of the main issues confronting the region through in depth study. This serves as an invaluable tool facilitating any number of academic trajectories, whether in Public Policy, Political Science, History, Religion, Anthropology, Middle East Studies, or International Comparative Studies. Graduates of the program have gone on to pursue Fulbrights, Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, law degrees, PhD programs, foreign service, and careers in consulting, development, and aid.

Our weekly meetings encompass a wide variety of cultural activities that include performances by Iraqi musicians and Sudanese rappers, talks by experts on Islamic hip hop, poetry readings, documentary films on the Middle East, visits to local mosques, the exhibit on black Muslims at the Durham History Museum, and dinners at faculty homes. We seek to introduce students to the Islam and the Middle East that live in our midst in Durham, in North Carolina, and at Duke, as well as in distant regions of the world. The weekly dinners also include good, old-fashioned open discussion, debate, and sociability as a way for students to get to know each other and their professors, and to understand the issues in a lively, welcome, supportive environment.

For students interested in expanding and deepening their engagement with the Middle East and Islam, the Asian and Middle East Studies Department offers courses of study in the Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, and Hindi languages. Students wishing to further pursue their interest in Middle East politics, international relations, and national security studies may join the American Grand Strategy program. There are also manifold study abroad opportunities, like Duke in the Arab World and DukeEngage immersive programs in Lebanon and Jordan. Please contact the FOCUS cluster director if you have any questions or need any guidance. We would be more than happy to help. Welcome to the Middle East and Islam FOCUS cluster!


Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 204FS/ Documentary Studies 204FS/ Arts of the Moving Image 218FS — Documenting the Middle East: Oral History, Identity, and Community (ALP, CZ, CCI, R)

Nancy Kalow, Lecturing Fellow at the Center for Documentary Studies

Students in this course will study the documentary record of the Middle East in photography, film, and oral history. We will begin with studio photography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and conclude with recent community-based, experimental, and student documentary production. How do communities document themselves, and why are social media, politics of representation, and aesthetics important in analyzing documentary research? The class includes a hands-on documentary component. We will learn best practices of documentary work and the nuts-and-bolts of audio recording, interviewing, transcribing, writing field notes, and editing. The documentary approach favors an open-ended and non-invasive interview process, in which interviewees offer deep reflections on their lives, historical events, and community or cultural traditions. Fieldwork from the class will be permanently housed at Duke's Archive of Documentary Arts. No prerequisites.

Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 205FS- Literary Islam (ALP, CZ, CCI)

Ellen McLArney, Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

A broad overview of the most essential elements of the Islamic literary tradition. Begins with pre-Islamic poetry and how it framed the emergence of the Qur'an, hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and the early Islamic community. Looks at the early Meccan verses of the Qur'an in comparison to with the later Madinan ones. Traces intertwined oral and scriptural traditions, hadith science and biographical literature, poetry and philosophy, mysticism and rationalism, belles lettres and adab, satire and vernacular literature. Ends with modern takes on classic genres and sources.

Public Policy 190FS — 9/11, Islam, and the Modern Middle East (EI, SS)

David Schanzer,  Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy;  Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a seminal moment in modern history. They demonstrated the ability of non-state actors to inflict serious damage on the world’s greatest superpower and exposed the vulnerability of the entire global community to catastrophic acts of terrorism. This course explores the origins of this attack, the response of the United States, and the global implications of this long-term, continuous conflict. This inquiry includes discussions of the history of the modern Middle East, the rise Islamist political movements, and the ideology of violent extremist organizations such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Students will learn about the development of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, including uses of force in many Middle Eastern countries, targeted killings using armed drones, expansion of electronic communications surveillance at home and abroad, homeland security, and efforts to prevent acts of homegrown violent extremism.

Faculty Director

Ellen McLarney
Ellen McLarney
  • Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
2204 Erwin Road Room 226
(919) 668-3849