UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2008

Calling Qatar
Checking in with Professor David Mednicoff, in the Middle East this year on a Fulbright
By Faye S. Wolfe

When Google Earth zooms down into Qatar, the quadrant that materializes on the screen looks like Italian marble, a warm shade of taupe with brown flecks. Pull back and that square of desert is absorbed into a peninsula shaped like a raggedy mitten extending out from the much larger Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf.

Roughly half the size of Massachusetts, Qatar is home to 880,000 people (the Bay State has 6.4 million); 60 percent live in the capital, Doha. With virtually no arable land, for much of its history Qatar was inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes. Variously governed by the Portuguese, the Turks, and the British—as a protectorate—it became an independent nation in 1971. Amir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani now rules Qatar. Thanks to oil and natural gas reserves, it has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

David Mednicoff, an award-winning teacher and professor of Legal Studies and Public Policy and Administration at UMass Amherst, is in Qatar for the year as a Fulbright Scholar to do research and teach. With him are his wife, Joya Misra, a UMass Amherst sociology professor, and their four-year-old daughter, Amina. We spoke to him in early October.

How are you settling in?
We’re just getting the hang of life here. Doha is experiencing breakneck growth and development. Traffic is hellish, and people drive very aggressively, without regard to lanes. As a native Bostonian, I’m in my element.

Tell us about your teaching.
I’m teaching political and social theory at the University of Qatar. My course is part of a new interdisciplinary program in International Affairs that aims to train Qataris for careers in diplomacy and public policy. The state-sponsored university has a men’s campus and a women’s campus, with a wall between the two. They’re breaking down part of the wall just so that students can attend this program.

Qatar is experiencing major transformation, and the 19 women I’m teaching are at the forefront. It’s very interesting talking with them about democracy, women’s rights, and other hot-button issues. They’re willing and able to express themselves; they have a commitment to critical thought. Recently I “crossed over” to the women’s campus—students can’t go between campuses, but faculty can—and ran into some of my students. On their own ground they were more assertive, dynamic, immediately much more open. I think they’re dedicated, hardworking, and expecting to be an important part of a social revolution.

What about the research you’ll be doing?
Being here offers me a good opportunity to carry out the field work for my major current research project. I’m attempting to document and explain how diverse local conceptions of the rule of law connect to government and democratization in the Arab world today. My research involves observing these relationships in a variety of contexts in five Arab societies that represent a good sample of Arab countries generally. This study is highly relevant for understanding Arab law and politics in relation to American foreign policy. I am fortunate to have several other research grants besides the Fulbright that will allow me to return to my other country cases once I’m finished here.

Why Qatar?
Because it’s a distinctive, unusual society. It’s socially conservative, more so than other Arab countries in which I’ve lived. It follows a rather strict version of Islamic practice based on traditional Islamic law, but there is also an unusual political openness and a determination on the part of the government to foster diverse media and thought. Aljazeera [the Arab international news network] is based in Qatar. Whatever Americans may think about Aljazeera, it has indisputably transformed Arab regional media culture. Qatar’s mix of political and media openness is not common to many third-world countries, or to the Arab world in particular. The coexistence of conservative Islam and democratizing openness makes Qatar a very interesting case for studying the rule of law and its connection to politics.

UMass Amherst professor David Mednicoff (far right) welcomed US Ambassador Chase Untermeyer to his classroom at the University of Qatar.

What else strikes you about Qatar?
Qatar is one of the richest societies in the world. Doha is a boomtown, like Las Vegas, but built on oil, not sin [Laughs]. You’ll go through an intersection that’s been taken apart, and the next day there’s a traffic light; it has been completely rebuilt.

In summer, everyone goes to the malls, because they’re air-conditioned. My daughter has had more McDonald’s Happy Meals since we arrived than she ever did in Amherst. The supermarkets have the brand of waffles she likes and my favorite obscure cereals . . . there’s an unexpected familiarity. There are many American chain restaurants and they’re very popular.

You can’t help feeling wistful about their domination. Qatar is truly Westernized globalization in action, for better and for worse, but Doha was always a trading post and open to foreign influences. So Dunkin’ Donuts need not seem more foreign than Egyptian bean dishes did a century ago.

Qatar is still a crossroads—and at a crossroads?
Yes. Qatar is attempting to develop its own national identity, but it has also made a strategic social decision to be open to the world. Native Qataris form a minority within their own society. There’s a huge expatriate presence: mostly people from India and Southeast Asia who work in engineering, construction, domestic care, or other service industries. A wide variety of nationalities is represented, people attracted by the rapid change.

Qatar has recently become a magnet for qualified talent from other Arab countries as well. At the university, there are faculty from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and North Africa as well as Qatar and Western countries. Native Qataris have to speak English a lot in their daily lives because they interact with so many non-Qataris.

Is there one element of life in Qatar that stands out?
Doing research and living in a Middle Eastern country, it’s impossible to ignore religion, and how it connects to other things. Ramadan [the Muslim month of fasting from sunrise to sunset], for instance, dominates everything. It’s very seriously observed here—I could be pulled over by the police for driving with an open bottle of water in my car during the daytime.

It’s a puzzle. I’m wondering where this particular sort of Islam fits into a society that is coping with such dislocating change. Americans don’t necessarily see Islam’s immense global diversity. For instance, Qatar’s notion of Islam is very different from that of Morocco’s. [Although Islam prohibits the consumption of pork or alcohol] there you can go to restaurants that serve pork and buy alcohol in many stores—Morocco even has a winemaking industry. Not so in Qatar. Yet bars and night clubs exist here. The puzzle is nicely summed up by my students. They strongly believe that all people should have the right to practice their own religion in public, yet, for now at least, their society is reluctant to have non-Muslims express their religious identity openly.

In a nutshell, I’m in a society of greater diversity and complexity than we might imagine would be the case, given Qatar’s size. I need to be constantly aware of the complexity, particularly given my ambitions as a scholar and a teacher, to mediate between the post-9/11 United States and the Muslim-dominated Middle East. It’s all too common for each side to simplify the other. Altogether Qatar is a very interesting place for studying the rule of law and its connection to politics. And the Fulbright gives me access to people and places that it would be very hard for me to have if I were here on my own.

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