Religion and Politics in the Contemporary Middle East

MEI has been a leading provider of non-partisan, expert information and analysis on the Middle East since 1953. With recent widespread political and social developments throughout the region, MEI announces a new class for students and professionals to better understand these unprecedented changes in the Middle East.
Tuesday, October 24
- Tuesday, December 19
6:30 pm
Middle East Institute
1319 18th Street NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20036

Event Information

The Middle East Institute's Department of Languages and Regional Studies is pleased to announce our regional studies course being offered for beginner to intermediate students of any age who wish to gain a better understanding of today's issues facing the Middle East.

Dates & Time
October 24th to December 19th
Tuesdays, 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM

Course Description
This course will introduce students to a variety of angles on religion and politics in the contemprary Middle East through weekly lectures and discussions led by MEI's renowned experts. Key issues will include Political Islam, different strands of Islam like Salafism and Wahabism, as well as religion's role in current politcs and diplomacy. Students will gain considerable insight into today's religious challenges and shifts in the region while having access to some of the top analysts in the field, including former top goverment officials, authors, and experts from or who have worked extensively in the region.


Contact Information
Middle East Institute
1319 18th Street NW
Washington DC 20036
[email protected]

Course Overview

Understanding POlitical Islam

Paul Salem, Senior Vice President for Policy Analysis, Research & Programs

Paul Salem is senior vice president for policy analysis, research and programs at The Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East.  He has a particular emphasis on the countries of the Levant and Egypt. Salem writes regularly in the Arab and Western press and has been published in numerous journals and newspapers. Salem is the author and editor of a number of books and reports including From Chaos to Cooperation: Toward Regional Order in the Middle East (ed. with Ross Harrison, 2017), Broken Orders: The Causes and Consequences of the Arab Uprisings (In Arabic, 2013), “The Recurring Rise and Fall of Political Islam” (CSIS, 2015), “The Middle East in 2015 and Beyond: Trends and Drivers” (MEI 2014), Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World (1994), Conflict Resolution in the Arab World (ed., 1997)Prior to joining MEI, Salem was the founding director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon between 2006 and 2013.  From 1999 to 2006, he was director of the Fares Foundation and in 1989-1999 founded and directed the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Lebanon's leading public policy think tank.

Salafism and salafis in the middle east

Hassan Mneimneh, Non-Resident Scholar

Hassan Mneimneh specializes in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider Islamic world with a particular emphasis on radicalism and factionalism. In previous capacities, he has focused on the significance of socio-political and cultural developments in the MENA region to U.S. and European policies; assessed civil reaction to radicalizing tendencies in Muslim societies; and studied the evolution, record, and prospects of radical Islamist formations worldwide.

He has written on political, cultural, historical, and intellectual questions concerning the Arab and Muslim worlds. He is a regular contributor to the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, and is currently affiliated with Middle East Alternatives and Fikra Forum. His previous affiliations include the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Iraq Memory Foundation.

The AL Saud Family and Saudi Wahabism 

Roby Barrett, Non-Resident Scholar

Dr. Roby Barrett is 
the president of a consulting firm, specializing in defense and security technology applications and systems including nuclear issues, police-border security,
 command and control, and weapons acquisition issues. He is a former Foreign Service officer and a graduate of the Foreign Service Institute’s intensive 2-year Arab Language and Middle East Area Studies program as well as the Counterterrorism Tactics and Special Operations courses.

Dr. Barrett is a Senior Fellow with the Joint Special Operations University and the Air Force Special Operations School. He was an Eisenhower-Roberts fellow of the Eisenhower Institute in Washington D.C., a Rotary International fellow at the Russian and East European Institute at the University of Munich, a Scottish Rite Research fellow at Oxford University.

Dr. Barrett was a guest speaker at the Bahrain MOI Gulf Security Forum (2008), at the opening of the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (Amman 2009), and the Bahrain SOF Conference (2010). Dr. Barrett supported numerous military units including the 5th Special Forces Group, 101st Airborne both in the U.S. and Iraq, Naval Special Warfare Command both in the U.S. and the Arabian Gulf, 4th Psychological Warfare Group, and 19th Special Forces Group.

The Role of Religion in Contemporary Turkish Politics

Gonul Tol, Director, Director of Turkey Program

Gönül Tol is the founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. She is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies.

After three years of field research in Germany and the Netherlands, she wrote her dissertation on the radicalization of the Turkish Islamist movement Milli Gorus in Western Europe. 

She was also an adjunct professor at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University. She has taught courses on Islamist movements in Western Europe, Turkey, world politics, and the Middle East.

She has written extensively on Turkey-U.S. relations, Turkish domestic politics, and foreign policy and the Kurdish issue. She is a frequent media commentator.


Ahmad Majdiyar, Director of IranObserved

Ahmad Khalid Majidyar is a fellow and the director of IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute.

From 2008 to 2015, Majidyar worked as a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he co-authored two monographs on Iran: Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan (AEI 2012), and The Shi’ites of the Middle East: An Iranian fifth column? (AEI 2014). He also published a number of research papers on Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As an instructor with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leadership Development and Education for Sustained Peace program (2008-2016), Majidyar provided graduate-level seminars to more than 3,000 U.S. and NATO military leaders on Afghanistan and the broader region. In addition, he has provided briefings on Iran and Afghanistan at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the National Defense University, the State Department, and Congress; and he has spoken as a guest analyst at think tanks, universities, and world affairs councils.

Majidyar’s articles on Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been published in Foreign Policy, The New York Times, Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, Fox News, U.S. News & World ReportDaily Telegraph, and Forbes, among others. He has also discussed Middle Eastern topics on the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera English, Sky News, CBC Canada, Bloomberg News and Voice of America’s Dari, Farsi, Urdu and English services.

Previously, Majidyar worked as a media analyst with the BBC Monitoring in Afghanistan and as a humanitarian aid worker with the UNHCR in Pakistan.

Religious MInorities AND the Syrian Civil War

Ibrahim al-Assil, Scholar

Ibrahim al-Assil is a Syrian political analyst and civil society activist and serves as a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Orient Research Center in Dubai. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict with an emphasis on different aspects of security, civil society, political Islam, and political economy.

Al-Assil is the president and a co-founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, an NGO formed in 2011 to promote peaceful struggle and civil resistance as a way to achieve social, cultural, and political change in Syrian government and society.

In 2013-2014, he frequently visited northern Syria, where he lead an initiative to train Syrian activists about strategic planning and project management and conducted studies on the current status and potential role civil society plays in northern Syria. 

Al-Assil is an avid blogger and has been published in a variety of media outlets. Also, he was chosen by the Swedish Institute in 2013 as a young leader from the MENA region.

Religion and Arab-Israeli Relations

Daniel Serwer, Scholar

Professor Daniel Serwer (Ph.D., Princeton) directs the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a Senior Fellow at its Center for Transatlantic Relations and affiliated as a Scholar with the Middle East Institute. His current interests focus on the civilian instruments needed to protect U.S. national security as well as transition and state-building in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans. His book, Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America, was published in November 2013 by Potomac Books.

Formerly vice president for centers of peacebuilding innovation at the United States Institute of Peace, he led teams there working on rule of law, religion, economics, media, technology, security sector governance, and gender. He was also vice president for peace and stability operations at USIP, where he led its peacebuilding work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Balkans and served as Executive Director of the Hamilton/Baker Iraq Study Group.  Serwer has worked on preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq and has facilitated dialogue between Serbs and Albanias in the Balkans.

As a minister-counselor at the U.S. Department of State, Serwer directed the European office of intelligence and research and served as U.S. special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian Federation, mediating between Croats and Muslims and negotiating the first agreement reached at the Dayton peace talks. From 1990 to 1993, he was deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, leading a major diplomatic mission through the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War.


Religion and Diplomacy in the middle east

Allen Keiswetter, Scholar

Allen Keiswetter, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, is a Scholar at the Middle East Institute, Senior Consultant at C&O Resources and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland. He has taught courses on Islam and on the Middle East at the National War College and the National Defense Intelligence College. He served as the Senior Advisor on the Middle East to the US Delegation to the General Assembly.

In his 36 years at the Department of State, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Director of Arabian Peninsula Affairs in the Near East Bureau and Director of the Office of Intelligence Liaison in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.  He also served as NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs in Brussels.

While Director of Regional Affairs in the Near East Bureau, he chaired the Middle East Peace Process Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources. Previously, he held posts as Political Counselor in the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen. He also served at the US Embassies in Tunis, Khartoum, Baghdad, and Beirut.

* Instructor lineup subject to change