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Alumna Profile: Sherifa ZuhurSherifa Zuhur

Alumna Profile: Sherifa Zuhur

Distinguished Visiting Research Professor of National Security Affairs offers unique perspective at US Army War College

I call into question the grand strategy of the global war on terror, but conclude that its recommendation of increasing freedom and political participation has value.

CNES Assistant Director Jonathan Friedlander caught up with Sherifa Zuhur during a recent visit to UCLA where she lectured to a class on the politics of the Middle East about "The New Jihad" as redefined by extremist Islamists, their strategic conceptions and their manipulation of recruits. She is currently writing a monograph on this subject for the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College where she serves as Distinguished Visiting Research Professor of National Security Affairs.

Zuhur worked in the business sector in the Middle East and in Arab-American communities before entering UCLA where she received a BA in Political Science and Arabic, an MA in Islamic Studies and a PhD in Middle Eastern History in 1990. Prior to joining the faculty of the US Army War College, she taught at MIT, the American University in Cairo, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and other universities. Her overseas experience includes extended stays in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Syria as well as travel to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Libya and Kuwait. She is the author of seven books, including Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt, and most recently, The Middle East: Politics, History and Neonationalism. An accomplished musician, she is the mother of Natasha who is an undergraduate at UCSB, and Jean-Paul who is moving on to junior high school.

Sherifa Zuhur

What are your main responsibilities at the US Army War College?

I determine key research topics of interest to the military and foreign policy community and write monographs on these subjects. I provide special lectures, briefings and training sessions at the Institute and to other Army units on political, religious and cultural factors impacting operations, security and counterterrorism. I advise students who are completing Special Research Projects, a component of a special Master's degree, and I guest lecture on topics like the Arab media, political violence and Islamism. I am also used as a resource for local or doctrinal matters, about the impact of very current events, or even how to pronounce an Arabic name.

How similar or different is your current work vis-à-vis your work at other academic institutions?

My work differs in that a) I can access a wide array of resources, some of which are inaccessible to ordinary academics, b) since the purpose of my research is to guide policy makers or the military via specific recommendations, I have to be very cautious and accurate, and filter out extraneous information, c) I work with professionals who are older than the average graduate student and who have usually served a tour or two in the region, and they are more intellectually engaged than some undergraduates.

What aspects of your academic training and foreign travel experiences are most relevant to your current duties?

I actually studied four different disciplines at UCLA: international relations, political theory, and early on, the very same strategic concepts found here; then Islamic studies and Middle Eastern history, and I read a lot of anthropology. Also, my interests in music and culture led me outside the university environment, and that breadth and familiarity with different types of communities in the Middle East has been helpful.

Tell us about training Army personnel in the V Corps. What were their expectations—and yours?

Better cultural understanding is key to interaction with Middle Eastern populations in situations of conflict and danger. I provided cultural, political and social awareness training for the command group of the V (Victory) Corps in Germany, and will similarly provide a session here for officers headed for Iraq. The V Corps had already served in Iraq and will be returning there. Many had fairly sophisticated questions, but did not necessarily understand the internal rationale for social values like honor and pride, or the formation of elite political culture, the growth of Islamism in Iraq, and differences between tribal groups. I can't speak to our expectations—only that we all hope that higher quality preparation can ease misinterpretations.

Tell us about your recent trip to Saudi Arabia.

I visited Riyadh and met with and interviewed Saudis who helped me understand some of the obstacles to political and social change in the Kingdom. I met in closed session with officials, academics and others at the Institute for Diplomatic Studies which is within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there and found the level of exchange to be more informative and interesting than at any academic conference I have attended for a long time.

Tell us about your recent monographs on Islamic Rulings on Warfare and on Saudi Arabia.

I wrote Islamic Rulings on Warfare with my co-author Youssef Aboul-Enein to counteract the idea that Islam promotes kidnappings, beheadings and other unlicensed hostile actions as a matter of course. We explored the literature on jihad and other forms of fighting, their ethical and tactical aspects, how these appear in modernist, revisionist views and are manipulated by extremists. My monograph, Saudi Arabia: Islamic Threat, Political Reform, and the Global War on Terror, examines the factors leading up to calls for political reform in the Kingdom, and the campaign against al-Qa`ida fi Jazirat al-`Arabiyyah which has been operating there. I call into question the grand strategy of the global war on terror, but conclude that its recommendation of increasing freedom and political participation has value.

What is the added value that you bring to your job?

Middle Eastern specialists were unfairly accused of dereliction of duty in failing to predict the events of 9/11. I do think that intellectual inquiry in all areas of study on the Middle East should be promoted by universities. But I felt that it was quite crucial for me to utilize my expertise in the service of our country, so that we don't take the wrong path in the region, and to promote better communication and diplomacy between the United States and Middle Eastern nations.

Center for Near Eastern Studies