Unconventional Wisdom

Unconventional Wisdom

Colby professors teach students to examine the complex forces that shape cultures—and conflicts

By Stephen Collins '74 | Photos by Jon Reinfurt (Illustrations)

Beyond his work at Colby, Denoeux accepts assignments from the U.S. State Department and other organizations, often analyzing political realities and governmental functions in far-flung countries. "I was in Morocco in August,— he said in November. "I was in Lebanon, actually, in December of last year [2005]. I was in Azerbaijan before that. Palestine in 2005, doing an evaluation of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Those would be the last four.—
"The first thing in this course [Conflict in East Asia] is to get away from teaching the students that everything is up the U.S. to solve. It's a truly regional issue. Job number one is to try to get the students to quit thinking that all of these things are merely bilateral problems that the U.S. could solve with a magic wand or a preemptive strike.—
Walter Hatch, assistant professor of government
Besides giving him access to places and officials he could not get to otherwise, his consulting work employs an analytical framework that's valuable in teaching students how to approach the world's hot spots. In his seminar titled Political Violence, Revolutions, and Ethnic Conflict, he spends half the semester giving students "the analytical tools to make sense of specific instances of political conflict,— then turns each student loose on one area.

They are likely to identify dozens of factors or variables in a given situation, but they need to be able to narrow the field to three or four, Denoeux says. "Ultimately, what does it boil down to? What are the structural forces that account for the distinctive features of that conflict?—

Student papers show elaborate diagrams of, for example, causes of the second war in Chechnya in the late 1990s. Andr�c3;¡s Rozmer '05 charted underlying factors ranging from economic opportunities to corrupt Russian leadership to Islamist radicals, with immediate causes including Russian political opportunism and an intra-Chechen split that created instability.

In an analysis of the Sudan, Shane Hoffman '00 looked at "resources, internal and external political actors, and the extensive manipulation of ethnic and cultural identity— to try to understand the ongoing civil war.

In 2003 Denoeux published an acclaimed article in the magazine Arabies Trends debunking as simplistic the notion that the world is engaged in a "clash of civilizations.— In it he wrote that, "Neither Islam nor the West can afford to see the clash of civilizations become a self-fulfilling prophecy,— and he suggested nine crucial points for leaders to try to avert such a catastrophe. (See www.mafhoum.com/press4/127P56.htm)

In November 2006 Denoeux identified a range of factors beyond religion, geostrategic location, and oil that complicate—and help to explain—the political situation in the Middle East. Among them: population explosions that have created major youth bulges throughout the region, failed political and economic development models, and the spread of information through the Internet and satellite television. "The media revolution has led events taking place in Palestine to almost immediately reverberate in Islamabad or Rabat. Like that,— he said, snapping his fingers, "these images are sent into peoples' living rooms.

"These are forces that have nothing to do with Islam that are fundamentally reshaping the politics of these countries—that are driving a lot of these conflicts,— he said.

Look closer, though, and you'll see tremendous differences among the different Arab countries. "What I particularly dislike is the expression 'the Arab Street,'— Denoeux said. "It conveys the idea of a manipulative elite and an easily manipulated, easily aroused, and rather poorly informed mass Arab public.— In fact the average Arab is well informed, he maintains, and is quite sophisticated in understanding politics. Savvy populations that are being heard and seen in great numbers are creating constraints on Arab governments and even on American policy.

While Denoeux focuses on giving his students the analytical framework for understanding the dynamics of a place as complicated as the Middle East, those skills come with a warning. "I tell my students, 'once you're hooked, once you get the bug, that's it,'— he said, counting himself as one irrevocably fascinated by the region and its politics.

In January a second-annual briefing on world conflict issued by the Human Security Centre (www.humansecuritycentre.org) at the University of British Columbia suggested that, though it may seem counterintuitive, armed conflicts, genocides, military coups, and the numbers of refugees worldwide actually continued a decline in 2006.

But the report was not all positive, and Colby professors will not run out of case studies anytime soon. Four of six regions in the world have seen conflicts increase since 2002, there has been a "huge spike— in the death toll from terrorism, and negotiated settlements to end conflicts fail far too frequently, the report said.

For the foreseeable future, the need to analyze such complex situations continues unabated, and students who can understand the world's troubles in ways that can help lead to solutions provide hope for the future. Denoeux and others on the faculty are doing all they can to make sure Colby students are ready.

Denoeux said that in the 16 years he's been at Colby, "the caliber of the students has increased—there's no doubt in my mind. But the students will only do it if they're challenged and pressed to do it. Press them very hard and they can deliver creative work. That puts more pressure on us; we need to make sure we aim higher in what we demand from students.—
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