Syracuse University Magazine

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Yüksel Sezgin

Understanding the Middle East

Yüksel Sezgin considers himself an “eternal student.” From his days as an inquisitive grade-schooler in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir, Turkey, to his time now as a Maxwell School political science professor and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program, Sezgin has always plunged into learning, exploring, and immersing himself in the politics of the day. At a time when there wasn’t a single academic program in Turkey devoted to studying the Middle East, he enrolled as a graduate student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and honed his knowledge of the region, traveling extensively throughout Israel, the Palestinian territories, and other countries there. “I realized you learn a lot when you talk to people from different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds,” says Sezgin, who joined the Maxwell faculty in 2013 following four years at John Jay College, City University of New York. “One thing I always tell my students is you have to go out and spend time with people. You have to shake hands, drink tea with them. The primary direct information you gather and the interactions you have are priceless.”

For Sezgin, this commitment to investigative fieldwork, combined with scholarly research and a working knowledge of five languages, lends authenticity to his expertise as a public scholar and comparative political scientist. His research lies at the intersection of human rights, religion, and legal systems—religio-legal pluralism—and he draws on a background that includes consulting work with the United Nations and USAID, and a stint as a freelance journalist. In 2013, he published the award-winning Human Rights under State-Enforced Religious Family Laws in Israel, Egypt, and India (Cambridge University Press), based on the exhaustive thesis research he did as a doctoral student at the University of Washington. He spent 27 months attending religion-based family law courts in those countries, interviewing more than 200 people from 20 different religious traditions, and combing through hundreds of court cases. “My primary concern was human rights, particularly the rights of women and how they are treated within these religious systems,” he says. “The women are fighting an important battle to define their religious traditions from within, and are playing an increasingly important role as religious authorities. And you see that—a revolution in the making.”

In his current research, Sezgin is examining how four countries—Israel, India, Greece, and Ghana—reconcile Sharia law with their democracies. “Religious laws are difficult to be enforced or imposed by any state, whether democratic or non-democratic,” he says. “Some have been more successful than others, but I wouldn’t say there is one perfect success story.”

Now in his second year of heading the Middle Eastern Studies Program, Sezgin wants to continue building on the interdisciplinary program’s existing strengths and resources and take it to the next level. In assessing the Middle East today, he notes the polarization, the depiction of violence and terrorism, and the “pollution of disinformation,” believing it’s important for scholars, politicians, journalists, and others to provide objective information. “We have to really tackle how we understand, how we study, how we learn about the Middle East,” he says.

Through it all, Sezgin emphasizes to his students the impact that politics has on the everyday lives of people and maintains a deep appreciation for those who share their lives with him in his research. “I want to see how things are being done in reality—what the policy implications of what I write and think will have on the ground,” he says. “Can I make life better for those people I study?”     —Jay Cox

Photo by Steve Sartori