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Visiting scholar from China discusses research on Iraqi Kurdistan

Ruiheng Li, a Ph.D. student at Peking University in Beijing, China joined the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies this year as a visiting student researcher. During his time at Stanford, Li is conducting research at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, where he is studying the Ba’ath Party Records, a comprehensive archive documenting how Iraq was governed during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Using the records, Li hopes to gain a better understanding of the history of nationalism in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq.

Ruiheng Li

How did you become interested in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies?

As an undergraduate, I studied the Arabic language at Beijing Foreign Studies University, which is famous for teaching foreign languages in China. So, my interests and curiosity about Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies were established because of my major. In the very beginning, I never thought about studying a foreign language, outside of English. However, when I saw this major, it sparked my interest because I used to read many books about the Arabs’ role in the history of human civilization. After a year studying Arabic, I knew I wanted to continue my studies about the region.

Have you conducted research in the region?

As an undergraduate, I applied to travel to Syria for one year, but due to the terrible situation there, I didn’t make the trip. During my master’s studies, I went to Morocco for one year, which is why I focused on the Islamic discourse in Morocco’s nation state building in my master’s thesis. After that experience, I continued to study nation state building in the Middle East, but I transferred my focus from Morocco to Iraq. As a Ph.D. student, I have traveled to many Middle Eastern countries for field research but for a short period of time, including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Why did you decide to come to Stanford, and what is your research focus?

The reason I am at Stanford is to read the Ba’athist archives at the Hoover Institution. I am working on Iraqi Kurdistan, and I’m really curious about the nationalist discourse inside Iraqi Kurdistan. I believe the already established literature has a left-wing bias, because many left-wing scholars are sympathetic to the Kurds and their bitter experience under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, and also because of the political agenda against Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist party.

Using the Hoover archives, I would like to make a comparison between the Kurdish perspective and the Arab or Ba’athist Party perspective on this issue so that we can get a more balanced, objective view and know the true history of Kurdish nationalism in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In China, many scholars are working on the Middle East from many disciplines, including political science, foreign languages, history, and anthropology, but the literature is general and not specific enough regarding particular issues within Middle Eastern countries. What we would like to do now is to pay more attention to these kinds of issues. Taking the Kurds as an example, we have no more than six books in the Chinese language focused on the Kurds. The books are excellent, but it is not enough for China. We would like to do more specific, detailed studies about this region in the future.

What do you hope to accomplish through your work?

I hesitated to focus on Iraqi Kurdistan because I thought, “This topic is so hot. Am I pragmatic to follow this issue?” However, I found that the Kurdish issue is an important clue to help us get to know Iraq and the Middle East because a good question is a question that will lead you to a broader understanding or thinking about the region. Based on my research on the Iraqi Kurds, in the long run I hope to do research on Iraq’s sectarianism and political system, or even the political transformation in the Middle East. Can the Middle East be successful in creating a regional version of consociationalism democracy to make peace come true? Is it possible to keep the sovereignty of the state and the nation-state structure stable while also respecting the diversity of the societies there?

What are some of the highlights from your time here at Stanford?

I attended a conference focused on Iraq, and I met some famous scholars working on Iraq and the Ba’ath party archives. It was exciting to talk to scholars face-to-face and receive feedback regarding my research. I also had the opportunity to attend the Middle Eastern Studies Association annual meeting in New Orleans in 2019. There, I met more scholars and specialists on Iraq and the Middle East. It was an amazing opportunity!