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An in-depth look at the Arab world

By Bradley West '13
December 5, 2012

Daniel Sacerio '13, draped in the Libyan flag, joined Egyptians in celebrating the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi while studying abroad last year.

Daniel Sacerio '13 first became fascinated by the politics of the Middle East after his sophomore year of high school, when he started reading about the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

Sacerio brought his passion for Middle Eastern studies with him to St. Olaf College, where he's found a variety of ways — from studying abroad to designing independent research projects — to incorporate this interest into his academic work.

Most recently, Sacerio, a sociology/anthropology major, began working on an independent study project that examines political Islam in the Arab world, focusing specifically on groups that figure prominently in the changing political landscape of the Middle East, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

His advisor for the project is Assistant Professor of Sociology Ibtesam Al-Atiyat, whose course The Arab World further spurred Sacerio's interest in the Middle East.

"Right now I'm exploring Western misconceptions about political Islam," Sacerio explains. "A lot of these ideas stem from misconceptions about Islam itself, like the idea that the religion is the same from country to country or that it is inherently violent."

Before starting this project, Sacerio spent a full year in the Middle East, first studying Arabic at the Qasid Institute in Jordan while staying with the family of Al-Atiyat, and then attending the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

Sacerio's interest in the Middle East deepened after he saw some of the turbulent events of the Arab Spring. He witnessed firsthand the Egyptian Revolution and the turmoil in Tahrir Square while enrolled at the American University in Cairo. 

"In August I got to see the early excitement about the revolution," Sacerio says. "But by November the people I talked to expressed a lot more doubt about the revolution's direction. People were becoming more and more impatient." 

While in Egypt Sacerio also witnessed the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power, which is one of the groups that he is now studying as part of his independent project.

"The Muslim Brotherhood was the most organized party, which is why I think they got elected in Egypt. Plus they promised the creation of popular social welfare programs," Sacerio says. 

Sacerio's academic work on Islam and the Arab world will not end with the completion of this project. In the spring semester he will complete two more independent study projects. One looks closely at Jordanian society and culture. The other examines how communism affected Albania and explores the nation's democratic consolidation process in the post-communist era.

His independent study projects are often informed and inspired by the experiences he had while living in the Middle East, speaking with the local people and glimpsing huge political changes.

"It was especially great to talk with people of different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. The elite in Egypt have more liberal perspectives compared to the people at the market, who are very pious and very devout," Sacerio says. "Throughout my travels I met many friendly people who all shared a respect for different cultures and perspectives."

Read more about St. Olaf College's top ranking in a recent study-abroad survey.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.