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Literature can provide insight into social and political changes

UNIVERSITY NEWS LAST UPDATED : 22 DECEMBER 2016
Dr Islam Issa

Understanding how overlooked parts of society relate to works of literature can help explain some of the world’s major social and political events, according to a literature expert.

Dr Islam Issa, Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, believes looking at how marginalised people respond to novels, poems and plays can provide answers to a society's overall feelings, particularly in a period of shock political events and changing attitudes.

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Birmingham City University

In a new book titled Milton in the Arab Muslim World, which will be officially launched on Wednesday (December 14), Dr Issa unveils his theory of Periphery Neglect and explains how we can explore the influence of literature on major events or popular thought.

Focussing on readers in the Middle East, Milton in the Arab Muslim World highlights the impact the work of 17th Century poet John Milton had on major events in the region such as the Arab Spring and the Syrian Uprising of 2011. 

Periphery Neglect suggests that despite a rise in critiques such as women’s or queer studies, analysis is still focussed predominantly on the Western, patriarchal culture of Mainstream Readers, ignoring millions of Periphery Readers in other parts of the world and how interpretations have influenced their social and political events.

Issa believes the same can be applied to overlooked Western readers in a year which has seen Britain vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump win the US Presidency, increased opposition to the elite and a rise in populist thought.

Dr Islam Issa said: "The rise of populism is partly a call for power to be in the hands of relatable, normal people. To me, the answer to populism is an inclusive and pluralistic society that appreciates how everyone's contribution is different and celebrates the addition it makes. 

“As we've seen lately, having an obvious establishment can result in the emergence of a clearer opposition. Politics shares this precise similarity with literature, because having a literary establishment, or mainstream readers, means that we have certain ideas about implied, universally representative readers or critics who are at the core. They occupy this space while others are shunned to the outskirts: the periphery.

"In that periphery, we can have any underrepresented group. That includes female readers, who were left out of mainstream literature and academia for decades and are still underrepresented. It also includes readers from lower classes and different cultures.

While recent opinion polls have been unable to provide a clear understanding of public feeling, Dr Issa argues that how largely ignored people and societies perceive literary works can provide an insight into how culture develops and influences society, politics and ideology.

For example, interest in Milton’s anti-authoritarian ideas in twentieth-century Egypt may have provided a back drop for Egypt in the Arab Spring.

Egyptian interpretations of Milton showed the importance of self-change without external intervention, and so unlike the public toppling of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, a self-made uprising eventually overthrew long-serving President Hosni Mubarak.

The book also highlights the lack of emphasis placed on German readings of Milton’s work, instead focussing on the established Anglo-American viewpoints, demonstrating the cultural gap between the UK and Europe that may have influenced this year’s referendum results.

Dr Issa added: "The argument in the book's introduction is that by overcoming Periphery Neglect - our neglect of periphery readers - we can reveal many new ideas about the texts, and importantly, about those people and communities.

“The chapters then show how that is the case with Arab-Muslim responses to a seventeenth-century English, Christian writer, John Milton. The case studies explain how these readers can add to our understandings of his work, as well as how the writer has influenced the region historically and culturally until today."

In Milton in the Arab Muslim World Dr Issa uncovered the popularity of Milton’s work in the Middle East particularly due to the shared elements of the Bible and the Quran found in Paradise Lost and the writer’s position as a republican and anti-establishment figurehead.

It also found the rise in popularity of Paradise Lost in the area coincided with the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East that even included strong support for the work by members of President Assad’s government publications.

Milton in the Arab Muslim World has been awarded this year's Outstanding First Book from the Milton Society of America.

The book will launch on Wednesday December 14 at Birmingham City University’s Curzon Building.

For more information contact the University on 0121-331-6738 or email press@bcu.ac.uk

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