Wilson Center Experts

Elizabeth F. Thompson

Middle East Program

Middle East and North Africa
Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History, University of Virginia and Senior J.R. Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace (2007-08)
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Struggles for Justice in the Middle East"
Sep 01, 2008
May 01, 2009

I am a specialist in 20th-century Middle Eastern history, with a broad interest in how foreign inter¬vention has influenced political development there. My first book, Colonial Citizens, examined France's experiment in building constitutional republics in Syria and Lebanon under conditions of foreign occupation, the political institutions and rights of citizenship forged under the peculiar conditions of colonial rule later shaped politics in the indepen¬dent states. As a scholar at the Wilson Center, I will complete my second book, Struggles for Justice in the Middle East, which takes a broader look at the emer¬gence of mass political movements in the Middle East after World War I and how they have influenced the politics of Islamists today. While political move¬ments arose in local political arenas of Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, the fate of their struggles for justice were profoundly shaped by international factors. Struggles for Justice in the Middle East thus furthers my study of the impact of foreign intervention on human rights and democratization in the Middle East. A third book, on public diplomacy and cinema in the Middle East also reflects my concern with the linkages of history and public policy. Cinema and the Politics of Late Colonialism considers how Hollywood movies became a forum for political debate in the Middle East in the 1930s to the 1950s, and how American diplomats misunderstood the power of cinema as a medium for transnational understanding. The book has relevance for current efforts to promote a posi¬tive American image in the Middle East. I am the recipient of several awards, most re¬cently the Jennings Randolph Senior Fellowship at the United States Institute of Peace and a 2005 Scholar award from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. My first book, Colonial Citizens, won two national book awards from the American Historical Association and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. I have also been invited to present my current research in a seminar series at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris this May. I have recently been invited to lecture at the University of Damascus and Institute for the Study of the Maghreb in Tunis, as well as lo¬cally at the Foreign Service Institute, Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, George Washington University and the Joint Warfare Analysis Center in Dahlgren Virginia.


B.A. (1981) History and Literature, Harvard University; M.A (1989) Columbia University; Ph.D. 1995) History, Columbia University


  • Associate Professor of History, University of Virginia, 2002-present
  • Assistant Professor of History, University of Virginia, 1996-2002
  • Lecturer in History, University of California, Berkeley, 1994-95


Modern Middle Eastern history, with emphases on colonialism, nation-building, the construction of citizenship, social movements and gender politics in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt after World War I

Project Summary

This book tells the history of the modern Middle East as never told before: from the perspective of those who have struggled for justice against inva¬sion, tyranny, and inequality. It explains how ideals of justice—and methods of fighting for justice— have changed since the 19th century, especially with the rise of mass movements after World War I. The goal is to place contemporary Islamism in its proper historical context. Islamists do not act from a dis¬tinct or backward political tradition; rather, they have inherited a repertoire of values, symbols, and strategies from other movements: nationalist, com¬munist/socialist and liberal.

Major Publications

  • Colonial Citizens: Paternal Privilege, Republican Rights, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
  • "The Climax and Crisis of the Colonial Welfare State in Syria and Lebanon during the Second World War," in Steven Heydemann, ed.,
    War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) 59-99.
  • "Public and Private in Middle Eastern Women's History," Journal of Women's History 15:1 (Spring 2003) 52-69.

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