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Idaho State University history professor Zack Heern looks to help change the perspective towards the Middle East

March 23, 2016
Melissa Lee

Photo of Zack Heern at backgammon table.

POCATELLO – On Sept. 11, 2001, Zack Heern sat in a University of California, Los Angeles classroom astonished by the attacks on the World Trade Center. Heern was an undergraduate student of Middle East studies at the time.

He is now a history professor at Idaho State University and teaches classes on the Modern Middle East, Islam in the Modern World and Arabic language.

“September 11 was a game changer on so many levels,” Heern said. “I was interested in how people were going to view the Middle East.”

Along with teaching and his research, Heern is looking to change the perspective people have towards the Middle East. As a graduate student, Heern was able to travel to Egypt to study Arabic. While he was there, he learned how warm and friendly the Middle Eastern culture is.

“I think people forget sometimes that this is an entire civilization and culture,” Heern said. “I think Americans would be surprised to learn that Middle Easterners are by far the most hospitable people on the planet. Nobody does hospitality like Middle Easterners, hands down.”

Heern enjoys teaching classes on the Middle East to help his students contextualize some of the issues that are going on in the Middle East, as well as helping them understand some of the changes that are being faced.

“I enjoy helping students have more context on issues in the Middle East,” Heern said. “We are witnessing an incredibly critical period in the Middle East. Borders and governments are shifting, and countries might come into being or fall apart. It’s both exciting and painful to watch.”

Heern recently wrote a book on Shi‘ Islam titled “The Emergence of Modern Shi‘ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran.” The book is about the historical and ideological roots of the most powerful movement in modern Sh‘ism. Shi‘ism is the second largest branch of Islam in the world and accounts for the majority of the population in Iran and Iraq. The book has received high reviews from “The Economist” and established professors in Middle East studies including Roy Mottahedeh at Harvard.

“It feels great to be early in my career and have my first major book,” Heern said. “It was surprising that it was reviewed in a major magazine which speaks to the growing importance of Islamic studies.”

Heern began studying sociology at UCLA in the late 1990s but decided to take a class on Middle East history out of interest. He had many friends who were from Middle Eastern backgrounds, and there is a large Middle Eastern population around UCLA. He said after being in class for two weeks he knew he needed to switch majors.

“During the first or second week, I was sitting there as the professor was explaining things in Arabic and I was super fascinated,” Heern said. “That was it. I knew I needed to switch majors. And it turned out that UCLA had a great Middle Eastern studies program.”

Heern is travelling around the country presenting his research on Shi‘ism to universities. In early March he travelled to Harvard, and he will speak at the University of Utah and the University of Chicago later this month.