On March 24-26, 2018, The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held its “Arab Graduate Students Conference”, at its premises in Doha. This is the first conference of its kind in the Arab region, with its importance lying in the establishment of a dynamic interactive space between Arab doctoral researchers in Western universities and academic institutions in the Arab world.
The three-day conference started at 9 am on Saturday March 24, and closed at 4 pm on the 26th. The agenda included 14 sessions involving 83 researchers from more than 40 Western universities, representing Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Academic Committee selected the participants from over 250 applications, taking into account the diversity of their research topics. Finally, the conference had 40 specialized professors as discussants to provide feedback on these papers.
The meeting hosted a variety of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities, and included various doctoral dissertations in the fields of cultural studies, history, sociology, political science, gender studies, psychology, economics, law, judicial politics and linguistics.
The first round of the "Arab Graduate Students Conference" kicked off on Saturday 24 March 2018. In the opening remarks, Dr. Dana El Kurd, a researcher at the ACRPS, announced that this academic meeting is a further step towards achieving the ACRPS mission to promote methodological academic research, based on an intellectual renaissance vision committed to the issues affecting the Arab nation.
El Kurd's remarks were followed by Azmi Bishara, the General Manager of the ACRPS, who presented the opening lecture. He spoke about the foundations of the Arab Center as an institution specialized in social sciences and the humanities at a point where Arab regional interest in the field is declining, and the idea behind the establishment of the Doha Institute and the conference for doctoral students.
Azmi Bishara began his lecture by distinguishing between the intellectual and the expert in terms of intervention in public affairs, with the matter being pivoted towards the benefit of the intellectual. In his opinion it is based on academia and knowledge, but emphasized that the difference between the intellectual and the expert is not only in knowledge. In particular, that knowledge is a constant and must be a condition in both cases, be it an expert in the service of an institution or a state or government or a movement or a party. Possessing the necessary academic tools is integral- but so is the ethical position of the public intellectuals when intervening in public affairs. The intellectual must take an ethical necessarily.
Bishara believes that the path to Renaissance undoubtedly requires the necessary academic tools, as well as an ethical position, willingness to engage in public affairs and a lack of fear. This leads to another distinction, that between "objectivity" and "neutrality." In this regard, he said: "In order to engage in the humanities and social sciences, or any other science, we must be objective. This does not necessarily mean neutral, in the sense of pursuing the scientific approach, seeking the truth, trying to scrutinize the data and avoid any interference in the process of reasoning or conclusion". Neutrality is an ethical issue. It is possible to be objective but not impartial in matters that concern the nation and its people.
Bishara alluded to his earlier book The Arab Question, pointing to the need to question democracy and the status quo without circumventing it, stressing the role of educated elites in the Arab world, without whom there can be no democratic transition from. The issue of the democratic and pro-democracy intellectuals is a position that the public intellectual must adopt, which was proven in the Arab revolutions of 2011. There was no populist democratic party that guided the revolutionary movement.
In this context, establishing an Arab research center that would raise the issues of Arab societies, including the issue of democracy was partially based on a space for thought. Bishara stressed that the Arab Center is not a think tank, but an Arab specific research center. It consists of Arab researchers, not in the ethnic sense, but in the sense that its language and culture is Arab, and includes non-Arabs. The Policy Analysis Unit, which parallels and perhaps surpasses the work of US think tanks, is one branch in a research center that raises philosophical, social, historical and political issues. He said, "We are floundering in many subjects, except in the academic approach, and the desire to serve public affairs. Even after the establishment of the Doha Institute, we are still mired in questions about what we can add to the social and human sciences, and in other questions about the meaning of multidisciplinarity. The multidisciplinary approach is not only a critique of the research of Western institutions and the theories they produce about our societies, but it is also built on a goal to provide an alternative. Knowledge production requires that the Arab researcher at this stage adopt a multidisciplinary approach because the relevant issues are complex and cannot be approached from a single point of view. Therefore, the goal of establishing the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies is to create a specialized Arab researcher who has a good idea of other disciplines. When researching a topic, it is necessary to be familiar with the basic problems in the social and human sciences.
Bishara stressed that the Center seeks to make a contribution to understanding and explaining the problems facing the Arab region. This is especially true given that authoritarian regimes do not invest in the social sciences and humanities, but rather dismiss theory as meaningless. They believe that learners should be either experts or technicians, or that specialism in the social sciences and humanities should be offered to students with lower grades. The establishment of a research center devoted to the respectful study of social sciences and humanities, as well as the establishment of an institute for graduate studies with an Arab orientation, is in itself important in serving Arab communities.
The first day of the conference included 17 interventions by 34 Arab doctoral researchers who presented their papers based mainly on the doctoral research that they are preparing. The participants received feedback from academics specialized in various fields, followed by intensive discussions by the participating students and the guests. The researchers hailed from many branches of social sciences and humanities, such as political science, literature, economics, gender studies, history, sociology, and others.
During the first session on the subject of gender studies, the researchers discussed the concept of fertility or lack thereof in Palestine, while linking this concept to the political, social and colonial contexts that exist in the Palestinian situation. The session also focused on addressing the issues of gender and its relationship to the problems of forced migration during war times similar to the war in Syria, and how this context affects gender identities, roles and relations. In the history session, the debate shifted to the middle of the 19th century in Egypt, to the early development of modern science in the Arab world through research in the role of printing in shaping the fields of media and thought. The presentations also examined the story of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the leader of the 1916 revolution and the historical role he played in confronting the Ottoman Empire.
In the second session on the topic of authoritarian regimes and the question of continuity, researchers dealt with the concept of political economy for the distribution of public resources in Egypt. The session discussed the issues related to using social media in the Arab region and linking them to the outbreak of protests. Looking at Islamic movements and jihadist groups, some researchers studied the audio-visual communication of terrorism, and also focused on ISIL and the shift from the al-Qaeda model to the Taliban model.
All in all the first day included many other issues, including studies in comparative Arabic literature, political economy, the Palestinian question between politics and resistance, and Gulf studies.
A plenary session on this second day introduced the participants, who traveled to Qatar to attend, to the ACRPS’ research agenda.
Mohammad Almasri, ACRPS Executive Director who chaired that plenary panel, also offered a round-up of the first day of the proceedings before going on to explain the role of the ACRPS as an academic research institute. Almasri also gave an overview of the various administrative units and research functions of the Center. Jamal Barout, Director of the Research Division, described his unit’s work as being “at the heart of the Center’s work” and introduced the participants to the publishing output which was the backbone of the Center’s output.
Barout further added that all research included in the Center’s output, whether published in the scholarly journals or included in the proceedings of academic conferences, was subject to a rigorous peer review process. In realizing this, Barout said, the ACRPS was able to rely on its vast institutional network, which took in a large number of scholars based in universities in the Arab region and further afield.
Barout was followed by Marwan Kabalan, Head of the Center’s Policy Analysis Unit which he described as the Center’s “Think Tank”. The Unit’s work, explained Kabalan, was to follow and analyze current affairs throughout the region and beyond. The vehicles for the Policy Analysis Unit’s work, said Kabalan, came in two shapes: analyses published as part of series online; and seminars, conferences and symposia tackling current affairs. Kabalan also explained his Unit’s role in organizing a series of annual events dedicated to understanding the relationship between the Arab region and various other civilizations. Finally, Kabalan explained how his Unit shaped the yearly Gulf Studies Forum, which has quickly become the leading academic venue in the region for the study of Gulf states and societies.
Kabalan was followed by Dana El-Kurd, an ACRPS Researcher who oversees the Arab Opinion Index, the largest—by number of respondents—and broadest—by geographical region covered and topics surveyed—regular poll of public opinion in the Arab region. El-Kurd explained to the audience of participants at the Arab Graduate Students Conference how the Index has been able, since 2011, to measure and collate Arab public opinion on a range of issues of pressing concern, in the political, social and economic realms. In addition, the Arab Opinion Index carried respondents’ attitudes to the foreign policies of major nations towards the Arab region. El-Kurd closed her presentation with some of the findings from the 2016 Index, and told the audience about plans to launch a website devoted to publishing the findings of the Arab Opinion Index as both written reports and graphical information.
Following El-Kurd, Mohammed Al Ubaidi, Deputy Director of the Doha Historical Dictionary, gave an overview of the massive lexicographical undertaking of the Arab Center in creating a useable, long-term historical dictionary of the Arabic language. Al Ubaidi also described how part of the Dictionary’s efforts included the amassing of the largest known bibliography of Arabic language texts throughout history. Al Ubaidi also explained that the online portal for the use of the Dictionary would be launched in a matter of months.
On the second day, a total of 18 workshops allowed student participants to focus on their disciplines of interest, including political science; comparative literature; history; economics; and sociology. A total of 36 papers were presented in the sessions, which covered both morning and evening schedules.
Panelists covering comparative literature explored questions of history and the collective imagination which also took in questions of history and narrative. The same discussions also covered questions of the relationship between identity and migration and the definition of “Otherness”.
Economics panelists explored the complex question of corruption and its impact on social structures and institutionalism as well as on societal development and economic growth. Speakers also focused on labor laws in the Arab region. Speakers in various sessions also took in questions of the relationship between Islam, tolerance and democracy. In doing so, the participants were able to make use of the vast body of data available through the Arab Opinion Index.
The third and final day of the ACRPS’ Arab Graduate Students Conference was held on Monday, 26 March. It began with a panel of Doha-based academics offering their assessment of the challenges and difficulties facing Arab academia.
Ayman Dessouki, a Doha Institute professor of comparative literature, was the first speaker on the panel. Dessouki focused on the role of institutions in defining the role of “student as researcher” and the redefinition and redrawing of the field of knowledge. According to Dessouki, academic disciplines in the Arab academe were characterized by historically justified traditions; students, in these settings, continued to be seen as “disciples” who received instruction and were encouraged to view the disciplines in which they studied as static bodies of knowledge. Universities in this sense acted, said Dessouki, were tasked with training students to be able to produce knowledge leading, the speaker said, to a “genuine dilemma” resulting from the narrow disciplinary focus in Arab academia.
Dessouki also touched on the need to address the question of the Arabic language as a language capable of producing its own terminology, and not merely one reliant on the translation of terms from other languages.
Following Dessouki was Imed Ben Labidi, a lecturer on the Media and Cultural Studies programme within the Doha Institute, who offered a personal perspective on working among this diverse group of Arab students, in an institution which he said had worked to attract the most academically capable students from the Arab region. One result of this, said Ben Lebidi, is that the level of discussions held within the classrooms and elsewhere on campus was very high, giving him the task of preparing course material which challenged the students adequately.
Next up was Mohammed Hamas Almasry, Associate Professor in the Media and Cultural Studies, who compared his experience of academic work between the United States and the Arab region. Almasry’s experiences in the Arab region extend to his lecturing work at the American University in Cairo, Qatar University and (most recently) the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Almasry’s comparisons touched on four key areas, contrasting them across the Arab region and the United States: the use of the English language as a language of academic instruction; the ratio of administrative work to academic work; remuneration of academics in the Arab region; and academic freedom.
Almasry pointed out that the fact that the preponderance of research materials related to media studies were in English meant that students whose preferred language of instruction was Arabic were at a severe disadvantage. The speaker went on to suggest that, based on his own experiences, that time-consuming administrative accounted for a far greater proportion of the time of Arab academics than their North American counterparts. Almasry attributed this to the claim that academic institutions in the Arab region continued to be in a foundational phase, necessitating that even academics contribute to the administration of these institutions. In contrast, said Almasry, funding for academic research was more available in the Arab region than in the United States.
The final speaker on the panel was Dana Olwan, an Assistant Professor on the Sociology and Anthropology program at the Doha Institute, whose presentation focused on issues of moral, language and psychology. Olwan cautioned against an overly “romantic” view of life in Western academia. Speaking as a Palestinian woman who had previously worked at North American universities, Olwan cautioned that a vision of North American universities that was undeservedly positive had an adverse impact on the morale of Arab academics. Olwan further suggested that continuing to cling to such comparisons, and constantly holding North American universities up as paragons, had become in itself an obstacle to the institutional advancement of Arab universities. Olwan suggested that academics who wrote critically of the US’ imperialism in the wider world found themselves under constant attack; she described this as a structural issue affecting US academia both before and after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.
The final day of the Arab Graduate Students Conference included seven panels where participants discussed topics including political science, media and cultural studies, linguistics and psychology. The sessions, divided over a morning and an afternoon, gave a total of 13 Arab doctoral students studying at Western universities the opportunity to discuss their research work.
The first legal session offered a discussion of the concept of “temporary asylum” and its impact on international law. The session also offered participants the chance to explore the concepts of international protection and the “right to peace”. The first linguistics panel covered two main topics: how Arabic grammars were used to help reconstruct a proto-Babylonian language; and the problems arising from the use of Englsih as a medium of instruction in Arab educational institutions. Finally, the panel devoted to psychology was given over to a discussion on the relationship between “borders” and willing travel to conflict zones, in an effort to understand what drives such personal choices. The same panel also explored the topic of adolescent girls joining violent jihadist groups, and sought to understand the appropriateness of existing psychological models for understanding these behaviors.
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