The sixth Annual Conference on the Social Sciences and Humanities was hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies from 18 to 20 March, 2017. In line with previous years, sessions over three days were divided into two, parallel tracks, one of which was devoted to “Ethics in the Arab-Islamic Civilization” while a second stream was dedicated to “Migration and the Future of Arab Youth”. Speakers on a diverse range of topics from within these two themes came from across the Arab world and beyond contributed to the success of the meeting.

The first day of the meeting hosted two plenary lectures open to the public, by Fahmi Jadaan and Georges Zinati. Jadaan, who also spoke at earlier conferences in the series (2014, 2016), offered a lecture titled “A New Ethical Rubric for the Present-day Arab World”, while Zinati’s lecture was titled “Ethics in Contemporary Arab-Islamic Civilization and Certain Outlying Problems in the Age of Globalization”. Similarly, the second day of proceedings was opened with two public lectures on “Arab Youth and International Migration”, by Ayman Zohry and “The Migration of Arab Youth to the European Union: a Critique of European Migration Policy”, delivered by Mohammed Khachani.

In the panels dedicated to ethics, speakers addressed the long history of ethical philosophy within the Arab-Islamic civilization, stretching as far back as Arab Spain and the Abbasid Empire, and the impact of medieval Islamic schools of thought on contemporary Arab societies. While a number of speakers focused on competing groups of Sufi tarikas, Ashairites and Muatazalites, others chose instead to examine the ethical dimensions of the present-day biosciences revolution and the growth of cyberspace.

Speakers in the various panels devoted to migration discussed the driving factors behind the Arab world’s large-scale emigration and the economic and societal impacts such migration has on both host countries but also the countries of origin. Beyond clear economic circumstances that make migration an impending need for large cohorts of Arabs, speakers also discussed a widespread sentimental attachment to the idea of a better life in another country. Also discussed in some panels was the Arab brain drain and moves by Arab countries to encourage emigres to return; the migration of young Arab women; illegal migration; and the movement of Arab students to study abroad. Some panelists focused on specific countries, with speakers discussing migration patterns of young Palestinians, Algerians and Moroccans.

Bioethicists and Medieval Theologians Face-off in Cyberspace

Biotechnology was a prominent subject addressed by panelists in the ethics field. On the first day of the conference, Walid Qoronfleh, Mohamed Ghaly and Muataz Al Khatib spoke on how present-day Arab societies react to advances in biotechnology. The speakers offered an overview of the rapidly growing body of Islamic theology (or “Fiqh”) focused on biotechnology and the genomic revolution, covering pressing topics such as the religious permissibility of sperm banks and genetic engineering, as well as the ethical implications of paternity testing. Other panelists remained rooted in this Islamic tradition of ethics, and opted to delve into more established questions of canon.

Speaking on the third day, Raja Bahlul presented a paper titled “Moral Law and Divine Judgement: a Re-Reading of the Muatazalite-Ashairite Dispute”. Bahlul’s work looked at how the ninth century dispute between two competing theological schools of thought in Abbasid Iraq touched on timeless questions of morality, moral duty and divine judgement. Bahlul made clear that the medieval disagreement between these two camps could continue to inform public debate today around the relationship of the law to morality. While these themes remained universal, said Bahlul, a focus on the specific traditions of the Muatazalites and the Ashairites could provide Arab scholars with the rich canon they could use to formulate contributions to the global discourse which were rooted in their specific traditions.

In total, 10 separate sessions devoted to contemporary ethics in Arab societies were held over three days of meetings. Panelists covered questions of ethics in cyberspace in the Arab world; the ethical tradition in various Islamic theological traditions; and the influence of various non-Arab schools of ethical philosophy on the Arab-Islamic tradition, including Western thinkers such as Habermas and Hilary Putnam as well as the “Sultanic Ethics” imported from Persia during the Abbasid era.

The Brain Drain and the Drive for a Dignified Life

Over the course of the three days, 32 panelists delivered papers on the multifaceted angles of Arab migration. The opening session, chaired by Hend Almuftah of the Doha Institute, aimed to shed light on the migration of young Arab women. Also covered was so-called “academic” migration and the movement of young Arab students abroad; the societal and cultural aspects of youth migration; the Arab Brain Drain and attempts at the repatriation of Arab youth; the migration of young Palestinians globally; the migration of young Arab migrants to Europe; the Palestinian expatriates living in the Gulf; and the economic aspects of Arab youth migration.

Panelists were also interested in the economic factors driving young Arabs to leave their home countries, looking specifically at how the economic development policies of Arab states has created a class of economically disadvantaged youth primed to leave their home countries to seek opportunities abroad. This included the “lopsided” developmental approaches adopted by Arab governments, which concentrated what little growth there was in low-employment sectors such as tourism, and which failed to create large-scale employment, at exactly the historical juncture when the region faces a “youth bulge” and the concomitant expansion in the working age population. Some panelists explored how the allure of living in economically and politically stable countries created a desire amongst more privileged young Arabs to seek their own opportunities in foreign, largely Western countries, giving rise to a brain drain, depriving their home countries of important human resources. A further group of speakers, including Bechir Karaoui, Daoud Jafafla and Zouheir Sukah, speaking on the second day, explored the reactions of host countries to the waves of young migrants from the Arab world. This included the legislative responses of host countries to the presence of growing Arab communities in their home countries, a growing presence of young Arabs in the western media, and ultimately a contribution to the pressures which could drive young Arab migrants to contemplate a return to their home countries.