The "Arab Graduate Student Conference" conference, which is being held by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, kicked off on Saturday 24 March 2018. The academic committee, in the application period, had received 250 research proposals, of which 83 were accepted, arriving from more than 40 Western Universities in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States of America, within numerous disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. 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.
Bishara: The position of the researcher or intellectual is Ethical by Necessity
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 Arab Center and its Contribution to Arabic Knowledge Production
Bishara added that the Arab Center contributes in a real way to understanding the issues of the Arab nation, undertaking, since its founding, the publication of academic research. It has published about 300 books, half of which are produced by the Center. The Center provides a service to Arab researchers who are interested in producing a solid base of academic knowledge of the Arab world, and since its establishment, the center has organized about 70 academic conferences. This conference is the first for Arab doctoral students in Western universities. Bishara added that the center conducts three major projects. The Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic documents the history of the Arabic language, and aims to create a comprehensive Corpus of Arabic, to derive sub-dictionaries from the Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language, and to publish lexicographical research and studies. The second project is the Arab Opinion Index, a quantitative measurement program for Arab public opinion in the political, cultural and social fields. It is intended to collect quantitative data not available in the Arab region, through a sample of 18 to 20 thousand respondents covering 12 Arab countries, adding that the survey allows Arab researchers to explore Arab specific phenomena.
Bishara concluded by talking about the third project, the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. It is an independent institution with an independent academic board of trustees, which studies the social sciences, humanities, public administration and economics in Arabic. The Institute benefits students from 18 countries from different Arab and Western countries, including the State of Qatar. The Academic Council of the Institute is quietly planning to introduce a doctoral program, in which multiple departments will be grouped into one general theme that includes different disciplines. He concluded by stressing the necessity for Arab researchers in Western universities, through their interactions with each other and Arab researchers at the Doha Institute for Postgraduate Studies, to think about working to serve Arab issues. The center is interested in the presence of Arab academics who contribute to the development of Arab issues. These meetings are an opportunity to achieve Arab interaction with the new generation of Arab researchers.
The Contributions of the First day
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.