Researchers and Professors Investigate the Role of Intellectuals and Universities in Effecting Change in the Arab World
The Arab World’s leading expert forum on the social sciences and humanities, organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), convened its fourth annual conference in Marrakech on March 19, 2015. University professors, along with prominent researchers from the region, presented papers examining the roles played by intellectuals in historical transformations, and that of universities and academic research in today’s Arab world. Two keynote addresses marked the start of the conference, one by Dr. Azmi Bishara, General Director of the ACRPS, and a second by Dr. Hafiz Bou Talib al-Jouti, former President of Muhammad V University in Rabat.
One Revolution, Two Kinds of Intellectuals
Azmi Bishara distinguished two approaches on the part of Arab intellectuals to the current Arab situation, in which the uprisings for change and revolution have been transformed into civil wars, and where civil society is undermined by strong factionalism and the permeation of extremist forces within it: either defend the status quo, or stand with revolution in confronting tyranny. The intellectual who defends the status quo, stated Bishara, does so on the conviction that the source of civil war is rooted in the immature attempt to change things. This kind of intellectual fails to adequately diagnose the reason for the precariousness of the state, or analyze the responsibility of the oppressive regime for choosing to turn to violence. In Bishara’s view, the intellectual who takes this position abandons his or her rational guiding role and, even worse, abandons any solidarity with the peoples’ aspirations to bring the state of oppression to an end, all the while avoiding any condemnation of the state for its repression and corruption, brought on by its pursuit of oppressive security measures. Furthermore, such intellectuals dodge responsibility for the situation by blaming those who aspired to bring about change.
The second type of intellectual, continued Bishara, stands with revolution against oppression and corruption and seeks inspiration in the justness of the cause; for these intellectuals it is the regimes that obstruct change and resort to violence that are primarily responsible for the decline of the revolution, its transformation into fragile states, and the steep deterioration into situations of chaos, violence and extremism. Bishara notes, however, that there are faults inherent in this stance: while pointing to the objective reasons for chaos and extremism, this class of intellectual may not see that the free individuals who rose in rebellion against the regime are also themselves “responsible for their actions and their mistakes”. This intellectual may then become more inclined to justify such mistakes rather than explain them in depth.
A Warning Regarding Fanaticism
Bishara considers that the intellectual’s ability to maintain a critical distance from existing fanaticism or partisanship, in any society, constitutes one of the most important conditions for playing a critical, rational and ethical role. The civil wars which overcame some of the Arab states witnessing revolution are a clear example of ideological fanaticisms. Such fanaticism, with its built-in bias, stands in direct contradiction to both the provisions of the rational mind and that of morality. Maintaining a critical distance, stressed Bishara, is what determines the specificity of the intellectual’s role, and distinguishes it from the world of the expert or that of the political or religious campaigner.
Universities of the Future
Addressing the second theme of the conference, former President of Muhammad V University Dr. Hafiz Bou Talib al-Jouti, emphasized the achievement of world-class universities that have integrated academic research and creativity, and that have played a pioneering role in the global economy. By contrast, commented al-Jouti, Arab universities suffer from fragile foundations and the complexity of their resource base. In his view, world universities have developed in such a way as to enable them to combine three major functions: university education (instilling, knowledge, values and skills); academic research; and creative invention – innovation. Innovation does not merely signify technological invention but additionally entails all of the new and unprecedented forms of management, services, organization and assembly. As universities have come to assert themselves in the economic domain, the funds they attract have equally come from the state and from the private sector, noting how the state funds higher education, and the private sector funds innovation and research.
Extrapolating from best international practices, al-Jouti outlined five conditions for the success of universities in playing a role in development: effective investment in human and material resources; building a good relationship with contractors and the business sector; facilitation of the mobility of researchers; improving the quality of basic research; and support for centers of excellence in which scientific research and innovation figure as strategic priorities. Multinational companies have also ushered in a development wherein they have established their own private innovation-driven research centers, so as to provide them with a heightened competitive edge in the global market. Al-Jouti emphasized, however, that universities are distinct from such company-established research centers by virtue of the academic freedom that they enshrine.
Fragile Arab Universities
Amid these global developments, Dr. al-Jouti said that Arab universities cannot retain their traditional role and need to instead actively "engage in the rehabilitation of the economy, development, and support for competitive contracting". To this end, Arab Universities need to take on new functions such as those of continuous training, research contracting, provision of consultancy services, resource brokering of experts, and generally developing the spirit and supportive structures of innovation and research. But Arab universities, stressed al-Jouti, continue to suffer from weakness with regards to their means and opportunities: their position is tenuous to the point where it is difficult for them to assert themselves at global level, or even compete with second-class universities.
The three day event culminated in an award ceremony for the Arab Prize for the Social Sciences and Humanities. This year’s conference marks the first time the conference was organized in Morocco; the third having taken place in Tunisia, and the first and second in Doha, Qatar, the headquarters of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. The ACRPS conference organizers plan to convene the conference in other Arab countries, and to expand conference participation.