Some colleagues who recently went to Europe were appalled by what they heard from various officials there. “They still do not understand the true nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are still unaware of our predicament,” these colleagues said.
I discussed the issue with them, and many preferred an explanation emphasising European bad faith.
“The Europeans are afraid of radical Islam. They know it is here to stay for some time, so they prefer to placate it and to deflect its fury, with Arab societies paying the price,” they said.
My colleagues did not understand why many of our Western colleagues “persistently underestimate the risk of civil war,” and they did not understand how “post-modern” societies such as those in Europe could seriously “think extremism does not pose a threat to women and minorities”.
They did not understand why many European analysts and scholars could spend so much time studying “stupid thinkers” belonging to the Islamist camp.
“These thinkers simply eructate, belching out high-sounding nonsense, and the European academics say this is deep and beautiful logic.” A few Egyptian colleagues think the European discourse is the legitimisation of an ongoing plot.
While I share my friends’ concerns, I believe the story is a much more complicated one. It may be useful to try to understand it, if we are to adopt a critical perspective on such discourses.
I would like to begin by dwelling on two issues. Are we sure, as Egyptians, that we understand our own society better than foreigners? Is Egyptian society a “likeable” one for everybody?
This article can only suggest tentative answers to such questions. We should admit that Western academia has produced a lot of deep and useful knowledge about our society. Mentioning my own personal debts to it would require a book, and I am fully aware who my teachers are.
The main problem would seem to be that syntheses of this knowledge have either not been available to students or have gone wrong. It has not been summarised as a totality, and it has not been effectively transmitted.
Governments focus on listening to what academic specialists on extremism have to say and pay little or no attention to others who are often more knowledgeable.
We should also admit that our own knowledge is both limited and reliant on narrow perspectives. Egyptian academic discourse is too often Cairene.
It can, of course, study Egyptian villages and the Egyptian countryside, but it looks at these things through Cairene eyes. Even scholars whose own roots are in the countryside quickly adopt Cairene lenses.
Every country produces its own norms of political correctness, and these are a dangerous foe of knowledge. Political correctness often hinders critical thinking.
It always hinders discourse, as an important part of knowledge is oral, not written, and it has the virtues and the drawbacks of orality.
The main sponsor of Egyptian research in the social sciences is the state, or other Arab states, and many sponsors do not publish the results of the work they commission.
Last, but not least, Egyptian scholars often have to work in increasingly difficult conditions.
Each camp is quick to detect the ideological biases of the other, but each is largely oblivious to its own. The situation is made worse by the self-righteousness of contemporary academia, an infantile disease whether it is post-modernist or nationalistic in origin.
Let us be clear in saying that we should not overestimate our own knowledge of our own society and let us admit that this deserves serious criticism.
But it should also be clear that we have our own virtues. We instinctively know what religion is and what it means, for example, and we understand the difference between religion and ideology. We know what kind of passions religion can arouse.
The US academic Mark Lilla once claimed in one of his books that the West had “crossed a river” some centuries ago as far as religion is concerned and that it was no longer able to understand those who had not done so. I think he was right, with of course some qualifications.
We also know the actors involved, or at least many of them. We often have to deal with them on a daily basis, or on a professional and personal level.
We know their networks, their past, their evolution, their official and not so official discourses. Of course, a Westerner can know them too. It is not impossible. But many are unwilling to make the effort and are content with quick interviews with them.
We are also more aware of the cultural complicities in our own country and of the tacit general acceptance of things, patterns and norms that may look strange or even unacceptable to foreigners.
Being a foreigner has its own virtues, of course, as it can make an individual more alert and more curious. If he makes the effort, he can understand two different cultures, and this is a huge asset. But there is also a trap, or a circle, that threatens everybody whatever his origins in that anyone who studies Egypt brings with him his own preconceptions and questions.
Study should lead the researcher to modify these, if only because a subject seldom yields the answers one expects. But modifying views requires time and an agile mind.
There needs to be a willingness to reconsider assumptions and the social and academic context that allows this to take place. Moreover, any modification should not be seen as a threat to the researcher’s own discourse on himself. It should be seen as a way of bettering it.
These considerations are incomplete, but I prefer to switch to another issue. Any young person, Egyptian or foreign, who studies Egyptian society after finishing his formal education has many reasons to be shocked.
Relations between those in power and those in subordinate positions often look like master/slave relationships, for example. The work ethic is not our strongest virtue.
Relations between women and men are often despicable. The crude differences between rich and poor can be heartbreaking. Worse, fewer and fewer people can climb the social ladder. Despite talk to the contrary, there are low and not so low levels of violence. Political behaviour is often grotesque.
A young scholar then has a choice: he either thinks that this is appalling and that the country needs a revolution, or he recognises the strangeness all about him while seeing that it seems to work. His task then becomes how to understand it and how and why it reproduces itself.
Recent years have seen an expansion of the radical left on Western university campuses and of radical Islam on ours.
Therefore, the option of identifying revolutionary forces and supporting them has become more and more popular in the West. While the second option also had many supporters, the Arab Spring and the general mood in Western academia largely destroyed it.
Even the second option was not hostile to extremism, however, and it praised Political Islam’s ability to help the poor through charitable work and so on.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The discourse on Egypt