How do we read the Arab world today? Not via traditional Egyptian academia, say professors

Mohammed Saad , Thursday 9 May 2013

A speaker's panel at AUC this week discussed how traditional Egyptian academia has been unable to answer new questions arising from social struggle, and that new orientations are needed

The four professors during the discussion at the Oriental Hall at the AUC

For decades a conservative doctrine has dominated Egyptian academia, especially in the human sciences, philosophy, history, anthropology and political science, due to many factors, including the rise of the nationalist current in Egyptian society since the 1950s.

A session was held at the American University in Cairo Tuesday to discuss the newly released book Kaif Naqra’ Al-Alam Al-Araby Alyoum (How do we Read the Arab World Today: Alternative Views in the Social Sciences) which tries to shed light on the state of Egyptian academia and how it arrived to where it is.

The session included as participants the translator of the book, Sherif Younis, and book editors Malak Rouchdy, a professor of sociology, and Hanan Sabea and Reem Saad, professors of anthropology.

According to the speakers, the narrow scope of the human sciences that dominated Egyptian academia in recent decades made it sterile and unable to answer new questions on the complexities of Egypt and Arab societies, especially after the Arab Spring that recast equations of power.

Historian Sherif Younis, translator of the book, attributed what he called the "deliberate recession of the human sciences" in Egyptian universities to the rise of the authoritarian nationalist current, which isolated Egyptian academia from world knowledge production under the guise of protecting the particularity of Egyptian culture.

“These old frameworks, limited by the authoritarian system of knowledge internalised in (Egypt's) universities, became unable to contain newly raised questions and prevented any thinking on alternative theories to the extent that made [academia] not only unable to answer new questions, but the questions themselves had no meaning in its system of knowledge, as the questions spring from a different logic and context,” Younis explained.

For Younis, the new book opens new worlds of thinking and analysis of social and anthropological phenomena in relation to power, based on the idea that the production of knowledge always takes place within a struggle around power and in a complicated social order.

Reem Saad said the book presents a wholly different perspective on studying and analysing social, political and anthropological phenomena, away from traditional frameworks that are no longer able to answer new questions in the current era.

The book comprises 10 articles written by various authors and ranging between analysing the state, power, world order and the problem of writing history. Professor Hanan Sabea said that the methodologies adopted by the 10 studies, which we can describe as "postmodern," try each to deal differently with the given material, allowing for a multifaceted approach to the central issue.

“The studies do not ask about the essence of the phenomena under analysis; rather, the dynamics and formation of this phenomena. For instance, the book does not ask what are human rights. It poses a different question: What do human rights do?” Sabea explained.

Similarly, the study of history now isn’t just about narrating historical events, but writing history as a struggle around power.

The four speakers agreed that the book is an attempt to challenge traditional frameworks; to understand truth as something fluid and mobile, forged in human life, as opposed to fixed, inert, and waiting to be discovered.

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