On academia (Part 1)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 3 Aug 2017

Are Egyptian and Western academia two different worlds?

I recall a recent discussion with one of the rising stars of Egypt’s security studies. I tried to expose the main arguments on political Islam and the rift opposing the French academics Gilles Kepel, Olivier Roy and François Burgat. This sharp polemic went global, with all the main international media evoking it at some point or another. Kepel thought many Islamic schools, ulemas and believers went radical; Roy claimed radicalisation underwent a process of Islamisation (and not the other way around), and Burgat believed the rise of Islamism was a new and much needed anti-imperialism.

I thought my friend would be sceptical, as he has a very elaborate knowledge of the issue, mastering the details and the history. So I was very surprised by his reaction. He did not hide his admiration and said: "Well, these are real debates. The three have ideas. This is a clash of ideas, of great narratives. We badly lack this. We may have a better knowledge of the facts, we know and understand the actors, we are not fooled by them, we may sharply differ on policy recommendations, but we do not have this."

This week, I had to work on many papers stemming from Western scholars and experts studying the Arab Spring and the “crisis of the Arab state." Some were really poor, but a significant proportion was quite stimulating. Moreover, their great variety was a nice surprise. We cannot say they are all prisoners of the same ideological bias, or of the same prerequisites. Or can we?

I felt once again compelled to reconsider my positions. I always had a tendency to explain bad mistakes committed by Western powers in the region by “bad academic production." My line of reasoning went like this: national security is a key preoccupation; national security experts consider the region as a whole, and disregard its diversity, looking only through the lenses of “extremism” and the rise of political Islam. So they consult experts and academics and read books. Not any kind of expert, but those who know extremism issues.

Unfortunately, with one or two exceptions per country, most do not understand the societies they study. They are too focused on explaining the differences between, say, Al-Qaeda and Daesh, or between the different generations of Muslim Brothers. They also have a tendency to be “transnational” — to overlook the differences between different countries.

This preference for this brand of scholars and experts is a pity, as you have really competent fellows in the field who are never consulted despite their deep understanding of the issues.

I was of course aware things were much more complicated. Western debates on the region, on political Islam, on extremism are also debates on Western society, its past and its future, its history and its memory, and on the adoption of a multiculturalist agenda. So it is quite difficult to avoid falling in the ethnocentric trap. Or, by the way, in the global one. How many times I heard sentences like: the overthrow of President Morsi sent the wrong message to all the “moderates” of the planet, so we condemn it and we do not understand how, you, Egyptians, fail to understand this.

I also thought the sharp deterioration in working conditions in many Western universities had a terrible impact on the quality of production. Young fellows are pressured: social sciences and humanities are more a culture than a science, and the young do not have the time and incentive for diversifying their readings or for serious thinking about their own practice. They have to deliver papers, books, and learn how to be standard.

And I had problems with the standard curricula: Edward Said and his essentialist critique of Orientalism, and Michel Foucault are too central for my taste. The former is especially overestimated and I do not like how he managed the latter’s works.

To make it short, the combination of liberal techniques of management, with strong pressure on quantity and rapidity, and of an extreme left worldview, inflicted considerable damage on knowledge production.

And, of course, academia is only part of the problem. There is a crisis of political leadership in the West. In the globalisation era, issues become much more complex. Especially since globalisation is also the rise of individualist ideologies and ways of doing things. Leaders have less leverage and less power. Understanding the whole broad picture, defining what the national interest is, and what sound policies are, all this is now nearly impossible. Even such a sophisticated mind as President Obama frequently relied on inadequate stereotypes. Decision making is complex and problematic. Especially if you want to be in control, if you do not want to take decisions or to launch processes unless you are absolutely sure of the result, or at least of the immediate returns. Many necessary decisions are adjourned, as their immediate cost is intimidating

Why I say all of this? Because I was always intrigued by the differences between our "academia and expertise” and “theirs”, between their worldviews and ours. I never claimed one was great and the other bad, one smart and the other stupid. I just toyed with the idea of writing a book on the differences, due to working conditions, to relations with state power, national social culture and worldview, to ethical assumptions and to different methodologies, tools and conceptions of the role of the scholar.

But I always had to deal with my basic assumptions: am I right when I say there are two distinct worlds, one called “Egyptian academia and expertise”, and the second Western — or at least French academia — and expertise?

Can we say Egyptian and Western scholars and academic and expertise production have distinct collective features?

The intuitive and obvious answer is yes. And for now I am sticking to it. But this entails an ability to describe these collective features and characteristics, to prove they are widely shared by members of the groups and are relevant. Here the problems start.

To be continued.

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