Conference Report: Third Conference of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences

This is a conference report that I wrote for the website of The Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities” at the University of Leipzig, where I currently work. Here is the link for the original post.

Between 10 and 12 March 2017, the Third Conference of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) took place in Beirut, Lebanon under the title: State, Sovereignty and Social Space in the Arab Region: Emerging Historical and Theoretical Approaches. The ACSS was established in 2008 to promote social scientific research and knowledge production in the Arab world, enhance the role of social science in Arab public life, and inform public policy in the region. The conference took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and consisted of 38 panels in addition to four roundtable discussions, a keynote, and a number of presentations. Lectures and discussions were conducted in three languages (Arabic, English, and French) with simultaneous interpretation available for every session. The papers presented by around 200 active participants covered a wide variety of themes in political science, anthropology, and sociology.

The volatile conditions in many Arab countries—ranging from terrorism, through civil strife, to authoritarian repression (including the curtailment of academic freedoms*)—cast their shadow over discussions in the conference. There was an aura of pessimism but at the same time a sense of urgency for social scientists in the Arab region to employ their knowledge to observe and contribute positively to social change in their countries. While the conference was not concerned with religion per se, there have been some papers and sessions that dealt with religion from various perspectives. In a roundtable discussion chaired by Professor Aziz al-Azmeh from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, a new research project under the title “Striking from the Margins: Religion, State and Disintegration in the Middle East” was introduced. The project, which is hosted by the Center for Religious Studies at the CEU, aims at developing a new analytical framework to study the processes whereby forces that used to be marginal have been moving to the center of power in some Arab countries, especially Syria and Iraq. It examines, in particular, how certain religious movements are contributing to the explosion of violence as well as social and political disintegration by imposing a puritanical form of religion, not as a social sphere that is distinct from or embedded in society, but as an alternative to society itself. The second speaker in this session, Harith al-Qarawee, presented his research project, in which he investigates how neo-patrimonialism, among other factors, weakened the Iraqi post-colonial state and contributed to its withdrawal (institutionally and ideologically) from society, which allowed for Islamist movements (both Shi’i and Sunni) to move from the margins to fill the void. Harout Akdedian, on his part, is examining how the expansion of religious charities under Bashar al-Assad played a significant role in the rise of armed Islamist opposition after the eruption of the civil war in Syria.

Other papers dealing with religion came mostly from Morocco and Algeria. Rachid Saadi from the Centre regional des mètiers et de la formation (Morocco) analyzed tensions between the “authority of collective religiosity” and “personal liberties” in the case of a protest group calling for eating in public during fasting in Ramadan, in defiance of social taboos and a law that criminalizes such activity. Another presenter from Morocco, Abdelhakim Aboullouz (Ait Melloul University Campus), traced the evolution of Salafism in the country over the past five decades. He maintained that after the protests of February 2011, Salafism has transformed from a collection of marginal quietist “sects” that were used by the state to counter the influence of both socialist and Islamist oppositions to social movements that are actively engaged in politics. Mustapha Mujahidi (National Observatory of Education and Training) and Djilali El-Mestari (National Institute for Research in Education) in Algeria presented two papers about the religious field in the city of Ghardaia, where an ethno-religious Muslim community, the Mozabite Ibadis, coexist with Sunni Muslims.

The conference also included a number of presentations about projects run by the ACSS. Among them is the Arab Social Science Monitor, which is an observatory dedicated to surveying and assessing social scientific research in Arab countries and tracking its agendas and themes. Another noteworthy project, about which a short film was presented, aims at raising awareness among young people in the Arab world of the importance and prospects of studying social sciences.

Reported by Mohammad Magout

*Emad al-Din Shahin—a Professor of public policy at the American University of Cairo—was sentenced by the Egyptian regime to death in absentia in 2015.

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Stop Spreading Conspiracy Theories about the Chemical Attack in Syria! A Response to a Report from the Deutsche Welle

Fake news, fake news, fake news! They are everywhere, like swarms of locusts, devouring truth and infecting people’s minds. Mainstream media along with social media platforms are alarmed, mobilizing their resources to contain this epidemic. Numerous online resource centers and information pages have been set up to help people identify fake news and protect their minds from their toxicity. Yesterday, when I opened my Facebook page, I was greeted with a link to a page that lists 10 tips to spot false news. The website of the German news broadcaster tagesschau currently operates a project against fake news called Faktenfinder (Fact Finder) which is a resource center with basic information about hot topics in the form of questions and answers to help people avoid false information being spread about this topic.

DW

“DW: Made for minds”, maybe not this time!

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From Hip Hop to Heavy Metal: A Story of Conversion

I wrote a draft of this post two years ago (March 2015) in my notebook, but only now that I have edited it and posted it online. I have avoided making any substantial changes, so that it remains true as much as possible to my thoughts back then.

Brother Ali

Album cover of Borther Ali’s Mourning in America: Dreaming in Color – one of my first favorite hip hop albums.

Those who know me personally or have read some of my posts here (Oriental(ist) Metal Music or “Is God really Dead?”) know me as a dedicated heavy metal fan. For 15 years, almost half my life, I listened almost exclusively to heavy metal music (along with few hard and progressive rock bands). I have also been a dedicated concert-goer, sometimes travelling to other countries just to attend a metal band I like. Heavy metal was in fact more than just music for me. It was, for most of these 15 years, an identity and an influence on the way I think and behave. I even wrote my MA thesis, back in 2010, about heavy metal in Syria and for a while I was thinking about doing a PhD in this field. As a faithful metalhead I looked down at all other styles of music, especially hip hop, and bragged how heavy metal surpassed it in sophistication, authenticity, anti-commercialism, and fan-dedication. In fact, two months ago, I would not have been able to name 10 hip hop songs, and if you asked my what was your favorite hip hop song, I would have said Gay Fish.

So after all that to turn to hip hop within less than two months came as a surprise to me personally before anyone else. So I have spent the past two weeks reflecting on this “radical” change and trying to understand how come it ever happened and why hip hop and not any other style of music. What has changed in my life or my environment that helped make this transformation? I will try in this post to give some answers to these questions.

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Topless Islamophobia: When FEMENism Mutates into Racism

FEMEN protesters at Berlin's Islamic Week (Credit: Action Press/Rex. Source: Daily Mail)

FEMEN protesters at Berlin’s Islamic Week (Credit: Action Press/Rex. Source: Daily Mail)

Few days ago three members of the radical feminist group FEMEN disrupted an event of Berlin’s Islamic Week by charging topless into the hall where it was taking place with anti-Islamic slogans painted all over their bodies. A number of policemen seized the women and dragged them outside, while the event proceeded as scheduled. The question that I would like to answer in this post is whether this act of protest, provocative as it may be, constitutes a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or simply a form of hate speech. I’m not concerned here with the method of protest, but the language used.

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علمانية على أسس دينية

Church State signs

يرتبط مصطلح “العلمانية” لدى المواطن العربي (سواءً كان مؤيداً أم معارضاً لها) بعلاقة سلبية مع الدين من قبيل الفصل أو التضاد، فالمؤيدون للعلمانية ينظرون بريبة لحضور الدين في الحياة العامة، ويفضّلون بقاءه بعيداً محصوراً ضمن نطاق الحياة الشخصية للفرد، لذلك ترتبط العلمانية بالنسبة إليهم بمفهوم الفصل: الفصل بين الدين والسياسية، الفصل بين الدين والتعليم، إلخ. في المقابل ينظر المعارضون للعلمانية على أنها أيديولوجيا عدائية تجاه الدين، بل ويربطها بعضهم بالإلحاد المطلق، لذلك تصبح العلمانية في نظرهم ضد الدين.

لا بد وأن هذا البعد السلبي لعلاقة العلمانية بالدين يرجع بدرجة كبيرة إلى طبيعة التيارات العلمانية الغربية الأكثر تأثيراً على العالم العربي، والتي ساهمت بالتالي إلى نحوٍ بعيد في صياغة مفهوم العلمانية لديه، على رأس هذه التيارات تأتي العلمانية الفرنسية (والتي تعرف في بلاد المغرب العربي باللائكية)، وقد طبق هذا النموذج إلى حدٍّ بعيد في تركيا المجاورة على يد مصطفى كمال أتاتورك (العلمانية الكمالية)، كما تم تطبيقه إلى حدٍّ ما في تونس على يد الحبيب بورقيبة، وقد أثر كذلك على العديد من الأنظمة السياسية العربية التي خلفها الاستعمار الفرنسي.

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World War Z: A Bad Zombie Movie to Promote Racism

World War Z

Last Thursday (Halloween 2013) I finally decided to watch World War Z—one of the biggest movie productions of 2013, featuring Brad Pitt in the leading role. It is a zombie movie, so it kind of fits Halloween day, but that was a pure coincidence. I neither care about Halloween nor Zombie movies. When the film was being shown in local cinemas here in Leipzig a couple of months ago, a friend of mine suggested that we go together to see it, but I objected strongly on the grounds that it seemed very silly. This was confirmed later by one of my flatmates who described the movie as a debacle. Later, another flatmate of mine watched it and described it as too bad to the extent it is funny. This has aroused my curiosity, but not enough to bother watching it until I watched World War Zimmerman—the third episode of the new season of South Park—in which World War Z is bitterly ridiculed. I thought then that I must watch this film. The day before yesterday, which happened to be Halloween, I stayed in bed all day long because of being sick, so I had enough time to watch two movies—one of them was World War Z.

The film turned up to be very bad indeed, but, unfortunately, not to the extent it was funny, as my second flatemate had claimed before. From a cinematic perspective, I have nothing interesting to say about the film. It is simply a bad movie, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. World War Z, however, is not only cinematically bad, but also politically, and this is what I am going to talk about in this article.

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Separation of State and Organized Capital

Image

The only blog in the internet that I follow closely is Peter Berger’s, who is an American renowned sociologist of religion. Most of his blog posts revolve around issues related to the “culture wars” in the United States of America, in which religion is almost invariably strongly present. The culture wars cover a wide range of issues, such as creationism vs. evolutionism, pro-choice vs. pro-life, supporters of same-sex marriage vs. those who opposite, and the like.

In his latest post, Berger refers to the support given by some American large corporations, such as Microsoft and Starbucks, to a bill in Washington State to legalize same-sex marriage and the negative reaction against this support by some Evangelical pastors and conservative activists. Berger wonders about the real motivations behind such “political correctness”: Are they straightforward commercial interests (i.e. a desire to win more customers in a large “gay market” of, say, coffee drinkers or computer users) or is it a matter of class and cultural elitism?

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