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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حلقة دراسية عن العلمانية في العالم العربي – الجلسة الثانية: مقدمة عن نظرية العلمنة

أقوم حالياً بإدراة حلقة دراسية (سيمنار) في معهد الدراسات الشرقية بجامعة لايبتزغ (ألمانيا) حول الدين والعلمانية في العالم العربي، الحلقة تتألف من ثلاثة عشر جلسة سيتم خلالها تغطية جوانب ومراحل تاريخية مختلفة من هذا الموضوع المتشعب والشائك جداً، سأقوم خلال الأسابيع المقبلة بنشرملخص أسبوعي لكل جلسة يتضمن لمحة عن النصوص المقررة والمحاضرة التي تم إلقاؤها (من قبلي أومن قبل أحد الطلاب) بالإضافة إلى النقاط التي تم طرحها خلال النقاش. الغاية من هذه الملخصات أن تشكّل نواة لمشروع إلكتروني أكبر عن العلمنة باللغة العربية.

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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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Two Christianities in Two Booklets: Impressions from a Visit to a Swedish Church

Earlier this year, on a cold January morning, I was walking around in the snowy streets of Stockholm, not sure how to spend the few hours before the departure of my bus on an 18-hour journey to the far north of Sweden, when I came across a big brown church in a side street near the main train station. Being interested in religion, I decided to walk in and have a look in order to get an impression of Swedish churches.

File 08.03.17, 23 57 36

Two different Christianities in two booklets

When I went in, which was few minutes after it had opened its doors to visitors, there were already 5 or 6 people inside. Some of them seemed to be homeless people who spent the night inside protected from the freezing cold. They wore rough clothes and had blankets and mats with them. There were also two people praying and another person sitting near the door, who, I assume, work for the church.

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Bribing to (dis)believe – How Dawkins is teaching children to “think for themselves”

Believe not in unicorns and receive a £10 note consecrated by Dawkins

Believe not in unicorns and receive a £10 note consecrated by Dawkins (image source: “Invisible Pink Unicorn”, Wikipedia)

Right after I published my previous post about how Dawkins is creating a cult of personality around himself and using it to scam his atheist followers, a friend of mine mentioned the following article “Richard Dawkins launches children’s summer camp for atheists,” which was published by The Telegraph in 2009. The article reported that Dawkins was setting up summer camps for children akin to those organized by churches and other religious organizations, which suggests that Dawkins “makes atheism look even more like the thing he is rallying against,” according to a spokesman of the Church of England commenting on Dawkins’ plans. This article confirms exactly what I have said in my previous post; atheism, especially the one preached by Dawkins is less the absence of religion and more an alternative religion.

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Not only religion, but atheism too can be used as a scam – Dawkins as an example

You can buy this

You can buy this “Religion – together we can find the cure” T-shirt from the Richard Dawkins Foundation store for just $22.95 and contribute to the spread of reason, rationality, and progress!

Last week during my journey back from Prague to Leipzig, where I live, I had a conversation with a German lady who was sitting opposite to me in the train. When I told her that I study religion, she remarked categorically that religion for her is nothing more than a scam on a grand scale to rip people off and take their money away. It is not surprising to hear such a view from a person who grew up in East Germany—the most godless place on Earth—and it is arguably an opinion that is shared by many atheists around the world, including the neo-atheist “saint” Richard Dawkins:

Imagine a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’, no ‘honour killings’, no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money.

The God Delusion, p. 23-24

I am not writing here to argue against such a view of religion. It is true that many preachers, clerics, and religious organizations collect money from people dishonestly to enrich themselves, although I believe a lot of the money raised via religious channels is used for fair and charitable purposes. I would like, however, to point out that atheism too can be converted into a scamming enterprise, and Dawkins is apparently doing just that.

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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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