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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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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Facebook’s “periodic table of genders”

The periodic table of elements in its current form.  Source: Todd Helmenstine, chemistry.about.com

The periodic table of elements in its current form.
Source: Todd Helmenstine, chemistry.about.com

In 1869 Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published the first version of the modern periodic table of elements in which he classified chemical elements according to the number of protons in their atoms. It is a fascinating tool to categorize and organize chemical elements. Elements which share similar physical characteristics and chemical behavior are put together in groups, periods, and blocks to make it easier for students of chemistry and scientists to work with them. As a student of social sciences, I would like in this post to give some reflections about the implications of organizing elements in this particular way.

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From “the world’s ugliest woman” to one of the world’s most inspiring examples

Lizzie Velasquez, who speaks in the video above, is a writer and a motivational speaker. She was born with a very rare genetic condition that makes her unable to gain weight no matter how much she eats. She has never weighed more than 28 kg, and this makes her look very “ugly.” She narrates in this video (8:30) the pain and emotional trauma she experienced when she found out—as she was still in high school—that someone had posted a video of her on YouTube describing her as “the world’s ugliest woman.” One of the commentators told her: “Lizzie, please, please just do the world a favor, put a gun to your head, and kill yourself!”

She, however, never allowed herself to be imprisoned in the image the people wanted to impose on her. Instead of hiding behind closed doors, she decided to become a motivational speaker and confront people face to face. She also wanted to become a writer and now she is about to publish her third book at the age 24. I strongly recommend that you watch this video, which is not only about her story, and not only about “beauty” and “ugliness”, but also about how to define yourself as a person instead of letting other people define you.

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Upholding Tolerance is not only the Majority’s Resposibility: The Debate over the Color of Santa Claus

The penguin Santa proposed by Aisha Harris (Illustration by Mark Stamaty)

The penguin Santa proposed by Aisha Harris (Illustration by Mark Stamaty)

Recently a huge debate has spread all over the internet and mass media concerning the identity and color of Santa Claus: is he essentially a white character? I’m sure many of you have come across this debate on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network.

The debate started when Aisha Harris wrote a piece in which she recounts her confusion when she was a child over the color of Santa Claus. She, as an African American, had a black Santa Claus at home, but outside she saw a white Santa everywhere. Her father’s answer that Santa could be of any color didn’t satisfy her. She felt insecure and ashamed, because she thought her black Santa wasn’t the “real thing.” In order to “spare millions of nonwhite kids” feelings of insecurity and shame, she suggests that Santa is transformed into a Penguin. She thinks that a penguin can appeal to all people regardless of color and at the same time preserves as much as possible of the characteristics of the traditional Santa (such as coming from a snowy cold land).

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