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Understanding the Muslim world
New generation of scholars abandoning theories that have long dominated academic discourse.
Last Modified: 29 Aug 2010 13:33
A new generation of scholars from the Muslim world are advancing a better understanding of the key issues that shape the region [EPA]

What does it say about the chances for American success in Afghanistan and the larger global 'war on terror' - which despite the Obama administration's official name change to "Overseas Contingency Operations" remains deliberately far removed from any contingency that might hasten its end - that the wives of the military's most senior commanders better comprehend the reasons for the continued difficulty in pacifying the country than do their husbands?

The military wives, it seems, have as a group given their stamp of approval to the now ubiquitous bestseller Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Renin. Many of their husbands have also read the book at their urging, and according to The New York Times, recently cashiered General Stanley McChrystal met with Mortenson several times.

Mortenson's message is as simple as it is eloquent: build schools, not bombs. The idea fit well with McChrystal's civilian-focused counterinsurgency strategy; but despite the obvious logic, not to mention economy of such a concept - the cost of keeping one soldier in the country for one year could pay for 20 schools - the Obama administration is committed to further militarising rather than deescalating the war.

They fail to grasp that you cannot win the "hearts and minds" of a people when you are not merely occupying them, but supporting a massively corrupt and violent elite while killing a significant number of civilians on a routine basis.

More broadly, it was recently announced that the Obama administration is trying to loosen export controls for American-made weapons so that the US - whose weapons sales, by some estimates, equal if not surpass those of the rest of the world combined - can expand its dominance of the international arms market even further.

So much for the changes in the US' relationship with the Muslim world promised by Obama last June in Cairo. And needless to say, if the Italians, French, Russians, Brits or Chinese could get a bigger piece of the weapons sales pie, they would demonstrate as little scruples about what they sell to whom as has the US.

New Barcelona process

Obama's promised changes in relations with the Muslim world have not materialised [EPA]

Last week, as I attended the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES) in Barcelona, I could not help thinking about the radical disconnect between what those who know Afghanistan and the larger Muslim world have long said needs to be done to bring peace and prosperity to the region and the policies that Western governments, particularly the US, pursue.

Some 2,000 of the world's leading scholars of the region were on hand, discussing the myriad complexities of the cultures and civilisations of the Muslim world in all their richness.

With almost 500 panels exploring issues as diverse as religious and political censorship in the pre-modern Middle East, climate change and food security, and Sufism and urban development, the WOCMES highlighted the interconnectedness of so many disparate elements of the region's history and contemporary dynamics.|

Equally as importantly, it reaffirmed how a new generation of scholars, particularly those from the region, are advancing our understanding of so many key issues that define how we see the Muslim world - its history, its present issues, and through them, its future.

It is hard to overstate the importance of these voices. And they are increasingly hard to come by in the US, where in the years since 9/11 foreign scholars, especially from the Muslim world, have found it much harder to get visas.

This emerging generation of scholars are presenting analysis which increasingly is not grounded in the Euro-American theories that have for so long been accepted as the 'gold standard' for studying the Muslim world. At the same time, however, unlike conservative religious thinkers, this new group of scholars are not innately hostile to so-called 'foreign' ideas and types of knowledge or trying to operate in isolation from them.

Southern Theory

As one senior colleague at the conference put it, there was almost no evidence of the kind of simplistic analyses of power relations or the use of uncritical and impossibly broad categories like the "West" or "Islam," which populate so many mainstream analyses of the region on both sides of the so-called civilisational divide.

To be sure, panels on Iraq and Palestine were well attended, with younger researchers from these countries offering powerful testimonies of the ongoing costs - human and moral as well as political and economic - of their occupations. But so were panels on the pro-democracy movement in Iran, the changing relationship between Sufism and popular culture in Morocco, urban history and the importance of conserving biodiversity in the region.

In fact, one could spend all four days of the conference without attending a panel focusing on Palestine/Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq or the other trouble spots of the Arab/Muslim world. And even if you did, what you would likely take away from them was the growing power of what has been termed Southern Theory or South-South Theory. By this I mean concepts, arguments and explanations that have originated in the global south by scholars and intellectuals rooted in local traditions and who are spending more time in conversation with each other rather than with the Western theories and scholars that have for so-long dominated scholarship.

These are not closed conversations by any means - unlike European social science theory, which has a long history of excluding non-European voices - but they are producing a new and more nuanced relationship between Euro-American scholars and those from the region, who are starting to play a much more powerful role shaping both the way scholars study region and the subjects they investigate.

Healing a 'decadent' discipline

IN depth

More from Mark LeVine:

  Beyond hypocrisy
  The burden of hypocrisy
  The meaning of strangulation
  The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas
  Israel's 'friends' also to blame
  The terrors of occupation
  Obama and the curse of moderation
  'Stupid' law or 'soul' of the US?
  The world is not flat
  Hypocrisy and the end of empires

It is hard to overstate how refreshing it is to escape the near ubiquitous focus on terrorism and American-led wars when talking about the Middle East. In the US since 9/11 the Middle Eastern studies community has been harshly criticised both for its supposed anti-American and anti-Israel bias and for focusing on seemingly trivial issues like medieval Arabic poetry and varieties of textile production in the Abbasid empire.

In particular, right-wing commentators have criticised the US counterpart to WOCMES, the Middle East Studies Association, for being filled with "anti-American, anti-Israel leftists who are apologists for Islamic terrorism," and for having conferences that are "commonly used by anti-Semites as forums to air their views".

In covering one of the first meetings of the Middle East Studies Association after 9/11, one reporter even noted with a sense of astonishment that attendees tend not to wear "stars-and-stripes" lapel pins to indicate their support for the policies of the US government.

In the aftermath of 9/11 well known Israeli Middle East studies scholar Martin Kramer wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "this very sick discipline did nothing to prepare America for the encounter with Muslim extremism, and ... can't contribute anything to America's defence". Another commentator went further, calling scholars working on the region "terror's academic sympathisers".

'Taking the cake'

This view did not change as the decade wore on and the realities of the war on terror and its various occupations came far closer to matching the warnings of the scholars accused of such behaviour than to the rosy predictions of the ideologues of the 'war on terror'.

And so in 2008 the National Review lamented that "professors of Middle East studies would be very helpful right about now. But they are, unfortunately, among the worst of the lot: among the worst in the American professoriate. A range of departments, of course, is the province of radicals and ideologues, rather than genuine scholars. But departments of Middle East studies may take the cake".

The implicit argument here is that "genuine scholars" should be "contributing to America's defence". But I do not know a single "genuine scholar" who would frame the last 10 years in such terms - who would even use the word "America" as if it was a self-evident place where everyone had the same interests above and beyond conflicts of class, ethnicity and other narrower identities.

More to the point, most of the scholars I know who have spent their adult lives studying, living and working in the Arab/Muslim world have no desire to "contribute to America's defence" in an unending global war; precisely because - like the military wives who are enamored of Three Cups of Tea - they understand how false the premises of that war are, and how dangerous and unreliable are its goals.

In fact, many of the scholars most often attacked by right-wing pundits and politicians, like Greg Mortenson, offer their advice to the US government and even intelligence agencies, when asked.

The problem is hardly anyone in power wants to hear what they have to say, never mind take to heart the near unanimous judgement that the only way to end the cycle of violence is to address core issues such as the US' unwavering support of dictatorship or authoritarian rule, occupation and rampant exploitation of the countries of the region.

Only then, in a collaborative effort with local forces fighting for democracy, justice and peace, could the US and its European allies close down the innumerable roads that lead to religious and political extremism and violence.

Militarising academic knowledge

New discourse does not serve the interests of US military and corporate elite [GETTY]

Such a perspective, of course, has no place inside either the neo-conservative or even mainstream Washington establishment.

Instead, conservative scholars like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami have created an alternative association, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, that is, presumably, less "decadent" and unhelpful to the advancement of the strategic interests of the US' military and corporate elites.

Along with counterparts like the Heritage Foundation, Washington Institute for Near East Policy and other well-funded think tanks, it produces the arguments and knowledge that enables the continued justification of ongoing war and enmity at a cost of well over $2bn per day.
 
The defence establishment has begun to more heavily militarise academic knowledge by creating several programmes that attempt to put "scholars" on the field of battle to act as cultural interpreters and offer other services to military and intelligence personnel. Needless to say, the vast majority of Middle East scholars vehemently oppose this practice.

And yet, according to a recent US supreme court decision, when scholars do attempt to bridge warring sides by engaging groups like Hezbollah or Hamas in order to promote non-violent strategies of resisting occupation, they can be prosecuted for aiding terrorists.

This while, according to The New York Times, Obama quietly ditches the celebrated counterinsurgency strategy for a more old-school "counterterrorism," based almost entirely on killing insurgents, with all the collateral damage that often comes with it.

I suppose it is easier to try to develop a more accurate drone, that can take out a few dozen more Taliban per year than to change a global economic and political system that has helped transfer so much wealth from so many to so few during the last three centuries. But the latest advances in scientific killing will no more win the war against the Taliban or al-Qaeda than they did a generation ago in Vietnam, or in Afghanistan when it was the Soviets doing the fighting.

The reality is that you cannot imagine, let alone plan a radically new strategy for resolving conflicts like those in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq or elsewhere unless you can first imagine the people you are in conflict with in all their complexity and contradictory natures, and not merely as a quintessential type: the "poor farmer," "unemployed youth," "opium grower" or "jihadi fanatic" who must either be bought off or killed.

Sufis and rappers

One of my favourite panels of the conference was a two-part affair called Islam in performance? Pious art production in the Muslim world. Critics might dismiss the title as hopelessly abstract and "unhelpful" in answering the great war and terrorism related questions of the day.

But the presentations and discussions touched on a host of issues - globalisation, the circulation of religious knowledge, the intersection of religion, popular culture and market forces, and how people experience their identities as Muslims in settings as diverse as Indonesia and Morocco - that are crucial for understanding the forces that create both resistance against and transcendence of the status quo.

The question remains, who will listen to and learn from all this knowledge, produced increasingly by people to whom those in power, both in and outside the region, have very little incentive to listen and every incentive to marginalise?

It would seem that today more than ever, scholars, artists and activists will have to band together globally to ensure that a more accurate and yet potentially hopeful portrait of the Arab/Muslim world can pierce through the veil of ignorance and violence and reach the consciousness of a public that is in desperate need of a new paradigm, not merely for understanding the region, but their own societies as well.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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