The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged academia
Islamophobia in France

In the run-up to the incredibly unpredictable French presidential election, I took a look at some of the books being written by prominent (and not-so-prominent) French scholars, and wrote about the vitriolic debate over Islamophobia, Islamic radicalism and the alleged creeping Islamization of France. It is hard to over-state both how complicated, personal and over-the-top this debate can get. 


I found Gilles Kepel's book Terror in France interesting as an overview of jihadism in France and of major political developments for France's Muslim minority since 2005 (including some analysis of political participation and of the question of a Muslim vote). Kepel is very critical of the idea of Islamophobia – not because he denies that there is discrimination against Muslims in France but because he says that Islamophobia has been politically instrumentalized to forbid criticism of Islam (Kepel is, not coincidentally, at loggerheads with the Comité Contre L'Islamophobie en France). Yet while I am sure that there are Islamists who use the victimization of Muslims as a means to set themselves up as leaders and spokesmen (always men) and to accrue political influence, there is plenty of criticism of Islam in France these days -- it's practically an intellectual and media industry. 

Which brings us to one of the other books I discuss, which is representative of the genre. Below is an excerpt:


"That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into "a foreign land," its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or "Houellebecquian" submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).

As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it "is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions." Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge."

Another book, now out in English, I strongly recommend is Olivier Roy's Jihad and Death, a beautifully written analysis of the narcissism and nihilism of jihadis and a critique of the paranoid view of Islam as an imminent threat to France. Also, although I don't write about it in this piece, French journalist David Thomson's book Les Revenants ("The Returnees"), a collection of interviews with young French jihadis (and their female supporters/partners) who have returned from Syrian, is also a riveting work of reportage. 

Repression and suspicion for scholars in the middle east

I have a piece on the Al Fanar site looking at the problems scholars face conducting research on sensitive topics (which can be almost any topic) in the middle east. After hopes were raised of greater access to and circulation of information after the Arab Spring, academics seem to be facing more repression than ever now. Foreign scholars are worried about getting in trouble or losing access to the countries they study. But I came across some cases of young scholars persevering in their work under extreme circumstances. 

Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”
The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”
“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”
It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.
Why Terrorists Weep

Thomas Hegghammer offers the text [PDF] of a recent lecture on in his recent research - sounds fascinating:

My lecture today has a fancy title, but it is basically about what jihadis do in their spare time. Before you sneak out the back door and tweet “underwhelming”, let me say that this is the most interesting topic I have ever worked on, and it is much more important than it seems. My main message today is this: the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave. In fact, I’ll go so far as claiming that this topic is one of the last major, unexplored frontiers of terrorism research, one that merits an entire new research program. Although I’ll be talking mainly about the culture of jihadi groups, the perspective and concepts I present can be applied to any type of rebel group.

Trouble on campus

According to the minister of education, if you knew what is going on in Egyptian universities, you would faint. As a frequent university goer, I can assure you that you wouldn't. In all likelihood, you would just lose body moisture and tolerance of others.

His remark was addressed to the “trembling hand” that is the government that is Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, whom talk shows have been taking aim at for not trying hard enough to stop everything from getting worse. (Presumably they are doing this to salvage some pretense of objectivity and because it is probably fun to heroically yell at “them,” the unnamed people who really are in charge, for not removing the people you disapprove of from their posts.)

One of el-Beblawi’s greatest weakness, many think, is his inability to get universities under control. Since most of the Muslim Brothers lucky enough not to be in prison are in universities, so are most of their protests. (The rest materialize in villages and poor neighborhoods that are easier to ignore and tend to disperse as quickly as they have gathered.) Cairo University Brothers, for instance, protest on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to MB youth leader Ahmed Badawi (who recently joined his superiors in prison).

The MB protests usually lead to small counter-protests by smirking pro-Sisi students, which culminates in the protrusion of veins, the stretching of many collars, and occasional injuries sustained while scores of unfazed students shuffle by, hugging books or filming videos that manage to show nothing and explain less.

If one were to graph the number of students protests against apathy towards them, one would have a straight line shooting up to the corner of the page and beyond. And it is more or less the same story everywhere. Some angry students protest. Others disagree. Violence erupts. Security doesn’t intervene due to a committed policy of non-participation in real or potential danger. Flushed, a dean strides in somewhere followed by glaring subordinates. He orders an investigation (a synonym for suspending students, a decision that may or may not be renewed at will, and withdrawing their IDs, denying them entry to campus). Some time later comes an announcement of cameras being installed to record spreaders of chaos in the act.

And then before you know it, there is new security personnel looking into, brushing, waving and nodding at every single student’s bag at forever-decreasing-in-size gates (because if you trickle students into campus, they will be too happy to have finally made it in to wield the weapons security missed when they smiled at their bag) and the administration has destined a number of metal detectors to a state of constant hysteria caused by heavily-accessorized female students. This happened in more or less the same sequence in Ain Shams, Mansoura, Monofeya, Kafr el-Sheikh and Misr International University.

That being said, the university making headlines now is Al Azhar. Earlier this week, around 1400 students peacefully marched out of the university to block and pray on al-Nasr road, where they clashed with the police, which was waiting for them outside. The students were pushed back to campus. Once inside, they lit dumpsters on fire to block the security forces’ vision, then threw rocks at them, broke a few windows and drew some offensive graffiti on the walls, which Gen. Magdy Abbas, the head of security at the university, in a fatherly manner described as a “transgression” not befitting an Azhari student.

After Gen. Abbas hung up with TV presenter Youssef el-Husseiny he was dubbed “Little Beblawi” and wished discharge. Meanwhile, others like Tamer Ameen were reporting the confessions of three female Azhari students to putting on makeup and “red solutions” to make it look they have been attacked by the security forces. This is not the first time Al Azhar’s MB students lied or hurt themselves. Earlier this year in April, after two incidents of mass food poisoning, it was reported that three sheb-sheb-wearing students smuggled the very specific amount of 105 bad tuna cans into the kitchen to make it appear as if the pro-old regime Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is incompetently running a public institution that neglects cleanliness and health.

It is worth noting that Al Azhar is one of the few places were the words “MB stronghold” are accurate. They won essentially every student election in every faculty and according to a 2009 report by Amr Ezzat about how many actually Azhari (i.e. subscribing to Al-Azhar’s standards of Islamic moderation) there are in Al Azhar, it anecdotally ranges between two to three percent of the total number of students.

Apart from demanding the fall of the military regime, the main purpose of these nationwide protests, according to the actual protests, is to free their fellow detained students. Ideally, putting pressure on the college community would pressure on the administration and by extension the government, which will then be forced to release the students to shut everyone up. This admittedly long process is made worse by student indifference and the believed-to-be deliberately inadequate non-MB-dominated student unions, who don’t feel the need to halt classes to embarrass administrations and the government or even make noises about it just for show.

Also, these protests are thought to be the only way to “stay in the picture” and derive satisfaction from being a thorn in the side of the coup lead and supporters.This brewing hostility manifested itself after Egypt lost 6-1 to Ghana, crushing the chances of qualifying for the pined-after World Cup. MB supporters engaged in celebrations and chants like “The story is not about the MB, the story is about the six goals” (it rhymes in Arabic), which embittered people against them more than their alleged Sinai attacks and the assassination attempt on the Interior Minister combined.

But prior to the unforgivable treason of not supporting the national soccer team, the MB’s persistent “resistance of reality” has only earned them exhausted disdain that later merged with incomprehension from fellow students, most faculty members and the general public. After all, where is the sanctity of a university campus? And what is the point of student unions anyway? They just get kids worked up. They should have lectures, not protests, indignant columnists reassured each other. These protests are not peaceful, they add - which is not always untrue. While protesters usually don't start out to physically harm others, they sometimes intentionally provoke confrontation to escalate the situation, out of a commonly held, but not well-articulated, belief that nothing happens unless someone gets hurt. Casualties can become the price of attention.

The wave of student protests has also raised the curious and confusing issue of granting security personnel in universities judicial seizure authority, which the deputy head of Cairo University roughly explains would mean transferring investigative authority from the police to campus security. So, now when a student goes to college with say a kitchen knife, instead of handing him over to the police, whose job it is to investigate and fight crime, the on-campus security can investigate the person, which would save his/her some trouble -- says the Cairo University official. First, they don’t have to deal with potential mistreatment in the police station -- it will be outsourced to universities -- and if the students break the law on some kind of police-only holiday, they won’t have to spend the night in jail until the prosecution gets back to work. It is not like this raises extra questions such as:  How long can you keep a student for investigation? Will there be a mini-jail in universities in case the investigation takes more than a day? What happens based on the result of the findings? Where in the world is the legal text of this not-law law? etc, etc. Not to mention that removing police from campus was the key pre-revolutionary demand of politicized students and faculty groups such as March 9.

If there is one thing we know about the judicial authority transfer, it is that the former allegedly MB-affiliated minister of education, under deposed president Morsi, merely requested it on June 4. Nothing indicates whether or not it was accepted and all the ministry of justice has done is deny granting it, while state-run Al-Ahram published reports bemoaning its absence in universities like Al-Azhar, where apparently it could have been used to investigate students into submission, demonstrating the importance of government coordination.

Recently, the current education minister admitted to not having any idea where this law that is not a law come from and added that while he personally thinks it’s useless, it is still up to the Supreme Council of Universities to decide what to do about it, although the ministry of justice has supposedly not given them an "it" to discuss in the first place. More importantly, since everyone is so keen to note that the not-law law was a fruit of Morsi and his unconscionable terrorists’ reign, why is there any controversy at all about whether or not it should exist, if it does?