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.