Academia and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa

by Professor Charles Tripp FBA

10 Feb 2017

Confronted by the overwhelming humanitarian crises that have resulted from political upheavals, revolution and civil war in the Middle East and North Africa, it is sometimes easy to overlook the plight of refugee academics. Some would even say that it is necessary to do so, given the immediate dangers engulfing the thousands of desperate people seeking refuge from bombardment, war, systematic cruelty and violent repression. In such a context, it can be argued, the immediate needs for survival and security for all should be the priority, and academics have no greater call upon assistance and resources than anyone else.

If the question were framed in terms of 'bare life', this would certainly be the case. But if mere survival were all that can be offered to those fleeing for their lives, this would be to play the demeaning game of the very forces that are driving them into a state of abjection. Refugees from all walks of life have experienced disruption and theft on a massive scale.

What has been stolen from them have been the very means by which their humanity is realized – their land, their professions, their homes, their neighbourhoods, their social and family networks, and their educational futures. In short, they have been deprived of nearly everything that had given their lives meaning and dignity. True assistance demands that efforts be made to restore both.

In this respect, refugee academics are indeed no different from anyone else, but, as with everyone, the nature of their profession does require particular conditions in which to flourish. These are not easily provided, but in thinking about what the conditions of that provision might be, a more sinister and worrying underlying truth emerges.

For those who champion the humanities and the social sciences, it must be apparent that these fields of knowledge have been under severe threat for some time. The drama and horror of the violence witnessed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya and its human cost may understandably attract our attention, but this makes manifest the systemic violence that has taken its toll of academics and academia in these countries, and in others, over the years.

Across the Middle East and North Africa – as in many other parts of the world – there are governments that regard universities as appendages of the state, geared to the task of training loyal and docile state servants. This has proved to be a particular problem for the humanities and social sciences. The demand that the academy must produce administratively useful knowledge and contribute to the elaboration of national and other myths has been severely damaging.

It has been visible in the fields of knowledge, but also in the lives of those trying to pursue academic careers. Promotion, grants, travel and job opportunities have been policed by the security services and monitored by power’s networks of patronage. For some this has become intolerable, even personally unsafe, and the flight of gifted academics from many of the states of the Middle East and North Africa has been a constant feature of recent history, accelerated at times of political upheaval, power struggle, government purges, revolution and civil war.

The open violence that has been such a feature of some countries in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 makes explicit that which was implicit before. It has also introduced a new note of urgency and danger into the lives of all, including academics, intensifying and sharpening the threats to which they are subject. Being ideologically suspect or unprotected by the networks of power and patronage may have been career stunting, frustrating and disabling under routine conditions of repression. But in present circumstances people’s freedoms and lives, as well as those of their families, can be in constant danger, as the death toll of scholars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen has shown.

Rebuilding academic life will be a key part of post-conflict reconstruction in a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, but this means more than simply rebuilding and re-staffing university campuses laid waste by war. It will require attention to the conditions under which freedom of thought and enquiry can be protected in the humanities and social sciences with implications that go far beyond university campuses. It will take time to create the reassurance for those active scholars to the return to the countries from which they have fled, to inspire their confidence that they can pursue knowledge wherever it leads.

Those of us who have always enjoyed such liberty have a duty to assist scholars from the region who are trying to maintain the flame of critical discourse in the humanities and social sciences. It is this that will further knowledge in these fields in the Middle East and North Africa, not the demands of regime survival or government convenience. And it is also this that requires us to offer shelter and hospitality to those who are linked to us in a common endeavour.

Charles Tripp is Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East (SOAS University of London) and a Fellow of the British Academy.

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