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Politics in the Middle East

Sociology in the Arab World: An Interview with Sari Hanafi

Sari Hanafi.

June 09, 2016

Sari Hanafi is currently a Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut. He is also the editor of Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology (in Arabic), and Vice-President of both the International Sociological Association and the Arab Council of Social Science. His research interests include the sociology of migration, the politics of scientific research, as well as civil society, elite formation, and transitional justice. His most recent book, Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise was written with R. Arvanitis and published in both Arabic and English. Few have contributed more to the development of the sociology of the Arab World; few have made greater strides in mediating between Arab and Western sociologies than Sari Hanafi. He is interviewed by Mohammed El Idrissi, Professor of Sociology at El Jadida in Morocco.


MEI: You grew up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus and originally enrolled in Civil Engineering before going into Sociology. Did your social background affect your decision to make that change?

SH: Yes indeed! At that time, in the early 1980s, I was very politicized, I wanted to change the world! Of course, now I barely understand it. Then, two issues were preoccupying me: colonized Palestine and the authoritarianism in Syria; these issues drove me to Sociology. I was marked by my first arrest after a demonstration for the Day of Land in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus where I grew up. An intelligence officer told me then: “All your group would fill less than one bus; you can easily be taken to prison!” Arab authoritarian states have always underestimated the importance of such “bus people” – whether defined as dissident intellectuals or more generally as an enlightened middle class – in stirring protests. I took refuge in Foucault’s analysis of the microphysics of power and bio-politics. I went to France to pursue his thinking. I wanted a scientific analysis of the state elite, but at the same time, my own activism helped me understand sociology not only as a professional and critical enterprise, in Burawoy’s typology, but also as public engagement and policy advocacy.

MEI: What have been the challenges of combining professional and public sociology?

SH: In the Arab world, this has not been easy. Sociology, like all other social sciences, is best understood not as a martial art, disarming people of their common sense and ideologies, as Pierre Bourdieu proposes, but as a tool of the state in its modernization projects. Two forces seek to delegitimize the social sciences: the authoritarian political elite and some ideological groups, in particular certain religious authorities. Both emphasize the social sciences’ problematic origins (their emergence during the colonial era) and their foreign funding. Nowadays I believe that the problem is not only with religious groups but also with what I call the Arab “illiberal” Left. Both are so arrogant that they tend to overlook changes on the ground and resist such universal values as democracy. Of course, the Arab uprisings revealed some positive cognitive developments, but social science has not had much impact in pushing for change and rationalizing debate – except in Tunisia, an exceptional case where academics have played an important role in fostering dialogue in society and collaborating with civil society. The 2015 Nobel Prize awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet was a significant symbolic victory.

MEI: Have sociologists contributed to such positive cognitive developments in post-Arab uprisings era?

SH: Most of the post-colonial studies in the region have been simplistic, incapable of comprehending changes in the Arab world. Many Arab uprisings so far have failed, not simply because of the imperialism and post-colonial domination but because of deeply-rooted and protracted authoritarianism, and because of the lack of trust on the part of people who are in the process of learning values such as pluralism, democracy, freedom, and social justice. The Arab world needs sociological tools to understand social movements along the lines described by Asef Bayat, that is, the silent, protracted but pervasive encroachment of ordinary people on the propertied and powerful in order to survive and improve their lives.

In my view, public sociology always seeks to provoke discussion about the capacity of social actors to transform their society. As a sociologist, my role is to show that there is no pure evil or pure good. Sociology, with its sociological imagination and focus on the agency of actors, reminds us of the complex nature of social phenomena. In other words, sociology reminds the public to think of people’s struggles, beyond the recurring explanations of conflicts as geopolitical (x and y states are providing the “opposition” with means of warfare) and beyond conflicts between ethnic groups (which is, alas, the way many scholars, media and lay persons understand conflict in countries like Syria or Bahrain). Sociology also reminds us to analyze alliances in terms of converging interests, not in terms of camps (camp of resistance vs. camp of imperialism, etc.); that it is not only the Islamic State (ISIS) that uses takfir (accusations of apostasy) to generate homo sacer (a human who can be killed without being judged and without due process), but also those who throw barrel bombs at civilians. Sociology reminds us that youth did not join ISIS simply because they have read specific books or followed certain ways of interpreting the Quran, but because they have been living in a context of political and social exclusion.

MEI: And what role has public sociology actually played in the Arab World?

SH: The Arab world has still to acknowledge the important role of social science in rationalizing societal debate and providing solutions to problems facing our modernity. In the Arab region, we rarely hear of a “white paper” written by social scientists at the request of public authorities and then debated in the public sphere. Even when the Tunisian dictator Zein Al-Dine Ben Ali used science as an ideological weapon in his ruthless struggle against the Tunisian Islamists during the 1990s, he did not refer to the social sciences but the hard sciences. Scientific meetings are treated like any other public meetings, and held under police surveillance. At the same time, sociologists haven’t helped themselves: they have failed to constitute a scientific community that could develop an influential voice or protect those who are critical of power.  

MEI: This is a very important point: Why is the scientific community so weak in the region?

SH: You need two processes to strengthen a scientific community: the profession must have a status, but that status must also be institutionalized through national associations. Both are missing in the Arab world. There are only three active sociological associations (Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco), and interestingly, there is much less state repression in these three countries than in other Arab countries. Recently, the newly-established Arab Council for Social Science has been discussing how this organization might foster the emergence of such associations.

As I said before, the scientific community should be organized to face not only repressive states but also those forces that seek to delegitimize social science. Religious authorities have often felt threatened by social scientists as the two groups compete in public discourse. Once I watched a tense television debate involving a religious leader and an activist: the late Sheikh Mohamed Said Ramadan al-Bouti (who argued that Islam is against any form of family planning) and an anti-clerical activist from the General Union of Syrian Women, a state-sponsored organization. While family planning falls squarely within the domain of sociology and demography, no social scientist was ever brought into these public debates. Another example comes from Qatar. The Qatari authorities protect themselves from conservative political and religious commissars by asking Qatari branches of foreign universities to teach the same curriculum as would be taught at their university headquarters. However, who would protect professors within these parachuting universities? In a recent interview, the President of Carnegie Mellon University Qatar, in order to “protect himself,” insisted that the Qatari authorities are responsible for the university’s curriculum. So everyone tries to preempt debate, in a problematic context where the freedom of expression is very limited. The development of a “sphere for science” could become an extra-territorial space of exception, in the sense that local laws would not necessarily apply bestowing the freedom to criticize the surrounding society, but running the risk of being disconnected from societal needs.

MEI: As a Vice-President of the International Sociological Association (ISA), how can you foster the institutionalization of the sociological community?

SH: The ISA can play a major role in this regard. At the 2014 Yokohama World Congress I was elected to serve all National Associations for four years. I committed myself to five priorities: First, I would encourage more North-South collaboration at the level of individuals, institutions and collective sociological communities. Second, I hope to encourage sociologists from all over the world, but particularly South America, Africa and the Middle East, to join the Association, as the number of ISA members in these regions is still fairly small. Third, I will try to raise funds to subsidize the participation of sociologists from poorer countries (categories B and C) at ISA conferences. Fourth, I will encourage national associations in South America, Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe to become collective members of the ISA. Finally, I want the ISA to participate more effectively in supporting national scientific communities by paying more visits to their associations and encouraging regional networking. So my task ahead is colossal.

Sari Hanafi <sh41@aub.edu.lb>
Mohammed El Idrissi <mohamed-20x@hotmail.com>

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