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09 July 2007 @ 04:29 pm
The Politics of Gulf Studies  
So those of you on the blogosphere have heard and shared several stories about the difficulties and special considerations surrounding doing research and teaching in the Gulf. I feel like as a researcher I self-censor way more than I would while in the states and that I am constantly looking over my shoulder. These paranoias are actually more self-induced than real, I think. Firings and deportations of academics are very few and far between. But still, I conduct research differently there than I would in the states, and use different word choices, etc. But I never really thought that this feeling extended out from the Gulf into academics in general that focus on Gulf issues. I know, sounds naive, but I do still for the most part live inside a bubble of academic freedom.

Last week I participated in a Gulf Studies conference at Exeter University in England. And I found a lot of interesting politics, mainly revolving two themes, 1. the issue of academic freedom vs. ruling family interests, and 2. gender issues. A few thoughts on each:

1. First, the Sheikh of Sharjah is the single largest benefactor in the history of Exeter University, and has pretty much funded the Islamic and Arabic Institute which hosted the conference. HH flew in from Sharjah just to open the conference and a new wing in the institute building, stayed for one panel, and then flew back. What I found so interesting is the whole pomp and ceremony around his presence. First, we were told by the conference organizer not to use the "loo" upstairs because it would look bad to be emerging from the bathroom when the sheikh arrived. Then we all gathered to watch the ceremony in which he cut the ribbon for the new wing and number of speeches about his generosity and intelligence were given. And then we resumed the conference, during which the shiekh proceeded to speak loudly with a professor throughout the next panel. He also found a paper presented by a grad student on UAE's economy problematic, because the title said UAE but was focused on Dubai. This is fine, but the manner in which he commented on this was not. He never addressed the woman directly, instead speaking to the room and saying things like, "she must have been misled". And he continued for a good two minutes or so. The poor grad student. She handled it famously, but still. Can you imagine giving a paper on housemaids, labor issues, or censorship in the Gulf in a forum such as this? I would be mortified. In fact, I had a few things in my paper which I was giving the next day that I changed because I was then worried about whether I could say certain things, regardless of the fact that the sheikh flew back to Sharjah after sitting in on just that one panel. Still, there was a feeling of self-censorship in the room, and I wonder how to get around this, especially when ruling family money is so often tied up with Gulf Studies programs and initiatives in the West.

2. And the gender issue was SO irritating, especially when you consider the very interesting old boys' club that is produced when you put a bunch of older Arab male scholars together with a bunch of older white English ones. This group of "uncles" as I have chosen to call them displayed some incredibly professional behavior, including hitting on female grad students, addressing women on panels as "lovely ladies," speaking throughout panels on women or by women (if they attended at all), and touting the physical virtues of Filipinas  to the whole room in a Q&A session. Not only is the professionalism that should come along with an academic conference missing here, but so is the treatment of women scholars as equals. And, the academic focus on gender issues in the Gulf was also very little. I am extremely interested in organizing a conference on feminist gulf studies, with scholars from the Gulf and other parts of the world, and hopefully people who focus on policy and women's rights issues as well. That would be very interesting.

OK, I think I have said all there is to say at this point. Oh, there is one more thing, and I am going to keep chewing on it: academics of the Gulf are usually experts in either citizen issues or expatriate ones, and they usually find they know little about the group they do not focus on (I am guilty of this myself). So aren't we also reproducing the citizen/expat divide through our knowledge production? Something to think about.

And, lest it sound like the conference sucked, it very much did not. There were some stellar papers and I learned a lot about the Gulf as a whole. I get so mired in the UAE, and Dubai in particular, that I tend to forget that things are very different in each Gulf country. The exchange of ideas and information both in the formal setting of the panels and the informal setting of meals was immense. And I did find a few like minds to discuss the above frustrations and concerns with.
:-)tessa2787 on July 11th, 2007 07:19 am (UTC)
the "uncles" sound pretty awful. physical virtues??? grrrrrr
susan smittenchu_hi on July 13th, 2007 07:10 am (UTC)
Overwhelmingly weird. :\

I met someone today you would have loved to interview. Alas!
nativeinformantnativeinformant on July 22nd, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
really? feel free to share my email info if you think they would be interested in chatting online or something. sorry for the late reply. we have been in mexico :)
(Anonymous) on August 21st, 2007 09:15 am (UTC)
Speaking of late replies... one month later...

The guy I met, I might be able to go back and look at my old schedules and figure out who he is, if you need an interview subject in a pinch!

At the moment, though, I don't remember his name. But this was the story he told me on the jumpseat, minutes before landing back in Dubai...

His nationality was Indian, but he told me his UAE nationality was pending and would come through within the month!

His father came to Dubai several decades ago, to work in the gold trade. When he got off the boat, he found himself welcomed by the royal family!

After some time, he fell in love with an Emirati girl, and they decided to get married. He showed up at his finacee's house, and had a large shotgun pulled on him by her ex-military father. He was Hindu, after all, and was completely out of line in asking for her hand.

So they eloped! They were in love, and didn't expect the other to change who they were in order to start their new life. They had to live in India for a few years, but when they finally came back, her family had agreed to accept their union, especially since they had a child (my colleague) on the way!

It's like a movie, huh?
(Anonymous) on July 19th, 2007 06:34 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry I had to back out of the conference - sounds like it was entertaining and educational. "Area Studies" are a fascinating field in fact to really look at the production of knowledge. It's interesting and insightful how fields such as South Asian studies are so radically different in the UK than in the US, and how they have evolved by the shifting demographics of scholars - slowly the "uncles" are being pushed out. Unfortunately, Gulf and Middle East studies still have a long way to go before the "uncles" are a minority....

As for a conference on feminist Gulf studies - count me in! Maybe in Cairo???

Hope the revisit to Dubai went well.

Chad/aka Ibn.Battuta.2007, rihla-journey.blogspot.com
nativeinformantnativeinformant on July 22nd, 2007 05:28 pm (UTC)
I agree - area studies is fascinating, esp its historic entanglement with the state (empire in the case of UK, and post- cold war in the case of US). What is interesting now is the fact that it is two way - states are actively promoting their study in academic institutions abroad, like the US in the Middle East, and like the case of the conference. It will be interesting to see how this evolves with global politics.

I will keep you posted on conference stuff. Right now, it is just at the idea stage...
istara on July 22nd, 2007 01:18 pm (UTC)
This made me laugh (the "uncles") as much as it made me want to cry.

That thing about Sharjah is one of the most sinister things I have read in a long time.

We as the West MUST stand up for ourselves and stop accepting oily money if it means compromising the very values that led to us being educationally superior. I know how appallingly arrogant that sounds, but there is a reason that rich Middle Easterners send their children to study in the US and the UK. It's because our universities are better than theirs. And that is in no small amount due to the fact that we protect and cherish freedom of speech whereas they do not.

I fear the day that Warwick University agrees to segregate male and female students in order to receive a billion dollar grant from some Wahabi-backed organisation. You may laugh, and you may dismiss this as a non-muslim's phobia/bigotry, but just look at what percentage of mosques in the West are Wahabi funded, and just look at the kind of ideology they put out, and what it does to young Western muslims.

Extremism and oppression are real problems in this part of the world, and we must not suffer them to be exported to the West.
nativeinformantnativeinformant on July 22nd, 2007 05:36 pm (UTC)
While I agree with you on this in some ways, I also think there is another disturbing trend that goes along with this, and that is the corporatization of the university system. I see it daily in the way students (and their parents) act more and more like customers, bargaining for grades, and policing what professors teach in class. In the US at least there have been serious backlashes against those of us that teach women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, ethnic studies, and even evolution. And because the university is increasingly a money meking endeavor, I feel that academic freedom is being sacrificed well enough on its own, regardless of foreign money.

The interesting thing for me is the way that the American university is expanding into the Middle East. This is due in part to the fact that there is money in the middle east, and also to the post 9/11 atmosphere where south asian and middle eastern students either can't get visas to study here or don't feel comfortable coming. So yes, I agree that there is extremism in the Middle East, but we have plenty of our own home grown kind, and the way they both intermingle is interesting, both politically and academically.

But I would caution against making such a sweeping West/non-West dichotomy in talking about these issues. I feel they are much more intertwined and difficult to pull apart, historically, economically, and politically.
istara on July 22nd, 2007 06:18 pm (UTC)
I agree there is no simple, single dichotomy.

But I do a very clear dichotomy between regimes where gay and lesbian studies would be a criminal matter, and those in which they are not.

I wonder how Sheikh Sharjah would feel if a student majoring in Islamic studies at his personally funded Islamic studies centre was also a single mother doing a minor in lesbian literature?

Purposely absurd example, I admit, and I know I sound paranoid, but some of the things I have heard from students and academics here are alarming.

So whether this academic funding comes from a wahhabi sheikh, or a huge corporation, or an individual with political motives - the fact that it could ever affect the independence and free thought/free speech of academia is horrific. Absolutely horrific. And perhaps it is naive of me to expect a world in which academia is allowed these freedom, but I do expect it.

And had I been that poor graduate, I would have given that sheikhly cretin a fucking good talking to, in public, to his face.

(I'm also assuming he's the sheikh who had his doctorate written for him by someone else, titled "The Myth of Arab Piracy").
(Anonymous) on July 23rd, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
It's already happened, some of the most prestigious universities in the US have been bought off by Arab regimes and forced to redefine "academic freedom" in a variety of ways. Georgetown, Cornell, among others, have been bought by the rulers of Qatar and set up campuses there that are gender segregated, racist, and, from what I've been told, also with institutionalized censorship in what can be taught....

Of course, the issue here is not the Wahhabization of western education, but, as Neha argues, it's corporatization - chasing the money tree. The British academy is already bankrupt, thanks to "Thatcherism", and thus dependent on selling at a high price useless degrees to kids from India and elsewhere. In the US, Nike and IBM, along with big pharmaceuticals, dictate a lot of the terms of how universities define themselves today.

It isn't about Wahhabism, but neo-liberalism, the privatization of academia, and the institutionalization of corporate fundamentalism....

istara on July 23rd, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
Good god I cannot believe stuff like this has already happened in America.

I'm glad there was no mullah-meddling in my UK-based studies of Eng Lit. There have already been articles in the newspapers here in Dubai of how Shakespeare among others should be banned because of sex/anti-Islam/offensive content. God forbid someone buys Oxford and burns the contents of the Bodleian to replace it with sharia compliant literary content.
istara on July 23rd, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
Oh hold on do you mean the overseas campuses of universities? Those I can understand being meddled with, because let's face it, they are essentially diploma mills (or at least their purpose is purely profitmongering). If Harvard sets up a campus in Doha or Manama or Riyadh then that's one thing, but if campuses on American soil are being constricted, that is quite another.
(Anonymous) on July 24th, 2007 11:13 am (UTC)
well the UK still has a blasphemy law, just like Pakistan and one can't expect too much from the US where in some schools biology teachers are forced to teach "creationism" alongside evolution.... censorship and other forms of limiting education is universal, it has nothing to do with Wahhabism, besides, Qatar is hardly a bastion of Wahhabism.

in the US soon after 9/11 a new movement was initiated of harassing professors who were deemed "liberal" - i.e., who opposed mindless jingoism and US imperialism. check out campuswatch.org - it's toned down a little, but basically students were asked to report on their faculty and what they said in class. there is still a bit of a witch-hunt going on.

i would come back to the idea though that the biggest threat to education, particularly higher education, is not the attempt by some to impose a particular ideology, even by the likes of daniel pipes at campuswatch, but by money and the corporatization of academia....

nativeinformantnativeinformant on July 25th, 2007 06:45 pm (UTC)
I'm a little concerned about the East/West and Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy that you seem to be making. Like the other respondent said, there are plenty of restraints on academic freedom in the West, and I am personally way more frightened by the spread of Christian fundamentalism. Plus, let's not forget the power dynamics of area studies, being based in colonial projects of conquest... those kinds of politics and assumptions about the non-West being less progressive are actually perpetuated in academia itself. I would be careful about perpetuating them more. Not that you are doing that intentionally, but I think the choice of language implies that a bit.
istara on July 25th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC)
Well the (Middle) East/West "dichotomy" is specifically relevant here, since the issue was the UK/Sheikh of Qatar. But I take your point about Christian fundamentalism which is also extremely worrying.

But at the end of the day I believe we should be able to draw a fairly clear dichotomy between nations that allow and even extol freedom of speech as a basic human right, and those who see it as anything but. This is not a simple East/West divide, and it is certainly not a specific Muslim/non-Muslim divide (China, North Korea, certain African nations). But I see a fairly clear pattern here - Worldwide Press Freedom Index - don't you?

But while the US/Europe/UK may not enjoy perfect freedoms of speech - I think the anti-holocaust denial laws in many nations are particularly problematic - I do not think they are anything in comparison to the restraints on freedom of speech in certain other nations. In fact it irks me to even compare them.
(Anonymous) on May 28th, 2008 12:55 am (UTC)
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