Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A journey in Egyptian studies IV

In the mid-1980s, some Western scholars were worried about re-Islamisation in the Arab world, something which had radically changed by the end of the decade, writes Tewfick Aclimandos 

I asked for comments on my last article dealing with what Western scholars working on Egypt read during the 1980s, and professor Ellis Goldberg has been kind enough to oblige. He wrote on my Facebook page that “while what I say is less true perhaps of French scholars, it seems to me that American academics almost never take the arguments of Egyptian scholars writing in Arabic seriously, even in the case of Egyptian thinker Tarek Al-Bishri. That is, I almost never see any actual engagement with their work, as opposed to using it as a ‘source’ for empirical detail.” 

I confess that my own narrative is basically French-centred, as I studied in France and have long worked in French circles. About those, I am sure I am right. During the early 1980s, I was close to French scholar Gilles Kepel, and I discussed things frequently and thoroughly with French scholars Henry Laurens and Alain Roussillon. 

Kepel drew my attention to Al-Bishri’s writings, and not the other way around. Laurens told me to buy the second edition of Al-Bishri’s Egypt’s Political Movement as its new preface was very important. He added, “indeed, it’s the subtlest text I have ever read on this topic.” French scholar François Burgat read it, toyed with the idea of translating it into French, and the main argument of his books is basically inspired by Al-Bishri. Kepel’s influence in Western academia at least is tremendous: 

his books have been widely translated, and the prestigious UK magazine The Economist has reviewed many of them. 

Yet, Goldberg’s comments raise important questions. First of all, we should notice he is not just targeting the “academic tourists” criticised by Egyptian commentator Mona Abaza in a celebrated piece published on the website Jadaliyya. She was referring to those who all of a sudden became interested in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution because donors were now devoting funding to studying this political earthquake. He also has in mind scholars who really do know Egypt and have a lot of field experience. 

Secondly, Goldberg does not say that Americans do not discuss Egyptian texts, but only “Egyptian texts written in Arabic.” What he says does not apply to US-Egyptian academic Khaled Fahmi, who writes in English and whose books have been widely acclaimed. Abaza, who writes in English, says that there is a kind of division of labour between those who live in the dominant centre, the main Western universities, and those who are based in Cairo or elsewhere on the “periphery”. The former are “theoreticians” who conceptualise, and the latter are “information-providers” even if they also speak foreign languages. 

My friend Nabil Abdel-Fattah observed the same phenomenon 30 years ago. And a French colleague once told me that some scholars did not object to “stealing” ideas or even papers not published in Western languages. In another article, I may describe my own experience of this, which confirms some points and is different on others. Suffice it to say here that the “research agenda” is defined by the centre, not the periphery, and that those at the centre, Westerners or otherwise, have a 

definite advantage. My own view is that non-Westerners can also conceptualise and have an impact. 

The broad picture also cannot be discussed without mentioning the “politics of translation”, meaning the books and articles that are translated from Arabic to Western languages. Novels and works of political thought are emphasised, and the social sciences ignored, but in order to be sure of this one would need to check. This might have changed in recent years, but it is still significant that even such important books as those by Egyptian writer Sherif Younis have not been translated. 

Thirdly, the term “engagement” used by Goldberg is ambiguous. From his distinction between “engagement” and “using their work as a source”, we understand that he means that serious reading is not enough. “Engagement” means thorough discussion of arguments. This is an important point, but it is not what I had in mind when writing my article. There, I was interested instead in genealogy: where does the bias in favour of Political Islam among Western scholars come from? 

I tried to describe the experiences of the scholars I know who worked on Egypt in the 1980s. I don’t know if one of them wrote a lengthy paper on Al-Bishri or on Egyptian scholar Gamal Hamdan. Roussillon wrote a very good article on the Egyptian thinkers Sayed Owais and Sayed Qotb. To my mind, Burgat “presented” Al-Bishri, even adopting his arguments, but he did not really discuss Al-Bishri’s work. 

I should add that this bias was not part of an outward hostility to the former Mubarak regime. At least some of these scholars had nice things to say about the former president. Roussillon said that “thanks to president Hosni Mubarak serious intellectual debate is possible again. Neither [former presidents] Nasser nor Sadat would had tolerated such vigorous discussion.” 

Kepel commented that “Nasser and Sadat were basically saying that if you are not with me, you are against me, while Mubarak is saying that if you are not against me, you are definitely with me.” Laurens avoided sweeping statements, but he also appreciated the easing of restrictions on intellectual discussion in the 1980s. 

To my mind, the perceptions of a left that was out of touch with its own constituency, the prisoner of old-fashioned Marxism, obsessed by Israel and anti-American in tone, and displaying xenophobic tendencies (or tendencies perceived as such) played a much bigger role in the intellectual revolution favouring Political Islam. In the mid-1980s, Western scholars were worried about ostentatious, even aggressive, re-Islamisation. By the end of the decade, things had radically changed. 

I might be wrong about all this, and I am unable to assess the role of Western intellectual life in the 1980s in these developments. Instead, I am relating a story — of how French academics discovered Egypt in the 1980s and this encounter’s impact on their movement towards a pro-Political Islam bias. But these colleagues, some of them close friends, had very different backgrounds and professional strategies, and they fought different battles. They were also affected differently by French intellectual and academic debates and political life. 

Roussillon was half-Egyptian; Kepel has Czech origins; some of them lived in Paris; while others did not. Most of them belonged to the mainstream left, but some were right-wing, and others were on the extreme left. 

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University. 

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