During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.
Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.
The recording is now available for the public conversation between Prof. Hamid Dabashi and Prof. Ashis Nandy.
The two eminent scholars raised crucial questions revolving around the theme of “state, culture, and human imagination.” Professor Dabashi and Professor Nandy brought to this discussion their respective conceptions of these central ideas. Of particular interest was the nature of the modern state and its viability within the context of changing epistemological, discursive, and temporal spaces. Professor Nandy suggests that the advent of the modern state has wreaked devastation upon societies by imposing the necessity of a cultural homogenization project. Building upon this idea, Professor Dabashi questions the viability of the modern state, in the Weberian sense, suggesting that the amorphous state has a greater tolerance for critical thinking than a totalitarian nation-state. The public conversation between Professor Dabashi and Professor Nandy is crucial to Baraza’s own work, which seeks to imagine – and create – a space that not only facilitates engagement within the geographic and disciplinary boundaries of Area Studies. It also encourages the production of new discursive modes around which these engagements can be centered.
A recent feature article published in the McGill Daily–my alma mater’s independent newspaper–recounted the detainment of Islamic Studies PhD student Pascal Abidor during a trip home to New York from Montreal via Amtrak. Abidor presented his passport to the border patrol officers as the train entered the United States, and when asked where he lived and why, Abidor explained that he was a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University.
This was enough to arouse the suspicion of the officers, who then looked through files on his laptop and found images of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies. Abidor explained these were a part of his research on Shiism in contemporary Lebanon. Abidor was then removed from the train, handcuffed, detained, and interrogated.
The global wave of protests presently underway has ushered in a new crisis in the interdisciplinary field of area studies. The Arab Spring in particular has sounded an alarming wake-up call, leading many to challenge the relevance of modalities and methods currently employed within area studies. There is an existentialist quality underpinning this crisis, as scholars question how their personal subjectivities and academic training may be employed in a more constructive, responsible manner.
Although it is a relatively new field, this is not area studies’ first moment of crisis. As the United States rose to superpower status in the aftermath of World War II, area studies began to emerge as a field through which the government could cultivate regional “experts” to perform military and intelligence missions in areas deemed critical to Washington’s interests. Throughout the Cold War, dubious ties of many leading area studies scholars and departments with governmental and military agencies (ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense) were exposed. Many resulting issues of transparency and ethics, in terms of the often-ambiguous relationship between politics and academics, remain unresolved today. Continue reading Global Unrest Ushers in New Crises of Representation: Assessing the Present and Future of Area Studies→
Coverage of the conflict that brought the end of Gaddafi’s 42-year regime over Libya exposed some of the weakest points in the ways we conceive of geographical categories. Rebel forces accused Gaddafi of using “African mercenaries,” painting a racial tint to the civil conflict. In many respects, the conflict showed the limits of Libya’s Africanness — which Gaddafi emphasized in his later years — while aggravating the very real historical tensions between Arabs and other ethnic groups in Africa. Nevertheless, the positioning of Libya as an African nation has resonated with many Africans on the continent and throughout its diaspora.
It is September 2009; I’m in Upper Egypt, on this particular night, at the monastery and commemoration site of three martyred youth of Coptic history in a suburb of Luxor. As I passed a pathway littered with garbage set ablaze, I am told to look down, walk fast, and stay close to the Coptic sisters as we walked by a crowd of Muslim men or so my Coptic sisters told me. I felt their fear while we were walking through this neighborhood, but I didn’t entirely understand why. As soon as we arrived at the monastery, I asked my Coptic friends why we walked so timidly. They replied, “This area is unsafe for Christians at night.” With those words, I began to reflect on the reason and context for such words, and why fear of the Muslim other was so deeply seated in the Coptic community, at least the one I was acquainted with in Sheraton, Heliopolis. Continue reading “The Unknown”: A Coptic Spring?→