Panel 4g. Theories, Visions and Spaces of Liberation

Chair: Daniele Cantini, University of Halle (Germany)

The university as space of liberation? Ethnographic insights from Egypt and Jordan
Daniele Cantini, University of Halle (Germany)

Drawing on ongoing researches since more than ten years, the paper explores ethnographically some ways in which universities in Egypt and Jordan come to represent spaces of critique of the existing orders, where ideas on liberation might emerge despite all odds. Universities are ambivalent spaces, of legitimacy for existing powers and at the same time places in which some form of opposition might emerge. Here opposition is not merely political – although in Egypt university students’ elections were a venue for the Muslim Brotherhood to prove its influence, and in the last four years campuses have been at the forefront of political struggles. In Jordan campuses have been historically places of opposition, and in the last years there has been a resurgence of political violence on campus – but also more significantly played out as struggles for dignity, freedom and autonomy. The paper discusses the case of the 9th March Movement in Egypt (professors for the autonomy of the university, a movement founded in 2003 well before the more known Kefaya as one of the first signs of resistance to the government) and the case of Dhabahtoona in Jordan (a movement for students’ rights, the first of its kind in Jordan seeking to transcend identity politics).

Liberation through thought: was critical speech a liberation or a constraint on North African intellectuals?
Idriss Jebari, St Antony’s college, University of Oxford

The closure of the public sphere in independent North Africa prevented the emergence of new voices in public debates. In this context, many writers and thinkers chose European exile to recover their ability to write freely. From Paris, a cultural renewal took place in the seventies in the form of acclaimed realist novels or critical essays. However, this liberation of thought also distanced them from the realities they wrote about, thus compromising the validity of their views. Furthermore, they were removed from the institutions, networks and tribunes that would have carried their views to the domestic public. While they became well-known abroad, their voices grew dimmer where it mattered most. This paper will compare two intellectuals of a similar stature and profile, Hichem Djait and Abdallah Laroui; who both left for exile in the late sixties and wrote acclaimed critical essays in the mid seventies. However, while one stayed in exile for a decade, the other forced his way back into domestic structures. This paper aims to argue in favour of the importance of the material dimension of thought to understand its impact using these two examples. It will also bring attention to intellectual strategies and the role of audiences as dynamic parties in the production of meaning. This paper will seek to show that liberation of thought can have a counter-productive effect when intellectuals lose sight of the audiences they are writing for, and the means through which they seek to have an impact.

Contested Visions of Liberation: Kuwait as a Microcosm for Competing Islamisms
Courtney Freer, Department of Politics, University of Oxford

Scholarship on political Islam in the Gulf has been scant, with the dominant rentier state theory largely dismissing the role of domestic political actors in oil wealthy states. Significantly, Kuwait, a rentier state by any measure, houses the greatest variety of domestic political actors in the Gulf (and perhaps in the entire region). This study will examine the varying visions of Islamism espoused by three different groups of political actors in Kuwait: the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi movements (both activist and purist), and Shia political blocs. Nowhere else in the Gulf do these three forces of political Islam influence politics so openly. Using the author’s original fieldwork and research in Arabic and English, this paper will examine these groups’ competing visions of liberation. In what areas do they overlap, and on which points do they collide? We will also assess the means in which varying Islamist actors have managed to gain, or have failed to secure, a following inside a state which allows limited forms of popular political participation. How much freedom do they have to pursue their political visions of liberation? And to what extent have they worked with the government to accomplish short-term goals? This paper will go a long way toward filling a critical gap in the study of Islamism inside the rentier states of the Arabian Gulf, while also exploring political trends present throughout the Middle East region.

A Crack in the Gates of Ijtihad: The Islamic Counter Reformation and the Liberation of al-Azhar in Post Revolutionary Egypt
John Turner, Eastern Mediterranean University

The revolution in Egypt has gone full circle, with the return of military rule following the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected Mohammed Morsi. Despite the democratic deficit, the revolution has resulted in the loosening of the ties that bind al-Azhar to the Egyptian state. Co-option of the ulema by the state has been a common feature of preserving state legitimacy since the Abbasids. The ulema have remained weak in dealing with challenges of modernity by ending ijtihad to rely purely on the fiqh and taqlid for centuries that in part resulted in the rise of reform movements in the 19th century that sought to reassert the practice to deal with concerns the stagnant ulema could not. Following this long tradition of state oversight of the religious class, al-Azhar as a centre of Sunni Islamic knowledge has in effect been under government control since it was nationalised by al-Nasser in 1952. After the revolution al-Azhar has been granted greater independence which some scholars recognise as an opportunity to refresh their thinking in order to challenge reformative thought, of which the most powerful have become Salafi Jihadists who promote a kind of priesthood of the individual, who have the right and ability to assess how the Islamic world can and should deal with its challenges. This paper addresses the possibility of a resurgent ulema reasserting their place as effective leaders of the Muslim community in modern times by peaking behind the closed gates of ijtihad to counter the Islamic reformation.

Dealing with loss and injustice: Post-Morsi narratives in Muslim Brotherhood media between post-Islamism and radicalization
Robbert Woltering, University of Amsterdam (ACMES)

Memories of the Egyptian revolution are growing ever more dim. Egyptian politics seems further away than ever from achieving the goals of the revolution. Apart from the amorphous ‘revolutionary forces’ who bore the brunt of state oppression and violence during the 25 January uprising and the period immediately thereafter, there is one group that has suffered the greatest loss in recent Egyptian political history: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It controlled the presidency and the parliament, and had successfully fashioned a constitution to its liking. There was no party who could reasonably challenge its rule. A rebel movement and a military coup turned the tables in a matter of months, leaving thousands dead, the MB outlawed, and landing countless members in jail. The MBs politics during the Morsi-period has been a topic of much debate, also with respect to its presumed post-Islamist make-over (Bayat, Roy). A key question to consider after the coup is how the MB has reacted to the traumatic experience of being cast back into a state of oppression. Did this cause a hardening of its positions? What happened to its presumed post-Islamist trajectory? This paper offers an analysis of the MBs newspaper Al-Hurriya wa l-Adala in the period following the fall of Morsi until it was banned in late December 2013. In addition, the paper analyzes the movement’s English and Arabic websites in the same period. It will be argued that the analyses show a primacy of political over religious arguments along with a pragmatic positioning towards the West. This suggests that the MB, despite its rather illiberal performance during its short stint in power, and in the face of extreme conditions, can nonetheless be described as being part of the post-Islamist phenomenon.

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