New Book: Ten Arab Filmmakers

Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique is an edited volume about the films and careers of Arab directors whose films take a critical view of social realities. It includes a chapter by me on how the Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah has succeeded in occupying a rather autonomous position in the cinematographic field.


You can pre-order it and get a 25% discount by buying online from Combined Academic Publishers, using the code CSF315TENF.

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How to Become an Obscure Public Sociologist

In the year 2000, I moved from New York to London. The protests against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle had just taken place, and similar social movements were springing up around the world. I played a small role in this ‘alter-globalisation’1 movement, as one of the founders of a short-lived London branch of the international ATTAC network. Launched in France in 1998, ATTAC opposed neoliberal economics and advocated policies that aimed to limit the power of the global financial markets. As a French speaker with a good knowledge of French intellectual life, I tried to be an intermediary between British and French activist circles. I was also involved in the the European Social Forum (ESF), one of the regional offshoots of the World Social Forum, whose founding ATTAC had been involved in.

Before the advent of free, easy-to-use online collaboration tools like Google Groups, a friend and I drew on our experience in software development and in the Free Software movement to set up such tools for ATTAC and the ESF, to take decision-making out of meetings (which, we argued, are inherently exclusive and lead to a ‘meetingocracy’ of people who have the leisure time and resources to attend) and into online spaces that are more transparent and accessible. We published a manifesto for open voluntary and activist groups, called Open Organizations. This was probably my first step away from activism and towards sociological thinking about social movements.

In 2002, I told Bernard Cassen, one of ATTAC’s founders, that I thought the ‘war on terror’ might well derail the alter-globalisation movement by absorbing all the energy of the left; he said not to worry. I turned out to be an example of my own prediction. By February 2003, I had drifted away from ATTAC and was demonstrating in Hyde Park against the invasion of Iraq. It struck me then that in the London activist circles I knew, hardly anyone seemed to speak Arabic or know much about the Arab world. That year, I started to learn Arabic, and in 2005 I quit my job and moved to Egypt to study the language full-time.

Egypt was, then as now, an authoritarian state, but in those days it was easy, safe, and inexpensive for foreigners to live, study, and do research there. While learning the language, I became increasingly interested in intellectuals and the history of ideas in Egypt, and in 2007 I returned to London to do an MA and PhD in Middle East Studies at SOAS. I had become convinced that it was hardly possible to understand anything about cultural production since the 19th century, in Egypt or elsewhere, without a good analysis of nationalism. Not convinced by any of the dominant theories of nationalism, I started looking for a suitable theoretical framework. After taking a tour of the varieties of social theory then in vogue, I began to construct an analysis of nationalism by adapting Bourdieu’s little-known analysis of religion2 (which was the source of his theory of fields). I published my first attempt at this3 in the top Middle East Studies journal, where it has languished in obscurity. For my PhD (during which I returned to Egypt for a year), I took a more ambitious approach, using Arabic literary and historical sources going back to the 9th century CE, and combining field theory with cognitive linguistics, to propose a history of the production of nationalist concepts in Arabic. This approach met with a great deal of scepticism from peers, as I found when I submitted versions of it to journals or presented it at conferences.

As you may have guessed, a PhD in area studies, from a non-top-ranked university, resulting in an interdisciplinary thesis that dealt with Egyptian nationalism and involved sociology, history, literature, and cognitive linguistics (itself a heterodox branch of linguistics), and set out unpopular claims, made me practically unemployable. I seemed to be too sociological for Middle East Studies, but had no chance of getting a job in sociology without a PhD from a sociology department. In any case, I discovered that sociology is highly compartmentalised along methodologically nationalist lines, with American sociologists seeing themselves as champions of something called ‘American sociology’, which is supposed to be about ‘American society’, and British and French sociologists pursuing similar illusions. The study of nationalism itself, which should be a central preoccupation of sociology — since it is an omnipresent social phenomenon with immense effects everywhere in the world (including effects on sociology) — is mostly relegated to a disciplinary backwater called ‘nationalism studies’, a field dominated by nationalists rather than by critics of nationalism like me. I saw little chance of publishing the sort of research I was doing except in area-studies journals, which mainstream sociologists don’t read.

I spent a year as Visiting Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo, and a year as a post-doc at the National University of Singapore. In Singapore I devoted about half my time to applying for jobs, each of which had hundreds of other applicants, an experience that no doubt sharpened my critical view of academia. Deeply impressed by Bourdieu’s notion of scientific autonomy, and inspired by the debates about public sociology that had followed Michael Burawoy’s 2005 article,4 I thought about these concepts in light of my own experiences in activism and in academia, and formulated a few principles that I’ve tried to follow:

  1. Nationalist assumptions are inimical to the autonomy of sociology. If you see the discipline of sociology as divided into national teams like the World Cup, and see your job as helping your team win, you’re creating obstacles for science.
  2. Social phenomena do not, in general, stop at national borders any more than the weather does. If you believe you’re studying ‘British society’, you’ve defined your work in terms of an illusion. It can, of course, be interesting to study illusions, as in my research on nationalism, but this requires the researcher to recognise them as such rather than internalise them as analytical categories.
  3. Sociology can and should aim to produce universally valid theoretical work. I was once asked, in an academic job interview in the US, why I was using a European theorist (Bourdieu) to explain events in Egypt: shouldn’t I be using an Arab theory instead? I answered as diplomatically as I could that Arab scholars use Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc., just like everyone else, and that trying to create an ‘Arab theory’ for ‘Arab society’ would, in my view, be as misguided as trying to create an ‘American theory’ for ‘American society’. Nationalism, for example, is a global phenomenon with many universal features (as well as many variations between nationalisms), and no theoretical understanding of nationalism is worth anything unless it can be used to analyse any nationalism, anywhere. (I didn’t get the job.)
  4. Be prepared to pay a high price for autonomy. Bourdieu argued that a ‘liberating science’ must be, first of all, an autonomous science,5 and that this has to include autonomy from political aims. This must be one of the least popular assertions ever made by a sociologist. A great deal of research seems implicitly to base its claims to legitimacy, to a greater or lesser extent, on a moral stance — taking the side of the oppressed, or promoting what the researcher sees as the national interest — rather than on scientific criteria of evaluation. Certain terms, such as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘late capitalism’, and ‘the West’, seem to be used mainly to imply that the research that contains them is a substitute for or supplement to activism, rather than for any theoretical value. In studies of social movements, the desire to celebrate ‘resistance’ often produces romanticised scholarly narratives in which ‘the protesters’ or ‘the people’ appear to be moving inexorably towards triumph, much as ‘the proletariat’ did in scholarship of an earlier era. This partly explains why few scholars are willing to criticise nationalism: regardless of whether they are nationalists themselves (which most are), they feel an obligation to support anything that is associated with ‘resistance’ and embraced by the downtrodden, never mind whether it leads to military dictatorship, warmongering, ethnic cleansing, ideological witch hunts, xenophobia, and so on. A sociologist who takes Bourdieu’s argument seriously puts herself in an awkward position: not only does she deprive herself of the career benefits of conforming to the expectations of peer reviewers and search committees, she is also likely to disappoint lay audiences.
  5. The people you write about should be able to find out what you’re saying about them. Otherwise, research resembles gossip, or talking about people behind their backs. Open-access publication is the bare minimum required to enable laypeople to benefit from your research as well as to criticise it. After I published an open-access article in English on an activist group that campaigned for university autonomy in Egypt,6 I got immediate feedback (positive, to my great relief) from some of the participants in the study. However, I also wanted the article to be accessible to people in Egypt who don’t read English, so I published it again in an Arabic translation,7 in an Arabic-language sociology journal. I also blogged about it in three languages.

What has the result of all this been in my case? Not much, probably. I have an alt-ac job that gives me a bit of time for research and writing, but I expect it will take me several years to turn my PhD thesis into a book. I seem to have found the perfect recipe for becoming an obscure public sociologist.

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Arabic Translation of ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement’

Idafat: The Arab Journal of Sociology has just published an Arabic translation8 of my article, ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement: The March 9 Group in Egypt’. I’m glad that I was able to make this research accessible to more readers, especially readers in Egypt who have been directly affected by the events discussed in the article. The effort that I put into getting it published in Arabic will be rewarded if it contributes something to discussions about social movements in Egypt before and since the revolutionary uprising of 2011.

This is the only one of my publications that has been through peer review twice: once for the original publication in European Journal of Turkish Studies, and a second time for IdafatMounir Saidani, professor of sociology at the University of Tunis El Manar, translated it well, and I revised the translation somewhat.

For a brief summary of the article and its context, see The Making of ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement’.

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The Making of ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement’

The European Journal of Turkish Studies (EJTS) has just published my article ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement: The March 9 Group in Egypt’9 (open access), as part of a special issue on demobilization at universities in Turkey and in other countries.

What It’s About

The March 9 Group for University Autonomy is a small group of Egyptian university professors who have campaigned, since 2003, against the regime’s interference in academic affairs and campus life. The article suggests that the group’s survival for such a long time under Mubarak, and its limited successes, depended on the involvement of renowned academics, on participatory democracy, and on the avoidance of conflicts between professors. I suggest that all these assets became liabilities following the revolutionary uprising of January 2011, and that this is why the group has largely demobilized.

Why I Did It

In August 2012, when I was a post-doc at the National University of Singapore, I started to plan a long-term research project on the autonomy of Arab academics and on their ability to reach non-specialist audiences as intellectuals or activists. I wanted this project to include something on the March 9 Group. Jordi Tejel, the editor of this issue of EJTS, then invited me to contribute an article to the issue. In order to meet the publication deadlines, I suggested a small-scale study focusing on March 9. This would allow me to start working on the issues I was interested in, while producing an article in the time available.

What I Like About It

Social movement theory hasn’t paid much attention to activists’ prestige, but during my own experience as an activist (in London, long ago), it seemed to me that social movements were keen to involve prestigious activists. So I’m glad I finally had a chance to do a study that deals with this aspect of activists’ careers. I’m also glad to have written about events that I see as historically important and that might otherwise have been forgotten. And since my PhD was about intellectual projects that I see as basically misguided, it was a pleasant change to study a group whose work I respect.

What I Wish I Could Have Done

Some of the activists I interviewed belong to families that have produced generations of well-known activists, and I wish I had had the time and space to explore that phenomenon further. I also would have liked to include the perspectives of Muslim Brotherhood members who were involved in these events, as well as the views of non-activist academics.

What Next?

Since I had to do this study in a limited amount of time, I did it using methods I was very familiar with. I think the need to publish quickly tends to limit the autonomy of research, because it discourages the researcher from taking the time to learn new techniques, and favours the reproduction of well-known, low-risk methods. Next I’d like to a research project involving techniques, especially quantitative ones, that I’m less familiar with.

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Sociology and the History of Islam

Here’s a video of a 40-minute introductory talk I gave on the Qur’an and the early history of Islam, on 30 January 2013 at the National University of Singapore. The talk was part of a lecture series called Introduction to the Study of the Contemporary Middle East, organised by the university’s Middle East Institute, where I was then a post-doc.

(If you’re having trouble playing the video, try it as an Ogg, WebM or MP4 file.)

I didn’t try to do anything more than summarise the current state of scholarship on the topic, including the main areas of disagreement among specialists. The video was then posted on the blog of the International Qur’anic Studies Association, which some of the big names in the field are involved in.

You’ll notice that there’s hardly anything sociological in this talk, beyond some attempts to describe, in broad terms, the sort of social environment that Islam emerged in. I think this reflects the preoccupations of mainstream research on early Islam. Sociology seems mostly absent from these preoccupations, and I can think of several possible reasons for this. First of all, the formidable empirical difficulties faced by specialists may have largely eclipsed theoretical concerns. This comment from the introduction to a recent edited volume on Qur’anic studies gives some idea of these difficulties:

The academic discipline of Qur’anic studies today is most strikingly characterized, not by any impressive scholarly achievements of the field itself, which has been appropriately diagnosed by Fred Donner as being ‘in a state of disarray’, but by the large-scale interest of the media that the Qur’an’s origin and interpretation have solicited during the last decade or so. Indeed, the lacunae of the field—impossible to overlook when confronted with the impressive list of what has been achieved in biblical or classical studies—have developed into a veritable litany: There is no critical edition of the text, no free access to all of the relevant manuscript evidence, no clear conception of the cultural and linguistic profile of the milieu in which it has emerged, no consensus on basic issues of methodology, and—what is perhaps the single most important obstacle to future scholarly progress—no adequate training of future students of the Qur’an in the non-Arabic languages and literatures and cultural traditions that have undoubtedly shaped its historical context.10

Another possible reason is the uneasy relationship between the disciplines of history and sociology in general. As Robert Harrison observes:

Of history’s cognate disciplines, sociology has always seemed the closest, but at the same time the most intrusive, the most hectoring, the most contemptuous of historical practice…. Sociology has always claimed a position among the social sciences, a status which most historians have been decidedly reluctant to assume.

And yet, as he notes, ‘Weber and the other founders of the discipline were essentially historical sociologists.’11

Mainstream sociology has been slow to take an interest in Islam. In 1974, sociologist Brian Turner lamented:

An examination of any sociology of religion textbook published in the last fifty years will show the recurrent and depressing fact that sociologists are either not interested in Islam or have nothing to contribute to Islamic scholarship.12

The editor of a recent handbook of sociology of religion put it this way:

A generation ago, mainstream sociology of religion concerned itself almost exclusively with Western society, leaving the rest of the world to anthropology, and within that framework with Christianity.13

The situation has improved somewhat in recent years, but sociological studies of religion are still mainly focused on Christianity:

Smilde and May (2010:14) report that between 1978 and 2007 just over 50 percent of the articles about religion published in sociology of religion journals dealt with Christianity. Poulson and Campbell (2010:38) also found that 82 percent of the articles published between 2001 and 2008 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion dealt with Christian communities (see also Beyer 2000).14

Some prominent figures in sociology, starting with Max Weber, have proposed sociological interpretations of aspects of the history of Islam, with mixed results. In a detailed critical study entitled Weber and Islam, first published in 1974, Bryan Turner credited Weber with a valid interpretation of patrimonial state bureaucracy in Islamic empires, but found that Weber’s attempt to understand early Islam was marred by the misconceptions and false assumptions of the the Orientalist scholarship he relied on.15 In a recent article looking back on that study, Turner wrote:

There has unsurprisingly been in the intervening three and a half decades a steady stream of commentary on both Weber’s sociology of religion and his observations on Islam, but despite the sustained criticism his sociological approach has not been radically surpassed in comparative sociological studies of religion…. Weber’s vision of ‘Asian religions’ has been condemned as an example of Orientalism in which a dynamic West is contrasted with and counter-posed to a stagnant East…. Despite these criticisms, Weber’s approach remains valid as a general framework, partly because, while Said’s account of Orientalism provided some valuable criticisms, it did not provide—and probably did not set out to provide—a convincing or systematic alternative…. What comes after the critique of Orientalism apart from more textual deconstruction?16

I agree that sociology shouldn’t be content to critique discourses, and should offer systematic explanations of social reality. However, I think Pierre Bourdieu’s account of religion improves considerably on Weber’s.17 Turner noted, in his earlier study, that ‘Weber’s position with regard to the relationship between beliefs and social structures is often inconsistent or at best obtuse’, and argued that ‘because of the problems of consistency within Weber’s sociology, no definitive or authoritative interpretation of Weber is genuinely possible’.18 Bourdieu’s concept of ‘field’ first emerged from his attempt to recast Weber’s sociology of religion as a systematic theoretical framework, focusing on the interests at stake in the production and consumption of religious ‘goods’. The notion of religious fields makes it possible to understand how the social structures involved in religion relate to those in other spheres of human activity. And the concept of ‘habitus’, which outlines a general solution to the problem of the relationship between beliefs and social structures, enabled Bourdieu to solve some of the problems in Weber’s notion of the ‘charisma’ of religious leaders.19

However, the more sociology explains religion in terms of interests, the less religious believers are likely to be comfortable with it. A recent sociology of religion textbook observes:

Sociology and its relativizing perspectives can become an existential threat to the religious believer…. In all human sciences, there are differences and tensions between what social actors think and believe and the scientific interpretations of these thoughts and beliefs. Yet the tension is intensified when the scholars claim that a phenomenon is a social product and the social actors believe that it is a message from God.20

A recent study suggests that the field of the sociology of religion is dominated by religious believers:

The labels used in the study of religion reflect a ‘hegemonic’ position within the discipline that religion should be normative and that actions that threaten religious fidelity are deviant…. In this article, we argue at length why we think this bias exists, suggesting it is likely due to the historical connections to religions (especially Roman Catholicism) of the three main professional organizations dedicated to studying religion and the religiosity of the members of those organizations…. In short, those with power and resources, both institutions and the majority of scholars in this area, have used that power to portray non-religion as a deviant status.21

Sociologists who are also religious believers have an interest in not exploring hypotheses that would contradict their own faith. Moreover, my impression—as an outsider to the field of sociology of religion—is that there is a tacit agreement among mainstream specialists that even when they are writing about religions to which they do not belong, they should avoid challenging the core doctrines accepted by believers. It may be that the social structure of the field makes it advantageous to have good relations with peers of other faiths, and hence favours an ecumenical outlook. The extreme version of this commitment is found in arguments for purely phenomenological approaches to religion, like that of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who claimed:

No statement of Islamic faith is true that Muslims cannot accept. No personalist statement about Hindu religious life is legitimate in which Hindus cannot recognise themselves. No interpretation of Buddhist doctrine is valid unless Buddhists can respond: ‘Yes! That is what we hold’.22

A tacit understanding that ‘I won’t try to undermine your faith if you don’t try to undermine mine’ could account for Eric J. Sharpe’s observation that

several contemporary Western scholars of religion harbor an implicit commitment to religious diversity and openness…. They are critical towards the dogmatic dimensions of their childhood religious traditions, but at the same time, they reveal openness and curiosity regarding alternative religiosity and other religious traditions.23

This could be one reason why, although sociological research on Islam is now more common than it once was, it seems to be interested mainly in the present day. Sociological interpretations of early Islamic history would be more likely to involve issues that are central to Muslims’ faith. For example, the papers collected in a recent edited volume entitled The Sociology of Islam are all focused on the present or on recent history, and none attempts to explain the early history of Islam as Weber did.24

The reluctance of non-Muslim sociologists to approach such issues may also reflect current political struggles in the United States. Overall, the sociology of religion is highly US-centric:

In their recent review of 30 years of sociological scholarship on religion, Smilde and May (2010) found that over 70 percent of all journal articles focused on religious dynamics in the United States. Similarly, Poulson and Campbell (2010), reviewing articles published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion between 2001 and 2008, reported that less than 20 percent showcased research on a non-Western geographic region.25

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the academic stances of American sociologists of religion tend to reflect their political stances regarding US domestic and foreign policy. Social scientists’ political views tend to lean towards the left.26 Right-wing discourse in the US demonises Muslims, portrays Islam as America’s national enemy, and advocates the invasion of Muslim-majority states. My sense is that there’s a widespread feeling among scholars—both Muslim and non-Muslim—that it’s urgent to focus on doing research that challenges this discourse, and I can’t blame them for that. By revealing social realities that political discourse obscures or misrepresents, sociology can promote mutual understanding and coexistence among people with different beliefs. On the other hand, perhaps some scholars are also concerned that any contradiction between sociological hypotheses and Muslim doctrine risks being perceived as supporting hostility towards Muslims. I think that there are ways to ask inconvenient questions while ensuring that one’s intentions are not misunderstood, and that the autonomy of social science is not served if such questions are avoided.

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