x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Whose idea was it to turn academia into a battlefield?

Maybe you just need to change the name of the mission to Operation Moshtarak to legitimise it by making it seem like we all agree.

We are usually inspired by new ideas from other regions of the world. So we have to admit that there are some places that may excel in producing new ideas and knowledge. We assume that we should let our guard down and humbly adopt these ideas. Then, maybe, we have the licence to adapt them to our own context, but of course we must conform to the original mould. So we adopt and adapt, and maybe someday we will become adept with our own independent ideas.

Post-colonial theorists argue these stages are necessary for literary development, but I guess they could be applied to all walks of life. However, we have to realise that sometimes theory is impractical and it is simply easier to just adopt mass-produced knowledge without thinking about it. The various Middle East institutes around the world provide a good example. It is fascinating how these places are responsible for the mass production of knowledge about our region. Yet we cannot see how they might be wrong; they are the experts after all.

Some might assume that understanding a society is similar to understanding a gadget. You start pressing all sorts of buttons, but then the gadget refuses to co-operate. You switch off the device, give it a good shake and maybe a smack, but it's still stubbornly not responding. What should you do? Recently I received an e-mail about a lecture from one of these schools - in fact, the lecture might be happening now as you read this article. General Paul Newton, a British military officer, was to lecture about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and share his new doctrine of counterinsurgency and stabilisation.

To be honest, I thought it was somewhat amusing that a military man was giving a speech in the academic arena, but who am I to dispute his intentions? I was far more amused, however, with the title of the speech: "Strategy for Beginners". The academic world, it seems, is no longer just a peaceful place for the production of knowledge, but a place where one learns what went wrong in past battles so it won't happen again. If academics are supposed to know about war, can we assume that they know what wars will happen soon?

There will be more of these speeches taking place in the future, maybe "Strategy for the Advanced" or even "Strategy for Dummies". Isn't it too late to give a lecture on "Strategy for Beginners" after almost a decade of war? Nevertheless, it is remarkable how academic institutes are turning out students who will be involved not only in knowledge production but also applying this "knowledge" to "counterinsurgency". What exactly is "counter" supposed to mean anyway? Is it some kind of antidote to legitimise killing people? Or do we use the word to signify it's merely a reaction to someone else's violent action? As Isaac Newton said: "To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Maybe if Newton, Sr did not discover all of those physical laws we could have just flown away from the insurgency and Newton, Jr would not have had to bother with his new doctrine. Alas, we are trapped by gravity in this firefight between insurgents and counterinsurgents. But maybe you do not want to worry about enrolling in a Middle East institute and you are able to get by with one of the those bright yellow manuals How to ... for Dummies. The difference between knowledge produced by academic institutes and knowledge compiled for the "Dummies" is that the former bestows upon the student an air of undisputable "expertise" while the latter just allows you to simply switch a gadget on or off.

You can't pretend expertise in the Middle East by saying you flipped through Middle East for Dummies. However, if you attend an academic seminar and get immersed in all the jargon, you may forget that everything should be questioned. For one thing, why are generous people from this region funding all these institutes? You only need to perform a perfunctory search to know where the funding comes from. Why build libraries and give grants to academic institutions in the West, when our own academic institutions are in need of money and our own libraries are short on books? And why not have a world class Middle East institute in our own region; doesn't it make far more sense to study a region while you live in it? Are we so easily understood that one can do it from a distance?

These Middle East institutes have become places where one learns the art of combat in an academic setting. I always assumed that the world of academia was a peaceful place where one could exchange ideas and thoughts. Of course, when one prepares to join the job market, it is wise to pursue two different majors to cover your bases. One might consider a double major in the Arabic language and the Art of War, which seems to be more popular than the old Fine Arts. I guess they are both artistic at the end of the day.

After all, with all the political upheaval in this region and possibilities of more conflict, the mercenary business must be booming. Gone are the days when it was only acceptable to fight for patriotic reasons. Now you can order combatants à la carte. Maybe you just need to change the name of the mission to Operation Moshtarak to legitimise it by making it seem like we all agree. Then again, most of the countries involved, with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan that is, like to refer to things with a Latin name to make them official: Operation Collaboratum - the neutered form of the Latin equivalent of "working together", should work better.

Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher