This is the summary of a discussion held about the topic of critical citizenship at the American University of Beirut with Maha Bali of the American University of Cairo about a topic that she has become known for: Critical Citizenship. The conversation began on January 17, 2014, and the ideas presented here come from many people.
What does citizenship mean in countries like Lebanon and Egypt?
Some people define citizenship as “acting politically,” or the opportunity to act politically. It includes, but is more than, the allegiance to a nation or national identity. Citizenship implies action: Demanding rights and fulfilling responsibilities. Should we, in the Arab region, develop our own notions of citizenship and democracy that work for our own contexts, since the Western notions do not seem to fulfill our needs? Should there even be just one understanding of what constitutes citizenship, or are there plural conceptions?
What are some of the challenges to building citizens here?
Although citizenship (or مواطنة ) is connected etymologically to the ‘nation’, it is acted upon by the state, or دولة. One of the biggest challenges is how to practically be a citizen in a failing or failed state, in a country where the state is not providing the basic protections and services that it should be providing. How do citizens demand rights when the state itself is incapable of delivering even the basics, when political leaders have betrayed their people? When state systems are weak, other groups step in to offer the basic protections and services. Allegiance to such groups, be they parties, sects, tribes or families, works against the conception of citizenship. Is it right to be creating parallel systems through civil society organizations, or is the main work of citizens to rebuild the systems of the state?
Many believe that the starting point for building citizens is the understanding of other points of view. Recent work, however, suggests that understanding the other is less important than respecting difference. (And respecting difference is a more positive concept than simply tolerating difference). The question is: How essential is empathy to respecting difference and where then do we start to create respect for difference and empathy for those who are different from us?
But does respecting difference have limits? For instance, if such respect would mean accepting and not acting against injustice such as domestic abuse or human rights violations? Must citizens of heterogeneous nations respect, even accept, all beliefs and practices of their fellow citizens? Some might suggest yes, as long as it does not break the law, but we also need to be aware that laws are created by the powerful groups in a country and not all laws are just. Does one group of citizens have the right to advocate against what in their perception are unjust laws that fit the beliefs of another sect (For instance, some Muslim marital laws that are based on interpretations of Shari’a)? What about when one sect’s beliefs seem to discourage respect for others’ beliefs, such as by outlawing particular religious practices?
As academics working in institutions of higher education, what roles should we play in building citizens?
First, let us be clear that educators are citizens. As educators we draw on our whole selves when we act as citizens in our research and teaching. Civic action can potentially transform us as faculty, not only our students. Can we think about citizenship as a way of life, rather than an aspect of our identity that is separate from our academic life of teaching and research.
We should try to become clearer about what we are teaching our students through exercises in service learning, social responsibility and civic engagement. Is it character education and emotional intelligence? Are we teaching universal values or something different and more locally meaningful? Are we simply ticking boxes but not necessarily making a difference in students’ civic engagement beyond the university walls? Are we careful that our purpose is pedagogical without being indoctrinating?
Third, it is important not to privilege theory over practice. Otherwise: Practice that does not fit the theory becomes unexplainable or is incorrectly explained in our attempts to fit it into pre-existing theory.
Whatever we do, it is important to be realistic about the limits of higher education in building citizens. The values of citizenship should be instilled in students from kindergarten, not just when they are at university, and extend beyond formal education. And while we should not underestimate the potential of one committed citizen, our role as educators is to build a critical mass of citizens. This takes time.
In addition to creating the critical mass of citizens among our students and faculty colleagues, as educators we are also creating the conditions for change. Those conditions are created by building solidarity through university-community collaborations that persist over time. Such collaborations might be directed toward advocacy, influencing policy or other creative problem-solving.
This is the concept of critical citizenship: The critical thinking we encourage as educators plus praxis, reflective action based on knowledge. Indeed, critical citizenship acknowledges the importance of practice in theorizing about citizens and citizenship. We have a lot to learn from ‘the bottom up’, where we allow practice to inform and transform theory, rather than try to fit explanations of practice into pre-existing theories that had been created in different contexts and times.
So let us not have too low expectations of what we can do as citizen-educators. We end with the challenge that Maha Bali issued in her original piece: “Higher education’s role… is to help society reflect beyond activism and resistance, necessary and important as they are. There is a need to develop critical citizens capable of negotiating multiple conflicting interests in a process of creatively co-constructing a better future.” This is how we build the state and its citizens.
One of the participants in the event, Dina Kiwan, an expert on citizenship, offered a MOOC last summer via the newly launched Edraak, on just this topic (link: https://www.edraak.org/courses/AUB/CZN100/2014/about )
* Participants in the Discussion were:
Denise Assaf, Neighborhood Initiative, AUB
Maha Bali, Associate Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching, AUC
Maha Damaj, Assistant Professor of Public Health Practice and Coordinator, Global Masters in Health and Sustainable Development, Faculty of Health Sciences, AUB
Aline Germani, Instructor and Coordinator, Outreach and Practice Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences, AUB
Tania Haddad, Assistant Professor, Political Studies and Public Administration, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, AUB
Dima Jamali, Professor, Director, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, and Associate Dean, Olayan School of Business, AUB
Dina Kiwan, Associate Professor, Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, AUB
Mounir Mabsout, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, AUB
Cynthia Myntti, Professor of Public Health Practice, and Project Leader, Neighborhood Initiative, AUB
Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching and an adjunct faculty member at its Graduate School of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. Follow Maha on Twitter: @bali_maha.