How International Relations, an ‘American’ Discipline, Is Taught in the Arab World

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: The Arab Political Science Network, in cooperation with Al-Fanar Media, will hold an online discussion on Tuesday, March 30, at 6 p.m. Beirut time on teaching international relations in the Arab world. The discussion will be conducted in Arabic. For more details and to register, please click here.

What happens to the discipline of international relations (IR) when it travels to the Arab world? Is the IR taught in the Arab world the same as the IR theorized and taught in other places? What matters more for students of international relations in the Arab world: the production or the consumption of IR theories? How does the study of international relations in the Arab world vary, from one region to another, and from one institution to another? And, finally, what happens to international relations as an “American social science” when it enters classrooms in the Arab world, and when it is taught in Arabic?

These are some of the questions examined in a recent special forum on “The Politics of Teaching International Relations in the Arab World,” a series of essays edited by May Darwich, Morten Valbjørn and Bassel Salloukh, published in the journal International Studies Perspectives, and containing contributions by Waleed Hazbun, Amira Abou Samra, Said Saddiki, Adham Saouli, Hamad H. Albloshi and Karim Makdisi.

The contributions examine how scholars at Arab universities are teaching international relations and how institutional, historical and linguistic as well as political and individual factors shape classroom dynamics in the Arab world. (See a related article,  “American Studies Gets an Arab Twist.”)

While the influence from the American core of the discipline is obvious, the forum documents how the theoretical and conceptual foundations of international relations based on Western perspectives and history do not travel intact. The essays demonstrate that different kinds of IR programs exist, not just across but also within Arab regions, and that studying pedagogy can become a way to study how disciplinary IR varies contextually.

Three broad patterns emerged from the special forum.

Regional vs. American Perspectives

The first set of issues revolves around what and how we teach international relations in the Arab world, and the knowledge shaping the curriculum. The forum provides evidence of how teaching in the region remains influenced by the predominance of American IR in the discipline. However, international relations theories do not travel seamlessly across borders, and the discipline is therefore taught differently in different places—even within the Arab world.

Some make the case that mainstream IR approaches remain the foundation to teaching international relations in the Arab world and a first step for making a contribution to knowledge production. Salloukh, for instance, argues that engaging with American IR from an Arab-world perspective is the prime route for adapting the discipline to the realities surrounding the classroom in the region.

Others encourage their students to read IR texts “against the grain.” Hazbun explains how teaching international relations in Beirut necessitated the cultivation of critical and postcolonial perspectives in the classroom to allow students to reflect on the politics of knowledge production that defined the development of IR theories around the security interests of the United States and Western images of the Middle East.

Despite important gaps in local/Arab knowledge production within IR, still others are looking for theoretical approaches emerging from the region as an alternative to Western-based theories that do not fit the reality of the region. Abou Samra reflects on the experience of teaching an Islamic paradigm of international relations at Cairo University and discusses the opportunities and challenges of teaching a non-Western, homegrown IR theory that provides students with a view on international relations deriving from the region, its historical heritage, and its contemporary political challenges.

Some scholars of international relations in the Middle East are looking for theoretical approaches emerging from the region as an alternative to Western-based theories that do not fit the reality of the region.

Moreover, and as Makdisi’s essay discusses, the choices of textbooks and classroom materials are also shaped by the needs of the students and the “live” events surrounding them in the region.

Institutional and Cultural Contexts

A second set of issues pertains to how various contexts—be they institutional, historical, cultural and/or linguistic—influence and shape classroom dynamics when teaching international relations in the Arab world. As examined in Albloshi’s contribution, institutional structures, including varying degrees of subsidizing higher education, mean a very high student-to-staff ratio in public universities, as opposed to American and private universities, where teachers have more resources and smaller cohorts in the classroom.

Different colonial and postcolonial histories also have an impact on the institutional context in which the teaching takes place. While international relations curricula in parts of the region may resemble what Stanley Hoffmann has labeled “an American social science,” especially in some of the branch universities in the Gulf states, this is far from the case in the Maghreb. Saddiki’s contribution shows that as a legacy of the French colonial era, the teaching of international relations at Moroccan universities, for example, is placed in law departments and characterized by an over-reliance on descriptive and normative approaches fashionable in legal studies, as well as on French IR textbooks without much engagement with textbooks in English or even foundational work from the region.

The language of teaching adds another layer of complexity. While some universities teach in English or French, students’ mastery of these languages is limited in the Arab world. At many universities, the language of teaching at the undergraduate and master’s degree levels is therefore Arabic. Saouli examines the opportunities and challenges of teaching IR in Arabic at a private institution in the Gulf (the Doha Institute) with graduate students from all over the Arab world.

As also discussed in Albloshi’s essay, the difficulties of finding sources in Arabic adds to the challenges of engaging students with mainstream IR theories. (See a related article,  “A Conversation With One of the World’s Most Influential Arabic Teachers.”)

Individual and Political Factors

A third set of issues revolves around a range of individual and political factors that shape teaching international relations in the Arab world. Teaching international relations is subject to the scholars’ own education, training, experience, and identity. Both Hazbun and Makdisi show how scholars coming from interdisciplinary backgrounds embrace various theoretical approaches beyond mainstream IR theories in their teaching.

A third set of issues revolves around a range of individual and political factors that shape teaching international relations in the Arab world. Teaching international relations is subject to the scholars’ own education, training, experience, and identity.

Whether scholars are trained in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, or the Arab world also has an impact on how they decide on the curriculum and the preferred teaching style. IR scholars in the Arab world who have graduated from Western universities are more likely to be equivalent in training and education to their European or American counterparts, yet their ambition to teach IR in the classroom often collides against political and societal constraints.

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Individual factors, like teaching practices, are also inextricably connected to local, national, and regional events. The lack of academic freedom and freedom of expression in parts of the Arab world means that the authorities can put restrictions on the material taught in the classroom. Both teacher and students living in the Arab world are, moreover, grappling with the everyday politics of the region and the sense of insecurity and resistance. These shared experiences and struggles sometimes drive scholars toward embracing and teaching critical IR approaches in the classroom that resonate with their daily lives and enable both students and teachers to regain their sense of agency.

Albloshi explores how international politics defines the boundaries of critical inquiry in the classroom and how international relations is taught in the Gulf. Makdisi presents pedagogical reflections on how to address the tension evolving from the necessity of teaching Western IR theories that define the discipline, while complementing them with critical ways of thinking that resonate with students’ everyday lives and insecurities in the Arab world.

In sum, then, the essays collected in this special forum serve as a rallying cry for scholars teaching and studying international relations from the Arab world to think critically about how they do so, what alternative methodological approaches they use, for what purposes is IR being taught in the region, and of the best tools they can use to make the region a site not just of IR theory consumption but also production.

Bassel Salloukh is an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, in Beirut. May Darwich is lecturer in international relations of the Middle East at the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom. Morten Valbjorn is an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, in Denmark.


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