Published on 1/10/2018

The conference “From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park: The Arab Spring and the De-Centering of American Studies” opened on Monday, January 8, at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies (DI), Qatar. The three-day conference brought together around 35 leading scholars in the field of American Studies from prestigious universities in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, with a substantial participation from members of the American Studies Association, a leading academic institution in this field.


Participants were brought together to discuss the de-centering of American Studies in light of the wave of social movements that have erupted in liberation [Tahrir] squares across the Arab world and that reverberated across many other squares worldwide.


In his opening address, Dr. Eid Mohamed, Assistant Professor at the Doha Institute and conference coordinator noted that the growing US presence on the international scene dictates a need to look beyond its borders and explore its image as perceived from abroad by those witnessing the impact of its cultural and economic authority on their lives. The external contribution of scholars living abroad might help researchers better understand US internal politics. This influence might be enhanced by the fact that the US is a melting pot for all immigrants hailing from around the world and where ideas, movements and cultures meet and contribute to the formation of America and the Americans. Furthermore, added Eid, immigration to America, and the new policies that have emerged under the Trump administration involve complex interactions among national and transnational identities. Thus, a restructuring of the field of American Studies inside the Arab world is best based on mutual perception, with the clear need of a reconstitution of the image of Arabs and Muslims in the American public space in response to the contemporary needs and to change or enhance the understanding of American nationalism and collective self-definition.


The Absence of American Studies on the Arab Research Agenda


The opening session included a keynote address by the DI’s Board of Trustees President and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies General Director, Azmi Bishara, which was read by Yasser Sulaiman Maali, Acting President of the DI. In his lecture The Omnipresence of America and the Absence of American Studies”, Bishara noted an absence of American Studies on the Arab research agenda, despite the overwhelming political, economic, media and cultural presence of the US in the Arab region. He added that America’s omnipresence in the region has led to divisive stances and created a level of polarization that prevents space for measured analysis on US foreign policy based on a critical understanding of US domestic policies. 


American Studies, explained Bishara, took its formal shape with the establishment of the American Civilization Program at Harvard and Yale in the 1930s. Prior to that, however, American studies had already emerged in the writings and books of researchers and scholars, such as On Democracy in America by Alex de Tocqueville published in the 19th century and deemed the oldest study dealing with the subject. It was not until after World War II and during the Cold War, however, that the discipline flourished and became widespread.


Bishara believes that the US remains the most significant power in possession of the most important and advanced "tools of production" (in Marxist terms), not only in the production of goods and technology, but also in the production of images, meanings and cultural symbols. To understand critically and analytically this American "acquisition", stressed Bishara, we need to discuss power relations and the political, economic and ideological hegemony behind it. Trump’s coming to power, he added, has underscored the importance of the political culture and the conflict of politics and cultures going on inside the United States, which reaffirms the need to study them within the context of the American political culture and the internal cultural conflicts which are more important to explore than what is known as the “clash of civilization”.  


About polarization towards American hegemony which has split both the Arab region and the Third World more generally, Bishara noted how the nationalists in the region, Turkey and Iran, dealt, initially with American Studies rather positively. They welcomed it with some admiration toward the American principles as the US represented the “free state” or the state of freedom. Concurrently, the negative perception of the United States argued that American imperialism emerged in the aftermath of the World War II, which they believe substituted French and British colonialism in Africa and Asia. A rise in national sentiment merged with the Cold War atmospheres, produced “anti-American” literature with the high tide of the Islamization of anti-American discourse culminating with the demonization of the United States by Iran. Later, the events of 9/11, US embroilment in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently, its stance on the Arab Spring, fueled hate speech against it.


Anti-American literature adopted by Islamic movements intent in fueling Arab public opinion against America turned to writers that opposed US political orientations represented by scholars such as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Richard Falk, Stanley Hoffmann and others. Rather than adopt their liberal or leftist orientations however, these movements used these writers to convince (and mobilize) Arab public on the basis that these were credible American sources.


Bishara also cautioned on how the West did not include American studies within its Area Studies, which was in fact set up for the purposes of control and hegemony of other countries and which did not include Europe, the United States and Canada. Bishara stressed that “the response to this must be to state that what is termed the social sciences in these countries themselves is actually Area Studies”. He sees that their spread as universal sciences is a part of the process of cultural hegemony.  American Studies defines its goal by its attempt to look inside the United States, at the common factors constituting the American nation and the American way of life, and expand outside the US borders in order to present this American way of life as opposed to the ways of life promoted by the Communist Bloc during the Cold War.


Bishara added that the non-American scholar would prefer to study the United States in the same way America and the West study other societies, that is, through the Area Studies established by American universities. However, such aspiration of non-American researchers will come up against their own country’s refusal to fund American Studies within Area Studies, since these countries do not seek to achieve the goals for which this type of studies were created, namely control and hegemony. None of the Arab regimes, for example, would consider the possibility of hegemony over the United States since regimes generally strive to win Washington's favour by proving that they are good allies that must be preserved and protected from internal and external threats.


Opening remarks by Yasser Sulaiman Maali, Acting President of the DI, Kandice Chuh, president of the American Studies Association, Abdelwahab el-Affendi, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the DI, Reuben E. Brigety, Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University preceded Bishara opening address.


The first day concluded with a panel discussion entitled “Frameworks in Transnational American Studies”, chaired by Dr. Firat Oruc of Georgetown University, Qatar. The speakers were Alex Lubin from the University of New Mexico, who delivered a paper entitled "The Transnational Notes of Afro-Arab Jazz”, Mark Bradley from the University of Chicago with “Provincializing America and the Making of the Twentieth Century Global Human Rights Imagination” and Gustavo Vega-Cánovas from El Colegio de México who discussed “The Fate of Regionalism in the Trump Era: Obstinate or Obsolete?”.  The day ended with a paper by Robert Warrior from the University of Kansas on “American Studies away from Home: Indigeneity’s Challenges and Provocations”. Tomorrow, the conference will resume with a session entitled: “Political Imaginaries: The Questions of Orientalism”, and another on “Whence and Wherefore US Power?”