Contemporary scholars almost always wonder whether their labour-intensive work is relevant to policy-makers and what they must do to add value. Admittedly, there are no boilerplate answers to such fundamental questions, as conditions vary from one society to another. Enlightened administrations know how to harvest talent but, more often than not, those who simply follow narrow ideological objectives conveniently overlook scientific research. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the annual Middle East Studies Association of North America (Mesa) conference, which routinely assembles over 2,000 highly specialised professionals, to discuss ongoing research.
For the 43rd Mesa gathering, which convened in Boston this past weekend, the existential relevance feature was blatantly clear. To be sure, several critical issues were discussed by university professors with innate skills to decipher minutiae and deliver coherent surveys, but one was still at a loss at some of the fare, not because the latter lacked content, but simply because they tended to be so removed from policy concerns. Several esoteric presentations were of the dizzying variety that meant sitting through painful sessions.
There were, nevertheless, incredibly sophisticated panels that were illuminating. One that stood out addressed ‘Famous Fathers and Daughters in Islam', with papers dealing with ‘Umm Abiha — Fatimah Al Zahra as the Mother of Prophecy and the Imamate', ‘The Fatimid Caliph Al Aziz and His Daughter Sitt Al Mulk', ‘Sultan Iltutmish [India] and His Daughter, Raziyyah', and ‘Jahan Arab Begum's Spiritual and Imperial Legacy in 17th Century Mughal India'. What was fascinating in these presentations were the incredible stories of succession to rulership and effective governance by women who outperformed men in traditional Islamic societies. The panel's sophisticated discussion presented powerful models steeped in Muslim history that left the jam-packed audience hungry for details.
An equally enticing panel addressed ‘Citizenship and Social Contracts in the Middle East and Countries with Muslim Minorities', which included papers on ‘Islam and America', ‘The Veil in Turkey and France', ‘Young Moroccans in Madrid', ‘Squaring the Circle in Gulf Politics: Enlarging the Rulers-Merchants Alliance without Undermining the Legitimacy of the Social Contract', and ‘The Optional Civil Marriage Law in Lebanon'. A heated but highly constructive discussion followed, which highlighted intrinsic dilemmas for Middle Easterners embarked on epochal social changes. One sincerely wished that senior decision-makers, both Western as well as from the Muslim world, were in the audience to absorb subtleties that literally move this part of humanity.
Such participation is, of course, wishful thinking, because time constraints seldom allow decision-makers the luxury of scholarship and reflection. It is the rare ruler who relies on expertise, though raw interests should dictate the astute political figure to do precisely that, if for no other reason than to master domestic concerns. Contemporary political requirements are so complicated that they dictate their own pace with world leaders relying on electronic eavesdropping to figure out what ‘others' might be thinking as they draft policy. Naturally, such predilections have a life of their own, even if they seldom allow for accurate analyses that might decipher motives or, more importantly, identify social movements that ensure stability.
Instead, leaders rely on associates, who bring their own biases to the table and who, in turn, delegate to lower-ranking aides for background papers that are concise and readily absorbable by individuals with limited time. This is where genuine scholarship must be incorporated, though academics almost never enter such stratospheres.
Undisputedly, there is a lot of information out there, but little knowledge of the myriad societies that make up humanity. A Mesa conference illustrates this huge gap, which is why some academics branch out into lucrative businesses to propose attractive sketches of The Clash of Civilisations (Samuel P. Huntington) variety. Nowadays, a plethora of journalists are getting into the act, embedded with warriors or deeply enmeshed into the entertainment galaxies that pullulate our bookstores, with resulting tomes like The Forever War (Dexter Filkin) or The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman). Although these books are useful for sleepless nights, their policy values are anecdotal, falling into the caricature type.
What can be done to ensure that decision-makers dealing with the Muslim World learn about ‘Famous Fathers and Daughters in Islam', or other similar gems? Ideally, one hopes that many will deem it useful to acquaint themselves with a range of subjects, including Muslim affairs, while receiving their normal academic training. This is nearly impossible since most political figures delve in the law, assuming that governance can be handled through a legal framework. Another problematic phenomenon is to rely on business savvy, because trade and commerce continue to dominate intra-state relations. To be sure, while there is a great deal of merit in this assumption, life is much more than cash and the best evidence for this are revolutions that periodically alter societies. Simply stated, people are willing to die for their beliefs, and defend perceived rights against unjust usurpers.
A better and less complicated option was best articulated by the 12th century Arab philosopher Mohammad Ibn Zafar Al Siqilli, who advised his prince to seek advice from "a wise and faithful counsellor". Contemporary rulers have no time to study, though they might consider heeding Al Siqilli's call to avoid futile manipulations and apocalyptic outcomes.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.