German academia placing premium on humanities

Friday 23/10/2015
Orient-Institut (Photo credit: Joe Kesrouani).

As thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq flock to Germany seeking asylum, German aca­demic circles are digging into Arab heritage and engaging in dialogue to help understand contemporary developments in the Arab world, especially the unprecedented phenomenon of Islamic funda­mentalism.
While foreign academic centres, including US universities and Euro­pean educational establishments, are prominent in the Middle East, German academia largely main­tained a low profile, although it has been operating in the region for decades with organisations such as the German Orient-Institut in Beirut.
Created as part of the Max Weber Foundation in 1961, the German academic research centre fo­cuses on the Arab world. “We live here, work with people and have debates to try to make ourselves understood and try to understand the other,” said institute Director Stefan Leder.
“It is a private and purely academic mission, which was initially concentrated on having access to an [Arab] world that has been closed to Germany in the aftermath of the second world war,” Leder said of the institute, which is in one of Beirut’s few remaining exquisite old mansions, surrounded by a jungle of concrete buildings.
Leder said the centre has been increasingly involved in debates and dialogues to address public issues of the Arab world, involving artists and civil society activists, in addition to academics. One such event in 2012 tackled “Arab spring”.
“We had people from Egypt and all over (the region) trying to explain what is going on, when events in Syria were not clear yet. There was still hope that this would succeed in making chang­es,” Leder said, adding that groups of rap musicians from Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon also participated, using their music to address the subject.
“This mix of academia and voices of the civil society is very impressive. This is a way of being in touch with social change, not only in the classic way of analysing them but also to give an arena to voices in the region,” Leder said.
The professor underlined the importance of explaining and understanding Arabic heritage in analysing contemporary develop­ments and the phenomenon of rampant Islamic fundamentalism, including Arabic history, literature, Islamic jurisprudence, definition and interpretation.
For that purpose, the institute has converted a series of academi­cally edited Arabic manuscripts on subject matters that were impor­tant in the past into books with digital versions to make them glob­ally accessible, Leder said.
“It is part of our open access policy. We offer the tools, resourc­es and material basis to deal with history in an academic and intel­lectual mind.
“Researchers anywhere … can make use of it if they are online, which is extremely important and would be even more important in the future because such matters are affecting the region,” he added, arguing that “fundamentalists shun history because it puts into question everything they do”.
“I believe there will be an echo on all this crazy phenomena [Islamic fundamentalism] we are confronted with these days, an echo that will have a very different vision on history. So it is important to be delicate about history,” Leder said.
For Leder, an expert in Arabic language and Islamic studies, social sciences and humanities are key subjects to confront rising radicalism.
Citing studies that showed that technical schools, such as medi­cine, produced the majority of fun­damentalist minds, he said: “We believe that it is in the disciplines of humanities and social sciences where identities are negotiated, common perspectives are tried out and defined and differences are debated.
“Human sciences is where you learn to understand phenomena within the historical context. You learn that the same notion has many different interpretations and that you cannot look into some part of the past and say this is the norm [like fundamentalists do]. It is a crucial matter for building the future world.”
The Orient-Institut in Beirut boasts 160 publications in sev­eral languages, including English, Arabic, German and French. In addition to offering fellowship and research opportunities to academ­ics from Germany and the Arab region, the institute is engaged in activities with local private and public universities and civil society organisations.
“Although it is always driven by the institute’s research interests within an academic framework, our concern is not only academic but it is in tune with what is go­ing on in the Arab world,” Leder explained.
“Today, we are here in order to cooperate and not only to collect knowledge. You don’t research about people in the Middle East, but you do research with them.”
Commenting on the presence of German education in Arab socie­ties, through a German university in Cairo and institutions such as his, Leder said: “It is very optimis­tic to say that there is an expansion of German academic presence in the region, though we are fighting for that.”
The Orient-Institut in Beirut is generously funded by the gov­ernment. Sister institutes were established in Istanbul and Cairo in recent years as part of public sup­port to German academia, which enjoys deep respect in society and political circles.
“There is a traditional belief in the German social and political spheres in the importance of giving academia a space for research in humanities and social sciences, which is somehow unique in Eu­rope,” Leder stressed.