The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) held its second annual conference on the Social Sciences and the Humanities on March 30 and 31, 2013, in Doha. This year the conference focused on two themes, "The Dialectics of Social Integration and Nation Building in the Arab countries" and "Current Definitions of Justice in the Arab World". The opening ceremony included speeches from ACRPS Director Dr. Azmi Bishara, president of Qatar's Hamad Bin Khalifa University Dr. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali al-Thani, Moroccan scholar Dr. Kamal Abdullatif, and Egyptian legal scholar Tareq al-Bishry.
A Call for Cooperation between Arab Research Institutes
In his address, Sheikh Abdullah praised the pioneering role played by the ACRPS, which has rapidly distinguished itself as a leading institution for academic scholarship and strategic affairs. Sheikh Abdullah stressed Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s dedication to furthering cooperation with ACRPS, as well as with other Arab research centers in the region. He also commended the Center’s publications and the rich information being provided by the ACRPS to its broad Arab readership.
The Arab Prize in the Social Sciences and Humanities
Dr. Kamal Abdullatif, member of the nominating committee for the second Arab Prize in the Social Sciences and Humanities, presented a report with details on the prize. Out of the 141 nominations received by the nominating committee 80 papers were submitted for the theme “social integration and nation building” and 61 addressed the theme “current definitions of justice in the Arab world”. Of the countries participating, Egypt provided the highest number of nominations, with 32 papers nominated.
The prize shortlist included 19 candidates from different Arab countries: five from Morocco; three from Algeria, three from Egypt, three from Palestine; two from Tunisia, two from Mauritania; one from Kuwait; and one from Yemen. The prizes addressed two categories of researchers—established researchers and promising young researchers.
Despite the fact that there were shortlisted candidates from both categories, Dr. Abdullatif explained that, regrettably, the committee had arrived at the decision to withhold the prize because none of the submissions, including those that had made it to the shortlist, satisfied all of the criteria set out in the guidelines for the selection of a winning nomination. In closing, Abdullatif announced next year’s themes: “Arab economic development” and “contemporary history”.
Azmi Bishara: Identity Politics and the Formation of States
In his opening address, Dr. Bishara explained the rationale behind the choice of the two themes for the conference. According to Bishara, the opportunity is now ripe for both Arab civilization and Arab scholars to contribute to the universal understanding of justice. He noted:
The concept of justice has gradually developed throughout history. In its first guise, as in the code of Hamurabi, ‘justice’ was defined as akin to ‘reciprocity’; that is, justice as reciprocal treatment. Later on, during the 19th century, equality became a part of the wider concept of justice, but this was an ideological development, not one born out of the social sciences. Equality was a standpoint rather than a theory, as can clearly be seen in the ideologies that originated during the French Revolution. The notion of liberty was added to the definition of justice in a later period. In my opinion, if we as Arabs are to make a contribution to the social sciences during this era, we must take our prevailing Arab reality into account. In the end, universalist contributions to the social sciences are, after all, local contributions made by dominant cultures; these are universal by virtue of being local.
He added that nothing is more pressing than the failure of social integration in the Arab world and that achieving justice will not be possible without first achieving social integration at the level of culture, economy, identity and citizenship. He continued: "If some people give John Rawls the credit for the incorporation of the notion of liberty into the concept of justice—despite the fact that the two words are not etymologically related—will it then fall on us to incorporate ‘social integration’ and ‘identity’ into the concept of justice? This may prove to be the universalist contribution of Arab civilization during this time of struggle and revolution."
Dr. Bishara discussed the way equality was incorporated into the concept of justice as social equality. In this sense, social equality implied the expropriation of privately held property and the redistribution of social wealth according to need or eligibility. It was, according to Bishara, an innovation introduced by various socialist ideologues in the 19th century. He also referred to a theoretical division that preceded these ideologies—the division between the notion of utilitarianism and that of freedom—pitting Jeremy Bentham against Emmanuel Kant. The question posed by this long debate was whether it was possible to establish ethics, including justice as an ethical stance on happiness, or whether these ethics, rather than being based on happiness, should be based on what Kant called duty-based ethics, by which he meant freedom.
According to Bishara, the Mutazila, an 8th century Muslim religious movement, foreshadowed the idea that justice was based on freedom. In Bishara’s view, the Mutazila would not make a distinction between justice and injustice without the provision of freedom first. In fact, from their point of view, no ethical accountability is possible without the notion of freedom. For this reason, this theological school came to be known by the fuller title “upholders of justice and monotheism” (ahl al adl wa al tawhid). Echoing ideological discussions prevalent among various political currents in which political Islam has been pigeonholed into a specific political bracket, Bishara used the above example to illustrate how partisan conflicts between various political factions has led to the neglect of some of the main topics discussed by the various schools of thought within Islam, as well as unjustified ideological stances.
Ultimately, the contemporary framework in which justice could be defined, contended Bishara, is within the nation-state. Following this, he questioned whether it was possible to form a state in which the standard for justice is linked to the state as a main point of reference rather than being relative to identity groups.
If the referential framework in which justice can be defined is the nation-state, and the relationship between a nation-state and the people is called ‘citizenship’, then citizenship ought to be the reference point for justice. Situations in which there are multiple ‘justices’ within a state (each of which applies to those who are deemed equal within a specific social group) lead to the establishment of multiple political entities, and not a unified one. ‘Coexistence’, meanwhile, is a way of avoiding the main issue. ‘Coexistence’ suggests a calming of a latent war that may, at any moment, turn into a civil war. Justice is not based on ‘coexistence’, but emerges within one referential framework known as the nation-state and cannot arise from a pluralistic coexistence. While it is possible to formulate models of justice which take sub-national identities into account, such a formulation must also be based on and include liberty as part of the concept of justice. In my view, identity can be defined as a right within the modern understanding of justice, provided that it is based on liberty—the idea being that ‘I have a right to an identity’, a right which is guaranteed by citizenship. Yet if we turn this the other way around, and suggest that one gains citizenship rights by virtue of being a member of an identity group, and if liberty is derived from identity—in the sense that one becomes free within the confines of a sectarian structure that protects his or her liberty—we will have undone the entire history on which the evolution of the term justice was founded. This will pave the way toward a multiplicity of entities instead of a unified entity.
Bishara continued:"I am not against the development of the concept of sub-national identity entities by politicians, sociologists, or other scholars, but such a concept must be rooted in the twin principles of citizenship and liberty, and not the other way around. Citizenship and liberty should not be based on identity affiliations; in other words, these identity affiliations are voluntary identities, giving an individual the right to situate him or herself within a specific sectarian framework, and the freedom to leave it. A second caveat is that these entities be premised on equality between citizens; however, if the departure point is sub-national identity affiliations, justice in its contemporary sense will not be established, and we will end up writing a history all of our own, which I fear may lead to civil wars."
The Repercussions of the Formation of Arab Nation-States
The opening ceremony was brought to a close with an address by Egyptian legal scholar Tareq al-Bishry, who spoke on the dynamics of the formation of political groups. He started his address by noting the diversity of standards used to distinguish between various political groups is not exclusionary but universal.
The factors that govern the formation of a political group are usually societal. Within such a group, all individuals are included through kinship ties, and are further linked to others through a common language and a shared doctrine. It is through a reading of historical events, and the relations between different population groups, that individual factors are given priority over other considerations as the binding factor, even though each of them could provide the bases for belonging.
Al-Bishry emphasized the importance of both examining all of the various spheres of belonging and investigating the ways in which they interrelate. Speaking on the possibilities for greater inter-Arab integration, al-Bishry presented four proposals that could help achieve integration based on examples from the European Union.
In Islam, the term applies primarily to members of a theological school that flourished in Basra and Baghdad (today’s Iraq) from the 8th to the 10th century. The Mutazilah were the first Muslims to systematically employ the categories and methods of Hellenistic philosophy to derive their dogma. The tenets of their faith included belief in the oneness of God (tawhid), advocation of human free will (the ability to choose between good and evil), and the fundamental belief in God's fairness (i.e., God will punish only those deserving of punishment).