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Knowledge Production in Higher Education Between Europe and the Middle East

April 29, 2024 at 3:10 pm

  • Book Editor(s): Michelle Pace, Jan Claudius Völkel
  • Published Date: 2023
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • ISBN-13: 9781526160577

The perception of education has “historically been seen as enriching one’s Self through the encounter with an Other”, and this sets the scene for the collection of essays published in Knowledge Production in Higher Education Between Europe and the Middle East (Manchester University Press, 2023), edited by Michelle Pace and Jan Claudius Völkel. Higher education provides the space and the methods for various types of learning, woven tightly into the political and shedding light on the historical processes of colonialism in a postcolonial era.

The book focuses on Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, bringing a contrasting view of how “academics have deliberated their immensely politicised nature of institutions of higher education and their practices – be these, in the context of colonialism decolonisation, nation-building or political transformation.” Exploring the way that the MENA is taught in Europe and how MENA universities teach Europe at higher institutes of education, the compiled research discusses positionality of both the institutions and the educators, making perspectives accessible through the authors’ own observations, experiences and research, each within the context of the country they teach in, and its respective history, as well as the dominant narrative that overlooks colonialism and hence triggered decolonisation efforts in universities.

Several countries are discussed in this book – France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Palestine, Turkey, Denmark, Egypt and the Netherlands – each with its own history of colonisation, colonialism and observation of colonialism to deal with. The distinction between the geographical and the cultural is made early on the book and substantiated throughout, as the authors tackle education in the countries they teach in and amalgamate the historical and political perceptions of the respective countries and how both have an impact on education.

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For European countries teaching the MENA region, for example, interest in the region spans back centuries and is tied mostly to colonial conquest. The book takes the examples of France and Italy. “Orientalists largely turned themselves from providers of knowledge into providers of a colonial ideology,” writes Timo Behr. Oriental studies as a subject in France dates back to 1697 and perception was altered according to France’s historical trajectory of colonialism. Post-World War II, decolonisation efforts provided alternative viewpoints and assertions that Europe did not bring “civilisation and development” to the Middle East.

Italy’s entanglement with the MENA region dates back centuries and transformed from a church-led tradition to a colonial pursuit which was later altered by Mussolini’s Fascist rule. The unification of Italy and its foray into colonialism increased interest in the region: “Colonialism was a fundamental tool in the aspiration of the new state to rise among the modern European powers,” state Giulia Cimini and Claudia de Martino. The authors note that Italy experienced little criticism from within in terms of colonial impact, while Marxists shifted focus away from Italy’s colonial past.

European countries’ renewed interest in the Middle East is tied largely to 9/11 and the US “War on Terror”, the Oslo Accords, as well as the Arab Spring. Denmark’s experience, however, differs from the other countries discussed in this volume, not having been directly impacted with the origins of colonialism or its end. Not being a coloniser country, Denmark’s interest in the Middle East is largely linked historically to scholarly exploration, therefore decolonisation did not play a major role in the country’s pursuit of MENA studies. Security, surveillance and migration, as well as employment opportunities played a role in students’ interest in Middle East Studies on occasions. However, as Anne de Jong writes in her assessment of the Netherlands and her own experience as an educator, students born post 9/11 do not buy into mainstream propaganda. This stands in contrast to the surveillance on campus in the Netherlands and elsewhere of lecturers departing from the mainstream narratives, especially those critical of Israel.

Conversely, in the MENA region, perception and teaching of Europe and the European Union is linked largely to the experience of the colonised. In discussing Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Palestine, the book illustrates several points. In Egypt, for example, the anti-colonial struggle paved the way to power for the armed forces, while anti-colonial discourse remains selective and does not always reflect the post-colonial discourse on human rights. In Turkey, the interest in Europe correlated with the country’s quest to join the EU, while its geographical position at the intersection between East and West plays a role in foreign policy. Language also plays a role, as English is the main language in which academia presents courses on Europe, while the curriculum itself is becoming more Europeanised, further reflecting foreign policy.

In Palestine, Asem Khalil writes of the academic positioning in relation to foreign diplomacy, notably the two-state context, noting that Europe only normalises Palestine within the context of Israel, security and the defunct two-state paradigm. “It is widely believed that the EU will not sacrifice its strategic alliance with the United States for the sake of the Palestinians,” writes Khalil. Teaching Europe in Palestine happens within the context of the continent being a major player in conflict resolution and the EU’s refusal to accept the 2006 election result which brought Hamas to the helm of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian universities, meanwhile, face violence from both Israel and the PA. The chapter suggests a shift to teaching from within the history of the Global South which is more in line with the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle.

The book concludes with a succinct overview of all chapters, navigating the complexities of academia within a historical and contemporary narrative, and the importance of fostering critical thinking that facilitates “dialogic encounters”. Awareness about how knowledge is produced would enable a move beyond the binary approach towards Europe and the Middle East. Pace and Völkel note the several implications of language, privilege, socio-economic conditions and personal perspectives, all of which play a role on the deconstruction and building of political and academic perspectives.

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