Credit: AlamyBack to school: Cambridge aims to change perceptions of North Africa among the UK academy and the wider public
North Africa has rarely been absent from British newspapers and television screens since the events of the Arab Spring began to sweep the region in January 2011.
Historically, however, UK universities have often neglected study of the region, according to two scholars who embarked on a mission to Morocco in April to forge academic links with institutions in the country.
George Joffé is a research fellow who specialises in the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Cambridge, and Paul Anderson is deputy director of the institution’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, which organised the delegation with the British Council.
The trip was part of a series of visits by representatives from the centre to other Islamic studies departments worldwide: Cambridge scholars of Islam and the Middle East have already visited their counterparts at the University of Sarajevo and in Beijing.
According to the organisers, such visits can help to counter an “unconscious prejudice” against Islamist political movements - such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood - that exists among Western scholars and journalists.
In the UK, study of North Africa is rare, argued Dr Joffé. “There’s been a growth in a kind of hybrid study - Mediterranean studies - but it’s still very limited.”
Seek and ye shall find
In regards to Morocco, Dr Joffé said, the country has far stronger academic bonds with the US than it has with the UK. He added that British scholars have relatively weak contacts with North Africa as a whole.
He noted that there had been previous attempts to build links between Morocco and the UK academy: for example, in 2004, a fellowship in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at the University of Oxford was endowed by the Moroccan British Society (an association that has close links to the country’s government). However, Dr Joffé had not heard of a UK university “going out specifically to look for contacts” in the country before.
The delegation to Morocco visited four universities in four cities, and heard British and Moroccan scholars lecture on subjects including politics, international relations, history, anthropology and sociology.
It is too early to think about joint research yet, Dr Joffé said, but “we’re at the stage of building up contacts that didn’t exist before”.
“Moroccan universities have good contacts in France. But what they don’t have is contacts in the anglophone world,” he added.
He said this was not due to British scholars being “blocked” by francophone connections, but simply because of the “paucity of opportunities for contact”. However, Dr Joffé said that the visit had helped to demonstrate “that we have an interest in them, not just them in us”.
Keep it up
Dr Anderson said that “what we don’t want” is for the visit to be a “one-off” for scholars who then “move somewhere else”, so the mission was looking for ways to make the link more permanent.
One possibility to cement the academic connection would be to bring young “up-and-coming” scholars from Morocco to visit Cambridge, he added.
As for the research strengths of Morocco itself, the country’s sector has made important contributions in anthropology and ethnography, Dr Anderson explained. However, it is weaker in linguistic, social and literary studies, sociology and science, added Dr Joffé.
Nonetheless, “certainly in the social sciences…we’re looking at similar problems in terms of the areas we want to understand”, he said.
By talking to other universities and Islamic studies departments, Cambridge hopes to benefit from a variety of perspectives on the region - particularly useful as the consequences of the Arab Spring continue to unfold.
Dr Joffé said there was still “scepticism” from European and American scholars and journalists about the rise of Islamist parties, for instance.
“There is a scepticism, a disbelief that [Islamist politics] is a viable political alternative,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr Joffé added that he was keen to convince other UK universities to build links with Morocco and North Africa.
“It’s a question of persuading other universities when they don’t have the resources that they could benefit from this kind of visit,” he said.