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Monday, April 12, 2021

How International Relations, an ‘American’ Discipline, Is Taught in the Arab World

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Editor’s note: The Arab Political Science Network, in cooperation with Al-Fanar Media, will hold an online discussion on Tuesday, March 30, at 6 p.m. Beirut time on teaching international relations in the Arab world. The discussion will be conducted in Arabic. For more details and to register, please click here.

What happens to the discipline of international relations (IR) when it travels to the Arab world? Is the IR taught in the Arab world the same as the IR theorized and taught in other places? What matters more for students of international relations in the Arab world: the production or the consumption of IR theories? How does the study of international relations in the Arab world vary, from one region to another, and from one institution to another? And, finally, what happens to international relations as an “American social science” when it enters classrooms in the Arab world, and when it is taught in Arabic?

These are some of the questions examined in a recent special forum on “The Politics of Teaching International Relations in the Arab World,” a series of essays edited by May Darwich, Morten Valbjørn and Bassel Salloukh, published in the journal International Studies Perspectives, and containing contributions by Waleed Hazbun, Amira Abou Samra, Said Saddiki, Adham Saouli, Hamad H. Albloshi and Karim Makdisi.

The contributions examine how scholars at Arab universities are teaching international relations and how institutional, historical and linguistic as well as political and individual factors shape classroom dynamics in the Arab world. (See a related article,  “American Studies Gets an Arab Twist.”)

While the influence from the American core of the discipline is obvious, the forum documents how the theoretical and conceptual foundations of international relations based on Western perspectives and history do not travel intact. The essays demonstrate that different kinds of IR programs exist, not just across but also within Arab regions, and that studying pedagogy can become a way to study how disciplinary IR varies contextually.

Three broad patterns emerged from the special forum.

Regional vs. American Perspectives

The first set of issues revolves around what and how we teach international relations in the Arab world, and the knowledge shaping the curriculum. The forum provides evidence of how teaching in the region remains influenced by the predominance of American IR in the discipline. However, international relations theories do not travel seamlessly across borders, and the discipline is therefore taught differently in different places—even within the Arab world.

Some make the case that mainstream IR approaches remain the foundation to teaching international relations in the Arab world and a first step for making a contribution to knowledge production. Salloukh, for instance, argues that engaging with American IR from an Arab-world perspective is the prime route for adapting the discipline to the realities surrounding the classroom in the region.

Others encourage their students to read IR texts “against the grain.” Hazbun explains how teaching international relations in Beirut necessitated the cultivation of critical and postcolonial perspectives in the classroom to allow students to reflect on the politics of knowledge production that defined the development of IR theories around the security interests of the United States and Western images of the Middle East.



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