Liberal Exceptionalism in Qatar’s Education City

by Sami Hermez, Northwestern University in Qatar

Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar, by Neha Vora (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018)

Neha Vora’s Teach for Arabia is an ethnography of liberalism through the particular site of Qatar’s Education City, a university campus that houses several branch campuses of American universities and a place where America and Qatar encounter each other. This is a contact zone, as Vora calls it, where I have taught for over four years as one of a few Arab faculty members. In this capacity, I want to begin by endorsing the analysis and conclusions of this book. Much of what Vora recounts I too have seen and experienced. In some cases, I found myself reading this book and feeling that I myself am guilty of some of the practices she describes. If the measure of good anthropology is whether or not one’s arguments have resonance with the people being written about, then Vora has produced stellar anthropology.

Teach for Arabia should be essential reading for anyone interested in education, modernity and development, citizenship and nationalism, the global university, and most of all, discourses of liberalism and how these discourses travel. In fact, one of the central contributions of this book is Vora’s critique of and theoretical intervention in the broad literature that concerns itself with liberal/illiberal binaries and liberal exceptionalism.

Vora argues that a global faith in liberalism, what she calls liberal piety, blinds its advocates to the contradictions and ethical inconsistencies inherent in US liberalism, as well as to the forms of local politics, agency and debate current in places like Qatar. The result is a movement that lashes out at “liberal” universities for establishing branches in “illiberal” countries, without situating this criticism in the context of the US government’s own illiberalism, or engaging with how US universities themselves contain so-called illiberal values—whether because of histories of profiting off slavery, entanglements with US militarism, or their ongoing role in maintaining forms of white supremacy. If academic freedom is a measure of liberal values then it is notable that, in my four years teaching in Qatar, I have felt my speech as a scholar—for example, on Palestine—more limited by the politics of my institution’s home campus in the US than by the Qatari government (which is not to say the latter does not police speech).

One example of the blindness of liberal piety can be found in Vora’s critique of discourses surrounding the Kafala (or foreign worker sponsorship) system. She argues that it is exceptionalized as a form of illiberalism and as among the worst aspects of Qatari culture, rather than seen as a modern form of governance that benefits Western expatriates the most and generates profits for multinational companies. In general, Teach for Arabia is part of an increasingly rich literature on the Arab Gulf countries that tries to deconstruct certain exceptionalizing discourses that are prevalent in talk about the region, such as the binary of ethnic (bad) versus civic (good) nationalism, while showing the complexity of the former and exposing the contradictions in the latter.

Vora shows how university administrators adopt a liberal “discourse of respect” that casts the university as an outsider protecting local culture, and how this masks inequalities and negotiations around what is to be respected, who is included, and how this is policed. She provides examples of faculty being told to respect heterosocial norms and not to teach topics related to Shi’a Islam. Like her, I have taught about Shi’a Islam with no issue, and find heterosocial norms to be more complex than notions of respect or observance can encompass.

Indeed, Vora takes policies around the mixing of genders as a key example of liberal inconsistencies. She argues, and I agree, that there is a civilizational mission of heterosociality, whereby the non-mixing of men and women is seen as illiberal and backwards, to be corrected by the spread of American values in education, even though there are plenty of progressive non-mixed spaces in the US—for example, at Mount Holyoke College. I have taught anthropology of gender in Education City, and covered sexuality, queerness and feminism. These topics were met with intellectual curiosity and constructive debate. Student views on these topics should not be used by liberal foreign academics as a litmus test by which to gauge Qatari society’s supposed illiberalism.

Another issue Vora points to is the very real inability to speak critically from Qatar. When one offers evidence of the nuances of life, of debate among students, or of attempts by Qataris to reform their systems, there is a danger of being viewed as an apologist rather than an expert (p. 9). In the contemporary transnational university economy, one’s worth as an intellectual is devalued, rather than valued, because of local positioning. The flipside of this problem of positioning is seen when faculty or staff in Qatar recognize debates and ongoing changes in society, but then are too quick to credit the American campuses for the changes or uphold them as proof that the globalization of American universities is instilling values of freedom and individual agency.

Teach for Arabia is full of ethnographic vignettes that are wonderfully instructive. Some are from Vora’s classroom experiences at Texas A&M in Qatar and the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, while others are from social encounters with faculty and staff at the various campuses in Education City. She explains that what it means to be local here is, in part, imagined in the face of the presence of so many foreigners. For example, when reading her discussion of how faculty reinforce national/non-national frames, I realized I do this in class discussions, often speaking to Qataris about local incidents rather than addressing all students as part of one community. This makes Qataris more visible and plays a part in their self-definition and segregation. Such practices also treat Qataris as a group while other students are seen as individuals. For comparison, imagine constantly singling out Black students in an American classroom.

Her ethnography further grapples with ideas around the construction of difference as she asks us to consider the way “homogeneous and essentialized ideas about culture” are produced by foreign experts. In one of her many fine insights, she writes that “the liberal university’s approach to culture and difference” is problematic as it is unable “to frame change around the experiences of those most marginalized by existing institutional norms.” Thus, students learn how to be good citizens of the university space but avoid “discussing the deep power differentials built into the university system” (p. 78). Later, in Chapter 4, Vora looks at the way noncitizen students are treated and the similarities and differences between them and citizens. Noncitizens can access interest-free loans for education that can be paid back after graduation, usually by working in-country for a number of years, thereby encouraging foreigners to stay and make a living (unlike in the US). She thus draws attention to forms of inclusion, in light of dominant narratives around (very real) exclusions.

Vora levels her most scathing critique against faculty and administrators. She argues that this group “were both laborers segregated into compounds and a privileged elite who could enjoy the pleasures of racial and class segregation” (p. 133). They tend to disavow “their complicity in the structural inequalities that produced white/Western elite status and geographies of segregation in the city” (p. 133). Of course, there are faculty and staff that fight back, but her diagnosis is largely correct. American citizens (myself included) are both the majority and at the top of the hierarchy. In this sense, diversity becomes a meaningless buzzword. We might appear diverse in a US census, but we are mostly American (and some European) taxpayers who do not reflect the student body in ethnicity, nationality or experience.

One criticism I have is that Vora’s insightful discussion of “becoming Qatari” could have benefited from sustained research at the national level—beyond Education City—and a comparative approach to these processes at other universities. It would have also been useful to dedicate a chapter to thinking through the ways in which the Qatari ruling class and associated elites are implicated in these imperial and post-colonial projects and how they have set the agenda for what it means to be Qatari and modern. Ultimately, I feel educators are faced with a structural quagmire in the contact zone between home campuses, the US government, and Qatar. Discerning and defining the way out, toward a non-colonial, non-white privileged space, in the face of massive spending to ensure the sustained (and so-called soft) power of empire, will take more thought. Vora’s Teach for Arabia lays the groundwork for future discussions and serves as a mirror for US critics, encouraging them to face and question their assumptions about liberal/illiberal binaries and where the divide between the two really lies. In this, Vora has done a remarkable job in the finest tradition of academic work that presents new theoretical interventions in a way that will be accessible to a variety of readers.

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