What could academics do in response to #17Feb

February 21, 2011

Dedicating a whole blogpost to the question of the role of professional academics in response to Libia might say more about my personal process of discernment than anything else at the moment. It might also just be because of the article by Rebecca Chopp* that I’ve been reading over the weekend. The argument doesn’t concern me, but the statement which the American Academy of Religion made in response to 9/11 does concern me in light of the recent events in North-Africa, as well as the question whether it might spark similar events in Zimbabwe.

We grieve with out members, their colleagues, and students who have lost loved ones in this tragedy. As the major professional association of scholars and teachers in the field of religion, we feel a special responsibility in this time of crisis. We therefore urge our members to find appropriate educational responses to these events and their aftermath in our classes, our colleges and universities, and our communities, and to serve as resources in the national conversation on a range of issues that have been foregrounded by this tragedy: suffering and evil, human rights and religious liberties, international order and justice, democracy and the common good. The AAR Board especially wishes to urge members to encourage conversation on campuses and in communities about the dangers of religious and ethnic harassment and discrimination. Such educational engagements are appropriate to the Academy’s mission to foster reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values by bringing the teaching and scholarship of our members to bear on the public understanding of religion and religions.

(AAR Board Statement 2002)

I do not wish to go into the typical African slant (and I can do this if needs be) of how the whole world was reacting when CNN kept on repeating the 9/11 footage, while Gaddafi (to use the example which is on our table today) just kept on doing what he does best. I do not wish to go into a comparison of which is the worse atrocity. Suffice to say that 9/11 was wrong, Gaddafi was wrong. 9/11 is in our past, Gaddafi has been our present for 42 years, and he is our present at the moment, and the questions on how we react has to be responded to today.

Our academic environments is the place where we are supposed to challenge our underlying ideologies. We might say that academics has the task to critically engage the reigning ideologies with the complex tools which is not available to the broader public. They do this not for the sake of the academy alone, but for the sake of society.

My critique is quite simple. If our academic environment has produced the business, technology, politics and intellectual leaders of our day, and these formative voices are able to continue this week as if Libya is not happening, then we have to face some serious questions about either the analytical skills of the academy (academics has not been able to notice the injustice under the various dictators), the critical capacity of the academy (academics has not been able to criticize ex-liberators like Gaddafi), or the formative effect of the academy (students are not really changed morally by their participation in the unversity environment).

So what is bugging me as theologian at this stage is the following: I wonder how many ethics classes and missiology classes are going to pass this week without mentioning Libya to students. I wonder whether the universities will find ways of forming students which will be able to voice critique and fight for change in the world. And I wonder whether the universities as a whole will contribute to a better understanding of what is currently happening in the world, or whether various oil interests and the fact that the events is happening in Africa will be enough reason that also the universities, even the theologians, will somehow just never respond.

The voices saying that South Africa has to be a a voice of critique within Africa is growing. But we need solid analysis of the implications of our choices, and then make the choice for justice whatever the cost might be. The responsibility towards society for those at universities (currently or at any position in the past) is to contribute to this solid analysis. I hope that universities in South Africa, as well as the many who have had the privilege of obtaining degrees will contribute to our public conversation in South Africa by stating clearly who all the stakeholders in this mess is, including the various power bases outside of Libya. Our critique need to address the full complexity of the problem, deeper than simply getting rid of Gaddafi (a bare minimum), but uncovering the ways in which many outside of Libya has allowed, or even contributed to, his being kept in positions of power. But mere analysis and critique is not enough. We need the moral conviction to go to the streets and contribute to the growing pressure on both African dictators and their many friends (including those running politically correct democracies).

In South Africa we need this also as an exercise, because Zimbabwe need a date. Because in South Africa we will have to move beyond the Mbeki scapegoat and address the broader system which is making it possible that Zimbabwe is continuing along this route.

We need more than nice quotes about justice today. We need to listen to those who provide the analysis which might make us uncomfortable. Because let’s face it, if change in Libya wouldn’t have cost anyone else anything, then at least some self-righteous liberal would have made a lot more noise long ago. Dictators do not exist in isolation. They are dictators in relation to many positions of power in this world. Let’s use every ounce of our critical capacities to uncover these, and do more then retweet #Libya and #Gaddafi (important as these tweets are).

*Beyond the Founding Fratricidal Conflict: A Tale of Three Cities

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