Mythologies of Liberalism
In Summer 2010, I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at Texas A&M Qatar, a course that met daily for five weeks. I had never taught outside of the United States before, and anthropology had never been offered at the branch campus, where liberal arts classes were limited to topics that fulfilled common core requirements for the students’ engineering degrees. Although I was uncertain how some topics I taught at the main campus in College Station, Texas, such as patriarchy and intersexuality, would go over in a classroom I presumed would be more conservative, I decided to keep my syllabus basically the same, adding content about the Arabian Peninsula and wider Gulf region to make the class more relatable.1 I also assigned a popular introductory textbook, hoping that the book’s accessibility would mitigate second-language learner difficulties that the denser articles might pose.
Like many anthropology textbooks, ours utilized cross-cultural examples in order to denaturalize assumptions about how societies are organized. Deploying comparative examples to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” is a common way to explain cultural relativism to undergraduates. But to make its points, our textbook unquestioningly centered a US reader familiar with American racial categories, American gender norms, and American politics. My students were confused by some of the book’s examples, which I clarified in class. This did not pose a great challenge until about midway through the term, when we read the kinship chapter. To highlight how marriage and family were cultural and not universal, the book asked readers to abandon their preconceived notions that cousin marriage is incest, since in some parts of the world, people practice it. As it turned out, we were in one of the parts of the world the textbook used as a primary example.2 Several of my Qatari students were either already engaged to their cousins or expected to be.
The class—who were about half Qatari citizens and half foreign residents who had grown up in Doha—arrived the morning after reading the chapter uniformly offended; they had clearly had a group conversation prior to our meeting. They told me the reading did not speak to them and also presented them or their classmates as exotic. Overall, they were fed up with the textbook. It seemed that they were also upset at me for assigning it. Just when I felt that I had made an irredeemable error, the class discussion shifted into a sophisticated unpacking of the parochialism of anthropology as a form of knowledge and how it continued to perpetuate American exceptionalism. The students then moved on to tell me how their other classes—STEM classes—contained similar moments of tension, sometimes in the curriculum and sometimes due to their professors’ presumptions about what Qataris, Arabs, and/or Muslims were like.
Instead of turning into a failure, our class dynamic grew stronger because of the frank conversation we had that day and in the days following. We continued to discuss not only anthropology but also the American university, the Education City campus where Texas A&M Qatar and other American branch campuses were located, and their role as students within the country’s growing knowledge economy. The students amazed me with their willingness to cross rigid social boundaries in order to learn about Doha residents they normally did not have the chance to engage. For their final group ethnographic projects, they researched topics including unauthorized migrant labor camps, shifting gender roles within Qatari marriages, Palestinian diasporic identities, and the experiences of bidoon (stateless) people.3 I heard after I left that some of them went to the dean to request that anthropology be offered again at Texas A&M Qatar; I believe this enabled me to return to teach for the following two summers. Anthropology was eventually added as a full-time line.4
Whenever I design a course now, I am reminded of that class in Doha and how much it pushed me outside my comfort zone. It challenged me to question who I center and who I marginalize through my choice of readings and assignments, the language I use in delivering my lectures, how I assign group work, and my overall interactions with students. Today, I am a tenured faculty member at an elite liberal arts institution in the United States that markets itself as invested in critical thinking, undergraduate research experiences, diversity, and global citizenship training. The students at this institution will rarely get to experience these learning outcomes to the extent that I have witnessed students experience them at the American branch campuses in Doha, due to the diversity of students, quality of resources, and number of hands-on learning opportunities available there.
Since I began research for this book project, conversations have been swirling within US academic communities about what the transplant of liberal education into so-called illiberal countries such as Qatar and other Gulf states means for the future of the American academy. Very rarely, however, do we hear about the experiences on the ground of what happens within these transplant institutions, and how different actors engage with liberalism as both a universal and parochial project.5 My students understood the parochialism of liberal ideologies much better than their professors and the critics of branch campuses. They were quite aware of the branch campus as a space of encounter that rested on longer histories of entanglement that produced East and West, liberal and illiberal, universal and parochial, global and local, anthropologist and native. Their engagement with our anthropology textbook showcased this understanding of how ongoing knowledge transfer co-constituted Arabia and America as mutually exclusive.
There are many unique and spectacular things to write about the multibillion-dollar buildings of Education City, the variety of learners and laborers that inhabited its confines, the uneven transfer of institutional norms, and the local contestations and changes that took place over the seven-plus years that I worked on this project. Pushing beyond these easy targets and thin descriptions, I decided instead to introduce the experience that best animates the stakes of this book. Schools are critical sites for social reproduction, for citizenship training, and for identity formation. They are also spaces where the technologies of governance, surveillance, belonging, and exclusion that exist in the broader social context are rehearsed, negotiated, and contested by various actors. Enabled by an American university in a state where higher education was increasingly seen as a public good, my students embraced certain aspects of liberal education while also challenging the geopolitical and historical inequalities that liberalism relies upon.
Offering an ethnographically grounded account that centers the unique experiences of different actors as they navigated branch campuses in Education City and their relationships to identity formation, citizenship, nation building, and imaginings of the future, this book discusses the role of liberal higher education in the making of transnational Qatar. At the same time, examining the inherent contradictions of American academia from the vantage point of Qatar highlights how ideas about the liberal and the illiberal were constantly emergent, contained within them their own undoing, and revealed investments from both sides of the globe by particular actors in maintaining mythologies of liberalism and its others.
1. This book focuses on Qatar as well as the broader context of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. I use the terms Arabian Peninsula, Gulf, and Gulf states relatively interchangeably (with the acknowledgment that Yemen is often left out of these groupings). GCC countries share history and some political, economic, and cultural features while also remaining distinct in other ways. The ongoing “siege” of Qatar by a Saudi-led coalition of countries in 2017 highlighted how this is not a uniform region of the world. I am invested in locating Qatar and the Gulf states within broader scholarly framings, including the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
2. Cross-cousin marriage (father’s sisters’ children or mother’s brothers’ children) is common in the Arabian Peninsula. Cousin marriage (cross- and parallel) is also relatively normalized among some South Asian and Arab diasporic communities.
3. After Qatari independence in 1971, there were people who refused citizenship or were not able to access it. These people are referred to as bidoon. Within contemporary framings, bidoon are treated as those without nationality and sometimes as undocumented migrants. However, most are indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula.
4. Even though the faculty member hired into that position has since left, sociology is offered as a course in Liberal Arts, and the curriculum in general is more diverse than it was eight years ago.
5. Notable ethnographic research on Gulf branch campuses includes Tanya Kane, “Transplanting Education;” Marjorie Kelly, “Issues in the Development of a Gulf Studies Program;” Mary Ann Tetrault, “Identity and Transplant”; and the articles in the Journal of General Education 63, nos. 2–3 (2014).