RABAT—A new university press in Morocco champions public intellectuals.
“Our goal is to make books that create a debate, academic books that are open to the public,” says Driss Ksikes, director of the research center of the Hautes Etudes de Management (HEM) Business School in Rabat, explaining the purpose of the new university press he has helped create.
For over two decades, HEM has run a “citizens’ university” program of free seminars. The new Citizen University Press (Les Presses de L’Université Citoyenne) is an extension of that program and a collaboration with the independent publisher En Toutes Lettres. The new press plans to publish a new title every year.
The imprint’s first book, written in French, is Le Metier d’Intellectuel (The Intellectual Profession), a collection of interviews with 15 of Morocco’s preeminent scholars, such as the historian Abdallah Laroui, the sociologist Fatema Mernissi, (who passed away on November 30), the essayist and literary critic Abdelfattah Kilito, and the political analyst Mohamed Tozy. The goal is to introduce their studies to a wider audience, but also to document their intellectual development, their influences and collaborators, and the way they approached and carried out their work.
The book has sold about 4,000 copies—a solid result for a book in most Arab markets—‑and recently won the Prix Grand Atlas, a literary award established by the French embassy in Morocco. The next book in the collection, whose subject is social tolerance, is scheduled to come out in February 2016.
For the current volume, Ksikes and his fellow editor, Fadma Ait Mous, looked for academics who had produced important bodies of work, who already had a certain engagement with the public, and who maintained their scholarly independence, not becoming beholden to anyone. That qualification is sometimes hard to gauge and subject to debate, but “the only thing that makes an intellectual credible is his autonomy,” argues Ksikes, who is also a journalist and playwright. The scholars interviewed for the book discuss topics such as educational policies, religious tradition, women’s status, public space, political Islam and much more. Their work ranges from histories of tea in Morocco to feminist interpretations of the Koran to studies of servitude in Islam.
The 2011 Arab uprisings provided the impetus behind the book. Morocco also witnessed a protest movement at that time calling for democratic reforms, which led King Mohamed VI to promulgate a new constitution. Those who supported the protest movement—especially the young—asked “where have the intellectuals gone?” says Ksikes. He is not the only one to argue that the Arab intelligentsia were caught off-guard by the uprisings, and were unable to provide leadership or analysis.
The book champions the social sciences. Its interviews are with “survivors of a decimated field,” says Ksikes, who condemns the closure, in the 1970s, of many of Morocco’s sociology and philosophy departments, which were deemed potential hotbeds of leftist opposition. For many decades, says Ksikes, “in the Moroccan university, we didn’t encourage the production of knowledge.” Today there are some efforts to reverse the trend, especially with the creation of several new independent universities that are meant to be centers of excellence and to have a greater focus on communication and critical thinking skills.
University presses and collections remain rare in the Arab world. Universities do publish books, but they don’t provide much in the way of editing or distribution. They face the same challenges as the publishing industry in the region generally: low rates of readership and limited income dedicated to book buying; difficulties enforcing copyright and distributing books across borders; and the risk of censorship.
Professors rarely write with a larger non-academic audience in mind. In the book, the historian Halima Ferhat notes that the public’s lack of interest in historical studies is partly “our responsibility as academics, who have neglected the public at large, which needs works written in an accessible language, at a reasonable price. . .We can’t decently ask someone who just wants to read something interesting on the history of Morocco to close him or herself up in a library or consult typed theses.”
In any case, she adds, potential readers wouldn’t have the right to get into archives and libraries to access the books, but “that’s another problem.”
Many professors write nothing at all after their dissertation. At most higher education institutions in the region, regular publication is not the requirement it is at Western universities, although that is beginning to change. In their introduction to Le Metier d’Intellectuel, the editors note that a survey of Moroccan professors carried out in 2009 showed that throughout their career 55 percent of them had produced no publications at all.
This thoughtful panorama of some of Morocco’s most interesting scholarship is a rebuke to the “mass of inaudible academics who keep their distance from the public space” and an inspiration to those who would like to occupy the challenging, complex role of the public intellectual.