President of the International Sociological Association Publishes Anti-Israel Message


Editorial Note

Prof. Sari Hanafi, the President of the International Sociological Association (ISA), published a letter to members in late December 2022. Hanafi recalled how the year 2022 was “particularly violent and challenging for most regions in the world.” He mentioned various cases, including “the intensification of the settler colonial Israeli project in the Occupied Palestinian territories.” 

Hanafi is a Syrian Palestinian who moved to France to pursue an academic career. He returned to Lebanon as a Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut.

Hanafi was elected as President of the ISA in 2018.  

ISA’s 20th conference will convene in Australia in June 2023. Hanafi explains that the conference would feature two presidential panels with “particular interest in connecting sociology to moral and political philosophy.” One is titled “Liberalism, the Other and Religion.” Two philosophers and two sociologists would debate this theme. One is the “Palestinian philosopher Azmi Bishara” who argues that “comprehensive liberalism can be promoted if its basic values, like civil liberties and individual autonomy are reproducible in the context of the prevailing culture.”  

Describing Azmi Bishara as a “Palestinian philosopher” is a gross misrepresentation of who Bishara is. He is a Former Member of Knesset who represented the Balad Party in 1996, 1999, 2003, and 2006 elections. In the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War, Bishara visited Lebanon and Syria. Israeli authorities suspected Bishara of supplying Hezbollah with coordinates for targeting military and civilian sites in Israel for large sums of money. Before he could be charged with acts of treason and espionage, Bishara fled Israel to Qatar, where he resides to this day. In 2012 he was again accused of transferring millions of Israeli shekels from Qatar to Jordan in suitcases. The money was collected by visiting Balad members who transferred the suitcases to Israel. Thirteen Balad members were caught and faced charges.

Yet, for Hanfai, Bishara is a “political philosopher.” This should come as no surprise because Hanafi has a long history of anti-Israel work. In 2014, Hanafi postulated in an article that “humanitarian organizations deprive refugees of their political existence by treating them as only bodies to be fed and sheltered.” Humanitarian Law refers to them as “protected people,” but practices focus mainly on “victims” or “survivors.” By classifying people as victims or even as survivors, the basis of humanitarian action is shifted from rights to welfare.”  

Hanafi then added that “I have been very interested in demystifying the depoliticization of humanitarianism since the beginning of the Second Intifada. In 2003 in Jerusalem Adi Ophir and I co-organized a two-day workshop on ‘The Politics of Humanitarianism in the Occupied Territories’ for international, Palestinian and Israeli human rights and humanitarian organizations. Scholars and practitioners presented their different visions, generating much discussion and even some tension. The debate was so absorbing that Peter Hansen, the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees, who came just to present a paper, stayed for the whole workshop. When I became research director of the program ‘Policy and Governance in Palestinian Refugee Camps’ at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), I helped to organize lectures with practitioners from international and local organizations, further contributing to the debate on humanitarianism.”

He explained that in a 2009 book, co-edited with Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni, “My choice to work on The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (2009) with anti-colonial Israelis Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni was unpopular in Lebanon, and I faced a smear campaign from some leftists. At the time, I thought that constructing a healthy conception of the conflict and collaborating with anti-colonial Israelis was more important than my popularity. I hoped that working with dissident Israelis would send a strong message that the Arab–Israeli conflict has nothing to do with religion but revolved around a classical colonial project waged by Zionist ideology, which we could collectively oppose, whether we were Arab or Israeli.” 

Hanafi is typical of pro-Palestinian activists who use their academic positions to bash Israel. This development has become prevalent in the United States, where the Middle East Studies Association passed a resolution supporting BDS. The Pro-Palestinian activists also recruit Israeli academics to bolster their arguments. It is troubling to see that the same anti-Israel spirit also pervades other important international associations. 



December 2022
President’s Perspective
The year 2022 was particularly violent and challenging for most regions in the world. To cite a few, I think of Russia’s war in Ukraine which has driven 7 million people to seek refuge across Europe; deadly floodings in Pakistan and wildfires in the USA induced by climate change; the intensification of the settler colonial Israeli project in the Occupied Palestinian territories; wars in Yemen and Syria. At the same time we have seen more and more social movements and protests against all sorts of injustice: widespread protests across many cities in Iran against the imposition of the veil in the street, and in other countries against the vertiginous rise of populism and authoritarianism.
When we chose the theme for the next ISA World Congress, Resurgent Authoritarianism: Sociology of New Entanglements of Religions, Politics, and Economies, authoritarianism was not as spread as it is now, including in the Global North. Its growth is facilitated by the gradual symbolic thickening of public culture through combinations of extreme nationalist and religious fervor, particularly when the political liberal project is replaced by a national conservative project and the public reason becomes incapable of dealing neither with a unified conception of justice nor with different conceptions of the good in society. With more hierarchical polarization in society, we live in a time when reasonable public debate is often impossible. In this context, the International Sociological Association’s mission and activities are particularly important. Let me highlight some of them. XX ISA World Congress of Sociology in Melbourne, 2023 We will finally meet in person. The date of this XX ISA World Congress of Sociology was changed after considering many questions: Should it be online, hybrid or in-person? Who cannot make it? Who is still fearful of coming too close to others? This will be a historical moment as a major in-person event, after almost three years of online meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We envisaged different scenarios, but the outcome is for now most encouraging, with 7,126 submitted abstracts. 66% plan to present in person and 34% virtually. The program coordinators did a great job assessing the submissions, accepting 6,408 abstracts from 124 countries. In comparison with the previous Congress (in Toronto, 2018), the number of accepted abstracts has increased by 19%. We invite all those who were accepted to register before March 22, 2023, the deadline for presenters’ registration. Let me remind you that in addition to the regular Research Committee/Working Group/Thematic Group (RC/WG/TG) grants to attend the congress, the ISA has a Solidarity Fund targeting student membership: Each RC/WG/TG can allocate ISA membership grants for up to 3 students from category A countries and up to 5 students from category B and C countries.

The Congress program has been the subject of many meetings of the Program Committee. Eight plenaries will deal with four themes: secularism from the perspective of postsecularity or multiple secularities ; authoritarianism, particularly in its brutalizing version and its effects on knowledge and post-factuality; populism and its different local forms of a global phenomenon and an invitation for an intersectional approach to understanding the construction of the “people”; and neoliberalism, that generates so many inequalities, jeopardizing both individual and collective rights to life. But let me highlight here the two presidential panels. The two presidential panels are conceived with a particular interest in connecting sociology to moral and political philosophy. In the first one, entitled “Liberalism, the Other and Religion” two philosophers and two sociologists debate this theme. French philosopher Cécile Laborde defends minimal secularism while Palestinian philosopher Azmi Bishara argues that comprehensive liberalism can be promoted if its basic values, like civil liberties and individual autonomy are reproducible in the context of the prevailing culture. For Brazilian-Belgian sociologist Frederic Vandenberghe the sociological critiques of social injustices and social pathologies basically adhere to the repertoire of “liberal communitarianism.” Sometimes it veers more towards the communitarian pole of identity and authenticity, and sometimes towards the liberal pole of autonomy and justice. Finally, for Australian sociologist Anna Halafoff the role of religion is in both enabling and resisting this anti-cosmopolitan terror manifested in the rise of religious nationalism.

The second panel is about “Building a Just Post-COVID-19 World.” The surreal atmosphere of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fault lines in trust among human beings, among countries, between citizens and governments, and is pushing us to raise big questions about ourselves, our social relationships, and life more generally. This crisis moment would be an occasion to actively engage in addressing this new reality and the attendant rampant uncertainty. While this global crisis may have prompted fresh strategies to reinforce exploitation, dispossession, and neoliberal capitalism, and increased the reach of our greed and selfishness, it has also given us an opportunity to explore and provide new ways of understanding and reclaiming our social justice and humanity. Didier Fassin points to the unlearned lessons of the pandemic focusing on public health and social inequalities. For him, the health crisis revealed the flaws of public health in most countries and the depth of social inequalities within and between countries. Eva Illouz is interested in fear as the anti-democratic emotion that post-COVID time reveals. Afe Adogame, with his Ghanian sensitivity, unfolds the nexus between religion, science, and pandemics that plays out in myriad ways. While science challenges the legitimacy and potency of religion in offering protection, healing, security, and hope, religion in turn confronts the efficacity and authority of science as a panacea. Finally, in the face of the impact of COVID-19, Li Peilin argues that modern world-systems theory, the Cold War theory and clash of civilizations theory are incapable of understanding regional conflicts and the threat of world economic recession; he thus calls for a post-western sociology, a more inclusive sociology to contribute to the establishment of a world order of peace.

RC/WG/TGs selected papers for so many interesting panels, including Integrative Sessions and Sessions by National, Regional, Linguistic and Thematic Associations, Ad Hoc Sessions, and professional development sessions. I would like to thank the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) headed by Dan Woodman and all members of the Program Committee and Program Coordinators for the great work they have been doing. We ended up by a wonderful program, with most speakers planning to attend in-person. Needless to say, Melbourne is an amazing place to meet: it’s a vibrant and friendly city, with public art, many parks and great food and coffee and some affordable accommodation options. We hope to see you all there in late June 2023! Global Dialogue Magazine Following Michael Burawoy’s editorship, and that of Brigitte Aulenbacher and Klaus Dörre, I would like now to welcome the new editor of Global Dialogue Breno Bringel, a most renowned Brazilian political sociologist. We wish him and his assistant editors Carolina Vestena and Vitória Gonzalez Rodriguez all the best in their editorial work. Founded in 2010 and now translated into more than 15 languages, ISA magazine Global Dialogue has been instrumental in connecting sociologists all over the world. I would like to thank Brigitte Aulenbacher and Klaus Dörre as well as their assistants for consolidating it as a vibrant publication. XVII ISA International Laboratory for PhD Students The 2022 Laboratory for PhD Students in Sociology around the theme Precarization and Resistance: Environment, Everyday Life and Citizenship was organized jointly by the ISA, the Arab Centre for Research and Political Studies, the Centre for Economic and Social Researches and Studies, and the Research in Enlightenment, Modernity and Cultural Diversity Lab, Tunis El Manar University. It took place in Tunis, Tunisia, September 5-11, 2022. This Lab was held successfully despite Tunisia’s current difficult economic and political situation. The quality of this Lab was confirmed by the students’ own evaluation. I would like to thank all those who have been involved in the Lab, particularly Mounir Saidani, member of the ISA Executive Committee and head of the Local Organizing Committee of the Lab, and Executive Committee members Bandana Purkayastha and Geoffrey Pleyers.
I am glad to inform you that our support to early-career sociologists continues. In Melbourne, a pre-congress seminar will be organized for the winners and finalists of the ISA Worldwide Competition for Junior Sociologists, which will gather 15 junior sociologists from 14 countries. 5th ISA Council of National Associations Conference On the theme Social Transformations and Sociology: Dispossessions and Empowerment, the Council of National Associations conference took place in Nova Gorica, Slovenia on November 21-24, 2022 with the participation of over 60 delegates from national associations and collective members of the ISA. The conference, organized on the invitation of the Slovenian Social Sciences Association was an academically and socially vibrant event thanks to Filomin Gutierrez, ISA Vice-President for National Associations, and Borut Roncevic, Chair of the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) and to the LOC particularly warm hospitality. Nominations of candidates for the election of the ISA Executive Committee 2023-2027 The World Congress is the occasion for electing the ISA President, 4 Vice-Presidents, 8 representatives of the Council of National Associations and 8 representatives of the Research Council, who will constitute the next Executive Committee. Please send your nominations to by January 31, 2023. For more details and nomination forms see Other News In our last Executive Committee meetings we took many important decisions:
    • The 2025 ISA Forum of Sociology will be in-person. A call for bids was issued.
    • The collective membership of the Russian Sociological Association will be suspended until the end of the war on Ukraine.
    • The ISA has endorsed many statements concerning human rights violations: the Iran protests, in support of the public statement issued by the Iranian Sociological Association; the call to action of Birzeit University to reject Israeli measures against academic freedom; ISA statement on the Russian military offensive happening in Ukraine; ISA endorsement of the code of conduct for United Nations interactions with civil society organizations.
    • ISA signed the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) recognizing the need to improve the ways in which researchers and the outputs of scholarly research are evaluated. The idea to write the declaration was developed in 2012 at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Francisco. It has become a worldwide initiative covering all scholarly disciplines and all key stakeholders including funders, publishers, professional societies, institutions, and researchers. We encourage all individuals and organizations who are interested in developing and promoting best practice in the assessment of researchers and scholarly research to sign DORA. And Finally Much of what is accomplished by the ISA is the result of all the hard work and diverse contributions of our members. I also take this opportunity to thank all Executive Committee members, our four Vice-Presidents, Filomin Gutierrez, Eloísa Martín, Geoffrey Pleyers, and Sawako Shirahase, as well as ISA Executive Committee members, ISA editors, ISA Executive Secretary Izabela Barlinska, Lola Busuttil and Juan Lejárraga for their work and dedication to the Association. I would like as well to welcome Cecilia Delgado-Molina, our Social Media Manager and forthcoming ISA Executive Secretary (starting from August 2023). Cecilia holds a PhD summa cum laude in Sociology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and completed research stays in Argentina, Germany, and the United States. She held a postdoctoral position at the Autonomous University of Barcelona Research Group in the Sociology of Religion (ISOR), in collaboration with the University of Birmingham. She has experience in university-community partnerships, public funding, financial administration, and staff management. Additionally, she has expertise in web design, digital communication, and social media networking. She is a member of the ISA since 2012 and serves as the RC22 (Sociology of Religion) interim secretary, for which she recently redesigned the website and newsletter. Finally I wish you all the best for the holiday season and for a new year which I hope will bring better news for the world and not only for the human…


Sari Hanafi
President, International Sociological Association
Prof. of Sociology, American University of Beirut

© 2022 ISA, International Sociological Association.
Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology, University Complutense, 28223 Madrid, SPAIN


published online January 7, 2014

Complex entanglements: Moving from policy to public sociology in the Arab world

Sari HanafiView all authors and affiliations

Volume 62, Issue 2


In this article, the author surveys his own career to illustrate some of the dilemmas of research, especially when it assumes a critical and public face. He shows how his work on Palestinian refugees, their socioeconomic rights, their right of return and their camps evolved toward complex forms of traditional and organic public sociology. The article concludes with reflections on one of the major dilemmas researchers face: conducting public research without losing its critical edge, even toward the deprived groups it seeks to protect. The moral of the story: good scientists are not always popular.

In the Arab world, the profile of the intellectual is well known: typically, he or she is a theorist who talks about tradition, modernity, authoritarianism, democracy, identity, Arab unity, globalization and so on but avoids stepping into society to conduct empirical research. Even social scientists are often guilty of pontificating like philosophers, raising questions rather than offering concrete answers (Hanafi, 2012).

It is even rarer to hear professional social researchers speak in the public sphere.1 This is due not only to the absence of their products in the mass media or newspapers but also to the difficulty of conducting fieldwork in the Arab world, given the authoritarian regimes and the lack of research capacity. Social research agendas in the Arab region – the choice of topics and sometimes the methodology – are often driven by donor interests or by the urgency of immediate social problems. There are important exceptions to this rule, and it is to some of them that I have turned for guidance and inspiration. In this article, I survey my own research trajectory to illustrate some of the dilemmas researchers face while doing research, especially when it assumes a critical and public face.

Damascus, Cairo and Ramallah: Crawling toward public sociology

In 1994, I finished my PhD in France. It examined engineers as a socioprofessional group in Syria and Egypt. My first inclination was to extend my investigations to other middle-class occupations in these same countries, but as a Palestinian and former president of the General Union of Palestinian Students in France, I became involved in many debates concerning the emerging peace process, known as the Madrid Process. As prospects for a new Palestinian entity improved, I decided to study the contribution of the Palestinian diaspora to the construction of this entity.

Clearly, my choice of topic was related to how I saw my engagement in the public sphere. I discussed the project with Philippe Fargues, the director of the French Centre d’études et de documentation économique juridique et sociale in Cairo (CEDEJ). Together we wrote a research proposal dealing with two features of the diaspora: its demography and its economy. It is worth noting that the European Union was only interested in the economic aspect of this research, while the French Foreign Ministry was attracted by the demographic question. The upshot was two fascinating projects. Since I was most interested in the economy, I dealt with this aspect, publishing two academic books and many articles.

At that time, I was not aware of the importance of writing for a large public. At most, I talked to journalists from time to time. I was afraid to give out information that was not grounded in scientific research. I had little experience in presenting my research, but I quickly learned to draw policy implications from my findings. I was approached by a Palestinian deputy minister in the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation in Ramallah, who had read my 1997 book, The Role of Business People in the Diaspora in the Construction of the Palestinian Entity. He wanted me to help him establish a Directorate of Expatriate Affairs in his Ministry. I found myself in a dilemma: should I accept a grant from the Ford Foundation to pursue my research or should I suspend my career as a researcher in order to work as a policy advisor, applying the knowledge I had accumulated. I opted for the latter, at that time believing that the Oslo Peace Process would result in the termination of the occupation. This project lasted one year. The Directorate was successfully established, and two conferences were organized, each bringing roughly 150 Palestinian business people from all over the world to the Palestinian territories.

However, I found the relationship between the domineering prince and the dependent researcher to be tumultuous, so I returned to CEDEJ for three more years to pursue research on two fronts: to continue my analysis of the question of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora and to investigate the relationships among donors, international organizations and local NGOs in the Palestinian territories. Again, I was motivated by a deep desire to conduct research that would be useful for the emerging Palestinian entity. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that donors were mainly interested in funding NGOs and were reluctant to support unions and political parties. Moreover, the donors were keen on NGO style research centers outside and disconnected from universities. Here I found myself with another dilemma: conducting research funded by NGOs, through a research center that not only has NGO status but is one of the leading organizations in the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGOs).

The result of my research was a manuscript (written with Linda Tabar) that criticized both the donor community and local NGOs. It was sent to two reviewers: one an academic and one an NGO leader from PNGOs. The former was very positive, but the latter was not. The director of the research center was also unhappy since he feared that my research might reinforce ‘the general climate of criticism of NGOs waged by the Palestinian National Authority.’ The manuscript was sent out again to three new reviewers. All reports recommended publication, and it became my first real encounter with public sociology. I was invited to many places to present our research. I learned how to be careful with my lectures, tailoring them to audiences with a balance of criticism and provocation. I found myself in the middle of a milieu where small NGOs appreciated my research while the bigger ones were unhappy with my results. I learned how to interpret the audience’s smiles and scattered laughter and not to be easily intimidated. I learned a lot from these talks on the basis of which I revised my analysis.

After three years conducting professional and public research at CEDEJ, I was hired to be the director of a research and advocacy center called the Palestinian Center for Diaspora and Refugees (Shaml) in Ramallah. At this center, I conducted research on subjects such as the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, the debate over their right of return and the political negotiations with Israelis over this matter.

Most of my critical research was not published in Arabic but in English. This gave me international and regional visibility but at the expense of visibility in the locality in which I was working. I was also actively experimenting with creative and rights-based solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem. I developed concepts such as the extra-territorial nation-state, the distinction between the right of return and the possibility of return, and between right of return and rites of return. My main audience was academic and policy circles. Only subsequently did I realize that writing in Arabic more than likely would have got me into a lot of trouble.

It was very difficult to continue living in Ramallah with a tourist visa, as in early 2004 the Israeli authorities started to limit my visa to one month at a time, which meant I had to leave and return every month. I felt I had exhausted my time in Palestine, so I sought a new location. I left Palestine to assume a teaching position at the American University of Beirut. It was here that I discovered the problem of researchers who publish globally but perish locally (Hanafi, 2011). From then on I vowed to translate all that I produced into Arabic so as to help generate debate with the broader public as well as with policy makers.

Beirut: Time for confrontations

Worn out by the intensity of the Second Intifada (2000–2005), I moved to the American University of Beirut where I founded the monthly Sociology Café, which aims at creating a forum for informal discussions between students, professors and the public on critical issues of life in Lebanon and the region. An invited speaker usually initiates the discussion. Since 2006, I have co-organized 52 sessions with Ray Jureidini and then Nabil Dajani. Lebanese newspapers often report on the debates produced in these monthly encounters.

In terms of research, I decided to move into urban sociology and work in the slums of Beirut. I wrote a proposal to study Hay al-Sulom in the southern suburbs with a small component to compare it with Beirut’s infamous Shatila refugee camp. Alas, one donor agency offered me funding but only to study the Shatila camp. At first I was disappointed, but it wasn’t long before I found myself again in the middle of a debate about Palestinian socioeconomic and civil rights. The context is important. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees do not have some basic rights such as the right to work or to own property, even though they have been living there for 65 years.

In 2005 there were two important issues: first, the liberation of Lebanon from Syrian tutelage and, second, the establishment of the Lebanese–Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC). The latter functioned as an agency attached to the Prime Minister’s cabinet and was heavily funded by many donors seeking to improve the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon. In this vein, the Swiss embassy mobilized a Swiss humanitarian agency to fund a workshop composed of Palestinian and Lebanese experts to assess the need for Palestinians to receive more vocational training. In this way, the agency argued, refugees would be able to work as qualified workers without changing the existing legal framework that bars them from work, denying them access to any profession and even to the formal labor market. I was a participant in this workshop and spoke vehemently against its rationale and against working within the framework of existing rights. Tensions rose, and there were many clashes between the Palestinian and the Lebanese participants. The Swiss agency then called for two ad hoc meetings: one with Palestinian experts and another with Lebanese experts. In the meeting, the representative of the Swiss agency told me that I was politicizing the process and she argued that her agency is a humanitarian one and therefore cannot address the right to work for the Palestinian refugees. After heated arguments, she threatened to withdraw the funding. I replied cynically that there were many refugee communities in Africa that deserve more attention than the Palestinian refugees, and we would be glad to divert the funding to them. One member of the Palestinian delegation was unhappy with what I had said and asked me to use ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’ My comments criticized the donor community for their dichotomous thinking: relief vs. development and humanitarianism vs. politics.

Humanitarian organizations deprive refugees of their political existence by treating them as bodies to be fed and sheltered. Humanitarian law refers to ‘protected people,’ but current humanitarian practices focus mainly on ‘victims’ or at times, to appear more positive, they refer to them as ‘survivors.’ By classifying people as victims or even as survivors, the basis of humanitarian action is shifted from rights to welfare. In disaster areas – the spaces of exception – values of generosity and pragmatism obscure the rights and responsibilities of refugees, which would endow them with their own agency.

I have been very interested in demystifying the depoliticization of humanitarianism since the beginning of the Second Intifada. In 2003 in Jerusalem Adi Ophir and I co-organized a two-day workshop on ‘The Politics of Humanitarianism in the Occupied Territories’ for international, Palestinian and Israeli human rights and humanitarian organizations. Scholars and practitioners presented their different visions, generating much discussion and even some tension. The debate was so absorbing that Peter Hansen, the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees, who came just to present a paper, stayed for the whole workshop. When I became research director of the program ‘Policy and Governance in Palestinian Refugee Camps’ at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), I helped to organize lectures with practitioners from international and local organizations, further contributing to the debate on humanitarianism. When Karen Abu Zeid, the successor Commissioner General of the UNRWA, was invited as an IFI guest, she, too, recognized the tension between the political and the humanitarian. For her, ‘This tension is manifested in a variety of ways. One of its most striking manifestations is the contrast between the readiness of states to fund emergency responses, compared to their failure to address the questions of international law and politics that cause these emergencies. That tension is clear in the way in which the urgency to resolve underlying questions of justice and peace for Palestinians is somehow divorced from the challenge of providing for their human needs.’2

So far I have described my advance toward public sociology, but I was now keen to undertake a more organic public sociology on two fronts: contributing to the Right to Work Campaign for the Palestinian refugees and engaging with the governance system in the refugee camps, based on research in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Right to work campaign

I was writing a lot in right-wing and left-wing newspapers in Arabic and in English to reach different audiences and to understand the opposition to Palestinians having rights to work and property. I wanted to demonstrate that the issue is not only a sectarian one. Yes in Lebanon there are many sectarian divides in politics but there is almost a consensus that opposes extending these rights to Palestinians, including among both Sunnis and Shiites. All are more than happy to exploit Palestinian laborers in the black market. Religion does not tell us everything. Indeed, social stratification might reveal more than religion.

I was invited to give a talk by the Hezbollah think tank, and I had many meetings with members of its Political Bureau to persuade them to take a real stance to change the discriminatory laws. The Palestinian ambassador charged me, along with Sakher Abu Fakher, with negotiating on his behalf with the governmental coalition (March 14 Coalition) for changing the labor laws. The grim result of this experience was increased disillusionment with the politicians’ double language.

In January 2011, I proposed the march as a form of protest. It had been used effectively in 1983 in France by second generation immigrants of Algerian origin demanding better integration, both socially and in the labor market. I initiated the first contact with a group of associations (from various political tendencies) to organize a March for the Socio-economic and Civil Rights of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. We met every week and, by the end, we had gathered support from 102 associations, unions and representatives of youth movements of Palestinian and Lebanese political parties and factions. The June 2010 march brought around 6000 Palestinian and Lebanese from all over Lebanon to Beirut.

This civil society initiative was received with a lot of suspicion from several Palestinian political factions. For many, civil society organizations should conduct advocacy campaigns or provide services, but they should not mobilize constituencies, because that is the exclusive function of political parties. As one said, cynically, ‘Civil society organizations can be coopted easily by foreign powers; they should not take the lead in mobilizing demonstrations.’ Hamas and the pro-Syrian coalition withdrew suddenly from the organization of the march. Subsequently, Osama Hamdan, one of the leaders of Hamas, added that their withdrawal was in part due to a newspaper interview where I referred positively to the 1983 Marche des beurs in France. They considered this a call for the integration of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon, which would undermine the right of return.

Here one can see how social science in the Arab world is doubly delegitimized – from above by the political leaders and from below by religious leaders (among others). Hamas leadership was simply opposed to the linking of the Palestinian march to an historical one in France. I was also surprised how many right-wing Lebanese politicians used the term ‘integration’ in a pejorative way. In an interview, Amin al-Jamyel, the head of Phalange Party, declared that ‘issuing a new law in favor of easing the entrance of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon is one step toward their integration which I denounce.’

In short, it was very challenging to engage a public that is not used to dialogue with social science scholars. This does not mean abandoning the project but rather investing time and energy into being subtle and careful in transmitting social science. Intermingling with the public inspires a deeper understanding of reality. It would have never occurred to me to theorize the Israeli colonial project as a ‘spacio-cidal’ project had I not constantly felt claustrophobic in the West Bank as Israel reduced it to many small Bantustans all divided from one another. I learned how to use the term ‘integration of Palestinian refugees’ without implying any antagonism to the right of return. I learned to avoid using the term ‘governance’ in Arabic as people would confuse it with ‘government.’ A high ranking officer of the Internal Security Forces threatened to arrest me for using ‘governance’ in the title of an IFI workshop. For him, the governance of camps is the business of the state only.

I also learned to be patient with practitioners who were not accustomed to postponing normative claims until they were empirically supported. Thus, I invited three members from the popular committees of the camp to discuss a working paper I produced for IFI: ‘Governance of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in the Arab East: Governmentalities in Quest of Legitimacy.’ Two of them said it was the first time they had been invited to such a seminar and they were especially grateful. However, they were very defensive when I suggested that the popular committees had lost legitimacy with the general camp population. The chair of the session, a faculty member at the American University of Beirut, told me how difficult it was to organize a discussion between practitioners and academics. It required a strong chair to keep the session on track.

Negotiating the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared refugee camp

While I was doing my research on the governance system in the refugee camps of Lebanon and beyond, Fatah al-Islam, a radical militarized group, gained control of the Nahr el-Bared camp (NBC) in the north of Lebanon. The Lebanese Army responded with armed intervention, expelled the militia, destroyed two-thirds of the camp and brought the remaining part under total military control. There was fierce controversy over the reconstruction of the camp and its administration. Prime Minister Siniora declared that ‘Nahr el-Bared would be a model for other camps,’ and very soon foreign intelligence services became consultants to the Lebanese political and military authorities.

The government’s plan for a new, modern and secure camp left no place for traditional social fabric and living patterns. When the plan was reported in the press, it provoked resistance from the community, which had not been consulted. In Baddawi camp, where most of the NBC residents had taken refuge, a spontaneous grassroots initiative emerged with the goal of formulating a counter-plan. It was energized by the widespread conviction that NBC’s destruction and the government’s reconstruction plans were politically motivated. Named the Nahr el-Bared Reconstruction Commission for Civil Action and Studies (NBRC), the group immediately attracted activist academics and technicians from beyond Nahr el-Bared with prior reconstruction experience in Lebanon. The result was an expanded and diverse network that included architects and planners who contributed their diverse knowledge and experience to the local committee, empowering the community to oppose the state’s project.

The real dynamo of this initiative was Ismael Sheikh Hassan, an urban planner and community activist. We both wanted urban planning from below with full community participation, but we differed over the role of the urban planners. I drew on my knowledge of Jenin camp, where the political commissars exercised a heavy influence. I wanted urban planners to play a more proactive role by informing public discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different options. Sheikh Hassan favored community voices over urban planners. However, we shared the view that urban planners should counter-balance the power of the political commissars. In addition, Sheikh Hassan, like other Palestinian activists, had a historically rooted mistrust of UNRWA and was reluctant to cooperate with the agency. Based on my knowledge of the reconstruction of Jenin in 2002, I, on the other hand, thought that UNRWA could make a great contribution to community participation. After a long discussion, a delegation of the NBRC did meet UNRWA, and the latter was delighted with the NBRC’s progress in planning the reconstruction.

However, persuading the Lebanese authorities to accept the NBRC/UNRWA as an interlocutor was a painful process. Here I used my cultural and social capital as a professor at AUB. Initially, the Lebanese–Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) refused any Palestinian interlocutor under the pretext that if we called on the PLO Hamas would be upset, and vice versa. We asked the LPDC to accept the NBRC as a civil society initiative, but they refused. I called the head of UNRWA, Richard Cook, to report that we would not cooperate with UNRWA unless the NBRC was present. Cook called the LPDC, but they continued to refuse our incorporation. They said that they would accept me alone as an individual but not as representative of the NBRC. I refused to go under this label. UNRWA threatened to withdraw from the process. Finally, I was invited as a representative of the NBRC, and after the first meeting a more technical delegation from the NBRC continued to meet with the Lebanese authority in charge of the reconstruction. After the battle, protracted negotiations began between the various Lebanese actors and the NBRC/UNRWA. Security-related issues raised by the military dictated all spatial and design considerations. Nonetheless, thanks to the UNRWA–NBRC partnership, the planning process did incorporate some of the interests of the Palestinians.

The Vienna Document: A model of exclusion

From the start of the battle, UNRWA had shouldered the burden of the NBC residents’ immediate relief, but the reconstruction anticipated from the outset would inevitably require massive international funding. On 7 June 2007, scarcely two weeks after the military incursion was launched, the Lebanese government held its first meeting with UNRWA representatives to plan an international donor conference to rebuild the camp. The conference was ultimately set for June 2008 in Vienna under the sponsorship of Austria, Lebanon, the Arab League, UNRWA and the EU. In preparation for the event, the Lebanese government drew up what came to be known as the Vienna Document, a comprehensive recovery and reconstruction plan including cost estimates, for presentation to the donor-participants prior to the conference.

The camp’s physical reconstruction was only one aspect of the Lebanese government’s vision and in fact took second place to ‘Establishing clear and effective governance in NBC.’ This included ‘enforcing security and rule of law inside NBC through community and proximity policing’ (Government of Lebanon, 2008: 46). To this end, the document requested US$5 million in donor funds for ‘Capacity building and technical assistance to the (Lebanese) Internal Security Forces (ISF) aimed at introducing community and proximity policing into NBC’ (Government of Lebanon, 2008: 48).

A major flaw in the document’s proposal for ‘transparent and effective’ camp governance is its problematic reading of the latter as purely a security issue, which flies in the face of the widely accepted contemporary discourse on good governance and its necessary components of administration, community representation and economic development. By proposing policing as the main component of governance, the plan reduces the Palestinian refugees to the status of ‘security subjects’ and frames the camp as an ‘insecurity island.’ The document uses the attractive term ‘community policing,’ with its connotations of community empowerment and citizenship action, but the policing it describes is performed exclusively by the police.

This one-sided decision making was reinforced by the PLO’s exclusion from the formulation of the Vienna Document’s security-related sections. The document makes a point of stating that the ‘above security arrangements for NBC were agreed upon with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’ (Government of Lebanon, 2008: 51), but Abbas Zaki, PLO ambassador to Lebanon, told me that he had not been consulted about the security issue in the camp. I informed Ismael Sheikh Hassan, who joined Zaki to protest to the LPDC, but the document was not altered.

Without doubt, the PLO’s weakness makes this kind of exclusion possible, but it is risky to pursue and secure funding for a one-sided vision of governance in a Palestinian camp, which moreover is planned as a prototype for all the Palestinian camps in the country. This is especially the case when the solutions proposed are not based on a critical review either of NBC’s pre-conflict situation or on the failures of the Palestinian and Lebanese sides that precipitated the rise of Fatah al-Islam in the first place.

Sheikh Hassan and I wrote a piece called ‘Constructing and governing Nahr el-Bared camp: An “ideal” model of exclusion’ for the Journal of Palestine Studies (in Arabic). We wanted to explain the whole story of NBC: its destruction, looting, reconstruction and the plan to establish a mode of governance based exclusively on security. Even though the journal is based in Beirut, the piece did not generate debate. I called a friend at al-nahar newspaper, which is very widely read by supporters of the government coalition. After its publication there, the LPDC replied to me in a very harsh and impolite way. Several journalists wrote to criticize my writings, and I responded with other articles. However, debate was not without intimidation. The head of the LPDC, who is also the president of the American University of Beirut Alumni Association, talked with the administration of my university, the chair of my department and other colleagues. He tried to convince them to denounce my writing, arguing that it might harm the relationship between the University and the Lebanese authority. I was supported by my university, but my friend Ismael Sheikh Hassan was arrested because of his writing about Nahr el-Bared, which suggests that critical public social science can be a dangerous proposition.

Between critical and public social science

One of the major dilemmas researchers face is to conduct public research without losing their critical edge even toward the deprived groups that they seek to protect. Good scientists are not always popular. Louis Pasteur, who saved many through his invention of vaccines, failed to be elected to the Senate in France. I do believe that sociologists’ commitments should be expressed by their choice of topics and how they disseminate their knowledge beyond writing for academic journals. But as regards the research process, once a topic is chosen, fieldwork is fieldwork and should follow its path in the most objective way possible. Of Bertolt Brecht’s committed art, Adorno (1980) said that Brecht ended by doing bad art and bad politics. Criticisms addressed to the community being studied should be considered a way of strengthening it, rather than weakening it; knowledge of weaknesses should be empowering.

I should confess here that sometimes things are very complex. There have been occasions when I have not published the results of fieldwork because they violate the immediate interests of international solidarity groups who have come to Palestine to support people under siege. I am not an advocate of activist research (Hale, 2006) that is politically aligned to the cause of its object, but I do align myself with subjects when their rights are violated. This alignment can become political in the sense of making political compromises. For instance, when defending the Palestinian right of return to their place of origin, I found myself advising people on tactical matters of the more immediate survival of Palestinian refugees. ‘Surrendering,’ to use Wolff’s (1992) term, to the group you are studying can be generative of a deeper scholarly understanding and beneficial to the research, on condition that the researcher does not lose sight of their primary commitment to critical thinking. Researchers may be loyal to a political party or to an ideology, but this should be seen as different from loyalty to the academic sphere.

My choice to work on The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (2009) with anti-colonial Israelis Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni was unpopular in Lebanon, and I faced a smear campaign from some leftists. At the time, I thought that constructing a healthy conception of the conflict and collaborating with anti-colonial Israelis was more important than my popularity. I hoped that working with dissident Israelis would send a strong message that the Arab–Israeli conflict has nothing to do with religion but revolved around a classical colonial project waged by Zionist ideology, which we could collectively oppose, whether we were Arab or Israeli.

I had imagined that writing about my research trajectory would be easy, but it has not been, especially because I don’t want to fall into the trap of heroism, celebration or victimhood. Engaging in public sociology and dealing with critical issues is like crossing a minefield, even as it offers a sense of commitment to the society (through the choice of a topic which is relevant to society) and a sense of justice (helping victims to resist their oppressors). At the heart of this precarious engagement is Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of sociology as a martial art, in which sociology disarms people of their common sense, their ideologies, their folk understandings – in short, their self-deceptions. The question, then, is whether scholars should be in front of the people or behind them, whether they should comfort them (a sort of populism) or remind them of the complexity of social phenomena. In this biographical essay, I have shown how I dealt with the complexity of the Palestinian right of return, their socioeconomic rights and their rights to the city, at the same time that political factions and commissars (including leaders of civil society organizations) were focusing almost exclusively on the right of return. To forge ahead of the people when the overwhelming political and social pressures are holding them back is a hazardous operation indeed.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.



Here I am using Michael Burawoy’s (2005) typology of knowledge: professional, critical, public and policy.GO TO FOOTNOTE


From her speech for the Host and Donors Meeting, held in Amman on 11 December 2006.GO TO FOOTNOTE


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Sari Hanafi is currently a Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut and editor of Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology (Arabic). He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the International Association of Sociology and the Arab Council of the Social Sciences. He is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on the political and economic sociology of the Palestinian diaspora and refugees; sociology of migration; politics of scientific research; and transitional justice. Among his recent books are: The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (edited with A Ophir and M Givoni, 2009) (English and Arabic), The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite: Donors, International Organizations and Local NGOs (edited with L Taber, 2005) (Arabic and English) and the forthcoming, Knowledge Production in the Arab World (with R Arvanitis)


ISA endorses Birzeit University’s rejection of Israeli measures against academic freedom

The new Israeli settler regulations about the “Entry and Residency of Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Region,” give Israel the absolute right to select which academics and students may be present at Palestinian universities, as well as set arbitrary criteria on which fields of study are permissible and what qualifications are acceptable. These sweeping draconian measures attack the right to education, academic freedom, and the autonomy of Palestinian universities. Birzeit University’s statement calls on all academics, academic organizations to join in their fight against this proposed procedure, and for their sovereign right to be a university.  

ISA endorses the Call to Action of Birzeit University to Reject Israeli Measures Against Academic Freedom
Call to Action Birzeit University Rejects Israeli Measures Against Academic Freedom

12 Mar 2022

Birzeit University rejects Israel’s most recent attempt to constrict the fundamental right of Palestinians to education and to undermine the academic freedom and autonomy of Palestinian universities. Scheduled to take effect in May, 2022, the “Procedure for Entry and Residency of Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Region” grants Israeli military immense powers to isolate Palestinian universities from the outside world, and to determine the future course of Palestinian higher education.

The new directive invests the Israeli military the absolute right to select which international faculty, academic researchers and students may be present at Palestinian universities, including academics and students of Palestinian origin but without residence documents, living and working in Palestine. The Israeli military will impose their own arbitrary criteria on which fields of study are permissible and what qualifications are acceptable. It requires each applicant to submit to interrogation at an Israeli diplomatic mission in the country of origin, while imposing stiff monetary bonds on those selected for entry. Further, the directive sets a low ceiling on the number of foreign teachers and students (100 and 150 per year, respectively), and limits the duration of employment to five non-consecutive years, thereby denying sustainable hiring and promotion of faculty. Consequently, some current faculty and students who do not hold residency permits may be forced to leave and academic programs face the inability to recruit new hires and undertake collaborative scholarly research and exchanges. Plainly put, the directive puts Palestinian Universities under siege and divests them of basic control over their academic decisions.

The attack on the right to education and academic freedom that these proposed procedures embody are part of the ongoing assault on Palestinian institutions of higher learning since their establishment. Birzeit University students, faculty and employees have suffered for decades under a relentless Israeli military campaign that includes forced closures (one of them shut down the university for over four years), campus incursions, intimidation, and imprisonment. Such actions are inseparable from the racist and multilayered system of apartheid and persecution which denies the Palestinian people their most fundamental rights, including to freedom of expression, and the pursuit of scientific advancement and development.

We call on all academic and human rights organizations to join us in refusing these procedures, and demand that governments worldwide hold Israel, the occupying power, accountable for this clear violation of international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), the right to education enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966).

This moment is dangerous for the future of Palestinian higher education, but it is also a moment to join together for justice, freedom, and equality. Palestinian universities, like all universities, are places of knowledge production that connect scholars and students across the globe and inspire them to imagine and build a better future for all.

Support our efforts to defend the Palestinian people’s right to education, free from duress, intervention, and political persecution. Work with us to break the siege that these regulations impose on Birzeit and other Palestinian universities. Accept our invitation to teach and learn in Palestine. Help us exercise our basic right to education and to preserve the institutional autonomy that we built over the decades despite all obstacles.

Letters of Support

Insaniyyat, the Society of Palestinian Anthropologists

Letter of Support from Japan (JapeneseEnglish)

University of Ghana

Scholars at Risk (SAR)

CUNY Community

British Society for Middle Eastern Studies

Middle East Studies Association

American Anthropological Association

Universidad Nacional de Colombia {Spanish}

International Sociological Association

Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA)

The Organizing Collective for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)


London School of Economics (in Arabic).


2014 Jul 25

Hanafi reflects on lack of Arab contribution in social sciences

Rayane Abou Jaoude| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: While Syrian-Palestinian sociologist Sari Hanafi’s election last week as the first ever Arab vice president of the International Sociological Association is a reason to celebrate, it is also a bitter reminder of the lack of Middle Eastern participation in the social sciences. While the ISA boasts up to 7,000 members, only five Arabs from Lebanese and Saudi associations attended this year’s World Congress of Sociology in Yokohama, Japan, compared to 76 from Israel, 16 from Iran and 45 from Turkey.

“It’s not cultural, it’s got nothing to do with the Arab Islamic culture, it’s something to do with the institutional culture,” said Hanafi, a professor and chair of Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut.

He said that academic institutions needed to offer more support to those studying social sciences, and that Arabs themselves needed to be more involved in their fields of research.

“It is very rare to find people who are really relevant locally and carry out conversations with their peers in the discipline,” he told The Daily Star.

Although he acknowledged the lack of financing was another reason preventing greater participation, he said that did not need to be a hindrance. He also pointed to the fact that papers could be presented in one of three languages: English, French, or Spanish, and that papers for one of ISA’s two journals, International Sociology and Current Sociology, could be submitted in Arabic.

“There’s really no excuse … It’s a question of resources but it’s also a question of awareness,” he said, adding that it was about promoting the importance and purpose of social sciences.

“The presence of Arabs is not only extremely important scientifically if we want to engage in science and technology in the world,” he said. “It’s also … to say there’s a message we want to deliver to the world.”

Hanafi, also a member of the Arab Sociological Association and the Arab Council for Social Sciences, said he was hoping to bring in at least 10 Arab members during his four-year mandate.

Growing up at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus and coming from a lower middle class family, the sociologist originally enrolled to major in civil engineering at Damascus University to please his family, but decided to obtain another degree in sociology in 1987 for his own sake.

“I was at that time very politicized; I wanted to change the world,” he laughed.

Hanafi left to study in France after he got a scholarship, getting his Master’s degree from the University of Strasbourg and then his doctorate from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 1994.

“Why France? Because I like Michel Foucault, I like Gaston Bachelard, and I’m interested in the philosophy of science. So I completed my studies in sociology in France and now I would say I am not only incapable of changing the world, I can barely understand my surroundings,” he joked.

Hanafi said his work in France made him more aware of how the state encouraged its citizens to study and learn, how it listened to their expertise, and its support for organized discussions, all of which was largely lacking in the Arab world.

Despite having now conducted approximately 40 consultancies for NGOs and the U.N. on various topics, he said none of them were for an Arab state or organization.

“This shows that we have a real problem here, that social sciences are not taken seriously by the decision-makers,” he said.

Hanafi said conservative religious groups were looking to delegitimize the social sciences in the fear that they may show evidence contrary to their ideals.

“In times of turbulence, in times of identity crises, in times of uprisings, you need to rationalize the public’s afflictions. You need to bring expertise to that,” he said.

Yet while he can be very critical of Arab societies, he maintains a long-standing commitment to the socioeconomic rights of Palestinians refugees. Hanafi, who also holds French nationality, lived in the West Bank’s Ramallah until Israel began limiting his stays and eventually asked him to leave.

“I had barely any time to pack my stuff. I was a visiting professor for a while in France until I applied to different places and I got in at AUB. And I am so happy to be here, it’s a very interesting place to be in the Arab world,” he explained.

“There is time for research, for freedom of expression, at least at my university, but unfortunately less and less from Lebanon, which was an oasis of freedom of expression. I am very worried of the increasing censorship in Lebanon.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2014, on page 4.

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