We need more expertise on Afghanistan

The atrocity in New York should be a wake-up call to British universities, says Professor Anoush Ehteshami
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The Independent Online

It takes a tragedy of this magnitude to bring home how little we know about societies beyond our trading borders. For all the increases in air travel and international tourism, the average Western traveller has understood little about the forces that shape their favourite holiday destinations.

But while the average traveller can be excused for that, the same cannot be said of Western decision-makers. They need a more developed understanding of the world. They should be foresighted enough to ensure that expertise about non-Western societies is nurtured in British universities.

Alas, that is not the case. Where Afghanistan is concerned, it is difficult to identify one, let alone a group of experts, to guide policy in the United Kingdom. Before last week little was known about Osama bin Laden and his supporters. There is no one who follows the country closely in British higher education.

The Foreign Office has its own experts, but there is no community of experts to take a differing view from the official government one. The Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) has not invested in the subject.

Just as we convinced ourselves that the world changed on 11 September, we need now to ask exactly how that change is to be manifested? If the world has changed, it is time we learned how poorly equipped we are to deal with the challenges ahead.

For all the talk of our special relationship with the United States, Britain also has a special relationship with the Muslim world. It has either created many of its modern states, ruled over large parts of them, or developed close trade relationships with its key countries. The relationship is even more intimate in the Middle East, where until recently, Britain was one of two main outside influences.

Yet there has been a real withering away of the well-grounded expertise in the key areas and countries of the Muslim world that had existed in Britain. Sadly, also, support for such trendy notions as the "End of History", which was closely associated with the work of Francis Fukuyama after the Cold War, did not help. Some Western policy-makers came to believe his thesis – that the West's victory over the Soviet bloc had made the world a more uniform place, in which the "rest" have to follow the West – and began acting upon on it. In these circumstances, what need for studying the intricacies of such distant places as the Middle East?

Tragically, the ghost of such armchair ideas was put to rest by the attacks in the United States. In future, there must be dialogue, in which all parties show an understanding of one another's culture. Britain has a unique role to play. While Middle Eastern and Islamic studies flourish in a handful of British universities, we don't have the expertise we should in the core issues and key Middle Eastern countries shaping today's agenda. Now is the time to revisit area studies, and ask the Government, the research councils, and Hefce to take more seriously the contribution that area-studies scholars and regional experts make. If the world has really changed, so should our response to it.

The writer is director of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Durham