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In memory of Aziz, learning from social movements, radical education and digital surveillance

26.03.2024 | Authors: Salim Vally, Fergal Finnegan, Mario Novelli, Joyeeta Dey and Soledad Magnone

Para leer en español, cliquea aquí, to read in Hindi click here


In Memory of Aziz expands his work - and his fellow scholars - on the fundamentals of freedom of speech and a path for activism within academia. Aziz Choudry died on May 26th of 2021. He was an activist, educator and author engaged in work on radical adult education, non-formal learning and social movements.

This project has been organised by Joyeeta Dey and Soledad Magnone, who met Aziz in 2018, at a summer school for the M.A. in Education Policies for Global Development (European Erasmus+). This is part of a series of blogs and podcasts hoping to entice broader students, particularly from oppressed geographies and backgrounds: your voice is important!

This blog summarises our first podcast conversation with:

Salim Vally is a professor and the National Research Foundation Chair in Community, Adult and Workers Education based at the University of Johannesburg. He co-edited the following books with Choudry: Reflections on Knowledge, Learning and Social Movements: History’s Schools (2018) and The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe (2020).

Fergal Finnegan is a senior lecturer at Maynooth University. His research interests include social movements, popular education, biographical research, social class, and equality and higher education. He is currently working on popular education project aimed at supporting transversal and transnational activism called the Movement Learning Catalyst.

Mario Novelli is professor in the Political Economy of Education at the University of Sussex. His research fields include education in peacebuilding processes, learning and knowledge production, and social movements in conflict affected contexts.

Key takeaways from the conversations:

The intellectual contributions of Aziz regarded various aspects of society, particularly focusing on social movements, education, and inequalities in higher education. His legacy was represented as he embodied a unique blend of scholarship and activism, emphasizing boldness, passion, and collective action. Aziz saw the university as a site of struggle, recognizing the contradictions within academia while leveraging its resources for social change. One key point discussed was the impact of technology on education, activism, and surveillance. It was discussed how digital media can both empower and surveil individuals, and the significance of a critical use and alternative narratives in social movements. It was agreed how by engaging with communities, challenging dominant narratives, and fostering collective learning, individuals and groups can work towards a more just and equitable world.

In which ways have social movements been instrumental as spaces of non formal education for academics? For you in particular and/or for academics in general. And Could you share some examples from Aziz’s work in which his academic disposition was strengthened and threatened by his work on radical education?

[Fergal] Well, I’m probably gonna say that academics are not so important a few times in this discussion, and social movements are incredibly important. And I think if you come from an adult and community education background, as I do, both as a practitioner and in terms of an area of research and engagement, the creativity of social movements has created what is good about that field- a certain way of working, a certain type of pedagogy, a certain way of doing research. So for me, a lot of what is valuable and generative about adult education comes from social movements. (…) For me, it’s democratic, radical, egalitarian, social movements have made the portion of the field that I’m engaged in, and the bits that are disengaged from that tend to be less interesting in my experience. (…)

[Salim] (…) for him (Aziz), a lot of this happened in incidental ways in unseen ways, in academically unrecognised ways. (…) I have a copy of “Learning Activism” with me (…) the key in understanding the relationship between academic work and community engagement. And the quote says, “such work can greatly enrich, broaden and challenge dominant understandings of how and where education, learning and knowledge production occur, and what this looks like”. It argues and I’m quoting Aziz, that “that these are resources that can provide critical conceptual tools with which to understand, inform, imagine and bring about social change. It contends that the success of organising to fight injustice and create a better, fairer world depends on taking such knowledge and learning seriously. But this also requires being able to reflect critically, both spaces where people can come together to act and learn collectively, and appreciate the unfinished nature of populist struggles for social and political change”. (…)

How have academic spaces in the past supported activist research and how can it continue to do so in the face of growing threats to free speech? What is the role of individuals in creating more conducive academic spaces, and what can we learn from Aziz’ work and scholarship about this?

[Salim] (…) essentially, he (Aziz) saw University as a site of struggle with lots of contradictions, of course, and, you know… (…) for many of us, the Palestinian struggle is the litmus test. And he was really annoyed and frustrated. Of course, he expressed it in his peculiar way against those academics who didn’t take a standard model. Of course, many years ago, he was involved in the Palestinian struggle with communities. He also, you know, while he used… whatever displaced, particularly with students who were involved in various issues, made space for them protecting them. In a sense, he wouldn’t like this word, but nurtured them in his own modest way. And was very generous with his time. He also saw the limitations and he was very… he followed the person, what happened to Steven Salaita, for example. (…)

[Mario] We could go in a number of directions here. But if we’re thinking about how we engage inside the university, on kind of themes around radical education. At least for myself, I think we’re probably breaking away from the formal education system. Even if we maybe teach courses or modules on Freirean popular education and these kinds of things. But where the radical education takes place is outside of those spaces often. Bringing social movements to the university campus for political events, working with trade unions, working with the student unions. And trying from there to build or to feed into political campaigns or different social movement campaigns. So I remember some years ago in the midst of the Turkish State bombing of Kurdish areas that we organised an event around the situation on campus and we invited Kurdish local community, different movements onto campus. And invited students union, trade unions on campus, and from that process started to challenge the parameters within which the university… what constitutes the university’s legitimate discussion. And remember, the pressure that we came under there because in the UK, like many parts of the world of commander… pressure from a range of different state laws around freedom of speech, and also, countering radicalization policies. In the UK we have this programme called PREVENT, which has started to regulate freedom of speech and I think that those events we started to test the limits of what we’re allowed to talk about, and to push issues around freedom of speech, to challenge the notion that radical isn’t necessarily a negative phenomena.

Digital technologies empower politics in social movements, research and academia with greater reach and knowledge access, while risking surveillance, how do you think its use needs to be negotiated, whether as a staff, professor or as a student?

[Mario] Perhaps I could begin with a reflection on Aziz’s relationship to technology. Because I remember, up until a few years ago, he was the only person that I knew that didn’t have a mobile phone. And we would arrange to meet in the old fashion way, of like I’ll meet you outside of this cafe at three thirty. Which is not average these days. (…)

[Fergal] I think this is a really important topic. And for me, it’s an obvious point that one was making nonetheless, you know, technology is not separate from the social relations in which it’s used. And it’s also important to say that activist cultures are these ways of movement activity that relate to technology in different ways. I mean, it seems like another world, but a decade ago, there was quite a lot of technophilia amongst progressive movements in the left, you know, an enormous sense of the possibilities of democratic communication. And that seems so different now. And I think it’s much clearer, the extent to which the use of digital media is linked to corporate power, is linked to state power, and is linked to emerging fascist and far right movements. And those are also brought, all those various things are brought together in quite worrying ways. (…)

[Salim] I think the concern is absolutely valid. And, you know, there’s a whole number of paths, including the bots that are present, the ways that algorithms work, the way people are censored by the billionaires who control these platforms. But equally creative, I mean, what’s been really creative is how people have been subverting that and finding ways to get the message out and have been, to a certain extent succeeding. I mean, just for mobilisation purposes.

We appreciate Salim, Fergal and Mario’s reflections and time to continue honouring Aziz’s contributions. We hope that these efforts encourage further scholars and activists to keep struggling together, recognising the radical knowledge emerging from incidental collective actions. It is important to learn from the alternatives built through history and understand that we’re radically unfinished with each other. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants!

Catch up with the full conversation with the podcast and read the transcript in English.

Explore Aziz’s and his colleagues’ work.

Don’t miss the recommendations for Data Detox alternatives tools, Exposing the Invisible kit and Critical Digital Education.

Image Unsplash: Howie Mapson