Hussein Rashid is an adjunct professor at Fordham and Hofstra Universities and is an associate editor at Religion Dispatches. His specialties include Islam in America, Shi’ism, Islamicate literatures, South Asia, Persianate world (including Central Asia).
* Image courtesy of Ali Ansary, 2010, under a Creative Commons license.
In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship. The previous response can be found here.
The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?
Being informed by my work in Islamic Studies, I do not see an easy distinction between scholarship and politics. Any production of knowledge is inherently political, because it presupposes that we are creating it for someone to use. In the case of Middle East and/or Islamic Studies, the knowledge that has been produced has been used for determining foreign policy actions that are in violation of international law, at least, and most likely American law. For example, Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind is often discussed as a text that justified certain acts of torture at Abu Ghraib.
In a more popular context, we see the ways in which religious illiteracy, historical amnesia, and political expedience have combined to create Islamophobic narratives informed by knowledge produced in the academy. It is no surprise that the Islamophobia Network, which decries the so-called liberal tendencies of academia, still justifies itself by reference to academic authorities and sources. These references provide a veneer of legitimacy. As a modernist, who studies Muslim communities in America, there is a strong impetus to exercise more control over the narratives in which my knowledge production appears.
I strongly support open access, because I believe that what we produce must be accessible for it to be used and useful. I am not advocating further closing off what we do in higher education. Rather, the control over narrative is about being engaged with our material publicly, both before and after it is published. To do so allows us to help shape the stories in which it is embedded. It is not about compromising scholarship, but expanding it.
Even if this sort of engagement (something as simple as blogging about our work and its implications) does not appeal to everyone, it is undeniable that the public, negative portrayal of Muslims has an impact on our own scholarship. We have to work harder to to educate our students, not just about Islam, but about the Study of Religion more broadly; we have to be mindful of how what we write or say could be misconstrued, and lead to an academic witch hunt for those not politically aware; or to be treated as a potential criminals by virtue of our own religious affiliation and associations.
I also believe that this issue of being unable to control our own narratives permeates higher education, which means that we are constantly being challenged as being irrelevant. If the way we understand the world is determined by politics/policy, media, and academia, the last one risks falling into the category of the appendix: a vestigial organ that that is slowly being excised from the body of civil society, or which the body may evolve to do without. Of the three-legged stool, the academy has always been seen as the weakest, seeking approval from and being subservient to the other two. As both politics and media have become progressively more corporatized, so too has the academy. Our story is defined as needing to provide a utility. Students become consumers, who we must train to be cogs in the current corporate factories and continued consumers of their employers products.
Omid Safi has a long discussion on the way this rhetoric and reality is playing out in the UNC system. In addition to a discussion of why the corporate rhetoric of education is flawed, and serves only the purposes of those who currently employ large numbers of people-as-cogs, we need to return to our own story. Tech visionaries, like Seth Godin, make similar observations. The people who are creating the economy of the future want us to do better, but we are chasing the needs of dying economies. The liberal arts is about the fundamental question of what it means to be human and how individuals can fully appreciate their own, and others, humanity. This idea is dangerous to politicians, to media, and to corporate interests. All, to some extent, rely on on quiet, uncritical populations to achieve their ends. Universities are no longer dangerous places. We equate degrees with higher earning potential, rather than with the ability to change the world; that a graduate has skills to read well, think critically, and express their opinions with force, conviction, and evidence. In short, a graduate is closer to understanding herself and the way she wishes to make the world.
So, I do not see a distinction between scholarship and politics because our work, starting with our institutions, are already politicized. Simply because we choose not to engage with it does not mean that it is not happening. As our institutions struggle to tell their stories, our departments do the same, and we instructors (with the increasing use of adjuncts as part of the industrialization of higher ed, we cannot all be professors) have no tale to tell. I see the damage not taking control over our research has on communities, on the education of our students, and the future of critical thinking, independent, autonomous citizens.