Teaching Islam in the Age of ISIS

By Amina Steinfels | October 13, 2015

(JM Lopez/AFP/Getty) A flag of the Islamic State is seen on September 11, 2014.

(JM Lopez/AFP/Getty) A flag of the Islamic State is photographed on September 11, 2014.

Last academic year, students at my college asked me to participate in two faculty panel discussions on current events: one on ISIS (also known as Islamic State, ISIL, and DAESH) and the other on Charlie Hebdo and free speech. The panel on ISIS took place in November 2014, shortly after the group’s dramatic victories in northern Iraq and the start of the U.S.-led air campaign against it. The panel on Charlie Hebdo took place a month after the massacre of the satirical magazine’s Paris-based staff and cartoonists.

I am not an expert on ISIS or any of the warring parties that have made a battleground of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. I do not study militancy and insurgency, or the politics, culture, and history of the Middle East. Nor am I an expert on the French satirical tradition, the alienation and radicalization of minority youth in France, or the politics of free speech. The focus of my scholarship is a world away from any of this: most recently Sufism (Islamic mysticism) in medieval South Asia.

Why, then, was I asked to speak on these panels? The short answer is that I am an Islamicist with a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, hired to teach about Islam, and both the rise of ISIS and the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff have something to do with Islam. If that seems like a sufficient explanation, consider the following statement, circulated among my acquaintances on Facebook during the London riots of August 2011: “Wonder if my academic friends who are experts in say Cromwell or Blake are now being called by the press to comment on violence in British society & culture as those of us across Middle East Studies have been for a decade.”

It’s a rhetorical question. Scholars of seventeenth-century British history or of Romantic poetry are not usually asked to explain current events in Britain. For those of us in any academic field related to Islam or the Middle East, however, it is par for the course to be asked to speak on almost any current event involving Muslims.

Perhaps this is a false analogy. Participating in a panel discussion organized by students is not equivalent to speaking to the press. And ISIS declares in its very title its claim to an Islamic identity. It is understood that the gunmen who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices aimed to punish what they perceived as blasphemy. There have been many criticisms of the tendency to explain any actions (especially violent ones) taken by Muslims in terms of religion but that is not exactly the problem here. The students at my college are too intellectually sophisticated to posit religion as the only or primary explanatory lens; for the panels they invited professors of political science, international relations, French literature, constitutional law, and Middle East politics and history. So perhaps a professor of Islam, regardless of the particular place, time, and tradition of her expertise, is also the right person to comment.

But let us consider a more directly analogous case. In Myanmar (Burma), Buddhist monks are active in stirring up a horrific wave of violence and discrimination against the minority Rohingya community. Would a professor of Buddhism, regardless of the particular place, time, and tradition of her expertise, be the right person to comment? I asked some colleagues who work on Buddhism in other parts of Asia how they would respond to an invitation to participate in a panel on the topic. The gist of both of their replies was “No way. I don’t know much about Myanmar.”

What is it that makes my job different from my colleagues who study Buddhism or British history? My presence on such panels exposes the very special way Islam is understood in both popular and academic discourse. Islam is assumed to be monolithic and explanatory of all aspects of the lives of Muslims in any time and place. Academic expertise in Islam is expected to focus on the “foundational” Arabic texts of the first few centuries of the religion’s history. (On this basis, scholarship like mine, on later periods and non-Arabic speaking cultures, is often considered marginal.) The public function of that expertise is to explain the contemporary actions, especially political or violent ones, of people in the Middle East or of Middle Eastern descent, despite the fact that most Muslims live elsewhere. Critics from Edward Said onward have pointed out the ahistoricism and inhumanity of this feature of Western discourse on Islam. Yet it remains dominant.

Why do I agree to participate in discussions of topics beyond my area of expertise? Partly, because it is hard to turn down requests from students for more information and education. More pertinently, it is because I have come to accept that this is part of my job. I started my first tenure-track job in the fall of 2001. Yes, that September. The World Trade Center attacks happened ten days into my first semester as a full-time Islam professor. In the weeks that followed, I was asked to speak on campus, to students and to staff, and off campus, at various churches and organizations. I was usually asked to speak about Islam in general but, whether explicitly stated or not, the underlying request was clear—this was in aid of understanding events currently gripping the nation. In the rural southern Pennsylvania county where my college was located, I was the closest available resource for information on Islam. In that context, I set aside my critiques of Orientalism and did my best to meet the needs of my local community.

But it is not just the requests of students and the public that makes this part of my job. Those with much greater say in the parameters of my work—my colleagues and college administrators—make the same demands. For example, when, on separate occasions, different college offices invited Daisy Khan (an organizer of the Park51 project, widely mislabeled as the “Ground Zero mosque”) and Asra Nomani (founder of Muslims for Peace and an activist for woman-inclusive mosques) to speak about Muslims in America, I was asked by administrators to introduce and preside over their talks. Ironically, just a few weeks before my appearance on the panel about ISIS, my department’s external review suggested that we raise our profile by organizing a panel about ISIS.

All of us who teach about Islam have to come to terms with such requests and make our own choices in how to meet them, even though many of us were not trained as experts in contemporary and political formations of the religion. Acquiescing to these demands is not without serious pitfalls. I might end up reinforcing the Orientalist and, in my judgment, bigoted view of Islam as unchanging and always the key to the behavior of Muslims. I might fall into the temptation of defending Islam against its many critics by offering unscholarly banalities about it being a “religion of peace” and terrorists not being “real Muslims.” (This latter approach, by the way, is what most people seem to want from a professor of Islam.) Given a public enough platform, I might make myself a target for increasingly strident and potentially dangerous anti-Islam organizations. That final fear is not merely paranoia; Daisy Khan’s talk required the presence of armed guards in the auditorium.

Some of my colleagues in the field have chosen to meet this challenge fully by shifting their scholarly agendas and by placing their expertise at the service of the press, public interest groups, and government agencies. Others have simply said no to all such demands and stuck to their research and teaching. I have chosen a middle path. I am not qualified to act in any serious way as a public expert on contemporary Islam, especially its political manifestations, so I don’t. Off campus, I limit myself to providing schools, church groups, and similar organizations with the broad overview of the religious beliefs, practices, and diversity of Muslims that I think should be part of everyone’s general knowledge. On campus, I look for a valuable contribution that I can make to the conversation while making it clear that I am reaching beyond the limits of my expertise.

So then, what did I find to contribute to the panel on ISIS? I prepared by reading as much press coverage as I could. Given the inaccessibility of the war zone to many journalists, reports on ISIS left much to be desired, but the media round-ups in the online journal Jadaliyya were extremely helpful. I also read ISIS’s glossy English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq. I started my presentation by stating that I simply did not know how relevant religion was in understanding military conflicts. To what extent are ISIS’s stated religious aims genuine, to what extent are they propaganda, to what extent are they distractions from other, more material, goals?

I went on to discuss the particular religious rhetoric and imagery I found in Dabiq: violent apocalypticism; delight in the destruction of the holy places of other religious sects, both Muslim and non-Muslim; and the use of antique and often obscure terms to declare any Muslims unwilling to accept ISIS’s leadership, even those with nearly identical beliefs, to be heretics and apostates. I read the juxtaposition of religious terminology with colorful photographs of death and destruction as intended to suggest the apocalyptic inevitability of ISIS’s victory—propaganda that would heighten the group’s appeal to recruits, the terror of its targets, and the acceptance of its leadership by rival factions. Interestingly, all of my co-panelists declared that ISIS and the military conflicts in which it was involved had little or nothing to do with Islam. (It should be noted that this panel discussion took place months before the contentious debate about whether ISIS has a religious and specifically Islamic agenda—a discussion sparked by Graeme Wood’s widely read article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” from the March issue of The Atlantic.)

In many ways, I found the panel on Charlie Hebdo and free speech a more challenging prospect than the ISIS one. Unlike ISIS, the facts of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices and at a kosher supermarket were easily available, in detail, from any major news source. But beyond a shared condemnation of terror and violence there were more contentious issues troubling our very diverse and international college community, especially our Muslim, Jewish, and French students. How do we balance support for free speech with dismay at expressions of bigotry, whether racism, sexism, homophobia, or Islamophobia? Given the rise of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe, what were the legitimate grievances of an insulted and socially excluded minority, a minority whose very presence in France is a product of France’s imperial past and neo-imperial present? Is blasphemy a meaningful category in secular and multicultural societies?

I decided to address the last question and suggest another angle on the relationship between blasphemy and free speech. I reminded the audience that I had grown up in Pakistan, where accusations of blasphemy are daily used to incite violence against the most powerless members of society: minorities, members of lower castes, and the developmentally challenged. I suggested that power is not only a factor in finding easy targets for such accusations but it also lies at the heart of blasphemy itself. To blaspheme is to verbally reject a claim to divinity and defy the claimant’s power over you. In the Qur’an story of Moses, Pharaoh’s claim to godhood is traditionally read as the classic model of blasphemy. But given the overwhelming might of Pharaoh, Moses’s rejection of that claim and refusal to submit was blasphemous. Blasphemy is the ultimate act of “punching up”, challenging the almighty rather than attacking the less powerful. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in recent years did not fit the category.

Who were our contemporary blasphemers, willing to speak truth to power? Pharaoh still ruled, in Egypt and elsewhere, and those who defied him were still punished for their blasphemy. Two weeks earlier, the poet and activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh had been shot dead by Egyptian security forces. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi had been sentenced to a 1000 lashes for his anti-establishment writings. For exposing the crimes of the US military and government, Chelsea Manning was serving a 35-year prison sentence while Edward Snowden was in hiding in Russia. The massacre of Charlie Hebdo’s staff was horrific and indefensible. But if we—American and non-American, Muslim and non-Muslim—wanted to seriously consider whether freedom of speech includes the freedom to blaspheme, these were cases we needed to discuss.

In retrospect, though I question the assumptions underlying these panel discussions, I do not regret participating in them. I am glad that, on campus and off, there is an interest in learning about Islam and religion. And if my tight-knit college community continues to believe that my insights are valuable, I must be doing something right.

Amina Steinfels is an associate professor of religion at Mount Holyoke College.

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