On looking like a duck.

Okay, so I’ve been debating whether to write this post, as for my normal readership, I feel like this is really preaching to the choir.  However, it’s also really stuck in my head, so I figure getting it on paper might help.  Also, trigger warnings for discussions of terrorism, violence, abuse, bombings, shootings, and rape.

I don’t think anyone can miss that we have a huge, unaddressed problem with violence in this country.  Even though the rates of violent crime have been decreasing consistently for decades, violence remains a reality in the lives of way too many Americans.  The most recent attack against Americans in Charleston, SC, as well as the start of the trial of the Colorado theater shooter, has spurred discussions about racism, gun violence, and the role of privilege in violence that this country desperately needs to have.  However, there is one aspect of these discussions that is particularly important to me and the kind of work that I do that I want to talk about here, namely that as a country and as a community, we need to get comfortable calling these people terrorists.

There’s an old joke called “the Duck Test,” which was popularized in the 1940s, that “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’m going to call it a duck.”  Like any piece of rhetoric, there are obviously a thousand problems with the Duck Test, but when it comes to the perpetrators of violent crimes, it does feel relevant.  Shooting up public places is, for lack of a better word, terrifying, but there’s significant evidence demonstrating the difference in how the perpetrators of this kind of crime – who are generally white, male, and middle class – are described as compared to either nonwhite terrorists or nonwhite violent criminals (or indeed, nonwhite victims of violent crimes).  Indeed, this division runs so deep that we separate terminology for almost every aspect of these crimes – “mass shootings,” “gunman,” and “gun violence” are all disturbingly neutral, and “madman,” as applied to shooters, is both ableist and essentially apologetic, attempting to explain away the perpetrator’s actions as a form of mental illness.

I’ve talked before about the dangers of our use of “Islamic terrorism,” that by constantly reinforcing the Islamic-ness of acts of terrorism by people who self-identify as Muslims, we’re creating a subconscious association between Islam and terrorism (Tariq al-Hubb wrote a great followup to my post, which is here).  The more we use the term, the more we search for something essentially Islamic in these acts of violence to accommodate its usage.  However, it’s the word “terrorism” that’s actually important – we should care about acts of terrorism worldwide because they are terrorism, not due to their association to any other ideology.

Moreover, as I think our resistance to calling mass shooters terrorists demonstrates, the focus of “Islamic terrorism” has warped our view of what terrorism is.  At its most basic, terrorism is a planned system of violent acts intended to create fear and terror in a community, in order to force that community to preserve or return to a traditional status quo (real or imagined).  In this way, terrorism is more than just violence.  In the same way as abuse, it’s violence used to a specific aim, used to mold people’s behaviors and actions through negative association with acts of violence.  Terrorists use violence – murders, bombings, kidnappings, rapes, and attacks – to keep their target community afraid with the ultimate goal of exerting power and authority over that community.

I would guess that this definition of terrorism would not fit with most white and middle class Americans view of terrorism because we’re in the lucky position to have only ever been tangentially connected to it.  As a white, middle class woman, I will only ever be the victim of terrorism by random chance.  My connection to terrorism is the same as my connection to the lottery or to lightning.  I might be afraid of being struck by lightning or excited by the idea of winning the lottery, but in both cases, these thoughts are nothing more than passing fancies, something that might pop into my head one day, but which will never be my central focus.

This is not the experience of terrorism for communities targeted by terrorists.  These communities live in constant fear of the next attack, the next murder, the next death, if it will be them or someone they love.  This may not be the experience of terrorism by white communities in the US, but as the Charleston shooting demonstrates, it is still the experience of nonwhite communities in the US.  Basically, for those of us with white privilege, understanding terrorism as a system of violence against a target community doesn’t seem relevant or accurate because we’re not the target community[1].  That makes it all too easy to see mass shootings as isolated incidents and not part of a larger system of violence.

This misconception of what terrorism is, and why mass shooters are terrorists, also impacts how we perceive “Islamic terrorism.”  It is the case that there are terrorist organizations that use Muslim imagery and narrative as part of their justification for their actions, like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram.  It is also the case that many of their victims – in some cases, even the majority of their victims -, are Muslims.  Al-Qaeda may claim to want to overthrow America and American leadership, but they’re actually much more interested in maintaining their own power in the Middle East.  Indeed, America works as an ideological target for al-Qaeda in large part because of the history of American interference and imperialist action in the Middle East.  The focus is still on the local community – attacking America can be used to demonstrate a group’s strength, but they demonstrate that strength as part of the system of violence to control their co-religionists in the Middle East.

This is why it’s so important that we revise our conception of terrorism, including calling mass shootings acts of terrorism.  As long as we only identify our tangential relationship to terrorism as ‘real’ terrorism, we’re never going to be able to do anything to seriously address the problem.  We need to let the communities who are the direct targets take the lead, offering them protection and resource to address the problem.  More than that, as white, middle class Americans, we need to accept the idea that those responsible will often look and sound like us, and that those people are using the same protection and privilege that make us only occasional victims of violence to perpetuate that violence.  Until we’re ready to accept this uncomfortable reality, we’ll never be able to make a systematic change to end terrorism.

[1] Obviously intersectionality matters here – both white women and white queer people can still be the targets of systematic violence.  However, I’d argue that even here, there is much more institutional protection to defend these communities from violence than for nonwhite communities in the US.  If nothing else, the state apparatus meant to defend people from violence – the police – is still predominately going to help a white woman or queer person who is seen to be vulnerable or in danger, which is not the case for nonwhite communities.

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1400 years is actually a really long time…

Bob asked: I appreciate your blog very much. It’s actually rather amazing that you do this.

I have a friend of the Fox News always on in the living room sort. He knows I am of a totally different political disposition, but sends me items from time to time that he thinks might persuade me to come around some to his views. Recently he sent me a link to “Why We Are Afraid, A 1400 Year Secret, by Dr Bill Warner,” a YouTube video. And he asks me what I think of it.

I found it repugnant and wrote him that I would get back to him. My assumption from my own general knowledge is that Warner is being highly selective in picking facts to embellish with his scornful, incendiary rhetoric even when he is concentrated on the period of expansion across North Africa. (His selectivity shows chiefly, of course, in simply ignoring any European war violence other than the Crusades. Not to mention American. Clearly he would argue that all that ugliness had nothing to do with Christianity, whereas the wars of Muslim nations are driven by their religion.)

In any case, when I took to the internet to find some solid responses to the Warner diatribe, I found practically nothing. Eventually, your blog did show up, but not in response to that particular and particularly ugly and perhaps sadly effective speech of his. I assume he gives it where and whenever he can, and obviously it has made it to my friend’s attention.

I have perused with interest the two blogs I find on Warner here (Crusades and 5 Principles) but they don’t get at the core of his speech, which I take to be a claim that, historically and down to the present, Muslim people are far more given to war and intolerance than Christian people. There is the corollary supporting claim that this is due to religion in the case of Muslim people, but regardless of cause, there is the question of fact about the people.

My question for you, then, is to ask for help in tracking down thinkers who have taken the trouble to respond fully to that disturbing speech. Perhaps some of your readers could help, too.

Okay, I can’t exactly say that I’m happy to do so, and sorry again for the longer-than-anticipated delay in my reply.  It turns out it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something you know is going to give you an aneurysm.  But I have now gone through Dr. Warner’s talk – I did start out watching it on youtube (for the rest of my readers, it’s 45 minutes long and I refuse to link to it), but I already had a page of notes after the first 10 minutes, so I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work.  In the end, I found a complete transcript, which I annotated and which I may post separately because the whole thing is just so ridiculous.

As you say, it’s repugnant, but it’s also just really bad scholarship.  For those of you who’ve forgotten Dr. Warner, he is a doctor, but of applied physics.  He explains in the opening of his talk that he started studying Islam after 9/11, and that he “likes to read old books,” but stresses to his audience that he’s “not a historian.”  This may be the only thing about which we agree.  Indeed, if I got Dr. Warner’s talk as a final paper from a first year undergraduate, I would be hard-pressed not to fail that student.  His talk fails to engage directly with almost any primary sources; it doesn’t reveal any awareness of the vast corpus of secondary material about the study of Medieval Europe, Byzantine history, or the study of Islam; it suggests a serious misunderstanding about time periods, and finally, it demonstrates almost no capacity for historical or historiographic methodology (i.e. how to read texts critical, how to use material and archaeological evidence, how textual dating works) – in short, not only is his account of Islamic history factually inaccurate, his talk lacks any illustration that he understands even the most basic building blocks of how history is studied in the 21st century.

I’m going to flag some of the big, methodological errors that make this talk – and other works like it – so problematic.  This may or may not sway your FoxNews-happy friend, but it may at least demonstrate that Dr. Warner is playing really fast and loose with his facts. This post is quite long, but there’s just so much to cover, I couldn’t really find any other way to go over it all.

Why we’re afraid: Dr. Warner starts off his talk by explaining that after 9/11, he got interested in understanding Islam, and was struck that everyone he talked to seemed afraid of Islam, and so, he set out to discover the root of this fear.  In this way, he essentially argues for a Gestalt construction of history – that Islamophobia is just the current iteration of a shared communal memory about Islam, and that after centuries of warfare, Europeans (Dr. Warner is, I believe, addressing a room of Americans, but his focus lies very clearly on European history) share a communal fear of Islam and Muslims.  This overall historical philosophy reveals one of the running themes of Dr. Warner’s talk – it’s all really out-of-date stuff.  Gestalt theory hasn’t been popular in history since the days of speak-easies and flappers, mostly because it’s really hard to disassociate negative perceptions that are based on reality from negative perceptions that are based on propaganda, prejudice, and fiction.  I might support Gestalt history if it meant we could have immediate legal intervention to ban clowns, but, to put Dr. Warner’s argument in a different light, almost the exact same thesis could be stated for Judaism, which has suffered a negative association in the minds of Christian Europeans for two millennia, a fact that has basically nothing to do with the real actions of actual Jewish communities.

Understanding the Muslim Middle East: Having set out on his quest to explain why we’re afraid without first visiting any sociological or psychological theory from after the advent of television, Dr. Warner does open his talk with what is a very real and interesting historical question, that is, how did the Christian Middle East of the lifetime of Jesus and the Patristic Church become the Muslim Middle East of the Medieval and modern periods.  However, confusingly for me, Dr. Warner presents this question as if he’s the first to ask it – in fact, this is another repeated theme in his talk.  His ignorance about historical methodology is coupled with considerable narcissism about the originality of his work – he talks about the ‘historians’ he’s talked to all being completely ignorant about Islamic history, which makes me think he’s only talked to historians of European history.  It’s a bit like asking 5 ob-gyns about bone cancer, and then claiming medicine isn’t studying bone cancer.  It’s an issue of specialization.  The field Dr. Warner is address is the one I work in, the study of Late Antiquity, which is focused on the Mediterranean, and the transition from the Classical World to the Christian world to the Muslim world.  We’re not a huge field, but there are several hundred of us, and we’ve published thousands of books and journal articles on the subject.  Understanding the transition to the Islamic world has become a particularly fashionable aspect of the field recently, and there are a number of works that are intended to be accessible to a lay audience (i.e. Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests, James Howard-Johnston’s Witnesses to World Crisis,  or Fred Donner’s, Muhammad and the Believers).

Islam caused the fall of the Roman Empire: So this is one of those historical mistakes which is so massive I don’t even know how to address it.  Dr. Warner wants to argue that Islam was responsible for the end of the Classical period and the fall of the Roman Empire.  To start with, again, this is massively outdated history, as plenty of scholars don’t accept that the Roman Empire ‘fell’ – it declined, parts of it splintered into the Byzantine Empire, and then the Western side eventually re-emerged as the Holy Roman Empire (see the Cambridge Ancient History series for more).  More to the point, even if we accept that the fall of the Roman Empire happened, the major periods of instability were in the third and fourth centuries, with the ‘fall’ usually dated to the late 400s.  That’s 150 years before the rise of Islam.  Similarly, the Roman Empire that declined in the 400s bore only a passing resemblance to the empires of the Classical period – Dr. Warner seems to think these periods all blend together, but Rome was founded in roughly the 700s BCE, Alexander the Great lived in the mid-400s BCE, and Julius Caesar ruled from 49-44 BCE.  So for Islam to have brought about the end of Classical society, it would be ending something from 1000-1500 years earlier, roughly equivalent to claiming that the internet brought an end to the Crusades.

Islam caused 500 battles: This is one of the central claims Dr. Warner makes in order to support an argument for Islam as being essentially a violent religion or society.  He even has a cute little graphic showing where these battles were (which focuses almost exclusively on the western border with Europe and North Africa).  When he first said 500, I thought he meant in the Islamic expansion (the period from the 620s to 705 CE, when Islam expanded to roughly the western borders the Muslim world has today).  If we take ‘battle’ to mean any skirmish between two armies of differing allegiances, this seemed a bit high, but not unreasonable.  However, the graphic makes clear that this is 500 battles for the 1400 year period from the rise of Islam until today.  This is both ridiculously underestimating things, and tremendously misrepresentative of these battles, as battles, like arguments, always have two sides.  To start with, again, we’re talking about battles.  If we assume that every war has at least 10 battles (again, which is probably underestimating things), that’s 50 wars in a 1400-year period, or roughly 1 war every 28 years.  That’s really not that much, and also, that’s really not true.  In the Late Antique and Medieval periods, borders were maintained by having near-constant raids in order to demonstrate continued interest in the territory.  According to Muslim sources, the Muslims in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods (700-1000 CE) sent raiding parties against the border with Byzantium twice a year (so there should be at least 600 battles just in Turkey).  These raids never resulted in any serious change in territory and were largely ceremonial and symbolic, but were still going on.

As you suggest, if we were going to expand the graphic, there would be at least as many battles taking place in Europe – anyone who’s taken European history probably has vague memories of nonstop wars of succession in Europe for pretty much the whole of the Medieval period and the Renaissance, and then the nonstop religious wars during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  Similarly, many of the battles in the Middle East were the result of European aggression – aside from the fact that Byzantium and the Western Mediterranean continued to fight back against the Muslims to try to reclaim territory, the dots from the late eleventh to early thirteenth centuries are the Crusades, and those in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are European imperialist invasions.  There’s even a pause in the slide for all of the dots in the 1910s – that’s World War I!  I’m pretty sure international jihad did not cause World War I – just ask Franz Ferdinand.

Islam caused the Dark Ages: Again, this is evidence that while Dr. Warner might enjoy reading old books, he definitely hasn’t read any new ones.  Not only is Islam not responsible for the European Dark Ages, most historians no longer believe in the existence of ‘the Dark Ages.’  Chris Wickham’s excellent works Illuminating the Dark Ages and Framing the Early Middle Ages are the go-to references for pretty much anyone talking about the ‘Dark Ages’ nowadays.  Putting it simply, many historians would now argue that the idea of a ‘Dark Age’ where everyone was ignorant and superstitious was largely Protestant propaganda, meant to frame Catholicism as a backwards church that was hindering progress in Europe.  Protestant histories were accepted in a very noncritical way by nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted, for some reason, that Protestantism rendered people incapable of lying or exaggerating.  Even if Dr. Warner wanted to argue for a pre-Wickhamian construction of the Dark Ages (and part of me now wants to email that sentence fragment to Dr. Wickham just to hear his reaction…), it’s also been broadly accepted that the Muslim world played an important and positive role when it came to preserving Classical thought during the Middle Ages, and that transmission of Classical works through Arabic was part of their preservation to the modern day (perhaps most famously in the works of Aristotle; see Perry et al, Western Civilization and Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage of Islam).

All told, sitting down and actually examining Dr. Warner’s writing in detail makes me wondering how much of his work really is intentionally misleading (which, to be honest, I’d always assumed it was), and how much it’s just that he’s really that uninformed about the subject.  The dating issues are really unforgivable, but the larger theory that Islam caused the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages strikes me as the kind of theories young scholars often come up with – in my experience, a lot of scholars, myself included, start out seeing big connections everywhere because we start out seeing religions, cultures, or societies as monolithic, and only start to see the complexities within them after a great deal of study.  That being said, Dr. Warner clearly is presenting himself as an expert – his website even offers (what it claims is) the world’s first self-study course on ‘Political Islam,’ in addition to his published works and international lectures.  There’s no way someone, somewhere, hasn’t pointed out to him, “um, but the Fall of Rome happened 150 years before Islam.  And maybe didn’t really happen at all.”

I suspect, actually, that this has happened repeatedly, and that’s why he repeats so often that there are no historians working on anything to do with Islamic history or the emergence of the Muslim Middle East.  As long as he’s claiming to work in a vacuum, it seems less sketchy that he has no source material or citations.

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Djinn and Sidhe

Michael Mock asked: Right, so… Djinn. Also Ifrits, and the like. How much are they like the Sidhe (later called Faeries) of the British Isles?

From a folklore perspective, despite the (notable) differences in cultural and geographical background, I see some definite similarities. They’re both races of individually powerful (in varying degrees) beings, capricious and dangerous to deal with (again in varying degrees), supernatural (or at least magical), but not particularly aligned with Heaven or Hell, angels or devils. Shapechanging features prominently into stories about them; I think both races have been known to interbreed with mortals; and then sometimes they show up in some odd stories that don’t seem to quite fit with anything I’ve just generalized about.

From an anthropological perspective, there also seem to be some odd similarities; they both look like cases of older, more-or-less animistic stories and beliefs that survived and were incorporated into the arrival of newer, more formalized montheistic/dualistic religions. There’s an additional similarity in that a lot of the remaining stories about them are seen through the lenses of those later religious beliefs.

What do you think? Is it a viable comparison? Or am I way, way off-base here?

Okay, so a quick primer for people who are unfamiliar with these traditions.  The djinn (or jinn, if you prefer – we have the French to thank for the weird silent ‘d’) appear in both pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, and are considered a sapient race separate from humans or angels with a long and varying list of supernatural powers – shapeshifting, possessing humans, supernatural speed and strength, immortality/invulnerability (at least compared to humans), just to name a few.  There are references to the djinn in the Qur’an, but much of the conception of them comes from Islamic poetry and stories, in particular from One Thousand and One Nights, in which djinn often appear to make deals with humans.  The djinn also appear in the Muslim versions of some Abrahamic traditions, in particular in stories about Solomon, who according to the Qur’an could control the djinn (Q. 27:17), which, in some later traditions, meant that he had a ring or other talisman that summoned djinn to do his bidding.  Genies in the Western tradition derive from djinn stories, as seen in the story of Aladdin, who had a djinn trapped in a magic ring given to him by a sorcerer, which appeared in the first French translation of One Thousand and One Nights, but which was actually a fake added to the original stories.

As Michael mentions, djinn as a race are not good or evil, but can serve as benefactors, enemies, or mere foils to humans.  Ifrit, but comparison, are explicitly evil.  In the only Qur’anic reference to ifrit (27:39-40), they’re described as a strong kind of djinn who took the throne of the Queen of Sheba.  They often appear in literature as malicious spirits, both in Medieval literature, and in modern stories, as in the plays of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.  Shaytan are also often described as an evil kind of djinn, although the term “shaytan” is also sometimes translated as demon or devil, and in their use in Arabic literature, there appears to be some overlap with the Christian concept of a demon (although, again, djinn generically are also sometimes described as being able to possess people).

It’s worth pointing out that I’ve studied the djinn in a very limited manner as it has occasionally overlapped with my research (and stories of djinn have come up in some of my reading classes).  I have never studied the Sidhe, so everything I know about them is either from (a) my general trivia knowledge of Irish history or (b) research I’ve done in the last couple of days, mostly on the internet.

I can definitely see where you’re coming from in terms of the comparison between the two.  But I think the problem you run into with discussing similarities between supernatural traditions is that these traditions are so varied that you’re bound to find similarities.  In particular, from what I’ve read of the Irish stories of fae folk, there seem to be a nearly endless range of types and kinds, some appearing in multiple stories and across several regions (as with the banshee) and some being local lore that, at some point, was folded into this larger mythology, sort of like ghost stories.  The same goes for the djinn, with some authors using the term for any non-human, non-angel supernatural being, while others give precise definitions of types and kinds and their origins.  At some point, you have so much information that really what you’re comparing is pretty general – supernatural beings that sometimes mess with humans but also have their own lives.

There’s also another concern that I pretty much always have when it comes to comparing supernatural traditions from an anthropological standpoint, which is that I think there is a tendency to overemphasize the importance of supernatural traditions for ‘under-developed’ or ‘uncivilized’ traditions (which often means non-European or non-Christian traditions) and underemphasize it for ‘developed’ and ‘civilized’ (and European and Christian) traditions.  It’s hard for me to point to specific examples of this – it’s more just a general feeling I get from reading material about the supernatural.  Even within ‘civilized’ traditions, I think we also tend to assume supernatural beliefs occur more among poor people and women than rich people and men.  However, this assumption actually directly contradicts the evidence we have – for example, from a historical standpoint, both the Greek chronicle of John Malalas and the Syriac Khuzistani chronicle describe priests and monks being punished for pagan practices during the first centuries of Christianity, including communing with spirits and using runes, suggesting that these practices were widespread throughout the various strata of the culture, not something confined to specific ‘uncivilized’ classes.

For these two particular groups, I sort of feel like they’ve been singled out as historically/anthropologically important because they’ve been used to highlight the supernatural/irrational beliefs of the communities they represent.  The Irish fae stories, as least the ones I could find online, seem pretty similar to ghost stories and fairy tales from other traditions, but for some reason, we’ve singled them out as A THING, and I wonder how much that has to do with the long-standing European tradition of the Irish as being the most backward and uncivilized (and ineffectively Christianized) of all European peoples.  The popularity of One Thousand and One Nights and other Arabic and Indian stories in Europe in the early modern period sort of follows a similar pattern – these stories were often mined for information about what the Middle East was like, emphasizing how superstitious their people were, despite the fact that stories of djinn tormenting humans or granting wishes are not terribly different from the wicked witch in Snow White or the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

I think you’re right that both the djinn and the sidhe represent a intermixing of pre-conversion beliefs with a major religious tradition, but again, I think arguably you can find this with every major religion.  Local traditions that are popular or that serve a strong social/anthropological purpose don’t die out – they’re just given a nice, religious gloss.  See, for example, saints’ tales, local shrines, Easter bunnies and Christmas conifers.

One similarity I did find particularly interest, but which I think also further complicates the comparison between the two traditions is how much both mythologies have been influenced by literary traditions, and even single works within that tradition.  I didn’t realize how much of the common conception of the Sidhe comes from Yeat’s collection.  One Thousand and One Nights is similarly influential for djinn stories, and in particular, the French translation/redaction by Antoine Galland in the eighteenth century was massively influential on the Western conception of what Islamic and/or Middle Eastern belief systems were like.

But again, I don’t really know what to do with this similarity, as this connection to a literary tradition really just complicates the whole issue of believing versus knowing, in terms of the anthropological/sociological use of these mythologies.  Again, to use a more familiar comparison, most of us know about Wonderland and Never Never Land.  We can probably even answer questions about the people who live there, what they’re like, their backgrounds, and their relationships to one another.  But that doesn’t mean we believe in those places.  Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to discern the difference in historical texts because people tend to reference familiar literary/cultural references, assuming their audience knows which are fact and which are fiction.  Plenty of authors like to play around with the distinction, as well – I don’t think people would call themselves superstitious for liking Twilight or “The Walking Dead,” but those also stem from a mythology of supernatural beings who sometimes screw with humans, and because those works focus on supernatural creatures invading an otherwise normal world, it would be easy for a future historian to read into those works as representing a general belief that some people are vampires or that a zombie apocalypse is really going to happen.

Sorry, this has turned into a very rambling response, but hopefully there is some useful information in there.  Overall, I think you’re right that there are interesting similarities, but my gut tells me that those apparent similarities may be due to the diverse nature of those traditions, coupled with people outside the tradition stressing these two traditions as particularly important or distinct.  But proving that would take a ton more research.

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Please don’t draw the Prophet (pbuh)

So I still haven’t submitted my thesis, but I have received an extension.  And since procrastination and completion are nearly the same thing, I am breaking my hiatus.  Partly because I have more free time now, but mostly because many of the reactions to the tragic deaths in France last week have made me feel incapable of remaining quiet.  In particular, I’ve seen a disturbing number of people online suggest that, like with the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a few years ago, the best response is another “Draw Muhammad Day.”  I’m strongly against this, and would like to take this opportunity to explain why.  [Trigger warnings: I’m not going to post any depictions of the Prophet or link to any, but I am going to describe what some of them look like.  Also there’s some discussion of terrorism and mass murder.]

But, to start with, it’s worth pointing out (as many people on the internet have) that it is true that the Qur’an does not specifically ban depictions of the Prophet (pbuh).  The practice of not depicting the Prophet (pbuh) stems from the Qur’anic conception of graphic images, and the various ways that Islam has formulated the meaning of graphic images is way too big a topic to cover here.  Maybe I’ll do a separate post about it.  But the fact is that while the ban of depictions arises primarily out of the hadith and the early history of the Islam, and is not practiced universally in Islam, that doesn’t make it any less a religious practice for some Muslims.  To put this in perspective, I can make a solid case that the Bible provides no basis for the concepts of heaven (as a place where humans go), hell (as a place of punishment for sinners), or the soul (as an immortal aspect of all humans), but that doesn’t make these concepts any less integral to Christian theology.  That’s because Scripture doesn’t work like a cookbook – you don’t just read it and do what it says.

To turn Western depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) as artistic and/or political statements, first off, your depiction of the Prophet (pbuh) is probably not going to be original.  If you’re an artist looking to push boundaries, this is pretty much the exact opposite of that.  Non-Muslims have been producing depictions of Muhammad (pbuh), both in written works and as pictures, since their first interactions with Muslims.  Many of these depictions are negative, painting Muslims as mindlessly violent and terrifyingly evil.  The root of this meme is not hard to find – many of these works come from communities who were at war with the Muslims, whether due to Muslim incursion, as during the Islamic expansion, or due to Western incursion, as during the Crusades.  In either case, non-Muslims have routinely produced works of art that depict Muslims as evil, and Christian works in particular like to present Muhammad (s’lm) as the devil or the Antichrist.  Drawing a cartoon of him carrying a bomb is just a modern twist on a 1400-year-old artistic tradition.

Even if you have come up with something more creative than the Prophet (pbuh) as Devil trope, if you’re aim is to satirize Islam, either as it’s experienced in other countries or as it’s experienced by Muslims in the West, it’s really unlikely to be successful because it’s incredibly difficult to satirize a foreign country or culture.  This one kind of makes sense – satire is meant to be a short, pithy observation about everyday life, often relying on juxtaposition to create cognitive dissonance in the viewer or listener.  So for Westerns wanting to satirize Islam, there is a lot of ground to cover.  If you’re trying to skewer people in foreign countries, you would need some kind of access to them as an audience, as well as intimate familiarity with their culture.  If you live in the US – do you know if foreign papers are running political cartoons about the US?  Do you care?  From having lived overseas, I know they are, but I don’t think most people seek out foreign jokes about their country, and would probably be deeply disappointed if they did, as they’re liable to be wildly off base.  Case in point: one of the most common jokes in Britain about Americans is that most Americans don’t have passports, something unthinkable in Europe, where the countries are tiny, but something relatively neutral in America, where our country is massive.

For attempts at satire about Muslims in the West, the case is even more complicated, because the joke would need to succinctly demonstrate an understanding of some aspects of Islam as a global culture and an understanding of how the intermixing of that global culture with the local Western culture can create conflict, and it needs a quick and easy way to present this information to people who may have no experience of either of these things.  Which is probably why so much really great comedy about Muslims in the West comes from Muslims who live in the West, like Aziz Ansari, Dean Obeidallah, and Sadia Azmat.  They grew up knowing the first two things, so all they had to do was figure out how to present their experiences in a humorous way to an uninitiated audience.

So for one thing, I think it’s going to be very difficult for non-Muslim Western artists to create something original about Islam, especially if the intention is satire.  But beyond the questions of interpretation and expression, I do believe there needs to be an ethical consideration about drawing the Prophet (pbuh), as well.  In all of the discussions about the attacks in Paris, it feels like people are forgetting that criticism is not the same thing as censorship.  Censorship is a government or other body of authority preventing something from being visible or accessible publicly.  For example, in the US, there is religious censorship which prevents the use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive in some forms of media, in order to protect the religious beliefs of some Christians that this qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Freedom of speech and of the press are important for preventing censorship, and although people have already pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the world leaders who marched for freedom of the press in Paris while denying it in their own countries, I think it’s also important to point out that criticism and even violent backlash against art is NOT censorship because it does not come from a position of authority.  It’s exactly the existence of freedom of speech and the press that gives people the right to publish things that may be deeply hurtful to others, and criticism is vital in that system to address how that art functions, why it’s hurtful, and whether that hurtfulness comes from a place of bigotry and racism, which I would argue for most non-Muslim Westerners who want to draw the Prophet (pbuh), it does.  Absolute freedom of expression without thought to consequences is guaranteed to end in violence because no one enjoys being insulted over and over again – as the Pope pointed out, if you insult someone’s mother, you’ll get punched in the face.

There’s also the fact that what art a society holds in esteem says a great deal about the opinions of that society, what they deem important and what they don’t.  In the case of Charlie Hebdo, by focusing on this single event as a clash of ‘Islam and the West,’ we risk implying that this is the only way in which that clash is manifested.  This is dangerously untrue – on the one hand, there has been a horrible re-emergence of nationalist zenophobia in Europe in the last several decades, and Muslims living in France today have suffered truly terrifying levels of oppression and abuse, including 16 Muslim places of worship being vandalized or attacked in just one 48-hour period.  On the other hand, extremism in the name of Islam is an international problem, and communities outside of the West face far worse effects of it than Westerners, as evidenced by the horrifying attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria in the same week, in which somewhere between 150 and 2000 people were murdered.  Terrorism and religious extremism are not just, or even predominantly, Western problems, and treating them as such, and expecting the world to jump to our aid when the West is attacked, is a disgustingly imperialist idea.

Finally, I would argue that it has to be morally wrong to intentionally try to make some violate their private religious practices.   Choosing not to depict the Prophet (pbuh) or to look at depictions of him is not forcing your beliefs on others, and asking for images of him not to be present in public spaces is no more religion invading the public realm than having churches, crosses, or manger scenes visible in public spaces.  If someone was running around trying to trick Jews into eating pork, most people would probably consider that person a jerk, even if they labeled their action as performance art.  Similarly, although there’s plenty of room for debate as to whether using “Jesus Christ” as an expletive is blasphemy, it would still be wrong to start “Blasphemy Day,” where people run around trying to shout it in Christian’s faces as many times in 24 hours as possible.  Religion is personal, but it can’t always be private – people inhabit public spaces, and religious people have as much right to those spaces as nonreligious people.  Asking for consideration is not the same thing as demanding censorship because it doesn’t take away anything from anyone else.

I am absolutely not in favor of censorship, but again, consideration and criticism are not the same thing as censorship, and, I would argue, are actually incredibly necessary to make good art.  Part of any piece of art is thinking about how it will be experienced and what message it will send to its audience, and I can’t see what message drawings of the Prophet (pbuh) send except a big middle finger to Muslims.  It won’t be shocking to a non-Muslim audience because we have no preconceived notions about images of the Prophet (pbuh) for it to attack.  It probably won’t be shocking to Muslims because I’d guess most are aware that depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) exist; they just choose not to look at them.  As far as I can tell, the absolute best outcome that can come from papering newsstands with images of the Prophet (pbuh) will be that it will hurt Muslims, but that they will choose to accept that hurt, and bear it privately, rather than asking for consideration and respect for their beliefs.  Which is exactly what Muslims are choosing to do.  And that’s a beautiful statement about them as people, but still doesn’t validate the art.

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Closed for winter!

Although it hardly seems fair to say I’m taking a hiatus from blogging when the posting around here has been so variable, I’m still claiming this as a unique period of not posting, as opposed to my normal not posting.

I’ve been in the habit of closing down for the holidays, so I don’t have to feel guilty spending all day playing Borderlands with my sister rather than writing about imperialism and violence.  Although I’m agnostic, I am super obsessed with Christmas, and I really appreciate being able to take a couple of weeks off.

However, this hiatus may last a little longer.  As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I’m in the process of finalizing my doctoral thesis for resubmission, a weirdly Oxford process that has taken more than two years for various reasons.  My final submission is probably going to be in the next two months, so between that and working full time, much of my intellectual and emotional energy is already allocated.

I’m hoping that by February, everything will be done, but I don’t anticipate being able to produce much for this blog until then.  So until February, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Kwanza, happy New Gregorian Calendar, and Gong Hey Fat Choi!

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Should academia be addressing for-profit education?

First off, a little self-advertisement: Nahida very kindly asked me to write a guest post for the fatal feminist, so head over if you want to read some rambling thoughts about Quranic revisionism in Western scholarship.

This is going to be another one of those posts that’s got nothing really to do with the history of Islam, but that is maybe relevant to scholarship in general, namely, the rise of for-profit education and whether the traditional academe should be doing anything about it.

For those who haven’t heard, the Obama administration has been trying to increase regulation of for-profit schools, in particular by setting requirements for the return-on-investment ratio of the school’s cost to resulting employment.  In part due to these changes, Corinthian Colleges, the publicly-traded company that owns many for-profits, has declared bankruptcy and will selling off many of its campuses.  The increased administrative attention has also led to several state and civil lawsuits against for-profits, claiming gross misrepresentation and predatory sales techniques.  Here’s a truly disgusting article from buzzfeed about students having their federal loan applications effectively submitted for them with no understanding of how much they owe, and John Oliver being brilliant in his discussion of how absolutely horrible the education at a for-profit can be, despite costing upwards of five times more than a community college.  Unfortunately, the new regulations are significantly less strict than what the Obama administration had announced earlier this year, and despite Corinthian’s bankruptcy, its campuses will likely be sold to other for-profit education companies and the system will likely continue.

I’m sad to say that despite working in education, as both an academic and as an administrator, the news articles this summer were the first I had heard about any of this.  I’m also sad to admit that as an educator and advocate for education reform, if you had asked me six months ago who goes to Phoenix University or ITT Tech, I probably would have said, “stupid people.”  For-profit education has been around for a couple of decades –  I remember the low-production value ITT Tech ads that ran during daytime television when I was a kid, and teasing my sister, when she was already an engineering student at CalTech, that should get a degree in rocket science in just six months!  It says so right there!

So for me, part of the tragedy in reading these articles was being reminded that having access to a university education is a huge privilege, but so is knowing about universities and what a university education is supposed to be like.  I’m sad to say that it genuinely hadn’t occurred to me how many people really don’t know what to expect from a university, and wouldn’t just laugh hysterically at a school calling day in and day out demanding you enroll, or expecting you to enroll on the spot if you come for a campus visit.  Reading the stories of people who’ve been taken advantage of by these institutions, it’s clear how adept these schools are at playing off those circumstances as benefits – look how great a candidate you are, we can sign you up right now!  Or, you better sign up right now or you’ll have to wait until next year!

Which brings me to the question of whether academics should be doing something to help the students who are being taken advantage of by these institutions, or I suppose more specifically, why aren’t we?  Admittedly, traditional academia has problems of its own, from poverty-level adjunct jobs and an ever-dwindling tenure job market to continuing problems with sexual harassment, racism, and classism.  But I suspect that part of the problem is that many academics are in the same mindset as I was – it really just doesn’t seem like our problem, and we’re not 100% sure this isn’t the victim’s fault for being taken advantage of.

The other problem is, as I’m sitting here writing this, I’m not really sure what we could do to help.  Two things come to mind, but both would require a ton of commitment from individual academics, and one would require actual institution support:

  1. Schools need to provide actual college counseling, and academics could help teach people what going to college should look like.  I recognize that a lot of the people being enrolled by these colleges are not school-aged any more, but having available resources where people learn about schools should be part of high school curriculum, as well as, ideally, job centers, rehabilitation centers, and the VA.  Academics are in an ideal position to give real feedback about university education.  But this would obviously require direct intervention, when many academics already feel they have too many ‘other’ obligations on their time besides research.
  2. The effectiveness of for-profit recruiting among low income and rural communities is also a tribute to how ineffective universities continue to be at targeting these communities.  Now, it’s worth pointing out, as several of these articles do, that many of the students admitted to the for-profit programs could not qualify for a community college or state school – they have no GED or their English language capacity is far too low – but that only make up one portion of the admitted students.  Many of these people could be enrolled in similar programs in community colleges for a fraction of the cost.  This is especially true of veteran’s – despite the absolutely pivotal role the GI Bill played in shaping the modern American middle class after World War II, many universities have cut or cancelled entirely their VA recruitment programs.  This is not only terrible for veterans, who need support for education and job training, but also for universities who are constantly desperate for new financial streams.

Disappointingly, I don’t know how even how to start getting these issues on academics’ radar, let alone get people involved.  But it’s heartbreaking to me that in this day and age, there are people so horrifically being taken advantage of simply because they wanted an education, and that the field of professional educators, of which I’m a part, seem so completely detached.

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Learning, research, and received wisdom

As I’m now deep in the depths of the final revisions of the resubmission of my thesis (long story), I’ve found myself re-reading books and journal articles that I first read years ago, and as a result, I’ve also found myself thinking a great deal about how learning and research works, and in particular, how ideas get recycled across years and years without any real critical consideration.

There are a whole bunch of circumstances in academia today that, at least from where I’m standing, seem to be limiting innovation.  An academic job market that has never really recovered from the recession puts pressure on graduate students and early career investigators to focus on ‘safe’ material – grad students get told we need our theses to generate great letters of support, and then need to be turned into books that will get great reviews.  If we score a tenure-track position, it seems like more and more the mentality is to keep your head down until you have tenure, whether that means being expected to live above your means or not making waves on campus.  Even for established researchers, the pressure of funding still puts the emphasis on continuing existing projects rather than branching out into something new because no one wants to fund failure.  All told, that means that for upwards of the first twenty to thirty years of your career, the pressure is to keep to familiar ground.

These circumstances are particularly problematic because, even without them, it seems like we humans tend to keep to familiar ground with our thinking anyway.  We like precedence, and seem to have the tendency to judge new information against what we already know about the subject.  In doing so, however, we’re essentially privileging whatever we heard first.

This plays out in education all the time.  Take, for example, a couple of weeks ago, when many children learned, as many of us did, that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  We learned that he was proving the world was round, not flat as everyone else thought, and that he had three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  And to prove how effective that early teaching is, I did all of that from memory.

However, only bits and pieces of that are true.  He did sail in 1492; he did have three ships, and he did sail an ocean of some color.  However, he wasn’t proving the world was round – according to contemporary records, he was arguing for the world as being significantly smaller than it had already been proven to be (by a mathematician in Alexandria using trigonometry), and according to his own sea journal, he thought the world was pear-shaped or the shape of a woman’s breast, with the ocean being the bulge (thus taking so long to transverse).  The children’s account also leaves out his many atrocities in the Americas.

The claim is that the children’s version has to be simplified and sanitized in order to make it appropriate for children.  However, the differences go well beyond simplification, to the point that many of us have the experience of learning the more complex and complete story as adults and feeling either lied to or strongly resistant to the latter version, as contradicting what we already know.  We take the children’s version as received wisdom – something from on high that comes to us complete and elegant – and resist the adult version, with all of its problems and problematic questions, as being less satisfying.

The apparent benefit of received wisdom is elegance.  Elegance is also a mathematical principle – in logic, the best proofs are elegant, in that they are succinct, rely on a minimum of assumptions, and contain no extraneous material.  It’s tempting to use the same model for all information, but the problem is that oftentimes, the thing we learned first wasn’t actually more elegant than the thing we learned second – especially if we learned it as children or when we were just starting out in a particular field, it was probably oversimplified, and we were too inexperienced to know how to ask the right questions or interrogate the information properly.

This comes up with Islamic studies because, as I’ve talked about before, my field has a history of source skepticism.  But it’s a selective source skepticism.  It has to be, because pure source skepticism is impossible – there are so few extant manuscripts dated to within the period they describe that we can authenticate that we would barely be able to describe the historical periods pre-publishing at all.  And in rereading so much material in one go, I’ve started to notice the pattern of what sources are privileged above others, and in many cases, they’re the ones we all learn first, pure and simple.

For example, I was reading a book recently that made an absolutely beautiful source skeptical argument about a particular Christian theological debate from the seventh century called the Monothelite debate, basically arguing that too many of the sources that historians have traditionally relied upon come from after the Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 680.  Monothelitism was one of the reasons that Council was called, and historians have used this to cast backwards a version of the controversy in which the theology was always full-formed and the sides clearly delineated.  This guy made a compelling case that we need to be more careful and look exclusively at the earlier sources to understand how the controversy started, and not just accept the Acts of the Council as the full story.

And then proceeded to defend his reading of what the controversy looked like in the early seventh century by citing Michael the Syrian, a 12th century source, extant in a single complete 16th century manuscript and four known partial manuscripts.

So if the concern is authenticity to a 7th century mindset, one that didn’t yet bear the strict “orthodox/heresy” perception of the church council, why use a 12th century source?  Well, to be honest, I don’t think the author was thinking about it like that.  I think the starting point was ‘it says this in Michael the Syrian, so how does that compare to other things?’  And I think the source of that mentality is that Michael the Syrian is, quite literally, how many historians of the Late Antique period learn what a chronicle is.  It’s one of the first things you translate if you’re learning Syriac; it’s one of the first things you read about in any given textbook or general study.  We don’t hold it to the same rules of source skepticism because it’s how we learn what a source is, so of course it must be a good one!

This isn’t a vote for Michael the Syrian as a good or bad source – on some level, it’s a demonstration of the essentially tautological nature of source skepticism.  We can’t apply the same skepticism to all sources because on some level, we need a model to use as a standard.

But it’s also a vote for innovation, and for a certain flexibility in how we do research, so that there are opportunities to go back and revisit even well-accepted sources, with enough time and space to approach these questions, even, or perhaps most importantly, for the beliefs and perspectives with which we’re the most comfortable.

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