Salon.com has come across evidence this week that Walid Shoebat has been paid $5,000 by the Department of Homeland Security to speak at a conference for South Dakota law enforcement.
Admittedly, on the grand scale of questionable decisions DHS has made, this is pretty small. There’s no evidence to suggest that Mr Shoebat is being brought on as a permanent adviser, and it’s not as though he’s speaking to every law enforcement agency in the country.
Nevertheless, I think this story well-illustrates what is so problematic about how Islam is presented and how information about Islam is disseminated in the US. Mr Shoebat claims to be a former member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization who converted to Christianity in the 1990s. There has been a great deal of speculation online as to whether his claimed biography is true – in particular, whether he ever bombed a bank in Bethlehem. Obviously these questions are important as, I presume, Mr Shoebat’s experiences in the PLO are the reason why he was invited to speak by the DHS.
However, I would argue that even if his biography is entirely true, his status as an “expert” on Islamic terrorism is still unjustified. I can certainly see the advantage in interviewing and speaking with former members of the PLO, as one particular kind of Middle Eastern extremist movement, but to equate all Middle Eastern, Arab and Islamic extremist movements seems, to me, to be a terrible oversimplification. To presume that Mr Shoebat’s experiences are necessarily particularly representative of extremist movements, or that his experiences would make him knowledge about how these movements function on a larger scale, also seem like deeply problematic assumptions.
I have said before that part of what is frustrating, as an Islamicist, about reading what gets written in the media and online about Islam is that the standards for what constitutes an expert are so low. For myself, I think of an “expert” as someone who has a wide range of tested knowledge on a subject. Eye-witness accounts and personal experience are important, as these things make up the basis for sociological study. But sociology is the categorization, analysis and study of personal experience and eye-witness accounts. If we mistake personal experience for wide-ranging expertise, we risk confusing anecdotal evidence for tested hypothesis and theory. Without a larger analysis of how experiences like those of Mr Shoebat fit into a social and cultural setting, we lack the necessary material for properly understanding his experiences, or for answering the pressing questions of how and why do people join extremist movements, and how and why do these movements get exported around the world. Mr Shoebat’s experience may be legitimate starting place for these conversations, but they cannot be sufficient in and of themselves.