Learning about Islam

Early warning – as I mentioned a few months ago, we’re heading into the ‘Jessica is finishing her doctorate and therefore is spending all of her time working or panicking that she should be working right now’ period of my life.  In theory, I’m submitting my thesis in about six weeks’ time.  Thus updates may be a bit spotty for that period.  I’ll try to keep updating at least once a week, mostly because it honestly is a nice break from my thesis – please do comment or leave a question for me to answer, I promise I haven’t actually disappeared.  I may be running screaming up and down the Oxford High Street; those rumors I can neither confirm nor deny.

So this post is mostly just some good news about the public perception of Islam, but I also want to make a few comments about authority, a subject I’ve talked about before.

Earlier this month, and apparently without much notice (at least I missed it entirely), the White House rolled out a new strategy on international and domestic terrorism, called “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”  It might not be the jazziest title anyone ever wrote, but the general point is the recognition that bringing American Muslim communities into the conversation about reactionary Islam[1] would both benefit the conversation and help reduce extremist draw in the United States.  This is pretty much the best news I’ve had since I found out Joss Whedon is directing The Avengers[2].  Really, I’m just disappointed that it took us nearly ten years to work out that maybe people don’t like being marginalized and maybe it makes them angry.

Not surprisingly, Senator King, who chairs the congressional committee on Homeland Security, has already stated concerns over the strategy, including the concern that meetings between law enforcement officials and community leaders might be “politically correct, feel-good encounters.”  Which makes me think Senator King has never, in his life, met the FBI.  Admittedly I haven’t had any real exposure to them, either, but I still don’t think they show up to most information-exchange sessions with lemonade and sugar cookies.

Part of this program is also an interest in re-educating law enforcement officials throughout the United States about Islam, and actually, for myself, this is the part that I’m really excited about (and not just because it means I might have a job someday, but that part is nice, too).  But I am slightly concerned that, in addition to giving no clear information about who would be leading this training, the press release giving the strategic plan still focuses on educating law enforcement about violent extremism, but not on the history and culture of the communities with whom they are trying to work.  I absolutely agree that there needs to be more and better information about religious and ideological extremism, on how it works and why it exists, but part of the problem with the public perception of Islam is a methodological one, that discussions about Islam almost always arise as part of a discussion of religious violence.  It doesn’t take long for there to be an internal, subconscious assumption of a link between these two concepts, and that’s also something that needs to be addressed and corrected, in order to be able to set up a functional line of communication.

There is also the problem, as I’ve talked about before, that to have expert information about Islam, you would need to talk to experts on Islam, which is something we’re still hit and miss on.  I’m happy to hear of Quintan Wiktorowicz’s involvement, as he is a bona fide expert on religious extremism, but I hope for the program’s sake that there is also the involvement not only of individual members of the American Muslim community, but also of thinkers and academics who can help to contextualize the bigger picture.

So basically, I guess what I’m trying to say is – great program, White House.  Please hire me to work for it.  Love and bubbles, Jessica.

[1] Yes, I know it’s not called that by anyone but me, but damn it, right-leaning extremism is reactionary, left-leaning extremist is radical.  Radical Islam would be Islamic socialism or animal rights activism.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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