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Session R4899 (Apology Accepted? Combatting Islamophobia without Sacrificing Critical Perspective in the Academy), 2017
My presentation will explain how combatting Islamophobia while maintaining a critical perspective has been a central, longstanding tension in my research on the moral psychology of political Islam. I will also address how failure to combat apologetics helps fuel the ongoing “war on expertise” waged in the court of American public opinion.
My principle motivation to study political Islam through ethnography largely stems from my firsthand knowledge of how severely Islamophobic depictions of political Islam distort the values, political agendas, and intentions of the many ordinary people who are labelled as “Islamists.” My research, which exposes systematic inconsistencies in their moral beliefs, is designed to demonstrate the analytical weakness of drawing sweeping conclusions about Islamists based simply on their ostensibly “fundamentalist” religious beliefs. Pointing out such inconsistencies not only helps to counteract (neo-)Orientalist portrayals of Islamists as intensely ideological automatons, but also creates space for practitioners of Islam to internally question the value of demanding rigid conformity to orthodox religiosity.
Nevertheless, I will explain how this carries intrinsic liabilities. Observers motivated to be unsympathetic can misconstrue the inconsistencies in my subjects' moral schemata as evidence of hypocrisy. Moreover, demonstrating how ostensibly ideological beliefs (from hermeneutics to anti-American conspiracy theories) result from cognitive bias and emotion rather than religious ideology can effectively counter assertions that fanatical beliefs dictate Islamists' opinions, but could also inadvertently fuel accusations of irrationality. I will particularly address whether, given the increasingly limited control writers have over how their work is used, the risk of potentially sensitive critical observations being appropriated in service of Islamophobic agendas outweighs the risk of *not* making such observations – which could normalize problematic tendencies within political Islam.
I will also address the role apologetics play in fueling the current credibility crisis and distrust of experts in general but especially experts on Islam, which I contend irreducibly underpins recent political developments. I especially argue that replacing Islamophobic critiques of apologetics with bona fide academic ones is a key step towards reversing the increasing difficulty scholars face finding credibility outside the “bubble.”
Finally, I will draw on my experience at a liberal-leaning, urban university on the East Coast to comment on pedagogy. To the extent that learning about Islam primarily from apologist sources leaves students unprepared to address legitimate concerns, I will argue that it may put them at a disadvantage in confronting Islamophobia themselves outside of the classroom.