What Can Academics Do About Islamophobia?

Dan Varisco asks what academics can do to counter Islamophobia. He offers several suggestion, and I’d like to add my own thoughts to his.

There are basically four arenas where academics can contribute to the conversation:

  • The Mud
  • As Public Intellectuals
  • As Academics
  • As Resources

The Mud

This place is the one where I think most respectable academics do not want to get involved. This is where opining is more important than actual knowledge, and ideologues are more respected than anyone else. There are those who have academic degrees operating in this theater. They are generally there because they could not function in academia and are not capable of working with academics. If they could not gain professional legitimacy, academics should waste time legitimizing outside of the academy. They tried and failed to be experts, so they have reverted to cottage industries of mass information and half-truths. We should conflate academic backgrounds with academic legitimacy.

As Public Intellectuals

Public intellectuals in this schema are those who present themselves and their ideas to a larger, non-academic audience. These audiences could range from high schools, to adult education courses, to popular media. Many academics are already in many of these arenas, except for mainstream news sources. Although social media have allowed many academics a way to reach out online, and use their expertise, that knowledge is not being used by popular media. Part of this is due to the fact that religious authority structures amongst Muslims are so poorly understand. In order to create parallelism with other faith communities, an imam must represent the community. This flattening of identity has resulted in American Shi’ah scholars referring to themselves as “imam.” The media must be gently educated that scholars, both within and outside the tradition, can speak about the faith intelligently. Too often as academics we assume our expertise is self-evident and people will come to us. The reality is that we must make ourselves known to media sources. For those of us at larger centers, we must ask the press office to set-up meetings for us, or to do introductions to religion writers and producers. We also have to be comfortable speaking outside of our specific areas of expertise for the sake of a general audience. Most importantly, we need to be able and willing to refer to other people who may be better suited for a specific topic.

As Academics

I think Dan’s article does a nice job of summing up many of our potential roles as academics. The one thing I would add is that we must also be willing to employ our expertise to refute those who believe they are speaking from a position of authority, who are experts, but not about Islam. Recently, a psychology professor did a study showing that most gender-based murders by Muslims are in fact “honor killings” and that these killings are a part of the religion. The methodology, conclusions, and background are all poor. As a Muslim and PhD candidate, I do not have the legitimacy that a more senior faculty member and non-Muslim would have. Carl Ernst, at UNC-Chapel Hill, was attacked in 2002 for assigning Michael Sells’ “Approaching the Qur’an.” At that time there was a great deal of interest in having people speak out on the issue, both from a question of academic freedom, and to address the distortions around the religion.

As Resources

Finally, we need to acknowledge that there are a great number of venues and public advocacy groups who are dealing with questions of Islamophobia and representing Islam. Many of these organizations have bright, intelligent, committed people working for them, but lack the expertise and resources that academics have. There seems to be obvious connections to be made amongst these groups and universities. In exchange, these groups extend the exposure of academics as public intellectuals. They actually have more impact in terms of changing public discourse because of their connections amongst their constituencies and media contacts.