Middle East studies in the News
Islamophobia Has Roots in Academic Framing
by Janna Aladdin
Current events including Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's dangerous rhetoric, the execution style shooting of three black Muslim men in Indiana, the formation of Daesh and the Nov. 13 Paris attacks have fostered nationwide and global discussions about (or in denial of) Islamophobia, and more precariously on Islam's relationship to the "West" in context of modernity and fundamentalism. Discourse has centered on the incompatibility of Islam with the modern nation state, an alleged war against Islamists (or Islamists' alleged war against us), the fear of political Islam and the establishment of sharia law. The ideas of a Western World and Muslim World are often constructed to physically and spatially analyze such ideological divides. We see such debates unfold vociferously through historic and current attempted legislation for banning the hijab and the niqab in countries such as Turkey, Canada and France as well as on the shelves of our very own Rutgers Barnes & Noble that has six different books on political Islam for its "In the Media" display just last month. Ultimately this discourse is simplistic, uncritical and seeks to belittle complex histories of colonialism and intervention by drawing largely from generalizations and the conflation of Muslim, Arab, South Asian and Middle Eastern identities into one homogenous group or into the "Muslim World." However such discourse does highlight a key — there is one facet of society that has largely been unchecked of Islamophobia or of perpetuating arbitrary dichotomies: the academy. The role of the academy in generating public sentiment, notions of "us" and "other," prompting various military actions and policy changes cannot go understated. Therefore the academy's historic conversations on Islam, its current situation and future should be highlighted as important sites of contestation, the production of knowledge and conflict.
The history of Middle Eastern studies, Near Eastern studies or Oriental Studies — the name depending on region and time period — is fraught with Eurocentric narratives and the reduction of Islamic theology to a sort of stagnation. The mischaracterization of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam's history can be traced back even prior to the medieval era, however, even with the establishment of more robust area studies programs, which have since become underfunded and indeed undervalued, such mischaracterization ensues. For instance Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory popularly impacted and produced many proceeding theories on the relationship between Islam versus the West. Huntington postulated that Islamic civilization was fundamentally incompatible with Western Liberalism. Similarly historian Bernard Lewis's The Atlantic article, "The Roots of Muslim Rage" oversimplifies Islamic history as one tied to a rival system with Christendom (and Europe by extension). "Muslim Rage" has since been made fashionable for academics to develop, assign, dismiss, rebuff and build off of.
Continuously Eurocentric accounts of history, literature, philosophy and so on have allowed for the rigid and problematic depiction of Islam within the academy. It is important to ask, "Whose history are we learning? How have critical theories developed? Which philosophy dictates the field?" When we mention the Dark Ages, a term that has been without contest presented to us as school children, presents historical periodization or world history solely through its relationship to Europe. Yet the history of Islam did not encounter the "dark age" that befell on Europe and, in fact, witnessed far reaching advancements in science, theology, philosophy, engineering, science and more. Imam al-Ghazali (although we must be careful to characterize him as a philosopher when he himself did not adhere to the title) produced entire philosophies ranging from happiness to comprehensive criticism of Aristotle and other Western philosophies.
Given the popularity of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, precisely for producing explanations of aforementioned events, has also prompted a sea of ill-researched and uncritical books on topics ranging from gender in Islam, to Islamic law to sectarianism. Within months of Daesh inception, pseudo-scholars produced books upon books trying to make sense of the matter. However such studies, which often went for sensationalism, are incredibly sloppy and clearly meant for profit. "Experts" on Islam provide their own interpretations of Islamic texts without having the proper training in classical Arabic. Analysts have resorted to using archaic cliches and in many cases drew from the "Clash of Civilizations" theory.
The issue of Eurocentrism dominating the academy is one not distinct to Islamic history, but focusing on the treatment of Islam in the academy is most telling. This does not take away from the progress that the academy has made, especially not from scholars working to dispel such misinformation. It is to say that there is a lot of work to be done. Fortunately at Rutgers there is a wide range of classes and professors to draw from. But it is up to each student to think critically of the texts they read and narratives they are presented.
Janna Aladdin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in public health and Middle Eastern studies with minors in history and women's and gender studies. Her column, "Questioning the Colonial College," runs on alternate Wednesdays.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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