The Good Fight: Combating Misconceptions of Islamic Studies

islamic_04042012A recent feature article published in the McGill Daily–my alma mater’s independent newspaper–recounted the detainment of Islamic Studies PhD student Pascal Abidor during a trip home to New York from Montreal via Amtrak. Abidor presented his passport to the border patrol officers as the train entered the United States, and when asked where he lived and why, Abidor explained that he was a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University.

This was enough to arouse the suspicion of the officers, who then looked through files on his laptop and found images of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies. Abidor explained these were a part of his research on Shiism in contemporary Lebanon. Abidor was then removed from the train, handcuffed, detained, and interrogated.

In the article, Abidor says, “I thought I was going to be sent to Guantanamo Bay.” Throughout his interrogation, he maintained that his interests in the Middle East and Islam were academic. In spite of his release several hours later, his computer and hard drive were seized and their contents copied–actions that are protected by Department of Homeland Security policy.

As an Islamic Studies MA student, I have yet to experience this level of hostility and suspicion (insha’Allah). When asked what I am studying, I am more accustomed to questions, asked in jest, such as: “Are you training to become a terrorist?” or “Are you converting to Islam?” Sometimes I am met with a confused face and a simple “but, why?”

But why does being an Islamic Studies student demand interrogation? In light of recent revelations about the NYPD’ssurveillance of Muslim students, which functions under the assumption that being Muslim makes one a person of interest, it seems plausible that this suspicion may extend to students of Islamic Studies, Muslim or not. Although the questions I have fielded are often meant to be humorous, they also reflect a pervasive ignorance of what Islamic history, philosophy, and law, have to offer as academic fields of study. Islamic Studies carries a strong affiliation with political violence not seen in other areas of Religious Studies; Christian Studies is not assumed to focus significantly on violent groups such as the Hutaree, and Jewish Studies scholarship doesn’t have a commonly understood association with the study of Zionist militias such as the Irgun. Yet, Islamism and terrorism remain tied to conceptions of Islamic (and Middle Eastern) Studies.

Beyond the stereotypes perpetrated by those outside of the discipline, problematic representations of Islamic Studies are furthered by assertions of some scholars that less emphasis should be placed on more “obscure” topics, because they take away from research focused on security and anti-terrorism. This distorted perception of what Islamic Studies should be assumes that conducting research and producing work in order to de-stigmatize Islam, the Middle East, or Arabs is a less worthy pursuit.   Furthermore, it assumes that the only thing we need to learn about Islam is how to combat or safeguard ourselves from it.

Tariq Ramadan, noted philosopher and Islamic Studies professor at Oxford University, asserts, “In everyday speech and within academia, a distinction must be drawn between Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and political Islam, Islamism, and Islamists on the other. The distinction is essential if contemporary Islamic Studies are to progress in any meaningful way.” Students and scholars of Islamic Studies play a key role in changing its trajectory within both the academy and the world at large. We have a responsibility to be conscious of how our own work and what Ramadan calls the “obsession with the struggle against ‘radicalization and terrorism’” within our discipline shape broader understandings of Islam itself. This is not to suggest that we abandon the new specializations that have emerged in recent decades. Rather, we must continue to allow space for other veins of Islamic study, particularly theology, literature, and history, without demoting them to “a subsidiary position,” as Ramadan notes, to challenge the conflation of Islamic Studies with political violence.

Abidor’s story illuminates numerous issues relating to the state of Islamic Studies, from outside perceptions to internal weaknesses. Amidst uncertainty on how to proceed as students and teachers of the discipline, one thing is clear: our field of study does not make us dangerous.

About Marianna Reis

Marianna Reis is a graduate of the MESAAS MA program at Columbia University.  Her research interests include Palestinian identity, diaspora, and cinema.  She is currently conducting research on representations of identity in political cartoons featured in Palestinian newspapers during the First and Second Intifadas.