How to make academic work relevant?

It costs about a million dollars to produce a Ph.D, in the U.S.

One of my mentors shared this interesting fact, as I was about to finish my doctoral education. While I was trying to finish a decently-written dissertation, this fact kept nagging me. I had to justify that million dollar investment made on me by the state of Virginia ( I went to Virginia Tech, a public school) for my Ph.D. At the same time, I had this nagging suspicion in my mind that academic research, for the most part is not perceived as being relevant outside the confines of academe. Is this a problem that needs fixing? For sure. As demands to increase the ‘efficiency’ of dollars put into the higher education system grow, this question of relevance will become more salient.

Georgetown Uni
Georgetown University, photo credit : Georgetown.edu

In the market-place of ideas, academic research  (especially in the Social Sciences) stands out as the effete snob. Unless one works in applied research – i.e., STEM or Economics, most people don’t understand what we social scientists do, or how we do it. And sadly, most don’t care.

Should this be the case? How can we change this? How can I justify that million dollar investment, made on me, as a scholar?  I think about this regularly – and have been mulling this over – even as I work on an academic book and two other articles.

Bent Flyvbjerg (2001), a social scientist offers some answers. Here are his key arguments:

  • We must stop pretending that social sciences can emulate the success of natural sciences, in producing ‘predictive theories’.This is not the strength or even focus of social sciences and we must accept that, as a given
  • Social scientists must produce research that matters ‘to groups in the local, national and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we
    must focus on issues of context, values and power, as advocated by great social scientists from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.’
  • Finally, he says we must establish greater dialogic capacity – i.e., communicate our results to the public and solicit feedback and incorporate it in our work. In other words, we must become ‘public scholars’ rather than be cloistered in offices on unreachable university campuses

In other words, what Flyvbjerg is saying is that academics must produce work that speaks to the condition of people around us, it addresses their daily concerns as well as listens to them, carefully and respectfully. To this, I would add a final point : Write in ways that are understandable to the vast majority of non-academics and show genuine empathy for the lives of those around us. Most academics tend to forget this, and write for an academic audience – which is usually those who are peer-reviewing their publications ( ranging from four to five people). ‘The rest of the world be damned’, is their attitude.

If we start to do this, perhaps our work may be taken more seriously by a non-academic audience. And perhaps it may even be relevant to those not within our own narrow disciplines.

 

References

Flyvbjerg(2001) Making Social science matter, why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again.  

The problem with the question : ‘Is Islam a Violent Religion’

As a young scholar, I am amazed at how easily such a question can be posed towards Islam and  Muslims, without second thought – as if it is the most normal and banal question that one can ask – indeed, many of my close friends and associates have asked me this question, in the past. But there is one simple problem with that question: It is a deeply racist, divisive and intolerant question. By asking this very question, we are putting Islam in an ‘exceptional’ category, and by extension, also putting Muslims in a special ( not elevated) but rather a demoted place, where their actions, ideas and thoughts cannot be understood by ‘normal’ processes, and somehow we need special tools to ‘figure out’ what is going on in their minds. This question also builds on deeply held Orientalist assumptions of what the ‘Muslims’ think or feel[i].

Photo credit : www.thegospelcoalition.org
Photo credit : http://www.thegospelcoalition.org

In a deeply ironic way, this question is anti-enlightenment, in that it presupposes our knowledge of others, without even investigating the phenomenon. It is just poor journalism. Here, I am specifically referring to the recent ‘debate’ started by Foreign Policy on ‘Islam is a religion of violence or peace’ and the particular stance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali starts off her article by pointing out that since 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror,” the violent strain of Islam appears to have metastasized.” She further argues that between the three categories of Muslims – will determine the future of Islam. One wonders how she came up with this categorization – is she an expert on Islam, or Shari’ah or Muslim societies? The answer to each one is no.  While she pretends to offer an analytical view, it is nothing but her own imaginary constructs that guide her, in her analysis. The fact that a publication such as Foreign Policy chooses to highlight her arguments over other critical and scholarly voices such as those of Talal Asad, Abdullahi An’naim and dozens of similar scholars and activists shows either a complete disregard for credible scholarship or a bias towards sensationalism. In any case, this debate is not framed respectfully or appropriately.

Speaking of violence and the impact of ideologies in perpetuating it, is it not true that the GWOT de-stabilized the region we know as Iraq and also upset the geopolitical configuration of the region? Why are we not asking whether American militarism is justified or not? Can we ask whether ‘democratization’ processes have been violent, because indeed the GWOT and other attempts at bringing democracy to the Middle East have been extremely violent processes that have resulted in deaths of over 1.3  million deaths. A report by Physicians for Social Responsibility points out that “This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs[ii].”  These are credible numbers that actually point to the violence that has been caused in the name of spreading ‘peace’. So, can we ask whether our ‘values’ of promoting peace are violent? Can we ask whether ‘democracy’ is violent? Of course, any contrary evidence is brushed off by Ali, who seeks to look only in one direction – that which only proves her point.

What such narratives and the entire discourse of ‘Islam is violent’ creates is a ghettoization of Muslims. While I think there is virtue in debating the merits and de-merits of Shari’ah law or other related aspects, that impact values such as human rights and equal treatment of women, there is very little benefit to arguing for whether we should even consider Islam a legitimate religion – and this is the logical conclusion that Ms.Ali and others such as her reach. When she concludes by saying that we must not only focus on the violent extremism, but also the “We need to confront the nonviolent preaching of sharia and martyrdom that precedes all acts of jihad,’ she is taking her claims too far. There is real danger in this discourse, in that it marginalizes, stigmatizes Muslims and their religion and we are already seeing the negative repercussions of this – Islamophobia, hatred and bigotry.

The shooting of three Muslims in Chapel  Hill,N.C.,  the burning of the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and several others incidents point to the rising hatred and violence against Muslims and those who look like them. As Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates points out in her OpEd in Washington Post, “American Muslims experience prejudice far more than they report to authorities. When asked anonymously in a 2011 Pew poll if they had been threatened or attacked in the past year, 6 percent Muslims said they had. Given that Muslims population is about 2.6 million of the population, Pew polls responses suggest that about 156,000 Muslims were victims of hate crimes[iii].” Ms.Khera further goes on to say that Justice Department believes that many of these crimes are not reported because victims believe the police will not or cannot do anything about it. The ‘real’ problems that Muslims face in the world are violence, bigotry and hatred, from those outside their faith community and also in many cases, from within. This is the truth that many reports and scholarly analyses showcase. That is not in dispute.  To the extent that this is a matter of ‘interpretation’ of texts, Ms. Ali is right. But to somehow link this violence to the entire belief structure of Islam is a logical fallacy that even someone familiar with basic tenets of Islam would not make.

As Noam Chomsky suggests in his essay ‘The Responsibility of intellectuals’ political analysis should be about looking for motives behind actions – and this analysis should go both ways – looking at actions and words of ‘others’ as well as our own[iv]. And to somehow assume that ‘we’ are always pure, clean and on the high moral ground is to be delusional. Democracy promotion, for instance has been deeply violent process that has cost millions of innocent lives. And ‘we’ are responsible for it. He further points out that creating an ‘open society’ and a ‘free’ one seems to have become a mantra, a dogmatic assumption that is not often challenged. He suggests that “If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, than this is the price we must pay in defense of freedom and the rights of man.” This is the logic that Ms.Ali seems to be following.

Ayaan Hirshi Ali’s claims are nothing but screed and propaganda – aimed at provocation and incitement- but doesn’t meet the basic criterion of responsible journalism. It is peddling opinion as facts and beliefs as ‘truth.’ To call it scholarship would be an insult to those who practice it. The mark of any genuine scholarship or journalism is to look for ‘complicating evidence’ –stuff that challenges our assumptions and beliefs, and in this area, her entire argument falls flat. She is as dogmatic as the Taliban, and that is the real danger. We are dealing with a demagogue here, not an analyst.

[i]  A more detailed account of some of these ideas are in Carl Ernst’s Following Muhammad. http://i-epistemology.net/v1/attachments/847_Ajiss21-3%20-%20Book%20Reviews%20-%20Rethinking%20Islam%20in%20the%20Contemporary%20World.pdf

[ii]  Body Count, Physicians for Social Responsibility. March 2015 accessible at   http://www.ippnw.de/commonFiles/pdfs/Frieden/Body_Count_first_international_edition_2015_final.pdf

[iii] Khera, F. Its hard to prove any hate crime. But for Muslim victims, its especially hard. The Washington Post. Feb 17, 2015

[iv]  Chomsky, N. The responsibility of intellectuals. Accessible at http://chomsky.info/19670223/

Is religious nationalism relevant today?

Is Zionism relevant today? Or for that matter Hindutva or Islamism?  Whether it is India, with its ruling party – the BJP, which has a strong Hindu revivalist motif or Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, after a debacle of sorts, religion and religious parties continue to challenge our understanding of politics and public life. The question that is of interest to me is: Are these religious nationalist parties relevant? Is the idea of religious nationalism – by which I mean a political party or group that uses strong religious symbolism to create its nationalistic identity – relevant? What sort of a world does this lead to and more crucially, can we all live with a ‘plural’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a country?

Recent scholarship has challenged our understanding of public religions. For instance, Jose Casanova, a prominent scholar of sociology of religion has written extensively about the phenomenon of ‘Public Religions in the Modern World,’ where he argues that our understanding of privatization of religion perhaps needs revision, given that it evolved in the context of Western Europe’s enlightenment. The battles fought between the Church and the ‘enlightened’ were real – and often bloody- before the Church gave in and realized that religion had to be a ‘private’ issue. But we are once again, seeing the ‘return to religion,’ across the world. Or is it that religion never really left the public sphere, but scholars and observers just didn’t write about it or frame the discussion of religion using that understanding?

Casanova himself argues that his own understanding of public religion was flawed primarily because it was ‘Western-centric’ and also that there needs to be a more ‘global comparative’ component to transnational religions. This means that one cannot directly apply the ideas of how religion is supposed to operate in the West on the non-Western world.  As he suggests, religion and ‘secularism’ themselves are constructs that emerged in a Western model of society and one that may call for reexamination, given the historical development of how this model of the world has changed.

As a Muslim who grew up in India, I am always surprised in ways that my own understanding of Islam – as a force for social organization – differs from that of others who grew up in Muslim majority countries. I have had discussions, debates and arguments with folk who want to see Islam as a ‘perfect’ system that doesn’t need change. I fail to understand how they don’t see their ‘Islam’ as a constructed reality, not an immutable and unchanging idea. Which ‘Islam’ one follows is truly a matter of one’s social circumstance? And I don’t mean to simplify this by alluding to the cliché of ‘extreme’ or Salafi Islam and ‘Sufi’ Islam – that is Islam for Dummies and I will spare you more of those simplistic generalizations.

When I hear of Hindu nationalists trying to ‘save Indian culture’ or Islamists trying to ‘preserve Islam’ or Zionists trying to be the guardians of Israel, they are all talking about roughly the same thing – how do we project and preserve our version of our religion in the public domain. While many Western style democracies (including India and Israel) allow for ‘pluralism’, the challenge really is preserving this plurality of voices. Each time a leader or idea is criticized; there is often a hue and cry, as if the entire religious edifice is being questioned. Questioning Mr.Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India is not questioning Hinduism. Hindutva is not Hinduism. It is a political manifestation (and a rather recent one) of what some Hindus think it is.

Similarly, calling to doubt the ways that Zionism operates today doesn’t mean that one is attacking Judaism – the problem with religious nationalism is that it wants us to conflate the groups ideology with that of the nation – and vice versa. This is where the real danger is. This uni-dimensional narrative of ‘One India’ or ‘One nation’ leaves out the many narratives that have shaped the nation. This muzzling of power to dominate the narrative is what most religious nationalist organizations attempt. While there is no real reason to discriminate against them, only for this reason, there is a need for caution and vigilance. As much as I dislike the aggressive nature of Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to grab power, it is a fact that they are part of the political framework of Egypt (or at least were). To deny them participation in the public sphere is to deny them a constitutionally mandated freedom. The same applies to political parties in India or religious groups in the U.S. – as odious as their rhetoric may be.

RSS

This brings us back to the question I started with: Is religious nationalism relevant today? I think not. While religion gives us meaning, and I certainly don’t have a problem with that, politics in today’s world should be about a vision for our society, as a whole. Not just for one’s community or group. This narrowing of vision can lead to what William Connolly has called ‘miniaturization of human beings.’  While religion can be a force for social good– through philanthropy, social activism etc- there is also danger in this identity based politics can become majoritarian. I am fine with religion and OK with politics. To mix them in together seems to be a heady cocktail, most modern nation-states cannot tolerate, too well. We have Egypt, Israel and to some extent India as examples, before us.

Why focus on praxis, rather than on thought?

In the study of religion, is ‘thought’  more important than the everyday reality of those who practice religion? By ‘thought’ I include all the teachings, conceptions of ‘ideal society’ and life that every religion teaches.  This is a hard question to answer, as ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are two sides of the same coin, but in some cases, the practice assumes greater significance, as ‘ideal conditions’ for practice of the religion do not exist and those who believe in a certain religion tend to improvise and adapt their practices to the situation they find themselves in.

In the case of American Muslims, I suggest that the study of praxis is more important than that of ‘thought’ or ideal conceptions of society. The latter is not insignificant, but marginal, since the strategies that American Muslims have used to survive, build their communities and thrive have been based on pragmatic decisions, improvisational practices and a more ahistorical understanding of Islamic practice. Much of scholarship on Islam in the Academy normally occurs with the lens of ‘Islamic thought’ and in analyzing how classical scholarship by Imam Ghazali, Imam Hanafi or others has continued to influence day to day life of Muslims. On the other hand, there a strong focus on analyzing political movements and radical movements in the Middle East – in terms of trying to understand how these could

One instance of such practice is offered by Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, who argues that Muslims in Portland, Oregon are offering such examples, as praying in the car, when it is time for prayer, instead of missing it – while doing away with the prostrations – as it is not possible, while driving. He suggests that such instances are not uncommon in the U.S. Another example he offers, writing, as part of the Portland Pluralism project is that of not washing one’s feet during the ablution (wudu), before the prayers. This practice, while allowed in the fiqh, or Islamic legal tradition is not often practiced by Muslims in other parts of the world, but is done, quite regularly by those in the U.S., as many Muslims are uncomfortable washing their feet in public bathrooms.

Even in the case of practicing philanthropy, I have seen this improvisation taking place. The very notion of international humanitarian giving can be seen as an improvisation, based in the pragmatic needs of the community. While original conceptualization of zakat and sadaqa encourage believers to give to their immediate relatives, or neighbors, this form of trans-national giving can be seen as a recent innovation.

Another area of improvisation in philanthropy is interfaith work. It is regarded with some suspicion, among the more conservative members of American Muslim society. By philanthropy, I mean all forms of ‘voluntary action for the common good’. While organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands for Humanity and the like are focused on international work, with some significant work being carried out locally, as well; there are hundreds of local community organizations, operating independently or through mosques – in some cases – that are working to not only build networks of support, but also

One of the most interesting cases I have seen, during my time living in Washington D.C., was the practice of using a church for Jum’ah (Friday) prayers. This is a regular practice and has been ongoing for a while now. The ADAMS Center in Washington D.C. uses the Church of Epiphany for the congregations. This has been an ongoing activity, much earlier than the recently publicized event of Muslims praying in the National Cathedral in D.C. While the symbolism of Muslims praying in the largest Cathedral in the city is not to be dismissed, some see it as a PR stunt. Note that this occurred during the troubles in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. A rather cynical friend in Blacksburg connected these two events and suggested that it is a conspiracy of the ‘zionists’ to tell Muslims that they should offer their sites to Christians and Jews to pray. While his logic is indicative of some of the suspicions that some Muslims harbor, it doesn’t take into account the improvisational nature of Muslim practices in the U.s., where Muslims have taken Christian names, married their women and have had a fluid and accommodating relationship with other religions, races.

            Another example that I can offer from my own experience is that of the definition of a ‘Muslim’. In the U.S. unlike in many other parts of the world, the definition of who is a Muslim is very fluid. For instance, does the Ahmadiyaa community, which is considered ‘heretical’ in the Indo-Pak region is a full member of the broader Muslim community, at least in theory. While there are not as many interactions between the community and its non-Ahmadiyaa Muslim communities, the situation is at least better than in the Sub-continent, where members of the community have been actively persecuted for their beliefs and Pakistan has labelled them non-Muslim, as they believe in the prophethood of their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed.

All of this is not to suggest that somehow orthodox beliefs or systems of thought are irrelevant in the U.S., but only to indicate that the way we study traditional practices among American Muslims must be re-looked at, in the context of the growing felt need of American Muslims to find common ground and find space for their way of life, among others, who do not always share their beliefs. Does this answer all our questions about how Islam is evolving in America? Not really, but at least, it offers a honest and true perspective of things as they are, not as they should be.

Top ten books I read this year

I read a lot of books this year. Like a LOT. Part of the reason is that I am preparing for my prelim exams (part of the PhD process) where you prove to your committee that you know your stuff. Additionally, I presented a few papers at a few conferences, many of them outside my ‘field’ of research. This meant reading new scholars, people that I didn’t know much about. Also, I went back to some books that I had read in the past, to revisit them and have a ‘conversation’ with them, so to say. Here is a short list of about ten books I read – all of them related to religion and philanthropy – two areas of intersection, that come together in my own work. In no particular order of importance, I list them here, with a short blurb. Good books are like a good conversation with a person you wouldn’t (normally) meet. Also, the fact that some of these books have endured the test of time are a

testament to the wisdom they contain.beyond the veil

  1. Beyond the Veil – This is one of the most provocative, mind-bending books I read this year. I was also fortunate to meet Dr. Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, during my visit this summer. She is considered the pioneer of Islamic Feminism and she makes some ground-breaking arguments in this book. The key argument is that Islam is an egalitarian religion, with respect to women’s rights and it gives them equal opportunities to partake in public life. The problem of women’s rights seem to have arisen with the manipulation of hadith and sacred texts by later day scholars, who sought to keep the patriarchic societal framework ongoing. She argues that Islam views gender segregation as a key component of maintaining social harmony, as female sexuality is viewed as an active ingredient, rather than as a passive one.
  2. Zealot – This is a fascinating book that offers a perspective that is not well known to most people, except scholars of religion – that Jesus the man was a political figure, who was made apolitical by Christians, after his death, to make his message more acceptable. This is an interesting book by Reza Aslan that also generated quite a bit of controversy, after an interview on Fox news. In case you missed it, you can watch it here. My connection with Reza is also that I did some research for him last year, and also got to meet him in person.
  3. The Conservative Soul – If you are looking for a book that explains the current debates in American conservatism, pick up this book. Andrew Sullivan is one of the most prominent bloggers in the U.S., who initially supported George W Bush and his war on Iraq, but later became critical of it. The book is a conversation with the reader on where conservatism stands today, and what its future looks like. While the book is a bit polemical, it could have done with a bit wider reporting of the conservative movement and more nuanced scholarship. He could have looked at Red State Religion, a fascinating book by Robert Wuthnow, for instance. Overall, this is a popular book that brings a lot of discussions to the fore, but there are flaws in it, as the NYT review point out. Would I still recommend it? Absolutely yet.
  4. The Sociological Imagination – This book, written by C Wright Mills, a motorbike riding Sociologist from the 1960s is sure to make you pause and re-think the way much Social science analysis is carried out. Mills’ key argument in the book is that we need more ‘Sociological imagination’ in analyzing our society. A purely ‘rational’ model of analyzing situations won’t work, he suggests.

The key argument of the book is that Social Sciences must evolve a new lens or a vision for analyzing the world and this must include History, biography (of the individual) as well as social conditions. A merely one-dimensional analysis or study of the individual does not yield the right picture or a complete understanding of what is going on in the world.

He argues that for a complete and true picture of social reality, one must try to connect the personal struggles of the individual with that of the broader society. While not many people do this, he believes that this is the right way to study social sciences. Pointing towards the need for this he says: “What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend that journalists and scholars, artists and scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the Sociological Imagination”. Inter-disciplinary research, which is a mantra on college campuses nowadays, was what Mills called for.

  1. Habits of the Heart – This book is considered a classic in American Sociology by Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the heart tells us the story of four Americans – Brian Palmer: the corporate exec. Joe Gorman: The communitarian in MA, Margaret Oldham, a therapist and Wayne Bauer: Community organizer in CA- a hippie of the 60s’.

He says “Brian, Joe, Margaret, Wayne each represent American voices familiar to all of us. One of the reasons for the arguments they would have is that they draw from different traditions. Yet beneath the sharp disagreements, there is more than a little consensus about the relationship between the individual and society, between private and public good. This is because, in spite of their differences, they all to some degree share a common vocabulary, which we propose to call the “first language” of American individualism in contrast to alternative “second languages” which most of us also have.( P.20). Based on over 200 interviews, they offer a typology, based on four types of character among Americans: the independent citizen, the entrepreneur, the manager, and the therapist.

The book complicates the notion of individualism and suggests that is it not all bad. The individualism of a Cowboy or that of a firefighter may be seen as being purely selfish, but it is selfishness at the service of others, argue Bellah et al. “One accepts the necessity of remaining alone in order to serve the values of the group. And this obligation to aloneness is an important key to the American moral imagination.” The growing sense of individualism and lack of collective identity among Americans is a problem, the authors suggest. In response to this, a number of scholars such as Amitai Etzioni and others have come up with models for working out ‘communitarian’ ideals that would ultimately bind people, together

6. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam – This book is a new interpretation of the role of Ulema, or religious scholars in Islam. Mohammed Zaman offers us an insight into the ways and means that the Ulema in India used, to resist colonial occupation in pre-Independence India. He makes the case by looking at archives, historical work as well as commentaries of the Qur’an, written by various scholars, belonging to different strands of Islamic thought – the Ahl I Hadith, the Tablighi Jamat etc.. each one of which approached the Qur’an and Sunnah in a particular way.

7.A History of Islam in America – This is a scholarly examination of a topic that has been written about, from many perspectives. Ghaneabassiri offers an in-depth look at the origins and growth of the American Muslim community and places their history in relation to that of America. As a scholar of religion, his perspective is quite nuanced and he offers a penetrating analysis, which is hard to dispute. He argues that there are three million Muslims in the U.S, per Pew and Gallup poll results (pg.2). Given the enormous diversity found within the Muslim population in the U.S, no one narrative can capture the varying experiences of American Muslims, as there is no single American Muslim experience. “Muslims who found themselves in this country whether as slaves, immigrants, or converts have had to define themselves and to interpret their varying religious undertakings and practices in relation to the dominant laws, conceptions of religion, and political and cultural structures that have shaped American society through the years.” ( pg.3

8. Islam and the Blackamerican – Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican is a tour de force for understanding the question of Black Americans in America. He offers a compelling narrative, grounded in American History, Qur’an, Hadith and other Islamic texts that offer us the story of what he calls the ‘ideological encounter between Islam and Blackamericans, from the proto-Islamic black-nationalistic spin-off movements of the early twentieth century through the rise and preponderance of orthodox Sunni Islam by the century’s end.’ Jackson offers us insights into how issues of racial inequality in early period of development of Blackamerican consciousness were replaced with concerns of problems of the Muslim world – Palestine, Kashmir and Egypt. He does a nice job of tracing the relations between ‘immigrant’ Muslims and the Blackamerican Muslims, while placing it in the context of theological debates and the power relations that emerged out of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islamic tradition.

9.Making Social science Matter – This book by Bent Flyvbjerg offers a compelling reason to reject completely ‘rational’ explanations in favor of those that are intuitive. He calls this methodology as ‘phronesis’, based upon the methods of intuitive and arational analysis developed by Aristotle. This style of reasoning is needed in today’s world, as it is becoming increasingly complex, multi-layered. Further, this method of analysis is important, as the main strength of social science is its reflexivity and ability to offer a critical perspective. This does not necessarily include prediction, which is what pure science is supposed to do, he suggests.

10.Strategic Giving – This is a great book if you want to understand the transformation of philanthropy in America, both from a donor and recipient’s perspective. I was privileged to attend a summer fellowship with Dr. Peter Frumkin, who teaches at Upenn, so also know the backstory to how this book was written. This is a great study of the growth and transformation of American philanthropy and in the book, Frumkin offers an in-depth investigation of how foundations changed, over a period of time, and how this can be seen as a part of the change of American landscape of giving. His argument is that one should look at philanthropy as a value driven enterprise, rather than just purely instrumental. Hence the use of the word ‘strategic’. His framework in suggesting this is a prism of giving, a five point mantra, if you will of giving. These five elements of giving include: deciding which vehicle to use for giving away the donor’s money; clarifying the purpose of the gift; setting a time frame for giving; choosing the level of donor engagement with grant recipients; and assessing the impact the contributions will have.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in the West?

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in Western societies? Given the rise of the atheist movement, best exemplified by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and other famous celebrities who make a living dissing religion; the question is: Do they have a point when they say that religion makes no sense and people are fools to believe in it? While this is a reasonable claim, it is not true. People are indeed rational when they speak of religion and they do this by speaking to others (and themselves) in ways that conforms to norms of reasonableness. This is the key argument that Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociology professor makes in his book The God Problem, which carries out a discourse analysis of how people talk about religion. He argues that given a chance to speak, and with enough attention and patience, we will discover that most people will speak about religion in very reasonable terms. The crazy right-wing talk is just that – crazy- and is carried out by a tiny fraction of the minority, for political and other reasons, while the vast majority of believers are normal, reasonable people.

Photo credit: UC Press
Photo credit: UC Press

The ‘God problem’ is not only about belief, but about its manifestation in the real world. When radical extremists demand death for homosexuals or seek to legislate in favor of believers and discriminate against others, who don’t look or believe as they do; this problem becomes real. Also, the reaction of atheists to this is often very strong, leading to a war of words, and other times a literal war. This is the gist of what Wuthnow calls the God problem and one can appreciate how this is indeed a complex topic, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, where people take their religion seriously. I have written about this in my earlier post about Religion in the Public Sphere here. Another problem that he has highlighted is the notion of religion and democracy and freedom of speech. Since much of dogmatic religion suppresses dialogue, critical thinking, this is seen as harmful to democracy.

Wuthnow argues that a highly educated society like the U.S. is a paradox of sorts, given that rationality is not supposed to go hand in hand with religion. He says: “The best educated tend to tilt away from the pattern of devout religious conviction, apparently experiencing some of the tensions between faith and intellect that the critics argue is there. But this is only a slight tilt. For the most part, well-educated Americans seen to have found a way to continue to believe in God and praying regularly to this deity.” This, he says is not because of bad education, wishful thinking or other factors; but rather the need for these believers to have their cake and eat it too. In this way, he argues that language mediates between belief in god and rationality.

Wuthnow suggests that people of faith adopt strategies (six of them) to help balance this tension between faith and reality. They are:

  1. Schema alignment – Schema alignment frequently takes the form of anthropomorphizing god- imagining God behaves like a human person. Studies by Barrett and Frank C. Keil asked students to complete stories about God and then compare these with students’ answers to abstract theological questions. Their answers frequently suggested that God acted like a person even though these were inconsistent with the students’ formal theological views.
  2. Ontological assertion – Affirming the existence of God without necessarily attributing specific actions to God. It is possible to make statements that emphasize being without explicitly suggesting action. Prayers are often of this kind. They assert the existence of God without associating any other action with God. God is more of a reality, presence, or being and less of an agent who engages in action.
  3. Contingency referents – These are devices that makes divine action contingent on human action or circumstances, and thus provides an explanation for apparent failures of the divine. They are a kind of warrant or explanation for why something happens or does not happen. Warrants for trust are a good example. They stop short of asserting that they can influence God’s actions and hence Pat Robertson’s assertion that he could change the direction of Hurricane Gloria came across as a cultural Faux pas. As Wuthnow adds, “A Muslim doctor says she believes firmly in the Prophet’s teaching that you should ask God for what you need, even if it is a shoelace or some salt. “God is going to provide it,” she says. She adds “ It’s not that he is going to give it to me in my hand. I have to struggle to get it. “ Other people explain that God will help them realize their dreams in life, but only if they work hard, or that God will help them avoid serious illness, but only if they eat right and have regular medical check-ups.
  4. Domain juxtaposition – Is another device that emphasizes transgressions of basic cultural categories, or at least strong contrasts between them, and is thus expressed by this rubric. Prayer implies that the human realm can somehow communicate with a divine realm. The two realms are necessarily juxtaposed. However, a juxtaposition of this kind must be defined, and doing so involves the construction of a symbolic boundary that both distinguishes the two and brings them together.
  5. Code switching – This involves using words that in context would imply supernatural action, but then changing the terminology to make the meaning of those words metaphorical or ambiguous. He quotes a Muslim woman, with a bachelors in Economics as saying “ As a scientific, educated mind, I don’t think it is true that I relate to God, on a very personal basis. But I believe it is the spirituality inside you that says, ‘This is the God that has created me. He’s going to take care of me. “ What is she saying? “ Wuthnow asks, before answering that there are two parts to her – two aspects to her persona that reflect different speech communities. Speaking as an educated mind, she cannot say that she personally relates to God But switching into her inner spiritual self, she can say that there is indeed a connection.
  6. Performative Competence – Is slightly different from the other devices in that it suggests that the appropriate way to assess a prayer is by talking about how it was performed. An example would be saying that a heartfelt prayer is good or especially meaningful because the speaker was sincere. Another example would be saying that a liturgical recitation of the Lord’s prayer is good because the exact words of Jesus are being spoken. A competent prayer is one that conforms to these expectations.

The only weakness that I found in this book is that he did not give a background about discourse analysis to those who do not know what it is. DA is a highly technical and rich field, which takes some background in sociological theory, linguistics, political science to grasp fully and perhaps a short chapter or even an appendix with some references would have helped. This is a thoroughly researched book, with over 200 in-depth qualitative interviews, with people of all faiths in the U.S. To this extent, it is empirically grounded and rich in data.

As Wuthnow points out in the conclusion, American religion has included parts of ‘spooky and weird’ behavior. From Evagelicals like Ted Haggard to other born-again Christians, there have been leaders who have preached things that would fall into that category. This ‘World rejection’ as Max Weber termed – has been a key feature of dominant religious philosophies in the U.S. He further points out that all these have been studied, but what has not been studied is the way reason manifests in this mix. That seems like a fair thing to say. We tend to hear only the crazy stories of healing or their ‘rational’ denouncements by atheists who can be equally extreme in their reactions. In between these two, we don’t hear the actual experiences of the people who believe, act out and affirm their faith, on a daily basis. This book does a good job of articulating and making sense of this belief. One of the ways that an act comes to be regarded as rational is through what Jurgen Habermas has called ‘Communicative Rationality,’ i.e., when something is deliberated in public, among all parties involved and a decision is reached.

This is a fascinating read, and if you have interests in religion, linguistics, and sociology or discourse analysis – The God Problem should definitely be on your reading list.