Do Scholars have a social responsibility?

The amount of b&%* shit that I see in the ‘public domain’ on a regular basis makes me want to cry. Really.I am researching Islam in the U.S. and one can only imagine the amount of non-sense that there is, out there, along with genuine, credible scholarship. I would hazard a guess that at least half of the stuff on internet, about Islam is wrong or misleading information. That is another story, but in this piece, I want to focus on what responsibility scholars have, if any, to correct this anomaly.

Take the story of the Pythagoras theorem being an Indian invention or that Indians inventing flying and that they had airplanes over 7000 years ago. Absurd? Well, for some, in the hallowed corridors of power, in India, this is the ‘truth’, as absurd or illogical as it sounds. And there are well-meaning people who will point out that this is part of making India a ‘great nation’. What? A great nation, based on falsehoods and myth? One cannot build self-esteem by claiming thing that one has not done or by outright falsifying history.

Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org
Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org

To be clear, my beef is not with Indian culture. I love my country of birth and have no issues with my ‘identity’. I am very secure in who I am and have a lot of affection for my people and our ways of life. Thankfully, my identity is fully formed, despite having moved around, a few times. I do not place myself in the category of the self-hating Indian who wants to diss on Indian culture, while extolling the ‘West’. The West has as many problems as the East and we can talk about this till the cows come home. That is not the point.

My problem is with this self-congratulatory attitude of attributing all good exists in the world to some Indian scientist or mathematician . The same sort of myth making is at place here that exists when one speaks of the Israel/ Palestine conflict, an issue I am intimately familiar with, having studied it during my MA in International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I do believe, on the contrary that tradition is important, culture is valuable and that we should draw inspiration from our past. But how do we do that?

Let’s first start with the question: Do scholars have a social responsibility? I have been thinking about this for a while, as I prepare to enter the hallowed field of the American academy. I must admit, I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with, studied and spent a great deal of time with some world-class scholars, who have contributed to the study of American society, religion, nonprofit management, international relations etc. in the past four years and have nothing but enormous respect for the time, energy and dedication that they bring to their work. But the question remains: beyond the three core responsibilities of – teaching, service and research, do University professors /scholars have a broader social responsibility? When debates of race, religion and war and peace come up, are academics supposed to provide only their ‘scholarly opinion’, i.e., specialist knowledge and not ‘take sides’ or actively jump into the fray and help the lay man make up his/her mind? Not an easy answer, that one.

In a debate of this sort, there are several large and small-scale issues involved. I list just three here,

  1. The State’s legitimizing of certain forms of knowledge
  2. Scholars own careerism and search for legitimacy
  3. What counts as ‘knowledge’

Each of these is a configuration and does not stand on its own. What the ‘state’ apparatus denotes as ‘valid knowledge’ is key. Think of the times of war and peace, when propaganda becomes ‘truth’ and all versions of truth that do not match up to this are considered ‘lies’. McCarthyism and Bush era propaganda are enough proof to show anyone that this has happened in the past, and will occur in the future. Sometimes, scholars get too cozy with the powerful, especially if they legitimize one’s knowledge. Think of Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, in the recent past and their relationship with the Bush administration. They have been discredited in part because of the policies of the government, but they also gained legitimacy and power through the regime, when their ideas were being converted to policies and these policies were being implemented. A more recent instance of blowback is that of John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos, for the Bush administration.

For a more theoretical and nuanced take on this, see Michel Foucault, here.

As the article points out, power and knowledge are not seen independently but linked – knowledge is an exercise of power and a ‘function of knowledge.’ Further:

Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of “sexuality” had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge.”

Applying this to any form of knowledge production, one can see how a ‘regime of truth’ produces the kind of knowledge necessary.

So, in the case of India’s glorious past or that of Israel being the ‘promised land’, power/knowledge do come together to create myths and ideas that legitimize state policy. As the ‘New Historians’ in Israel Israel’s Ilan pappe and Benny Morris have shown, Palestinians did not ‘voluntarily’ leave the region, but were forced out in 1948 and the years following. Many of the myths held by Israelis as ‘truths’ have been debunked, with recent scholarship by these two scholars. Then there is Shlomo Sand, whose book The Invention of Israel

As this Guardian article points out:

“In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common “ethnic” lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going “back” to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, “Jewish People” is a political construct, an invention.”

Myths, truths and half-truths

Then there are articles such as these that speak of airplanes in ancient India that went from one country to another. Myth and facts don’t seem to be separated in any of these accounts. While fantasy, myth and the like have a role to play in life, I think we cannot base the teaching of history on these ideas. The article, in a prominent Indian magazine says “Aeroplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago and they travelled from one country to another and from one planet to another, the Indian Science Congress was told today in a controversial lecture that examined ancient aviation technology in the Vedas. The hosting of the lecture, presented by Captain Anand J Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training facility, had recently attracted criticism from some scientists who said it undermined the primacy of empirical evidence on which the 102-year-old Congress was founded.”

Where does myth end and facts begin? For the faithful, doubt has no place in mind. Blind-faith in any ideology can be harmful – be it nationalism, religion or science. In this case, Indian nationalism is being revived with utmost force and I am guessing the consequences are not going to be good. Each time this has occurred, there has been a war or a mass murder. Think of the partition of India, Wars with Pakistan, China and of course the countless ‘communal riots’ that take place in India, on a regular basis – that pit the Hindus and Muslims each as a ‘nation’, fighting it out. It looks like some people never learn their history right. And if they do, they do it in a way that boosts their own self-image and ego.

Scholars such as Shlomo Sand, Edward Said, Michel Foucault have all challenged, questioned the existing discourses of power that have legitimated certain forms of ‘knowledge’ as being true. Countless others continue to do so, in the academy and through their writings. Teaching of history, arts and social sciences is inherently a political exercise and one can take ‘sides’, while being honest about it. But I argue, what one should not and cannot do, is to be so blind to facts and one’s own biases. One cannot  blindly follow the path that legitimizes one’s world-view without seeking out alternative modes of reality, or reality, or peddling one’s own ideology as the ‘truth’.

To sum up, here is my take on whether scholars have a social responsibility. In short: Yes. They do. They do, because they are ‘powerful’ in that they have invested a lot of time, energy and money to acquire knowledge that is not accessible to all. They also have the power to legitimate a discourse. To misuse this power, either for personal gain or for gaining others favors is not only irresponsible, but also unethical. To ensure that one acts responsibly and ethically is the greatest responsibility that a scholar has. And this, I believe will be the test of true scholarship. Scholars are supposed to produce good, credible knowledge that advances our knowledge of the world, or questions injustice. Everything else is irrelevant.

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg

Spellberg

If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.

 

 

 


[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013

 

“How to Read a book,” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: Book Review

 

 

Here is a classic that will help you become a better reader, and as a result, a better thinker. How to Read a Book – A Classic guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is bound to make you re-evaluate your reading habits. No matter what level of reading you do, the tips and advise that the authors offer is priceless. Especially, for those who are engaged in higher education or research, the book is a goldmine of advice on how to read analytically and gives a thorough step by step process on how to go about being an active reader. First published in 1940, the book has remained a must read for any serious student and academic and I, for one, recommend that you get a copy of this book, today.

 

How to Read a Book          The book is broken down into four sections, each dealing with a different aspect of reading: The dimensions of reading, Analytical Reading, Approaches to different kinds of reading matter, The ultimate goals of reading. The authors go to painstaking details in illustrating how one should tackle each, with examples to guide you, in the process.

 

In short, the first part of the book is about reading actively, with the purpose of making sense of the content in the book and also to discover the meaning of what is being said. They offer some practical tips for dealing with difficult books, such as:” In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.”(pg.36) They ask the reader to do this, to “inspect” the book to grasp what you can. They recommend coming back to it later, trying to grasp the fuller meaning of the book. They also offer advice on reading speeds, depending on the difficulty of the book and one that must be kept in mind. As an active reader, the authors ask us to ask the following four questions, of each book: 1. What is the book about, as a whole? 2. What’s being said in detail and how? 3. Is the book true, in whole or part? 4. What of it?

 

In the second part, the authors talk about the various elements of analytical reading, primarily asking us to come to terms with the arguments that the writer is making, by determining the message- at times reading in between the lines, if need be. They call for looking for the various parts of the book, its organization, and their relation with each other and also looking at how the author has defined the problem or problems that are to be solved. They caution us to be careful about criticizing any book, before we fully understand what the author means. This means, parsing out the arguments, propositions and phrases that they are using and being careful not to mis-interpret them. Only then, can one criticize it. They further point out that the criticism should be along the lines of what are the logical inadequacies, flaws in argument and structure, rather than giving our own opinion. In this, they offer a rather scholarly etiquette of evaluating and judging any piece of writing.

 

The third section is about reading different kinds of books such as fiction, social sciences, history, math and science and philosophy- each one calling for a different orientation and style. The last part of the book deals with syntopical or analytical reading, i.e, two or three books of the same kind and what they say about a subject. This is outlined in five steps that the authors suggest: 1. Finding the relevant passages – that speak to the issue(s) that you have in mind, as a reader 2. Bringing the authors to terms, meaning identifying the terms and phrases that you are interested in, and getting the multiple authors to speak to those terms. In other words, it is about forcing the author to use your language, rather than his. 3. Getting the questions clear: This can be done by establishing a set of neutral propositions, that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors give answers 4. Defining the issues and finally 5. Analyzing the discussion : To ask, if the issues under discussion are true, what do all the authors say about it, and wherein they differ or agree.

 

In conclusion, it is good to remember their advise about tough books:” Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself to their level. It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively. To keep on reading actively, you must have not only the will to do so, but also the skill- the art that enables you to elevate yourself by mastering what at first sight seems to be beyond you.”

How to Read a book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: Simon and Schuster, New York, First published in 1940