Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World

The Study of Islam and Muslims in the shadow of the “War on Terror”: Complexity, Reflexivity and Decolonising Methodologies

A major conference delivered by the Edinburgh Alwaleed Centre, Moray House School of Education and Sport, Centre for Education for Racial Equality Scotland & RACE.Ed.

Provisional Programme With Abstracts

Click here for the full programme with paper abstracts.

Day 1: Tuesday 8th June 2021

13.00 - 13.15: Opening remarks by Rowena Arshad (Professor Emerita, University of Edinburgh)

13.15 - 14.00: KEYNOTE LECTURE

The Decolonial Challenge and Islamic Studies

Salman Sayyid (Professor of Social Theory & Decolonial Thought, University of Leeds)

How should we think about decolonizing the study of Islam and Muslims? To a certain extent, some people in the field have been thinking about or against this topic for many decades, usually under the rubric of Orientalism – both its critique and its defence. Side-stepping the rear-guard actions that hold on to Orientalism (with its devotion to antediluvian positivism), it would seem that decolonizing the curriculum of Islamic studies could be achieved through a series of methodological injunctions, for example: broadening reading lists, recovering authentic subaltern voices, reversing the gaze, and recognizing the colonial inheritance. Such measures, it is argued, would undo the hierarchies that produce contemporary academic knowledge, and in many ways, are both commendable and necessary. Who would not want a kinder, gentler, fairer academy? But could these and similar measures really decolonize the study of Islam?

Islam has come to nominate a particular space and a destiny that cannot in the current conjuncture be easily set apart from the constitution of the contemporary world order, that is, the assemblages of institutions, protocols and subjectivities that connect a complex array of temporal and spatial horizons). Therefore, to decolonize the study of Islam requires a deeper decolonization than hitherto on offer. It necessitates the rejection of efforts to recuperate decolonial epistemologies and their sublimation into prevailing (neo-) liberal logics. To decolonize the study of Islam means not an extension of decoloniality but a transformation of its theoretical critique; it means addressing the place of Islam in the societies, cultures and politics that are folded within the colonial matrix of power.

The decolonial challenge is to understand the Islamicate (as the production of the post-Prophetic venture of Islam) neither as a type of colonialism nor as an abject subject of colonial power, but rather as an alternative history of the present. The project of Critical Muslim Studies takes up this challenge by focusing its investigations on how Muslimness is disclosed in a world in which Islam is rendered a scandal.

14.00 - 14.30: Q&A and discussion

14.30 - 15.00: Virtual Comfort Break

15.00 - 16.45: Panel 1

Decolonising Methodologies: Alternative Possibilities

Chair: Ibtihal Ramadan (University of Edinburgh)

  • Ajmal Hussain (University of Warwick): (Un)feeling Islamophobia

This paper will question whether polarisation and violence are the only outcomes to be expected from encounters between those feeling Islamophobia and those who are its victims. It draws on research from an experimental mediated contact involving young people who identified as Extreme Right and Salafi/Muslim.

I will draw on a number of scenes as vignettes from the mediated contact, as moments of identification where possibilities to unfeel certain sentiments toward Muslims/Islam occur. For example, how the practice of listening to Qur’anic recitation performed by a Salafi, worked to unsettle the signification of holy words as other, exotic and, therefore, in opposition to ‘our values’. The visceral experience of hearing Arabic as opposed to being told what it meant, worked to overlay certain objections toward Muslims/Islam held by one Extreme Right protagonist. I also consider the fractures and fissures in the structure of these feelings, apparent in sentiments like “yeah but what bothered me was that I didn't know what you was saying (reciting)’. Where the obscurity or foreignness of the language re-enforces intrigue.

I consider the scale of micro-encounters as method for affecting alternative feelings among Islamophobic actors. In doing so I consider the fraught nature of experiences that give them succour, and the virtues of contact as method for arresting the development of Islamophobic sentiments. I will further consider what affirmation should be ascribed to research participants whose presence and actions are not easily representable in conventional (western) paradigms of research and dissemination.

  • Jaan Islam (University of Edinburgh): The Myth of ‘Salafi-Jihadism’: A Critique of the Western-centric Narrative

This paper is a critical analysis of the subfield of Salafi-Jihadism and seeks to understand the portrayal of the movement in terrorism studies. Studies of Salafi-Jihadism follow a widely accepted narrative that it is the product of the thought of specific figures deemed to be marginal to the Islamic corpus as a whole, including Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, and Sayyid Quṭb. SalafiJihadism is portrayed as a homogenous, marginal religio-political movement with a coherent goal and structure, and significantly, as incompatible with the premodern Islamic corpus. This paper argues that there is little evidence to suggest such a narrative exists among self-stated SalafiJihadists themselves.

Furthermore, attempts to define Salafi-Jihadism—including various categorizations of Salafism—fail to identify a distinct, coherent movement and remain indiscernible from other anti-colonial Muslim movements developed in a vast range of Muslim religious and historical contexts. The attempt to identify and analyze ‘Salafi-Jihadism’ through the creation of a meta-narrative reflects the rationale of the field’s methodology: the identification and elimination of threats to the nation-state through persuasion or force. In the end, this paper calls for a reconceptualization of Salafi-Jihadism that avoids framing the phenomenon through a friend-enemy schematic; one that recognizes the significance of the premodern Islamic corpus in contemporary Islamic thought.

  • Amina Shareef (University of Cambridge): Youth Participatory Action ethnography in the War on Terror

Ethnographic research in the era of the War on Terror can benefit from the pedagogical possibilities of youth participatory action research. yPAR derives from the epistemological tradition of participatory action research (PAR) and extends the category of who is allowed to contribute to the research process to encompass young people. yPAR asserts that young people are equally important sites of knowing and knowledge and must be included within those inquiries that explore the lives, worlds, experiences, and institutions within which youth circulate and make and resist meanings of self, agency, and belonging. Inclusion of the very people oppressed by social injustices hopes to transform structures of dominance towards equity and democracy and transform oppressed peoples into agents of social and political change.

This paper will begin with a brief overview of the tradition of yPAR. I will offer a description of how the research design of my own doctoral ethnography exploring the impact of the war on terror on young British Muslim women between the ages of 12-18 was shaped by yPAR. I will follow with an outline of the decolonial possibilities of yPAR I have observed in my own work, including 1) developing praxis—critical reflection and action in oppressed youth 2) building youth capacity to intervene on the forces that shape their lives 3) social and personal transformation. I will follow this discussion with an outline of the pitfalls of yPAR in ethnographic research in the political economy of the war on terror.

  • Halima Rahman (University of Liverpool): “If a woman wants to wear a scarf then that’s her choice – that’s her feminism!"

This paper addresses the problems of mainstream feminism for studying the situated and religiously embodied experiences of Muslim women living in contemporary Britain. I argue that feminist methods and approaches pose problematic questions around orientalist and colonialist attitudes that have historically situated Muslim women’s bodies ‘as a site of contestation’ (Olufemi, 2020, p. 71; Phipps, 2020). In the context of the ‘global war on terror’ the Muslim female subject has been situated in the public imagination as socially and culturally oppressed, and their visibility as “Muslim” has often been labelled a symbol of threat; making it impossible for Muslim women to tell her-story (Bucar, 2012; Abu-Lughod,2013). Using a critical ‘feminogrpahy’ lens (Khan, 2017; Abrams, 2019), this paper will subsequently address the necessary methodological transformations required to continue my ongoing research about Muslim women’s identities. Specifically, I will expand the research questions of what it means to be a Muslim woman living in Britain, and how Muslim women’s attitudes are changing to further discover the extent to which Muslim women are occupying “spaces” to cultivate ideas about modesty and piety. Here, using a critical reflexive lens, I account for the shared religious, cultural, and ethnic background between myself, as the researcher and those taking part in research. Overall, I argue that if we are to include Muslim women’s voices as feminist voices, we must move beyond the binary frameworks of ‘oppressed’ versus ‘liberated’; thereby recognising hijab to signify not only religious expression, but as feminist acts of agency, empowerment, and resistance.

 Day 2: Wednesday 9th June 2021

10.00 - 11.45: Panel 2

Muslim Academics and the Decolonising Ethos: Complexities, Possibilities and Limitations

Chair: Khadijah Elshayyal (Hamid Bin Khalifa Univeristy/University of Edinburgh)

  • Haroon Bashir (Markfield Institute of Higher Education) & Omer Aijazi (Brunel University London): Navigating ‘Islam’ in the Academy: Decoloniality, Muslim Subjectivity, and the Limitations of a Category

In this paper, we ask: Can the academy accommodate Muslim scholars who speak of Islam as an ethical project? While we are marked by similar geopolitical and intellectual configurations that normalize material and epistemic violence against Muslim subjectivities, our distinct locations within Western institutions give rise to different body politics. To provide language to our refusals within the academy, we situate our question within the decolonial turn, i.e., a horizon of undoing and re-creation. Hence, we are less concerned with finding “correct” answers but more so with unhinging the “correct” way Muslim scholars are allowed to exist within the academy. Our paper challenges Islam’s erasure within decolonial thinking, adopting a decidedly Critical Muslim Studies perspective. In our welcoming of the convergence of decoloniality and the Islamicate, we attempt to undo liberal projects of Muslim legibility, the relegation of Muslims to a subaltern category, and Islam’s reduction to core constitutive elements. In doing so, we explore the limitations the current category of ‘Islam’ places on researchers, as well as what a non-Orientalist study of Islam in the academy could constitute as we move beyond Eurocentric epistemologies.

  • Siti Sarah Muwahidah (University of Edinburgh): Decolonializing “Introduction to Islam” Pedagogy: Reversing the Gaze and Cultivating Intersectionality

This paper reflects on my experience as a foreign Muslim woman teaching "Introduction to Islam" course to Master of Divinity students in the US (2017-2021). I use decolonial approaches in my teaching by highlighting agentive voices of Muslims, incorporating readings that critically validate Islamic worldviews and epistemology, and unpacking the colonial framework in the study of Islam. By reversing the colonial gaze, students avoid exoticizing the histories, politics, and cultures of Islamic societies. Also, they apply analogous critical lenses and conceptual frameworks (e.g., otherization, sectarianization, orthodoxy) to analyze their own religious communities and our shared society.

Although my class has typically been a space for progressive discussion, in Spring 2021 my students have become increasingly confident, and less subdued, when discussing issues pertaining to race and religion. I suggest the following factors are at play: First, the BIPOC students constitute about half of the class. This change of power-relations within the classroom has provided more liberative avenues for the marginalized students to share experiential knowledge, to show allegiances, and to express commitment in decolonizing knowledge. Second, I noticed that the Zoom chat feature acts as a space for expressing (unspoken) sensitive opinions in this synchronous class. Students now have a liminal space to write what they cannot openly say. Third, broader racial advocacy (e.g., Black Lives Matter movement) has seemingly elevated students’ intersectional empathy in connecting to the pain and speaking up for marginalized and misunderstood communities – especially the Black and the Muslim communities.

  • Asim Qureshi (CAGE): The Cardinal Sin of the ‘Bad Muslim’: Refusal to Condemn

Flowing through the arteries of George W. Bush’s infamous statement that, ‘You are with us, or with the terrorists’, the demand that Muslims across the world condemn acts of terrorism carries a violence that reconstructs them within a racialised binary. In November 2020, I brought together 19 scholars and activists to write of their experience of resisting the demand we condemn in a multitude of ways. What we could not anticipate, was the relevance our book ‘I Refuse to Condemn’ would take in real-time as our publishers came under pressure from the UK government’s counter-extremism Tsarina, Sara Khan as well as other counter-extremism practitioners. This was soon followed on Twitter by one of our authors having demands made on him to condemn the Nice attacks in late-2020 by the Terrorism Studies senior academic Peter Neumann.

This paper focuses on the process of trying to write on a subject that is nearly always presented as a signifier of the ‘Bad Muslim’ within the lived experience of many. Attempting to resist the ubiquity of this demand, is an attempt to expose yourself to the racialised logic of the state, and thus brings with it increased violence and scrutiny.  By reflecting on the experience and challenges of working with an academic publisher, I hope to highlight how the very notion of critiquing the demand to condemn, is in itself seen as a ‘sin’ against the state.

  • Ibtihal Ramadan (University of Edinburgh): Knowledge Production and Scholarly Engagement: The Predicament of good/bad Muslims in the thrust towards Knowledge Conformity

The War on Terror climate has markedly impacted on the contours of academic freedom at universities, and significantly reinvigorated debates over its purpose and its remit. In British academia, more control on intellectual activities is being imposed by the government, e.g. through Prevent, and some advocacy groups. Attempts to regulate academic teaching, writings and debates have spanned diverse controversial topics within AHSS disciplines. Yet, actual cases within British academia and beyond have shown that critical thought which categorically dissents from mainstream political views about contentious topics related to Muslims is being more restricted and contained in diverse ways. This not only threatens knowledge production, but also individual scholars, as shown by the recent attack on Prof. David Miller, at the University of Bristol. This paper reports on early findings from qualitative interviews with Muslim academics within HSS disciplines at UK universities whose scholarly interests aligns with Muslim related debates. The findings are discussed against the intertwining between the current (and historical) institutional racialized structures, i.e. micropolotics, and the macropolotics which construct Muslims as ‘the enemy’ at state level and beyond. Here, I will show how the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Muslims discourse has penetrated academic spaces and is impacted on Muslim academics career trajectories, research choices, self-censorship, and scholarly engagement. While failing to abide by the normativity is likely to ostracise any academic, those of Muslim background will be double-ostracised due to the pervasive unescapable othering discourse they endure.

11.45-13.30: Virtual Lunchbreak

13:30 - 15:15: Panel 3: 

Navigating Epistemologies, Critical Reflections and Reflexivity

Chair: Hanane Benadi (University of Edinburgh)

  • Chris Allen (University of Leicester): “Do you want to be a test case as the first UK academic accused of disseminating terrorist material online?”: Reflections on teaching terrorism online during the COVID-19 pandemic

Teaching, learning and research about terrorism has always been a contentious topic, presenting a range of legal, political and ethical challenges for academics. As Miller, Mills and Harkins (2011) rightly note however, this has been further exacerbated in the wake of 9/11 and for the United Kingdom in particular, 7/7 also. The ensuing raft of counterterrorism strategies and the introduction of the Prevent Duty via the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has therefore cast a long shadow over the landscape of Higher Education (HE). With this as a start-point, this paper reflects on teaching about terrorism (undergraduate and postgraduate) and the shift to online teaching necessitated by COVID-19. In doing so, a fourfold approach is adopted. First, it reflects on the concerns expressed by those in the university setting most without any experience of teaching about terrorism. Second, it reflects on personal interactions with external parties including local Prevent teams prompted by institutional concerns: the title a direct quote of this. Third, it reflects on the institutional ‘safeguards’ duly put in place and the effect on students: home and international, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Finally, it reflects on the performance and practice of the self in the teaching and learning environment. In doing so, this paper affords an opportunity to critically reflect on the embeddedness of ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘counter-extremism’ within institutional thinking, the impact of securitisation on pedagogy and teaching, and the often subtle inference of stereotypical views about extremism, radicalisation and terrorism within the HE spaces.

  • Tarek Younis (University College London): The War on Terror and the Psy-Disciplines: The Challenges in Navigating this Inevitable Union

The Nation-State’s current management of Muslim political subjectivity requires an understanding of psychologisation. Within a liberal capitalist framework, psychologisation serves to translate all social/political phenomena into a language of individual subjectivity and human vulnerability. This has been made especially clear through the War on Terror. Eurocentric psychological rhetoric has long served as a means of governance, providing the bedrock to identify and manage—and ultimately co-opt or quash—subjectivities unaligned with nationalism, (neo)liberalism and securitisation. This presentation will provide reflections on the challenges of researching and teaching in the psy-disciplines within a paradigm which sees the mental health as: A) necessarily apolitical and b) a moral good in-and-of-itself for all of society’s problems, including political violence. It will also reflect on the challenges of working/teaching Muslims on the significance of politics in the construction and practice of mental health disciplines—especially Muslim mental health professionals. It will end with some thoughts towards decoloniality in teaching and researching Muslim mental health.

  • Sarah Marusek (University of Leeds): Decolonising knowledge about the Islamicate in the Western academy: An early career researcher’s critical reflection

The United Kingdom’s Prevent strategy has been subject to widespread critique because it targets British Muslims as a suspect community, creating a climate of fear. This already difficult situation worsened after Jeremey Corbyn, a progressive voice in support of Palestinian rights, was voted as leader of the Labour Party, against all odds. The Israel lobby reacted swiftly. First, there was a contentious campaign to silence pro-Palestinian voices in the Labour Party, further fuelled by the blunt limitations of social media. Then, there was government pressure for universities to adopt the controversial IHRA definition of Antisemitism, which is being used to censor criticism of Israel, creating a culture in which merely making accusations of Antisemitism is enough to tarnish an academic’s reputation. Meanwhile, this same government is refusing to adopt the APPG on British Muslims definition of Islamophobia. My paper will explain how this atmosphere creates pressure on scholars to distance themselves from both controversial research and outspoken researchers striving to challenge Eurocentric narratives. Drawing on my own experience working at a British university as a white, non-Muslim scholar whose first monograph focusses on the Islamic resistance movement in Lebanon through a decolonial framework known as Critical Muslim Studies, this paper reflects upon the difficulties that early career researchers face in our mission to decolonise the curriculum, critically engaging with a number of hotly debated issues ranging from identity politics and activist-oriented research to the transatlantic Islamophobia network and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

  • Suriyah Bi (University of Edinburgh): Decolonising Muslim Men: Subverting Grand Structures

For decades now, Muslim men have been portrayed as both enemies of women, and enemies of western states, leaving little space to add nuance within the engineering system of this public discourse machinery. When we consider Muslim men, images of terrorists, sexual groomers, and wife beaters conjure up in our minds, the fruits of the seeds that have been planted in abundance by the news media, further compressing the view of Muslims within narrow lanes. While elsewhere there is a growing interest and subsequent literature reserve exploring men’s experiences and affording them Connell’s (2000) theory of ‘multiple masculinities’, the extension of this approach is largely lacking for Muslim men. Employing a personal construction of feminism and anthropological methodology, this paper will trace the experiences of Muslim migrant men from South Asia to the UK upon marriage migration. The paper will show Muslim men can and do experience waithood, vulnerability, and precarity, including severe forms of domestic violence. The ethnography will also show the ways in which Muslim migrant husbands navigate the volatile social and political landscape that determines their lived experiences, by exercising resistance and agency through renewed religious experiences. Given that it is usually Muslim women who are portrayed as experiencing vulnerability and as having to find ways to exercise agency, the ethnography will pierce the popular grand narrative of Muslim men as ‘monsters’, extending to them the theory of multiple masculinities, and recognising their broad and alternative experiences outside of the constricted narratives they are defined by. This will lead on to a discussion surrounding the contributions this chapter makes to the project that is decolonising Muslim men, setting out directions for future research in this area.

15.15 - 15.45: Closing remarks by Nasar Meer (Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship, University of Edinburgh)