Mission Civilisatrice 2.0: The Ivory Tower Approach to Islam and Politics

As a political scientist, I enjoy the heated back-and-forth of conversation with academic colleagues in conferences and workshops. We competitively compare our statistical regressions and venture judgments on countries we have visited once, maybe twice. How can we make sure that Egyptians achieve a viable democracy? Who do we support in Syria? What is up with al-Shabaab, anyway, how do we deal with those guys in Somalia? There we sit in the well-appointed conference halls of distinguished higher education institutions and think tanks posing "real world" questions. In the middle of one such academic sojourn, I had an eye-opening experience that made me stop and ask myself: what are we doing?

I had hailed a cab in Washington, D.C. The driver, an African man in a traditional outfit, was on the phone for a couple of minutes, speaking excitedly in another language. Thinking about the remarks I would make in a conference the next day, I was not particularly looking forward to engaging in small talk either. So when he finally asked where I was from, I said "Turkey" with a tone I hoped would conclude our short conversation. "Ah, nice," he enthusiastically replied. "Can you guess where I am from?" This kind of conversation can go wrong in so many ways that I hesitated. "Let me give you a clue," he said, "a country that is terribly divided, a country that your country has helped tremendously in really difficult times, when others did not really care about what was happening."

My driver, Mr. Mohamed Ali Hassan, was from Somalia and he is the chairman of the Somali American Peace Council. He reiterated that he appreciated Turkey's initiatives in Somalia (of which I was not even aware) and that he had been talking with Turkish partners about curbing extremism through different projects. Then Mr. Hassan proceeded to share his ideas on how one can counter al-Shabaab and reclaim Somalia's disenfranchised youth through education and sports. He was already involved in multiple community projects to that end, he said, and had even shared his views on Al Jazeera.

Then he asked me what I was doing. "I am teaching," I said. In my mind, my answer continued, "yes, my colleagues and I will probably discuss Somalia at some point tomorrow, and 'save' your people during our cocktail reception, and those of us who have visited fancy hotels in the region will have an upper hand, with valuable (!) observations on the cuisine and 'how nice the people actually are towards Americans'." Unaware of my internal monologue, Mr. Hassan congratulated my academic career with a heartfelt "Mashallah."

Needless to say, I was impressed with Mr. Hassan. I was also confused that I was having the most enriching conversation of my DC trip in a cab. I wondered how many academics who talk about extremism would be genuinely interested in hearing about Mr. Hassan's initiatives. I am not saying that only Somalis should talk about Somalia, or that Mr. Hassan has all the answers one can hope for. I have the pleasure of working with some amazing (American) scholars of Africa at my own university, who are fluent in local languages and spend a considerable amount of time in the region. For full disclosure, I am a Turkish academic residing in the US and I wrote an entire dissertation on Northern Ireland. However, I worked closely with Northern Irish scholars who would correct me as necessary and walk me through cultural subtleties.

Accordingly, it is worth questioning how many American academics commenting casually on Islam turn to scholars in the Muslim world for guidance and insights, rather than just confirmation. Do we sincerely ask the Mr. Hassans about their experience, or do we base our policy prescriptions on our desire "to civilize the world" in line with our convictions?

Make no mistake, I am grateful to be in academia, I love teaching and writing. However, as a Muslim, I am also getting a bit tired of the condescending tone many academics have, and the enduring disinterest in the people on the ground, especially - and ironically - in what we call "policy relevant" scholarship in international politics. I am increasingly witnessing this gap in high profile conferences and workshops on the Middle East, Africa, and Islam. I am still amazed at white Christian scholars who use the terms "Islamic" and "Muslim-majority" interchangeably, conflating a religion and its people in their lengthy sermons about how Muslims should navigate their current challenges. I am also trying to understand what policy relevance we can hope to achieve out of "Religion and Family" panels without women, "Islam and Politics" panels without Muslims, and "Extremism in Africa" panels without Africans.

The moment international policy circles start addressing this gap and making an effort to include the actual subjects of these necessary conversations, we will all take a big step towards the more equitable and stable world we have been desperately seeking in our conference halls.