They’re specialists for a reason

To quote The Economist: “Counter-terror specialists are seldom knowledgeable about the intricacies of modern Islam, and vice versa.”

I would argue that many counter-terror specialists are seldom knowledgeable about the intricacies of Islam generally, and usually have a very surface level understanding of Islamic theology (especially going back before the rise of Islamic reformism). That’s its own problem, and it is out there for all to see when “pundits” take the stage on CNN, MSNBC, or Time. But it goes both ways.

“Islam scholars” who specialize in classical Islamic history and theology tend to be ignorant of the intricacies of modern Islam, as well. It’s a generational gap: Those well versed in the modern tend to be less well versed in the ancient. Those well versed in antiquity tend to be half-way oblivious to much of what is going on in the present day. Each side has its value and its points of supremacy. But when either tries to cross over across time, scholarship suffers.

When a specialists’s frame of reference is the Middle Ages, he’s going to produce analysis that comes from a rather antiquated point of view. For instance, much of Bernard Lewis’s foreign policy recommendations and analyses comes from the context of middle-late Ottoman political culture, if not going even further back. This tends to make it difficult for him to pick up on modern trends and discern the nuances in modern Islamist thinking. Surely, one cannot understand the 21st century without understanding previous eras, it is rather difficult to make postulations about the time in which we live without a deep understanding of the here and now. While his historical scholarship and breath of knowledge are truly great, most of his commentary on modern Islamic political ideology and culture tend to be less and less relevant as they are produced. 

The same goes for other classically trained scholars, Daniel Pipes in particular, whose world view is similarly informed by a kind of medievalist approach that forces him to see all modern Islamist movements as one and the same, without attention to nuance or important details.¹ In both cases this often leads to the classification of various movements into one or two (and at most three) degrees of Evil or Danger (often “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism” or “Islamist radicalism” and so on²). This is, in my view, dangerous in much the same way that it would have been dangerous to ignore the ideological and practical differences between Chinese and Soviet communism. As some experts during the Cold War saw only “Red”, these experts see only “Green”. These classicist scholars tend to dismiss scholars whose domain is modern Islam and whose view of Islamism is that of a more fissiparous serious of movements (or singular movement). While they may have tremendous credentials when it comes to classical Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, their authority on the modern period is lacking in a most urgent way. Terrorism experts tend to be more apt at picking up the intricacies of terrorist networks and understanding the social dynamics of Islamism than do actual Middle East scholars in many cases, partially because they apply more social science to their studies than do the former. In addition to that, they lack the historical prejudices that historians bring to political analysis, which can at times be either beneficial or harmful. Understanding the historical background of problematic phenomena is key to contemplating or producing solutions to them. However, dwelling too much of historical factors can produce too much or too little empathy³ and cause scholarship to loose much of its value.

1. [Pipes actually has produced critical works on modern political phenomena, such as pan-Syrianism in his Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition (1992). This too, though, suffers from over generalization and a tendency to make connections between various ideologies (for instance, pan-Syrian Arabism versus non-Arab Semitic pan-Syrianism) stronger than they really are.]

2. [This is not to discount the value or credibility of these terms. It is very important to make a clear distinction between that which is Islamic and that which is Islamist; a task at which students of classical Islam (and modern Islam as well, but the more familiar with modern movements a scholar is, from my observations, the more likely it is that they will make the distinction between Islamic culture, theology and practice on the one hand and Islamist political activity on the other) have failed.]

3. [Having too little empathy tends to be the dominant trend.]

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