A gulf in understanding?

Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.

The event was a success, but I came away with two reservations. The first concerns the possible failure of Anglophone security studies to find ways to engage with the rest of the world in ways that don’t come across as dominating. Croft has written about this himself recently (chapter in here), noting that ‘interdependence’ is a concept we in elite universities in North America, Europe or S.E. Asia might be comfortable with, but might seem threatening to others. Our research might contribute to the very problems of international conflict and cooperation it seeks only to explain. Sure enough, in Doha the Arabic professors consistently argued that the migration of Western terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘radicalisation’ is itself aggressive, a continuation of colonial practices. ‘They begin in English dictionaries but are applied in Arabic countries’, said one participant. And the fact that ‘we’ don’t provide clear definitions is an act of power: ‘The vagueness is deliberate. They [Western academics] want to hold in their hands what is legitimate’, said another. Western academics will define terrorism to suit our states’ interests. From this perspective, perhaps, for us ESRC-funded researchers to go to Doha and use such terms was an affront.

We can easily contest these claims. How can ‘they’ so lazily conflate Western researchers with their national governments? How can anyone expect a consensual definition of terms that are political and essentially contested? But at the same time, do we have a duty to discuss politics and security in other discourses? How can all parties translate and recognise each other’s vocabularies, histories, and problem framings? Without some thought about this, a space is created for pointless misunderstanding and mutual aggravation.

And it’s in this space, marked by the lack of shared terms and meanings, that my second concern emerges. Misconceptions about ‘the West’ were used so routinely, by individuals who could be considered opinion leaders in Arabic media, individuals who are familiar enough with life in North America or Europe to know that these are misconceptions, but who continue to perpetuate them in a manner that reifies the notion of a war between Islam and the West. As mild instances, the notions that ‘Westerners burn Qurans’ and ‘the West is Islamophobic’ were raised several times. A colleague pointed out, if you try to burn a Quran in the UK you will quickly be arrested, and if a person or institution discriminates on religious or ethnic grounds then legal proceeding should kick in. This is not to say Islamophobia doesn’t exist, but that it can be challenged and is challenged. Everyday multiculturalism has survived the war on terror. And does it make sense to even talk of ‘the West’ now anyway? Well, from those outside it, who feel on the receiving end of ‘Western’ action, it seems so. But there is a danger of explaining the world through Orientalism and finding the world is Orientalist.

These reservations aside, such events are a useful platform for overcoming mutual blind spots and only highlight the need for more engagement.