The Shifting Normal        

I am sitting to write a response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Matthew Francis, in the aftermath of the presidential election in the United States of America. The interview occurred before the shock result of this election became known. I listened to the interview both before, and following, the results, and will happily point out that these outside events, away from the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, have had an impact on my thinking. This is probably no bad thing.

Francis’s work on radicalisation, which he describes as understanding the processes by which “people come to hold radical views”, is increasingly relevant today. Throughout the interview he makes clear his opposition to the popular discourse around radicalisation, which draws a direct link between the idea of a ‘radical’, and violent terrorist actions. Radicalisation and terrorism are often used synonymously, and this is something which Francis rallies against. In the popular discourse, and indeed in much academic discussion, this understanding of radicalisation is further connected directly to a specific religious tradition- namely Islam. While we can understand the reasons for this, and empathise with those colleagues whose funding depends on working within these discursive parameters, it is clearly unhelpful. While Francis and Cotter do repeatedly mention Islam in the context of their discussion, I think it is clear that they do so not because they are buying into this dominant discourse, but rather as a reaction to its position as such a dominant discourse. It is a discourse which needs to be addressed.

Francis mentions early on in the interview the fact that although the IRA can clearly be labelled as a terrorist group, one which threatens the United Kingdom directly, we rarely if ever hear about the radicalisation of young Catholics in this context. His discussion of those who may hold to ‘radical’ ideologies, and those who may join a terroristic organisation without actively engaging with the overarching ideology of the organisation, for pragmatic reasons or simply to feel a sense of belonging, is fascinating. It is a discussion which I would like to hear more vocally expressed by academics through the media and into the wider public discourse. The issue of religious literacy, both on the part of those who espouse religiously inspired radical ideologies, and policy makers attempting to deal with these issues, also comes up in the interview. Recently, Belgian lawyer Sven Mary, representing the sole surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, has argued that Abdeslam is being further radicalised in prison. “He’s got a beard, he’s become a true fundamentalist whereas before he was a kid wearing Nike trainers”, Mary has stated.[i] This conflation of outward demonstrations of identity, with radicalisation, and further with terrorism, misses so much of the nuance which these complex issues require if they are to be even vaguely understood.

Given the interesting times in which we now live, the aspect this interview which most caught my attention concerned Francis’s comments regarding what we consider to be radical in the first place. Early in the interview, he briefly mentions the suffragettes as a group who held to a radical worldview, and fought to bring that worldview to reality. What we consider radical necessarily exists in opposition to what are considered as social norms. These norms clearly shift over time. Responding to a direct question from Cotter, Francis outlines how radicalisation can be seen as synonymous with socialisation;

“…. it’s about how (people) are sometimes brought up in, how their peer networks influence them, the kind of ideas that they come into contact with through society, through social media, through the internet, through a variety of other sources, and how this helps them interact with the world around them, helps them interact with other people.” (interview 4:41)

In his 1996 book, Radical Democracy, C. Douglas Lummis takes a similar view on the concept of the radical. For Lummis, the word radical in his conception of ‘radical democracy’ denotes intensification, rather than modification. When we speak about Christian democracy, liberal democracy, social democracy, and so on, we are referring to specific types of this ideal called ‘democracy’. However, when we speak about Radical Democracy, according to Lummis, we are discussing the idea (democracy) intensified.[ii] Similarly, what we may understand from Francis’s comparison of radicalisation and socialisation is that radicalisation is an intensified process of socialisation, with the context and prevailing norms playing a key role in what we categorise as radical.

As of writing,[iii] Donald Trump is the President elect of the United States. Come January, Trump will be POTUS. What does this do to norms? How does this change our understanding of the radical, and by association our understanding of radicalisation? As the first African American President of the United States is replaced by a man who has been endorsed by, and embraces, a variety of white nationalist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, how do we incorporate the new reality into our discussions of radicalisation? I would argue that Francis’s nuanced focus on ideology is of key importance here.

In his discussion of what make a radical, Francis mentions that while he is interested in religion, it is not his sole interest. Ideologies, ideas held sacred and non-negotiable, are what draw him into this work. Saul Alinsky confronts such ideas, and their limitations, in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals. In a section which is echoed in the later writing of a young Barack Obama, Alinsky addresses the question of his own ideology, the ideology of a community organiser;

“… the free-society organiser is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in constant change. To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations or society presents”.[iv]

Ideologies, held sacred and non-negotiable, are a hindrance to the work of a community organiser as they prevent the organiser from seeing the reality in front of them. They prevent flexibility, and hinder a reflexive view. Obama would later write in the journal Illinois Issues, “(many) community organizations and organizers are hampered by their own dogmas about the style and substance of organizing (… ) Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.”[v]

Does the President elect of the United States suffer from such debilitating ideology which Obama, and Alinsky, argued against, or is he, in line with Francis’s argument, someone who has not become radicalised but rather has joined with radicals pragmatically? As much of the ‘main-stream media’ comes to terms with the election of Trump, it appears to be the second option which they are trumping for. Trump is a chameleon, the argument goes, willing to say anything to gain power. He doesn’t truly believe the horrific things he has said about homosexuals, people of colour, Mexicans, Muslims, Women, the disabled. He is to be taken seriously, but not literally.[vi]  This misses an important point. Norms shift, and Trump’s pragmatic use of radical, white nationalist, ideology allows space for this ideology to become the norm. Exemplifying this, a story told by Teju Cole, retold as part of his argument against the normalisation of Trump, is worth quoting in full.

“On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”[vii]

Just as was seen across the UK post-Brexit, overtly racist graffiti and slogans are appearing across the US following Trump’s election.[viii] The norms of society have shifted, and with them our ideas of what is radical must also shift. The dominant discourse, that radicalisation leads to terrorism and is directly linked to Islam, needs to be questioned now more than ever. Matthew Francis’s work in this area, and on translating this nuance for public discourse, is increasingly vital.



[ii] Lummis (1996) pp. 24-25

[iii] It is 2016, anything could happen…

[iv] Alinsky (1971) p.11





Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?


  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works