My three years of living in Turkey, researching and writing Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still, was a transformative experience. With each passing month my preconceived notions of the Middle East and generalities about Islam were shed, replaced by a more complex and nuanced reality of cultural practices, religion and politics. Each day I involuntarily compared and contrasted America and Turkey, discovering stark differences and strong commonalities at every turn. These insights were helpful in my writing and research, as I tried to enlighten Western readers via a recent event in Turkish politics relating to Islam and religious freedom.
However, during my visits home the opposite occurred. A mere half-day trip on Turkish Airlines immersed me in a different world coloured in broad powerful strokes by the entertainment media. Zero Dark Thirty grossed more than $100 million and received many film industry awards; similarly, the television series Homeland garnered many plaudits from critics and was highly popular. Both works seemed to personify Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis of twenty years ago in which he noted that the fundamental problem for the West was Islam. Since 9/11 the ‘thesis’ is exacerbated in a context where the mainstream media in the West typically employs language rife with negative connotations and misnomers, particularly relating to Islam when reporting on the MENA region.
How can we as students, teachers and contributors to the field of Middle Eastern Studies counteract this trend that is fueled by a flood of communication? If I limit myself to the communication world only, for one thing, relevant academic writing in the field of Middle Eastern Studies should also benefit and influence a world that is for the most part clearly non-academic. Put another way, academics are not going to help the world much if they mainly talk to each other and do not interact effectively with the rest of the world, a world that is rife with religious prejudice and political conflicts along the secular-religious divide.
I also suggest that MENA scholars, in extending their sphere of influence in their academic lives making their works accessible to non-scholars in language and writing style, should take part in activities, conferences, presentations, and publications that go beyond the academic world. Garnet does that also by its multiple imprints. We have our differences, for sure, but the cultural–religious–political conflicts that exist in the world are far greater and more dangerous.
The challenge seems overwhelming because the CNN commentator who fuels post-9/11 prejudices with sloppy descriptors when reporting on an uprising in Egypt, for example, reaches more people in a few minutes than a hundred or perhaps thousand academic lifetimes.
Another communication approach is to consider the human component in research and writing regardless of the extent to which one’s work is based on data collection and analysis. In Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still I increasingly focused on humanizing and personalizing the experience of Merve Kavakci, the first headscarved woman elected to the Turkish Parliament, because I was struck by the vast gap between her vilified public persona on the part of secularists and Kemalists in Turkey, and the kind, educated and sympathetic person I knew. Not unlike Islamaphobic people in the West, they viewed her as a fundamentalist, radical Islamist and agent provocateur when, in fact, she only wanted to take the seat to which she was duly elected. Would this approach negate her venomous image among half of the Turkish population? While it’s difficult to counter simple notions with complexity, I adhered to my approach. Even when I got the chance to explain my book in person to those who disliked her, I was pressed hard to overcome their skepticism.
A further approach for MENA scholars is a simple but oft-forgotten one: always define your terms. I think the most misused terms regarding the MENA region is ‘Islamist’, i.e. a devotee of ‘Islamism’, meaning political Islam. In Wikipedia there are 17 definitions of Islamism and, in fact, dozens of other variations based on different degrees of incorporating Islam in the political sphere and support for a myriad of Islamic philosophers and political leaders over the ages. The Prime Minister of Israel refers to the Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and his party as Islamist and yet Erdogan advocated a secular government during a recent visit to Egypt, which was greeted with jeering from the crowd, and during his ten-year rule has not implemented any aspect of so-called Sharia law. The term without further definition and explication has the same meaninglessness as ‘Christianist’ when referring to the Democratic Party in the US or the Labor Party in England.
Until our academic publications regularly become ‘best-selling movies’, we can play a significant role making this a more peaceful world by fine-tuning our approach to communications.