Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies

By Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

It’s no secret that Donald Trump ran a campaign that stoked Islamophobic sentiments (in addition, of course, to anti-immigrantanti-Mexicanmisogynisticableist and homophobic rhetorics and staff picks). In the few weeks since the election, we have seen Trump name members of his cabinet who espouse patently and expressly anti-Muslim positions. What seems to have surprised many around the country, however, are the ways in which hate crimes—and Islamophobic or anti-Muslim hate crimes—have seemed to tick upward since the November 8 presidential election. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reported on November 29 that they had tracked over 860 hate-related crimes since the election. Of these, roughly 6% (or ~54 incidents) were against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims; additionally, Muslim women who choose to veil are at particular risk, given the public ways in which their religious identities are marked. Campuses—assumed to be both liberal havens and safe spaces by many—are not immune to post-Trump increases in harassment and violence against people of color, Muslims, Jews, LBGT+ and other minorities

These issues of violence and harassment, especially as part of campus, are tied up with white supremacy, racisms, and a now-longstanding process of labeling Muslims and Islam as a problem with which to be dealt. As far as how this effects Islamic studies, from conversations at international conferences, digitally, and in person, it is clear that many of us who study Islam have been called upon to talk with the media, offer sessions for students, join panels on our campuses, and write articles—scholarly and popular alike. In other words, as scholars of Islam, it is clear that in a moment of heightened Islamophobia, our expertise is in high demand. As teachers, it is similarly clear that we have been and will continue to be asked to tailor our syllabi to student interest (what *is* Islam, anyway?) as well as public need (let’s unlearn some of the stereotypes that contribute to Islamophobia). Personally, I’ll be on a panel in the spring for Blackboard Jungle and talking about Islamophobia; my REL30: Introducing Islam will specifically and methodically address anti-Muslim rhetoric in historic contexts and today, instead of just referencing it as we go. Moreover, as a scholar-teacher and as an advisor, I have seen the traffic in my office increase in manifold ways to students of color and of minority religious traditions, some hoping to talk through their experiences, others looking for scholarly resources, and others still seeking a safe space in which to talk about bias incidents or fears about racism and prejudice on campus.

Seen on campus: “Islam vs. Democracy”

Last Thursday, I received an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim flyer titled “Islam vs. Democracy” at my campus office address. I’d been mailed the same flyer during the Spring semester, as well. At that time, I responded by holding a class session in my REL096: Islam course in which we analyzed and critiqued the two-sided flyer, line by line, in the theoretical terms we’d explored all semester (Orientalism, imperialism, authenticity, categorical definitions) and compared to the definitions for Islam we’d read by scholars (like Ernst, Shepard, and Curtis, to name a select few).

It was a challenging class. Most students were horrified–one actually gasped out loud, another approached me after and apologized, having done nothing wrong, for the existence of such material. Many students expressed genuine feelings of disgust and exceptionalism: UVM is a friendly, liberal place, they said; this shouldn’t have happened here. Some asked questions about the role of open spaces and free speech on a public campus; others asked if free speech rules applied on a campus and to whom; and others still asked about the overlapping issues of free speech and campus safe spaces, accommodations, and UVM’s On Common Ground ideals. We solved none of these problems of a contemporary campus broadly or of our own.

But, in April, near the end of the term, so many of my students–even some who rarely spoke in class–offered real critique of the content of the flyer, citing theorists of religion, scholars of Islam, and critics of both. We read the flyer as a primary source to be interrogated, analyzed, and placed in its multiple contexts (what kind of literature was this? who or what was its audience? what do we do with unsigned writings? where was its information factually wrong? to what avail? & etc.).

That was my response this past spring. I scrapped a class about American Muslims in the earliest part of the 20th century so that we could instead talk about a two-sided flyer found on campus for an hour. We applied what we’d learned about Islam, the study of religion, and reading primary sources critically to a new primary source document–the flyer itself. We had an academic conversation first, but also addressed the affective responses it elicited, which ranged from thinking the flyer a joke unworthy of our time to tears, frustration, and anger.

This time the flyer surfaced, however, students hadn’t yet arrived. I sent out a call on Twitter and my personal Facebook account asking if anyone else had seen these flyers. Two colleagues responded that they had seen them in Williams Hall both recently and back in April. I’d found another set of flyers postered in Bailey-Howe Library, and a student sent a direct message on Twitter to say he’d seen them in the Davis Center, a center of student activity (and food) on campus.

Islam vs Democracy close upI won’t republish here the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim diatribes beyond this (purposefully incomplete) photo. There are lots of responses to Islamophobic content, in the broadest senses; and there are responses to those responses. There are books, journals, blogs. I am not a scholar of Islamophobia, and I am deeply aware of the various risks publishing about it can be. The broadest sense of all this isn’t the point, anyway. It is the peculiarity.

In this context, a broad post I might write about how anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric actually limits engagement on a campus by using fear is too general. It feels like a general response to a general phenomena on campuses writ large. But this wasn’t a general flyer, out there somewhere. This was a flyer on our campus, right here.

These flyers certainly speak about a vast, faceless, dangerous, and imagined Islam, but because they appear on campus, they are directed at us, the members of the UVM community–Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moreover, because it has been mailed to me personally (but not to my departmental colleagues), I can assume I am a targeted audience for the message of the flyer, and I might further imagine this is specifically in my capacity as the professor of courses about Islam and Muslims in the Religion Department.

So, my response is this: a lament that students arrive in our classrooms today, August 31, and that my classes won’t begin until tomorrow.

Had these flyers gone up in a week, I’d have a clear sense of what my job is, what my obligations are, in terms of my campus. I’d ask students to talk about it. We’d read it, in the constructed space of a classroom which is purposefully set up for interrogation, investigation, and critique. We’d take its claims seriously, talk about where they came from, and what work they do now; we’d maybe theorize why UVM’s campus–why the library, the student-centered Davis Center, Williams Hall, and my mailbox–were imagined to be good spaces for an anonymous poster and author declare “the truth” about Islam in the form of double-sided, photocopied flyers. We’d talk about the possibilities, responsibilities, and challenges of free speech on campuses. We’d talk about reading about religion beyond classrooms, and the value of the skill sets needed to do so. We’d talk about microaggressions and safety for our classmates, colleagues, and staff who were the subject of the flyer’s message. We might even place this flyer in a conversation about Muslims and racialized religious identity–a conversation we normally get to toward the end of the semester.

My classes begin tomorrow. And my syllabus has already changed.

Field Notes

via: ~ferguson/h-ra-th.html

As I was tracking down sources for a manuscript in progress which examines scholarly productions of Muslim identities, law, and subjecthood in light of the 1857 Rebellion, I came across a series of seven op-eds in the London-based newspaper, The Times. These op-eds were written in December 1857 and early January 1858, and took on the issue of rebellion, religion, and education; specifically, they each called for the establishment of a publicly- and Crown-supported Oriental Institute, which would educate any and all British subject headed to India in the fields of Indian languages, religions, and histories. The public nature of the debate sheds light, I think, on issues of how common the ideas portrayed were; that this conversation is given space in a daily newspaper represents its intelligibility to its audience, and in turn, the ideas presented about religion, language, and empire might be read as commonplace.

These op-eds were not haphazard commentary, but rather a conversation about British India, language, and religion between heavyweights. Five of the letters were penned under the pseudonyms “Philindus” and “Indophilus” (both of which indicate a love of India). A fabulous archival day was spent realizing that “Philindus,” one of the pseudonyms, was F. Max Müller–the well-known scholar of religion and philologist. In these essays, he argued that, in the wake of the 1857 Rebellion, the teaching of Indian languages and religion was the foremost business of the Empire. In fact, he claimed that the rebellion might have never happened if agents of the Empire had been properly educated in the first place; he credited–or, perhaps, blamed–both a colossal lack of information about religious sensibilities and a lack of linguistic prowess for the rebellion. To illustrate, he wrote:

It was the ignorance of the language that prevented the officers of the East India Company from having any real intercourse with the natives, and taking any interest in their personal conversation. It was the ignorance of language which created a feeling of estrangement, mistrust, and contempt on both sides. (Philindus, “The Neglect of the Study of the Indian Languages Considered as a Cause of the Indian Rebellion,” Letter to Times, dated December 30, 1857)

The other pseudonym, “Indophilus,” belonged to Sir Charles Trevelyan, a British civil servant and administrator. Largely in response to “Philindus’s” original piece, he, too, argued that the appalling lack of British awareness led to distrust amongst “native” Indians, and specifically posited a seven-point plan to establish an Oriental Institute, a publicly- and Crown-supported college meant to educate civil and military service men, as well as clergy, doctors, and laypeople before they went to India.

Ultimately, Müller and Trevelyan disagreed on what ought to have been taught in the Institute they proposed: Müller insisted that Sanskrit would cover the majority of Indic vocabulary, but, additionally Arabic would be helpful to understand the Muslim minority; Trevelyan argued that modern, spoken dialects would be more pragmatic. Both agreed, however, that understanding language meant understanding religion, which in turn meant better management, more security, and a stronger British India. Their exchange was augmented subsequently by M. Monier-Williams and Syed Abdoollah, with both in support of an Oriental Institute. The former supported Müller’s Sanskrit-heavy curricula, and the latter took issue with the other authors’ suggestion that British professors would be ideal. Abdoollah suggested that proper native speakers–i.e., South Asians–be employed, and (in politic language) accused British professors of India and Indic languages of being far too distant to get the accents quite right.

The debate about how an institution of higher learning might be established–complete with rudimentary budget proposals and funding sources–is itself fascinating. But what’s most interesting to me in these essays is how “religion” was deployed. No two authors say quite the same thing, but overall, religion is: imbricated with language(s); required information for effective governance; not to be taken lightly; and, ultimately, to be at least partially blamed for the 1857 Rebellion, both in its immediate and latent causes. One of the events leading up to the Rebellion was the greasing of weapons with animal fat–an act offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. Müller concludes that had civil or military servicemen understood just how offensive this could be, the issue would have resolved itself before becoming one. He writes that Indian civil servants:

ought to know something of Mohamed, the Koran, and the spreading of Mohamedanism, something about the Vedas, about Manu, Buddha, and the Purǎnas before they undertake to act as governors and teachers of Hindus and Mussalmans. (Philindus, “On the Proper Mode of Teaching the Languages of India,” Letter to Times. Dated January 4, 1858. All spellings in original.)

Religion here serves as a primary identity marker, and a primary way by which “governors and teachers” might understand their subjects and pupils. Certainly this is a hallmark of both Orientalist and colonial depictions of religions and religious subjects and in some ways this is simply data that is similar to what scholars of South Asia, colonialisms, and religion have seen before.

However, what’s fascinating and worthy of note is where this information happened: this was a public conversation, written for an obviously literate and educated audience, but public nevertheless. It represents a discourse that linked religion, governance, and language publicly, as in not just for Ivory Tower dwellers, and not merely as a thought experiment. For public consumption, debate, and action. These essays, both individually and when taken together, are a call on Parliament (in some cases explicitly) as well as the general public to form an institution dedicated to teaching language, history, and religion in the service of the British Empire, and as a response to a rebellion. As I parse sources about religion, rebellion, foreign rule in India, and religious belonging, such a public conversation–by such important voices–helps me underscore and frame how widespread “Müllerian” ideas about language and religion may have been, and to what avail.

Street Sign. New Delhi, India.

Street Sign. New Delhi, India.

Given contemporary debates on the utility of humanities in the face of STEM’s rise, it’s easy to forget that religion–as a broad, complicated category as well as those traditions that might comprise it–has long shaped questions and decisions in policy and governance. The op-eds I found not only foreground the creation of an institution that has the sound of a modern land-grant university, but also the vitality and necessity of understanding religion to the British Empire in India.  We do not need to agree with Indophilus and Philindus in an instrumental use of religion in the governance of society (and certainly not colonized societies) to appreciate their concern for the importance of religion as a part of public debate and conversation.

Religion, public debate, famed scholars, Orientalism, and calls for new universities for the betterment of Empire and subjects alike. Just one great day in the archives.