Nadia Marzouki is the author of Islam: An American Religion, published in 2013. She was an Andrew Carnegie Centennial Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center and a research fellow at HKS’s Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative in 2017. She is currently a tenured research fellow (Chargée de Recherche) at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and member of CERI at Sciences-Po in Paris. Sharon Tai, SHARIAsource Deputy Editor, interviewed Dr. Marzouki during her time at Harvard, discussing how perceptions of Islamic law have been influenced by changing economic and cultural conditions.
The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full interview.
Sharon Tai (ST): I have Nadia Marzouki with me today to discuss themes related to her new book, Islam: An American Religion, which includes highlights of neoliberal ideals, skepticism about those ideals, and what they mean for how the American citizenry has tried to integrate different ideas of law and citizenship throughout history into its fabric. Anti-Islamic sentiment is the undercurrent of all these themes, but so is the perception of law both as a tool, as a system, and as a sense of identity.
Nadia Marzouki (NM): It has been a very interesting year for me, having written on Islam and the US—to be here and also witness all the discussions after the election of Donald Trump and all the subsequent disputes around the definition of Islam and the role of Muslims in the US. My book is an attempt at understanding the developments of different controversies around Islam since 2008. The reason why I start in 2008 is because I noticed that the number of disputes and controversies around Muslims in the US actually increases after the election of President Obama in 2008 and also in the context of the spread of the movement of the Tea Parties. It has been noted by various surveys, by various inquiries of the Department of Justice, for example, that the number of hate crimes, of attacks against mosques, etc. has definitely increased after this time; it’s very interesting that it’s really after 2008, even more so than after 2001—after the 9/11 attacks that—that this increase appears.
So my question in the book is: what do these controversies around the construction of mosques, around the place of Muslims in the American society, around the definition of sharīʿa, around the Muslim veil, things like that, what do these controversies tell us about what’s wrong with the definition of American democracy and citizenship? This is the question that is guiding the book. I’m trying to look at these different disputes in order to understand what’s at stake in terms of the definition or the divide in the definition of American democracy.
ST: How much of the anti-Islamic sentiment or backlash was a result of the election of Obama and how much of it was a result of the anxieties of the financial crisis? Are those two related?
NM: That’s a fantastic question because I think the two are highly related and the context of the year 2008 is very specific in the sense that the election of the first African-American president, who is deemed to be a Muslim by a significant part of the American population, is something that is really challenging for a large part of the conservative public. The election of Obama is definitely a turning point in the debate about Islam, but as you rightly pointed out, the economic context is also very key. One of the arguments I make in the book is that there is a comparison, a similarity, in how Muslims are perceived and in how people, the poor who would benefit from the so-called Obamacare, are perceived. Both are perceived as free riders, as people who profiteer in an unfair way, in an undeserving way, from the system.
In the case of Obamacare, it’s the idea that the poor would benefit from health insurance without deserving it, without working hard enough to deserve it. And in the case of Islam, the conversation is actually very similar. A lot of the arguments of anti-Muslim movements is the following: Muslims do not deserve the protection of the First Amendment. This argument of “deserving” rights, I think, is very striking. It cuts across discussions about religion, identity and social rights.
ST: You had previously stated you don’t like to use the dichotomy of Europe versus the United States… Especially because the issue of class is also so idiosyncratic within Europe versus within the United States … Here in the United States a lot of that dialogue is around who deserves these rights and so you have the class issue and you have the religious identity issue within the US, as you just said. Is that kind of rhetoric, that parallel between class and religion, also found in Europe? The kind of subversive or hateful rhetoric?
NM: It’s found in Europe, but in a different way and I would say that the overlap between the perception of Muslims as sort of free riders of the First Amendment and of the sort of underprivileged classes as free riders of health care rights, this is not exactly present in these terms in Europe. I think in the case of the American debate, it’s really interesting that this overlap could actually appear because socioeconomically speaking, a significant part of the American Muslim population, which is very diverse of course, is, I would say, better off than Muslims in Europe.
This is a generalization, it has to be qualified, but if you just want to compare on a sort of broad scale, it is a fact that a significant part of the American Muslim population has a better level of education, better socioeconomic status, better paid professions, whereas on the whole the most significant part of the European Muslim population is more in the sort of lower part of the middle class, which has led them to caricatures about the poor European Muslims of the suburbs, which also has to be qualified, but there is some truth in that difference. I think it’s even more striking and intriguing as to why this notion of the American Muslim as this profiteer and free rider and sort of someone who is undeserving has been able to emerge because it doesn’t correspond to the socioeconomic reality of a large part of the Muslim population.
In Europe, I think the debate has some resonance with the debate in the US, but it has evolved in a different perspective to the extent that the debate about Islam in Europe is not as tightly correlated to the debate about the First Amendment or the equivalent of the First Amendment. It’s more related to themes such as women’s rights, language, schooling. What I’m trying to show in the book is that it’s interesting how in the US debates about the freedom of Muslims in the US has been really, really constructed around the discussion of law and the First Amendment.
ST: Those are, of course, foundations to liberal ideals, which are now more and more being called, by those who are suspicious of them, neoliberal ideals. The term “neoliberal” has almost become a code word, in a sense, within this kind of debate, I think, between these two sides. On that note, you brought up the First Amendment. There is kind of this idea within the population that’s suspicious of those who are quote-unquote “undeserving.” They do return again and again to the ideas of the founding fathers of the United States and the founding fathers’ word, which is the Constitution.
The Constitution has almost been apotheosized, which is what was not supposed to happen, but it is happening, which leads me to another question. These myths that are rooted in this legal document, how much of this suspicion do you think is out of a suspicion of the religion versus a suspicion of the idea that this religion is a legal system? That seems to be something that’s newly emerged. Around 2001, let’s use that, it was “these people” attacked us. “They” do not like our ideas. And then it morphed in 2008 into even more of an idea of us versus them just in terms of religious identity.
Then the idea of “sharīʿa law,” a misnomer, kind of came in later—cast as a system entirely foreign to the American system. From your research, how much of this is because within the United States the common citizen sees the American system as rooted in a legal document, and so we really believe in our legal system because it [the legal document] is what represents our ideals?
NM: That’s exactly the core of my argument. I’m glad you’re asking this question because one of the things I came to observe when I did this research is that the discussions about Islam or the disputes about Islam were very much disputes about the definition of democracy and, more specifically, of law, of the role of the law, the Constitution and the First Amendment. This is why I came to qualify my own sets of questions throughout the fieldwork because I started the research asking questions like, “Well, how are these people so anti-Muslim? How do they express their feelings?” Then progressively I came to realize that the discussion, yes, of course, was motivated by ignorance and Islamophobia and hate, but also very much so by a specific divide around the understanding of law and religion.
The striking aspect in the reasoning of many people joining the anti-Muslim movement, whether it’s against mosques or against a specific individual or a specific group in a local community, is interesting because it’s ambiguous. It’s based on the idea that Islam is at once a sort of ultra religion and a non-religion. It’s at once perceived as this super, über religion that is more powerful, more threatening than Christianity because it’s converting more people, it’s growing globally and it’s perceived as this powerful global threat, and yet it’s also defined by these groups as a non-religion, as a thing that’s not really a religion because it doesn’t map on to their definition of what a true religion should be.
Likewise, Muslims are perceived as people who are, and here I borrow from the wonderful expression of my great colleague, Anver Emon, whom you know, who says that Muslims are perceived as both lawless and lawful. Lawless is like people who cannot be trusted as being able to respect law, who are disloyal because they respect another system of law that is not the American Constitution and also as lawful in the sense that they are seen as people whose actions are fully determined by their respect for the Qurʾān. Everything in their daily life is completely determined, whether you go to the supermarket, you watch TV, you go to work, everything in your life, as a Muslim, is supposedly dictated by your respect for the Islamic law. So there’s this contradiction that is very, very interesting.
ST: Do you think it comes from an idea of Islamic law as completely illegitimate, for lack of a better word, or the perspective of it as not a “true” legal system, or does it come from a perception of Islamic law is a real legal system and that’s why we don’t want any semblance of it within our country?
NM: I think it’s mostly based on ignorance and caricature as to what Islamic law is. The overwhelming definition that motivates these groups, especially the legislatures that have supported anti-sharīʿa bills, is this idea that Islamic law is this sort of global overwhelming legal system that the purpose of which, in the US context, is to subvert the US Constitution. There’s this strong belief that the Constitution is under threat by the infiltration of Islamic law. The movement of this legislative battle around Islamic law, around the project of some legislators to ban reference to Islamic law from US courts, is a very interesting political dispute because I think it expresses fears and ignorance of how Islam is perceived as this sort of totalitarian legal ideology, but it also expresses a form of nativism and fear of globalism that is not purely tied to the fear of Islam.
What’s interesting is the shift that happened in 2011 after the discussion around the amendment in Oklahoma, the Save Our State Amendment; legislators changed strategy and decided that instead of pushing for bills that would ban sharīʿa law, they would rephrase and push for bills that ban foreign law. This shift, this rhetorical shift, I think is not just a strategy to try to come off as more neutral and not as targeting Islam per se. I think it’s also an expression of a sort of nativist, nationalist project that is as much afraid of Islam as of the UN or any form of international kind of cooperation. It’s a worldview that is purely rooted in a sort of fundamentalist reading of the Constitution, a form of popular Constitutionalism that rejects Islam because it’s perceived as an incompatible and rival legal order and also because it’s perceived as part of this liberal ideal of global cooperation that the US should not accept.
ST: Okay, so you mentioned the idea of fundamental Constitutionalism versus a suspicion of Islamic law, or suspicion of Muslims in general, and how it comes from this idea that Muslims are completely Islamic law-abiding, whatever that means, and only follow the Qurʾān. It’s two sides of the same coin, this Constitutionalism; they are suspicious of it when they, albeit incorrectly, perceive that [loyalty to a text] within a group that’s not like them. These people are afraid of the perceived incompatibility between these two legal systems because they believe fundamentally that Muslims cannot be true Americans. How much of that is due to the differences in how they perceive the role of law and the tradition of law, for example?
The Constitution—they can be fundamental Constitutionalists because they see that the tradition of the Constitution is part of a tradition that’s quote-unquote “right” because it is trying to protect the rights of the people who founded this country, the citizens, the right to religion. There’s this belief that it’s more about keeping the government at bay, whereas they perceive Islamic law as something that’s supposed to permeate the individual Muslim’s everyday life. But when they [apply this same mindset of keeping the government at bay] to Islamic law, it [Islamic law] almost becomes a misnomer because there was no administrative state in Islamic law traditionally. Technically there isn’t even anything considered sharīʿa law because it’s really about interpreting the Qurʾān for how the individual is going to live their life in a just way, exhibiting a moral way, right? It’s two perceptions of law that these people are trying to do. These people are trying to project their perception of American tradition onto a tradition that didn’t even have the administrative state.
That’s the setup for my question: how do you go about trying to get people to understand that Islamic law is not parallel to American law? You can’t even compare them and therefore you can’t judge people’s behaviors in another system that hasn’t traditionally followed the idea of an administrative state. Does that make sense?
NM: Yeah, absolutely. This has been one of the biggest challenges for American Muslim organizations trying to fight these legislative battles to ban sharīʿa law from US courts because they have had to navigate a very fine line between defending Muslims’ rights and trying to communicate a productive definition of what sharīʿa law is, meaning the multiplicity of interpretations of what sharīʿa law is. As you said exactly: it doesn’t map onto the American understanding of law. Here I want to refer, again, to a very interesting article by Anver Emon about the Americanization and codification of Islamic law that I think he wrote for SHARIAsource and that I think really speaks to the challenges that you underlined.
It has been a challenge for American Muslims to define a strategy because in order to refute these definitions of Islamic law as this parallel threatening legal order, what they’ve been doing for most of them is to say, “No, Islamic law is not a threat to the Constitution because sharīʿa law is mostly about spirituality and ethics. It’s mostly about a guide about how to live your life as a pious Muslim. It doesn’t infringe on existing legal orders and therefore you do not have to be worried about Muslims trying to claim that they want to follow sharīʿa law.” This is a problematic statement. You can understand why key leaders of American Muslim communities have made this argument with the support of liberal organizations like the ACLU, for example, because they have to come up with some strong, powerful reasoning in order to challenge the legislators pushing for anti-sharīʿa bills, but in doing so they somehow reinforce this idea or this myth that there is a clear divide between US law as a legal order and then one interpretation of Islamic law that they reject as the bad legal Islamic order. They say, “No, no, we don’t buy into this dichotomy but what we say is that sharīʿa is mostly about interiority, faith, spirituality.”
This is one interpretation of sharīʿa, but this is not the only one as you have shown in SHARIAsource, the multiplicity of the legal discussions about the different schools. I think that American Muslims in this case of the sharīʿa dispute, as in many cases, end up being trapped and sort of deprived of a possibility to explain freely the multiplicity of meanings of sharīʿa law. They are, in a way, pushed to reinforce a divide that is problematic, basically between good Islam and bad Islam, between the understanding of sharīʿa as this challenging legal order and the understanding of sharīʿa that they want to put forward to defend their rights as a sort of ethics of daily life. It’s interesting because I said that my book is based on the premise that these disputes about Islam are very much a dispute between people endorsing a sort of fundamentalist understanding of the Constitution and the political community and a liberal understanding of the Constitution, but in that case, to some extent, liberals and conservatives end up sort of reinforcing coming from different perspectives; they both end up reinforcing this divide that is problematic between good Islam and bad Islam, good law and bad law.
ST: Right. What’s the role of the idea of the state in all of this? In your research did you see that there was an implicit separation between the legal order and the state that follows the legal order or did they see it as one and the same, because a lot of the anti-Islamic sentiment we see nowadays, the fear of Islamic law comes from their perception of states that claim to follow Islamic law, of countries that claim to follow it, and so then there’s a conflation there between Islamic law and then one state’s interpretation of it. How much within your research did you see that happening, that conflation, but then if they were talking about their own country, the nativism streak for their own country, did they also conflate the state versus the law or the legal order? Because nativism comes from, “This is my country,” but then there’s a suspicion of the democratic … There’s now a growing suspicion of the democratic ideals espoused by the legal order that a lot of western countries follow, so did you see that happening on equal measure?
NM: The reasoning of anti-Muslim activists is not that sophisticated. There is this notion that there is something like Islamic states over there and it’s usually defined in a blurry way. It refers alternatively to Iran, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. There is a lot of confusion about the difference between the Muslim Brothers and other groups. Muslims in the US are systematically related to this sort of myth of the otherness of the outside country, of the myths of the outside Muslim nation, which is also defined as this sort of illusionary entity where every citizen would be fully directly ruled by Islam and that place doesn’t really exist in the world. There is this tendency to sort of equate the behavior and the principles followed by American Muslims with this fantasy of a Muslim state, but I didn’t see any sort of sophisticated reasoning.
Despite the absence of any sophisticated reasoning, this type of correlation has proven very efficient and we can see one of its effects now with the discussion about the criminalization of the Muslim Brothers. People pushing for the criminalization of the MB and the designation of the MB as a terrorist organization would have very immediate consequences for American Muslim organizations like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, which has been one of the most active organizations defending the rights of Americans Muslims with the support of ACLU. You don’t need a sophisticated legal expertise in order to produce problematic effects that could jeopardize the rights and the life of American Muslims.
This is also something I note throughout the book: it’s interesting to see how all these outcomes like producing a report that will ultimately prevent a Muslim community in a small town to have a right to build a mosque or building this whole fake news, fake expertise in order to justify the need to ban sharīʿa law, all this is based on very, very shady expertise. For example, in the case of the battle around sharīʿa, the Center for American Progress and the ACLU have published this report in 2011 defining the whole industry of experts around this issue as people who are presenting a sort of solution in search of a problem because they said, “Well, at the end of the day there wasn’t really a problem of infiltration of Islamic law in US courts,” which is what we forget when we just end up being caught up in all these conversations. People have been very successful at producing sort of fake expertise, being persuasive and producing effects at the political and legal level.
ST: Right. I guess a question I wanted to ask was what were your reasons for choosing the First Amendment as the issue around how this phobia kind of developed?
NM: I didn’t start really from there. It’s something that came from doing fieldwork and really just observing the reasonings and the arguments made by the different sides. My book focuses mostly on the controversies around mosques, the so-called Ground Zero mosque but also mosques in local communities, for example the Murfreesboro mosque in Tennessee and the debate around sharīʿa law. It’s really a question that emerged from the fieldwork. I was struck doing fieldwork how these questions or these arguments of how to interpret the First Amendment was always, always brought to the fore by the various sides.
This is how I got to focus on this and one of the aspects that then I wanted to emphasize is also the specificity of the argument that the number of anti-Muslim activities made about the First Amendment. Going back to the idea of a deserving citizen, a number of these anti-Muslim activists, what they were saying was not that they think American Muslims do not have the rights to claim the protection of the First Amendment, but that it would be nice if they could wait a little bit before they claim the right to be protected.
For example, the case of the Ground Zero mosque controversy is interesting because one of the key slogans, I think, of the anti-mosque activists was, “It’s not about rights, it’s about what is right.” They were saying, “Look, we’re not racists. We’re not Islamophobes. We know Muslims have a right to practice their religion. We know they have a right to private property and to do whatever they want with this building and to have a place to pray, but what we’re saying is that it’s not appropriate. It’s not right at this specific time to claim the right to be protected by the First Amendment.”
This is a very important shift because as soon as you shift the conversation from the level of the liberal repertoire of norms and of rights and of the Constitutional protection to the level of emotions, appropriateness, sensibility, then you sort of open the Pandora’s Box of what is deemed appropriate for whom and who gets to decide, who gets to adjudicate. It opens a whole realm of disputes and discussions that is potentially very problematic and dangerous. This is what happened in the case of the Ground Zero mosque, but it happens in the case of a number of other controversies and this is also very much present in Europe, by the way. For example, when people argue, “We know you have a right to practice your religion, but it’s offensive to me to see a woman wearing a veil because it scares me or it makes me feel uncomfortable.” The shift of the conversation from the level of rights to the level of feelings, I think, is something that’s very, very important in these discussions.
ST: If the responsibility of the citizen has shifted, did you notice a change in the conceptualization of what a citizen is, both in Europe and the United States, and did they follow similar tracks if it is about just quote-unquote “watching out” for the feelings of your fellow citizen? Would you say maybe that’s what your book is kind of about? Implicitly it’s an examination of citizenship and how we conceptualize what being a citizen means. It’s almost as if being a citizen … It almost seems like what’s changed is being a citizen used to be a civic duty to vote, but you are allowed to have your beliefs, you’re allowed to express those beliefs however you want. The belief that the private relationship between your personal beliefs and the state doesn’t really matter as long as you’re doing your civic duty has changed into no, your civic duty should be expressing concern for the feelings of your fellow citizen and that your beliefs are no longer just private because they could potentially offend me. Is that kind of an evolution that’s happening?
NM: Yeah, so this is something I try to show throughout the book and that I notice as a worrying evolution of the discussions around Islam, both in Europe and the US. The anti-Muslim groups and activists that I studied express an understanding of citizenship that is what I call very ritualistic and illiberal. The standard of a good citizenship in this worldview is not the sheer respect of law and rights of the other or applying your civic duty of voting and etc. It’s not even demonstrating that you have appropriate behavior so that you respect your fellow citizens, but it’s showing, it’s proving that you have appropriate emotions. For example, it’s proving that you feel the appropriate emotion of outrage at the idea of willing to be building an Islamic center in New York a decade after 9/11. Feeling that it’s okay to demand this is deemed as proof that you’re a bad, undeserving citizen.
Or it’s, for example, proving that you feel the adequate feeling of horror in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, hence the whole discussion about Je Suis Charlie, I am Charlie, I am not Charlie. It was this whole operation of ascribing appropriate feelings to make sure that people, in order to show their belonging to the nation and the political community, were in possession of the adequate, acceptable feelings. In this context there’s no place for nuance and mostly there’s no place for political discourse and political critique. Someone can perfectly say, “I am outraged by these terrorist attacks and I’m appalled and this is terrible, yet I claim the right to make a political speech about the problematic aspects of some parts of my country’s policy.” This has become very difficult for American Muslims or European Muslims, even moreso for European Muslims, because they are prisoner right now of a situation in which they are constantly summoned to prove the acceptability of their behavior and their feelings, hence the whole industry of the Muslim cool and the sort of “I’m a good Muslim” kind of culture.
In the past decade, along the lines of all the Islamophobia movement, you also have a very interesting affirmation of an American Muslim culture that promotes, through shows or standup comedies or fashion or arts, a positive image of American Muslims. This is very interesting. It’s very resourceful. It’s great, but one challenge of this whole industry aimed at mainstreaming an American Muslim image is that it’s really premised on this idea, “I’m a good Muslim. I’m a good citizen. I’m a human being like you.” It sort of depoliticizes the discourse of American Muslims because as soon as they try to get into more complex speech, for example, as you said earlier, let’s talk about sharīʿa law and let’s talk about the different understanding of law, they are immediately disqualified as a threat and as danger or as a terrorist.
ST: Because their emotions then don’t align and… it seems as if they’re giving these cerebral topics precedence over the purely emotional topics.
ST: Okay, that’s very interesting. I guess that then brings us back around to: is there any way to discuss this different conceptualization of law within the American or Western administrative state and then just what Islamic law actually is. It almost seems as if that’s a futile conversation to have if you’re not framing it through, like you said, comedy, these tools of emotion. If you don’t frame it through that, then this is just going to continue it seems.
NM: I think that the discussion of Islamic law or the various interpretations of Islamic law, it actually takes place within Muslim communities in the West, but among themselves and there are very interesting venues for this, for example, the associations Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, or the Association of Muslim American Lawyers, or SHARIAsource. This discussion exists. The question is not about just bringing more information and dispute about Islamic law. The challenge, I think, is how to create the conditions for American Muslims to create spaces or a path in which they can re-politicize their intervention and re-politicize their intervention in a way that is not immediately disqualified as signaling their inability to be good citizens. It is challenging.
It seems sometimes almost impossible in the present context of turmoil in the Middle East, misperceptions about the difference between Islamism and radical extremism, and the current fear about all the attacks occurring in the Middle East and in the West. It is a very tricky and challenging time, however, I think that this whole discourse of the “Not in my name” sort of presenting Muslims solely through the lens of the good neighbor and the good human and the partner in the sort of Abrahamic trans-faith alliance is soon going to be pretty inefficient and that it’s important to craft a space for political dissent in which Muslims can express themselves not solely as Muslims, but also as activists defending different causes and Islam is one aspect of their identity, but an identity that’s defined by multiple sources.
ST: There’s an evolution of ideas still happening, so a) how have your own questions changed since doing your research and then; b) how has this changed your research methods? Have you thought of different ways to ask questions, different ways to research the questions and then are there any questions that you really would like to ask and research but you have not yet found a method of researching that will give you the clearest answer or give you the clearest data?
NM: My research is mostly ethnographic and interpretive. I look at documents, I do discourse analysis and then I just spend time with the people I write about. I’ve spent time in New York and Tennessee and Oklahoma. I’ve been sort of attending the meetings of American Muslims in these communities and of anti-Muslim activists. I’ve been attending meetings in big venues, sometimes churches, sometimes local organizations in order just to understand what people do when they gather, the type of solidarities that are built and the type of emotions that emerge from these meetings. For me, the fieldwork part was very enlightening because I started the research with a question that was mostly framed in terms of Islamophobia; why do people hate Muslims? Then throughout the fieldwork I realized that this question is one question that’s relevant but that really I had to redefine this question as not just why do people hate Muslims, but why do people who say they hate Muslims actually hate liberals and democracy, an understanding of democracy more specifically. Why do they hate Obama, because this is really what was systematically juxtaposed to their definition and arguments about Islam.
I also realized that in places that were like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, I also got to realize the amount of ignorance about Islam. For someone coming from Europe, this was something I didn’t measure beforehand because Muslims are very much present everywhere in Europe. Even if you hate Muslims, it’s hard for anyone to never interact with someone who is from a Muslim background. When I was doing research in Tennessee, I had people literally touching me and be like, “But are you Muslim? We never saw one.” That to me was very surprising and it got me thinking differently about my fieldwork.
Likewise, I also approached, I think, my research initially as maybe in a way that was a bit binary like the sort of Islamophobes versus people defending the rights of religious minorities. I was really struck doing research to see how in every state there is a strong polarization and that it’s not like you have the East Coast versus the conservative states, as it is often said in a bit of a caricature way. There is a debate. There is a strong polarization but also a strong and lively debate everywhere. Again, in Tennessee I was struck by how the students of the Tennessee University were so active to defend the rights of the local Muslim community to build the mosque. I worked with a wonderful student, his name is Jay Schwartz [sic], and his friends and these people are not necessarily religious. They don’t necessarily know anything about Islam beforehand. A lot of them are proclaimed atheists. They don’t necessarily think that the views of some Muslims about, I don’t know, gay rights or gender rights are nice, but yet they really, really went out of their way to defend the rights of Muslims. I thought that these type of solidarities was very impressive.
I guess just to answer your questions about how during the research I sort of changed and it transformed also my views, I think this was a big lesson of the research in a very interesting way. I think I hadn’t measured beforehand the reality and the liveliness of the dispute throughout the country and I think this is ultimately a very positive fact that we need to keep in mind because sometimes we tend to have a bit of a stereotype about conservatives versus liberals as if they are geographically separate. Yes, they are, but I think this debate is actually happening everywhere, even in the smallest community.
Now to answer your question about what I want to investigate further and what I didn’t have the chance to do with this project. The project sort of …
ST: And whether or not your methods have changed now to capture the liveliness.
NM: Yeah. The project is based on this idea that there is a strong polarization of ideas, but also of methods of arguing. One of the questions that I leave open at the end of the book and that I would like to investigate more is how do you engage with people who have, in a way, no intention to listen or to engage? I think it’s important to distinguish between sort of conservative publics and ideological ones. I think it’s possible, as people who are engaged in the defense of liberal rights, to engage and to have productive conversations with someone who has valid arguments coming from a conservative perspective, but what the discussion about Islam shows is that it’s not really what’s at stake.
What’s worrying and what’s at stake is the impossibility of producing reason-based arguments because on the other side people who are involved in these anti-Muslim activities, what you find is not arguments, it’s more like caricatures or parodies of arguments and it’s stereotypes and it’s the invocation of feelings to sort of shut down the conversation. So how do you change the views of people who are invested in this type of speech? How do you bridge the gap? How do you engage with them? I think this is a question that is key to the upcoming years given the polarization of the publics in Europe and in the US, given the rise of populism and sort of difficulties of creating productive conversations. I think this is something that I will be interested in investigating further after this book.
ST: Have you thought about the methods by which you’re going to approach that research? Because this is something so new, Is there a different way of approaching that research that you’re trying to entertain the idea of?
NM: I mean, I think maybe it would be interesting to start with looking at the very few [inaudible] initiatives that emerged after the election of Trump by some grassroots activists to create this type of forum for conversations. There have been a few initiatives, sort of experiments. It means some people have the desire to do something from both sides, some people have tried. I think it would be interesting to look at these instances, but I have to think through this more. I think it’s a tricky question in the present context where you see how the notion of debate is being distorted in the service of promoting or normalizing some ideas that are based on hate and discrimination. When you see all the discussions that occurred in different universities in the US, whether at Berkeley or where people insist on bringing interlocutors who probably will have incendiary hate speech in the name of organizing a debate. I think even the word “debate” in conversation has been instrumentalized and distorted so how do you grow from there to produce a conversation that actually produces some encounter? I think this is something that’s very challenging.
ST: Well we look forward to seeing what you come up with. Thank you for your time today and for answering everything so thoroughly and thoughtfully.
NM: Thank you for having me.