Tuesday, 25 September 2012

(25): Islamophobia: The root cause of blasphemy (II)

As the attempt to define Islamophobia carries on, the two typologies of Islamophia as suggested by Dinet and Ibrahim will be relevant here. As discussed by Professor Lopez, Dinet and Ibrahim identified what they called ‘pseudo-scientific’ and ‘clerical’ Islamophobia. Pseudo-scientific Islamophobia refers to the work of certain Orientalists who engage in the study of Islam and Muslims and present a Euro-centric view of Islam and Muslims, while clerical Islamophobia refers to the work of some evangelical Christian missionaries who attempted at converting Muslims into Christianity.
This typology is relevant to what is happening today in terms of the attempt to produce series of films, books and other cultural outputs that solely focus on presenting a negative picture of Islam and Muslims. Both orientalist scholars and some evangelical Christian missionaries have produced volumes of work that are the main source of scholarship about Islam and Muslims today in the West. Such scholarship, incomplete and biased as it was, presents a picture that will take time to substitute. So the reality at the moment is you have two different conceptions of Islam, one as understood by Muslims from the original Islamic sources as written and disseminated by Muslim historians and scholars, and a version of Islam that has been produced by Orientalists.
The late Professor Edward Said, a Palestinian American, and Christian by faith, has succinctly explained the origin of Orientalism: “Orientalism is a field of learned study. In the Christian West, Orientalism is considered to have commenced its formal existence with the decision of the Church Council of Vienne in 1312 to establish series of chairs in ‘Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamanca’. Yet any account of Orientalism will have to consider not only the professional Orientalist and his work but also the very notion of a field of study based on a geographical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic unit called the Orient…
Moreover, the Orient studied was a textual universe by and large; the impact of the Orient was made through books and manuscripts… When a learned Orientalist travelled in the country of his specialisation, it was always with unshakable abstract maxim about the ‘civilisation’ he had studied; rarely were Orientalists interested in anything except proving the validity of these musty ‘truths’ by applying them without great success, to uncomprehending, hence degenerate, natives”.
An important point to note from Said’s treatise was his assertion that the impact of the work of Orientalists was made through the massive production of books and manuscripts. These manuscripts, which constitute the corpus for understanding other cultures in the West, is what shapes the understanding of the producers of films like “Innocence of Muslims” in combination with other factors that have to do with the current political climate, such as the war on terror, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the interest of global capitalism which benefits from dividing the world into “we” and “them”, “East” and “West”, etc.
This was further complicated by what one will describe as the “intellectual vacuum” in the Muslim world. Intellectual vacuum in the sense that the average Muslim is left whirling around without properly being educated in the classical tradition of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a tradition that is available in numerous works of Seerah (biography of Prophet Muhammad), and collections of his sayings. Clear reference points are available on how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) handled such matters, an example includes his visit to Taif and how he was stoned by the people, yet he remained patient and refused to be provoked by their anger and ignorance. In fact, he prayed that may they be guided, and eventually they were guided by the Almighty. But his patience at the end of the day made him not only victorious over these enemies, but achieving the impossible, which is converting them to join his fold and stand for the path he was calling for in the 23 years he spent trying to build a successful community of believers.
The production of such films is annoying and condemnable, but as Muslims we should be guided by knowledge and intellect in our response rather than emotion. So how should Muslims respond to these provocations? The first answer is simple, ignore them; otherwise all demonstrations must be peaceful. The second answer is for a collective resolve as suggested by the Tunisian government to have a global declaration against the production and dissemination of materials that denigrate any faith.
In conclusion, one lesson from this imbroglio is that the outrage about “Innocence of Muslims” is not just about the film, or free speech, rather, as brilliantly explained by Marwan Bishara, a senior Aljazeera analyst, and former professor of International Relations at the American Universty in Paris, and the author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions, released in January 2012, the problem at hand is not about freedom of speech, but the speech that comes from Washington, the speech that is so arrogant and couldn’t apologise to the drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan that leaves innocent civilians dead. That is the cause of the outrage.


Newcastle upon Tyne


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

(24): Islamophobia: The root cause of blasphemy

When the news broke about the unfortunate film “Innocence of Muslims” I decided not to watch the trailer, for the purpose is no different from other previous attempts to denigrate the personality of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But I eventually did after a prominent Islamic scholar asked me to find the trailer and email it to him. It was simply disgusting.
The producers of the film knew very well what the reaction would be, and Muslims have again become so predictable. Instead of responding with reason, some people resorted to violence, which completely negated the approach of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Some pundits argue that the producers of the film have the right to free speech, but this is completely hypocritical, because recently when Prince Harry was pictured naked in Los Angeles on holiday, the entire British media, except The Sun newspaper, decided not to publish it. In fact ITV (Independent Television) in one of its news bulletins couldn’t even use the word naked, instead the station chose to describe the picture of Harry as “not well dressed”. Right now there is a row between the British royal family and a French magazine that published the topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William.
Misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims, particularly in the West, is a long and historical phenomenon, and the root cause of it is what scholars now describe as Islamophobia. Edward Said was among the scholars who drew attention to it in his classical work, Covering Islam. But even before him, there had been a scholarly debate about the origin and meaning of Islamophobia, which could help explain the attempt to present Islam and Muslims as backward and unfit for modern societies.
Writing in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies in 2011, Fernando Bravo Lopez unearthed some of the early discussions about the origin of the use of the term Islamophobia. Lopez suggested that one of the early works cited in reference to the origin of Islamophobia is linked to L’Orient vu de l’Occident by E´ tienne Dinet (1861-1929) and Slimane ben Ibrahim (1870-1953), who are considered by some authors to be the first researchers to use the term Islamophobia.
Lopez added: “Despite its title, L’Orient vu de l’Occident is not a book dealing with the vision (or, better still, visions) of the East as seen from the West, but rather limits itself to studying a handful of authors, not all of whom receive the same treatment. More specifically, most of the book is devoted to criticizing the work of two authors: the Belgian Orientalist who joined the Society of Jesus, Henri Lammens (1862-1937), and the French Arabist Paul Casanova (1861-1926). Both, according to Dinet and Ibrahim, had equally mistaken visions of Islam and particularly of its prophet Mohammed. But they were not mistaken for the same reasons or to the same extent”. However some years later, both Dinet and Ibrahim revisited the subject of Muslim hatred in
Europe which they published in another work called “Le pe`lerinage a` la maison sacre´e d’Allah. They devoted several pages to ‘Europe’s hostility towards Islam’ (1930, pp. 173-84), establishing what may well be the first typology of Islamophobia”.
Of recent, there has been several attempts to understand and define the reasons for the unnecessary fear and demonization of Muslims in the West. One such effort was the establishment of the Runneymede Commission which came up with a report in the 1990s in Britain entitled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. The most recent comprehensive work on this subject was the book released by Chris Allen called Islamophobia. The entire book was devoted to understanding and defining Islamophobia, and after a lengthy discussion, it will be good to provide an excerpt from the definition offered by Chris Allen.
 According to him “Islamophobia is an ideology, similar in theory, function and purpose to racism and other similar phenomena, that sustains and perpetuates negatively evaluated meaning about Muslims and Islam in contemporary setting in similar ways to that which historically, although, not necessarily as a continuum, subsequently pertaining, influencing and impacting upon social action, interaction, response and so on, shaping and determining understanding, perceptions and attitudes in the social consensus – the shared languages of conceptual maps – that inform and construct thinking about Muslims and Islam as the other“.
To be continued

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

(23): Writing in international academic jounals

In the last few weeks, this column has concentrated on students. This week we shall look at another aspect of the academic world, which is publishing in reputable journals. This is essential for a number of reasons. The first reason is contribution to knowledge. The essence of a university is to provide direction for the society, and the best way to provide this direction is by conducting rigorous research that will analyse issues from different perspectives and offer solutions. For instance, in UK universities at the moment the quality of an article is not judged by its publication in a reputable journal only, but the ability of the published research to influence policymaking, and each academic staff will have to submit his publications for review and measuring of their impact factor through the Research Excellence Framework (REF).
The second reason why it is important to publish high quality research is to help in research-led teaching. This is very helpful, because the teacher, lecturer or the professor will be passing firsthand information to the students. He will as well inculcate in them the culture of critical thinking, and for those of them who would equally join the academia, that is a good learning process.
The third reason is reputation. Usually in the academia, the reputation of an academic is judged by his ability to spread his research across different platforms. He may be writing from Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, Saudi Arabia or Philippines, but if his work has real quality, it will spread beyond borders; it will be translated in languages other than the one in which he produced the research, and other institutions of learning will invite him to present his research, etc. We have seen this with the works of scholars like Jurgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, Dennis McQuail, Ali Mazrui, Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Pierre Bourdieu, Aaidh Al-Qarni and Edward Said. Their articles and books have been translated into different languages and the world continues to benefit from their scholarly erudition. Even the works of less prominent scholars have received similar acclaim.
The fourth reason, which is equally important, is that publications are the means of promotion in the academia, so it is actually not an option but a mandatory requirement that every researcher must satisfy before he could move into the next step of his career.
So, what do you need to do to publish in these reputable journals? There are usually criteria to help you achieve that. First of all, reputable journals are produced by reputable publishers such as Sage, Routledge, Darussalam, Intellect, Elsevier, Palgrave, etc. Although they are commercial ventures, the journals are run by reputable academics. The second criterion is that they are free; you do not have to pay a submission or review fee, you should be very sceptical of international journals that ask you to pay a fee before reviewing your article. Because there are numerous publishing companies in Europe and North America that ask for money before publishing your work, be wary of that. 
The third yardstick to use is by looking at the editorial board of the journal: who is the editor, who are the reviewers; the names contained will tell you how good the journal is, it will also tell you the ideological leaning of the journal. Is the editorial board populated by liberal academics or by right-wing and pro-establishment scholars? Because even in the academia there is politics, and you need to be aware of that. The fourth factor is to look at the rating of the journal, is it a two-star, three-star, four-star journal, etc.? The higher the rating, the better.

Once you have made a decision, the next thing is the submission of manuscript. Rejecting submissions is common in reputable academic journals, so before submitting a paper you need to do your homework. When you write a paper, give it to somebody to read and give you feedback, what Professor Martin Conboy calls “a friend with an eagle eye”, somebody who will indentify mistakes, because as Professor Conboy also says,Criticism is the life blood of academics”. You may also present it in a departmental seminar or a conference. In fact, if you attend conferences like the American Political Science Association (APSA) or the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), you will meet journal editors looking for quality research, and that could be a good starting point for you.
Never take criticism personal. Improve the manuscript from the feedback you received from your colleagues/friends. The next step is to look at the writing style of the journal. This is important; otherwise the editors will return it to you without hesitation. Following that is the submission guidelines; make sure you follow that strictly, and these procedures are available on the websites of the journals.

After submitting the article, journals usually have a policy of blind peer review in which the article will be submitted to two or three anonymous reviewers. Once the review is complete, the editors will send it back to you with a decision, either rejecting it or asking for resubmission after major corrections, or even accepting it with minor corrections, and some will simply recommend submission to another journal.

To me, this is the most important stage in the publication process, because reviewers can demolish your work. But this is the academia. I have seen established professors whose work has been rejected, so bear that in mind. Should your work be rejected, incorporate the feedback you received from the reviewers and submit it to another journal. In many instances what one journal rejects is the meat of another journal.
But to succeed, you need to be patient, make the corrections asked of you and then submit. If your work is accepted in these excellent journals, that is an important milestone; because it will launch you to the rest of the world, especially in this age where serious journals have an online presence and are subscribed by universities across the globe. In fact, it will enhance the reputation of your university, as well as the department you contributed from. If you believe in the quality of your research, be confident by submitting it to the best journal in your field, whether it is The Lancet for those in the field of medicine, Political Studies for political scientists, Journalism Studies or Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies for those in the field of media and communications, or Ethnic and Racial Studies for sociologists and other related fields.


Newcastle upon Tyne


Tuesday, 4 September 2012

(22): The path to completing a master’s degree

After writing the short piece on how to complete a PhD, some of my readers queried me for being somewhat biased by jumping to discuss how to complete a PhD, but ignoring the thousands of intending students who would like to pursue a master’s degree. So, this week’s contribution will focus on how to pursue the middle degree, a transitional degree that prepares you for the doctorate degree.
Different countries have different means of teaching master’s degree. It also sometimes depends on the university. In some places the master’s degree takes two years to complete, but the reality is that it can take upto five years. This is common in many African and Asian countries. In Nigeria, sometimes a person can spend up to eight years to pursue a master’s degree, a time which is enough in other places to finish a bachelor’s degree, masters and PhD altogether. But today I will focus on the UK system.
There are basically two types of master’s programme offered in most UK universities, the first is called the taught masters degree, in which the student graduates with M.A, M.Sc, M.Eng, MMed.Sci, etc. This is the common master’s degree that most students apply for and is normally completed within 12 calendar months. It usually starts in September although some universities do have January intake.
Under the taught master’s programme, the student normally takes between five to seven modules, divided across two semesters. In the remaining three months, you will be required to write a dissertation, and averagely the master’s dissertation is 15,000 words, in some universities it can be up to 20,000 words, while some do accept less. Those who finish the two semesters without writing a dissertation or fail the dissertation module are normally awarded a postgraduate diploma. Some universities offer extension for the dissertation to be re-submitted.
There are two key routes to the taught postgraduate master’s degree programme: the academic route and the professional route. It is important to understand the distinction between the two because many students do join one form of programme, and along the line they realise that it doesn’t suit their interest, and they either struggle or start demanding for change of programme.
One of the key aims of a master’s degree is to prepare the student to join the industry, and at the same time acquire the necessary skills to pursue a postgraduate research degree. The professional master’s degree is practice-based. For instance, many universities that offer master’s programmes in broadcast journalism or transport engineering employ workers from the relevant industry to teach in the universities, as such the training received under this programme will basically prepare you to imbibe the practical skills needed when you get employed. Even the method of assessment follows the same pattern. Of course, you will be asked to write few reports about the practical work you have undertaken. So, make sure you read the programme brochure carefully and understand what you are getting yourself into.
As for the academic route, the programme prepares the student to acquire research skills, it normally incorporates key courses like research methods, statistics, and the modules are normally assessed by writing an essay or a review that relies heavily on journals, books and other sources that help the student to develop a critical mind. It is important, especially for those who teach in universities, to understand this. Because if by any chance you pursue a professional master’s degree, when you return to your university, you will certainly struggle, both in your personal development, and you will pay the price more when you register for a PhD, because if you lack the necessary research skills, the universities normally ask you to join some master’s students and take those essential courses like research method.
In some cases some students will find themselves pursuing a professional master’s programme but with an eye in the academia. In this case my suggestion is, speak to your programme leader to consider giving you the research module option among the modules you will take, so that you can go ahead and write a dissertation, and it will be a win-win situation for you.
The second type of master’s degree is called M.Phil (master of philosophy), which is master’s by research only. This is meant for students who have a limited funding to pursue a PhD, so they can apply for the M.Phil and spend two years to develop a research proposal and do some basic research work that will equip them with sufficient research skills, so that they can become independent researchers. In other cases, the first year of most PhD students is called M.Phil, this is to enable the student acquire enough research expertise, and then he can upgrade to a PhD. If his research fails to meet the standard of a PhD, he would be asked to either add a year or make some corrections and then receive an M.Phil. Where a completed PhD failed to meet the required standard, instead of the student losing three to four years he has spent, the universities normally award an M.Phil as a consolation.
Some important points to note. Equipping yourself with writing skills, particularly academic writing, will be essential to a successful degree. Understand that the one year master’s programme is a “crash” programme, so it is very demanding. Each module will have essays, seminar presentations, group work, etc. You will be given the deadlines in your first week at school, so take the deadlines seriously. Do not wait until the end of semester before you start writing your essays; otherwise, you will “crash”.
As soon as possible familiarise yourself with the library resources, particularly how to access electronic journals. That way you can have access to all the reading lists recommended by the tutor. Never miss your class, and listen attentively to the lecturer as sometimes you may struggle to understand the accent of some tutors. Develop a personal timetable and allocate enough private study hours for each module you take. Try and acquire a diary and mark the important dates for the submission of your assignments.
When it comes to dissertation, think of a topic that is easy to research, and without the hassle of travels, etc, as your resources are likely to be limited, and you may not even have enough time. Remember, you only have three months to write a dissertation. One of the common mistakes made by postgraduate students is to be over-ambitious by thinking of a topic that will change the world. Take it easy, my friend! Acquire the degree first, and then you can go and change the world.
As you pursue your programme, do not forget when the contract for your accommodation will end, as the only language the landlords understand is the money for their rent, so make sure you plan and avoid putting yourself in unnecessary stress; book your return ticket early, and if you would like to continue with a PhD, make sure you have an offer before you leave. Have a nice study.

Newcastle upon Tyne