Mission Civilisatrice 2.0: The Ivory Tower Approach to Islam and Politics

By Nukhet A. Sandal

As a political scientist, I enjoy the heated back-and-forth of conversation with academic colleagues in conferences and workshops. We competitively compare our statistical regressions and venture judgments on countries we have visited once, maybe twice. How can we make sure that Egyptians achieve a viable democracy? Who do we support in Syria? What is up with al-Shabaab, anyway, how do we deal with those guys in Somalia? There we sit in the well-appointed conference halls of distinguished higher education institutions and think tanks posing “real world” questions. In the middle of one such academic sojourn, I had an eye-opening experience that made me stop and ask myself: what are we doing?

I had hailed a cab in Washington, D.C. The driver, an African man in a traditional outfit, was on the phone for a couple of minutes, speaking excitedly in another language. Thinking about the remarks I would make in a conference the next day, I was not particularly looking forward to engaging in small talk either. So when he finally asked where I was from, I said “Turkey” with a tone I hoped would conclude our short conversation. “Ah, nice,” he enthusiastically replied. “Can you guess where I am from?” This kind of conversation can go wrong in so many ways that I hesitated. “Let me give you a clue,” he said, “a country that is terribly divided, a country that your country has helped tremendously in really difficult times, when others did not really care about what was happening.” [Read more...]

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