Today I begin a stint as a guest blogger; rather than put up an opinion piece, I want to go through some of the incidents that I’ve been involved in. I hope to be able to give anyone reading this who is wondering, ‘What is all the fuss about?’ an idea of the range of stuff that’s happening and the scale of the head-banging-against-brick-wall feeling that inspired the blog.
Today let me tell you about my adventures in Exeter in July 2006…
Working as Filippo and I do with Keralites who work and do business in the Gulf, I was pleased to get to an academic conference at Exeter Gulf Studies Centre, which would bring together those of us working on both sides of the Arabian sea.
First night of the conf: I was there with Neha Vohra, Attiya Ahmad and Karen Leonard and a few others; we were all sitting in the bar and I was in a tight little clique of Indianists, talking shop – you know what we Indianists are like for gossip and cliques
I was a bit surprised when three unknown young people (clearly) from the USA came and quite frankly forced themselves into our shop-talk circle, obliging us to open up the chairs and make space.
They split their own threesome and slipped in individually in between us, and began to engage us all; one guy talked for a bit to three of us about the ‘Freakanomics’ book, raving on about it etc and making himself seem like a naive but very likeable grad student.
The woman who’d come in with him really hit on me, asking me about my perfume (it was an Arab one bought in the Gulf) and then asking about my trips to Gulf so on.
It all suddenly seemed a bit too smooth and very weird, so I asked them, ‘So, what are you guys working on?’ At that point, two of them told us that they worked for Washington in defence…. and the third one told us he would rather not say what he did…..
I was furious, some others in our group of anthros became v cold, and those 3 guys left early. Those of us left behind discussed what had happened and I ended the evening in tears (I also felt the need to get rather drunk!) both because my pre-circulated very draft paper (and those of other academics, of course) had gotten into the hands of these people, which I really really did not want. I had presented a very rough draft of me and Filippo’s piece about Indian Muslim business men who trade in Dubai and are involved in Islamic reformism back home (see this pdf for final published version). At that point, had Filippo & I known that people like this were going to get hold of the pre-circulated papers, we surely would have been more careful in vetting what we had put in it and made damn sure to change the names / details etc more carefully.
But I was also reduced to getting drunk and going tearful because I found that I was the only bloody person at that conference who seriously objected to their presence. My academic colleagues, whom I had imagined would be as horrified as I was to discover that Washington was there, tried to reason with me that: -
these people are close to condoleeza rice and are trying to help her make better decisions,
washington does what it likes anyway and any information they get from us makes no difference to policy, so we should not worry.
this is an unprecedented moment, and we have to understand the global situation…
… and some pointed out to me that in I.R. circles it’s ‘quite normal’ for the front row to be taken up by men in suits.
but this is NOT I.R., it is anthropology, dammit…. do I have to accept it as normal?
Do we have to tolerate this?
A week before Exeter, I had attended a conference on south Asian studies in Leiden and also found some of these security types there, listening in on the panels on south Asian Muslims – and even presenting papers themselves!
The up-close-and-personal socialising after the conference did not happen to me there, but the Exeter experience in the bar was for sure not a one-off. Bad enough to have to check oneself and what one says in conferences…but to have to be on your guard in the bar afterwards in case you say something of interest about the Gulf-connected Muslim Indians you work among is surely one step too James Bond for an anthropologist?
When I got back form the conference, I emailed a load of people to express my shock and ask if I was really so bizarre and over-emotional in my reaction to all this; that’s when I got in touch with those who are now running this blog and found that, thank goodness, I am not. An Indian academic colleague who had been at the conference and witnessed my semi-drunk tearful protests that night emailed me back to say,
Thanks for keeping me in the loop…must admit that I now realize that there
is very little difference between u being sober and drunk (except the tears,
perhaps)!!!! Thought u were overreacting that night, but realize u were
speaking ur mind all along…salute ur commitment…fight on
My colleague (anonymity requested) said he had not realised that western academics might actually not take the realpolitik or ‘stand by your government’ or ‘Muslims really are different, and not to be trusted’ or ‘ whatever it takes to save my own skin’ or ‘more better foreign policy now!’ or ‘protest won’t do my career any good’ or whatever-it-is line.
He has known that academics in India have protested about all this (see Yoginder Sikand’s excellent piece on ‘how not to engage with the Muslim world’), but he had not, he told me, expected any of us Americans or Brits to have our politics straight.
What a lousy public image we British anthropologists have built for ourselves through our apathy and silence and polite heads-in-the-sand or ‘let’s not make a fuss!’ attitudes! Shame on us. We teach our undergrads about our shameful past with regard to colonialism. Are we going to find the next generation of anthropologists teaching about us and our pathetic accommodations to state power and our polite refusals to speak out?
So it’s important that those of us who do find ourselves disturbed and angered by the status-quo do huddle together for strength and raise the issues…over…and over…. and over…in the face of indifference, sophistry and wilful naivety.
My good friend Professor Karen Leonard from California, (someone with a background of 1960s/70s radicalism, anti-Vietnam etc.), was one of those who surprised me with her reaction, and provoked me to get drunk, cry and despair that Exeter evening. She emailed me later and agreed to let our emails go public.
James, Caroline, Neha,
I am sorry, Caroline, to differ with you on this issue. If an open
conference like this one attracted US government employees I don’t see
a problem….it is only too obvious that US government employees and
the American public too need to learn about the Gulf, the Middle East, the
world…and why deny them the opportunity? Incidentally, Christine Fair,
whose presence you criticized at the Leiden conference we both attended
prior to the Exeter one, is a genuine scholar doing excellent field work
in Pakistan (Chicago PhD under Barney Cohn) and she was attacking the US
policies in the region, both in her paper and in a public speech at the
conference. Having her speak and contribute to conferences, and
letting younger people like Shannon and Tony below attend them,
can be viewed quite positively. I am genuinely puzzled by your anger.
We have colleagues within universities with whom we differ and they too
may interact with governments. How should one deny others access to
expertise that is sorely needed, to the knowledge we are in the business
Sorry, Karen Leonard
Well, sorry, Karen; I can’t agree with you and your attitude on this one came to me as a surprise and filled me with gloom. It’s because people like you, whom I respect, are giving this line, that the situation is so dire.
I still maintain that this is a worrying trend and that effectively, academic freedom and decent research is jeopardised if all our conferences are gatecrashed.
Conferences are places where we try out ideas and present first
drafts of our work; we may later decide to alter some things before going to
publication in order to protect the people we work with.
By letting security personnel or academics form the military into conferences then effectively our work is going into the public realm before we are ready for it to do so.
Washington and whoever else is welcome to read the published versions of my and Filippo’s work, like any other members of the interested public. But they can download it and read it in their offices. They can please keep away from academic conferences, where I want the freedom to try out my ideas, decide which details I might want to keep confidential for ethics’ sake, and feel free to engage in discussions which are not monitored or where the information I may pass on is not feeding into any policy agenda. And I want to be able to go and drink and talk shop in the bar in the evening without wondering who is listening.
In July we will be having the ECMSAS (euro conf on Mod Asian Studies) at Manchester, and Filippo and I will be running a panel on everyday Muslim lives. We were deluged with proposals for panel presentations on issues relating not at all to ‘everyday Muslim lives’ but to the ‘security implications’ of various sectarian disputes, educational establishments etc.
Are our academic conferences going to become extensions of government
Later on this week I will write about my session with a very wilfully disingenuous ESRC person.
Filippo will also be posting about the view from Uni of Sussex.
Till then, thanks for the links, the solidarity, the raising of these issues with colleagues and students.