Critical Approaches AboutCritical Approaches The Possibilities of a Digital Life in Islamic Studies “Activism, Advocacy, and Scholarship on Islam in the Digital Realm” (Boston University, September 16-17, 2016) Kristian Petersen December 1, 2016 Share The opening session of the workshop "Activism, Advocacy, and Scholarship on Islam in the Digital Realm" at the Pardee School of Global Studies, September 16, 2016 (photo credit: Chris Gambon). Kristian Petersen Engagement via digital media and technologies has transformed how scholars and activists do what they do. Digital platforms and tools have opened up new horizons for doing work – producing, analyzing, archiving, communicating – but also pose new challenges that need to be addressed when working in digital environments. On September 16-17, 2016, Michael Pregill, Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of Mizan, organized a workshop for a wide-ranging group of scholars, activists, and commentators in order to begin disentangling the intersecting strands of contemporary digital life: “Activism, Advocacy, and Scholarship on Islam in the Digital Realm: Prospects, Progress, and Challenges.” The workshop was hosted by the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and made possible by a grant from the Woodcock Foundation. The thematic threads at the workshop were loosely based on conversations about digital humanities, digital activism, and digital journalism. Here, I want to review these discussions both in their immediate and broader contexts to illuminate the intersecting areas of interest that emerged, despite the variety of activities in which the participants are involved. Intisar Rabb and Paul Beran of the Islamic Legal Studies Project at Harvard Law School present SHARIAsource (photo credit: Michael Pregill). The opening conversation included Intisar Rabb and Paul Beran (Islamic Legal Studies Project, Harvard Law School), Sabine Schmidtke (Institute for Advanced Study), Matthew Thomas Miller (University of Maryland), Maxim Romanov (University of Leipzig), and Kristian Petersen (University of Nebraska Omaha), and revolved around several digital humanities projects, including SHARIAsource, The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition: A Digital Portal, Persian Digital Library, Open Arabic, Islamicate Texts Initiative, and KITAB. Beyond illustrating specific aspects of these wonderful projects, a variety of themes and questions emerged from our collective conversations about DH work during this session. A key concern was providing and maintaining open access to digital materials, especially with large-scale corpora projects. We found that this ideal does not always align with the concerns of various constituents for different reasons. Due to this situation, some argued for the case of cultural preservation, especially for delicate, rare, or at-risk materials, digitally archiving materials now and figuring out access issues later. While we may not know the long-term or immediate availability of materials certain projects can provide, it is often imperative to collect and preserve precious and threatened items without delay. Related to this, we also reflected on practical concerns about copyright permissions, finding funding for projects, the digital location of our DH projects, and the pros and cons of university affiliation. Key to the construction of archives is creating a productive digital user experience with the ability for immediate computational analysis, machine-actionable information, and rich, searchable metadata. The overall consensus was that we should always be developing and embracing emerging technologies in order to produce useful tools for research. Maxim Romanov, Research Fellow of the Humboldt Chair for Digital Humanities at the University of Leipzig presents the Al-Thurayya Gazetteer on a panel with Matthew Miller, Associate Director of the Roshan Initiative in Persian Digital Humanities at the University of Maryland (photo credit: Michael Pregill). Various participants also raised questions pertaining to labor and sustainability issues involved in digital work, discussing labor concerns and the foundational infrastructures of digital humanities that could be utilized in Islamic Studies. Many highlighted the benefits of cultivating relationships with non-academics in the production of digital projects and offered some strategies for engaging computer scientists, web designers, and programmers in our work. Several argued that we could successfully build upon work being done in the field of Classics (Latin & Greek), as well as English. However, this also led to an interesting debate about the structural legacies of DH, especially aspects that reinforce the hegemony of Islamic Studies as a text-based, selectively “canonized,” neocolonial enterprise. Advocates of decolonization of DH argued that much is left out of the “archive” – race, gender, lived practices, etc. – through the use of digital tools that structure dominant strategies in some fields. How do we capture logocentric materials that are not written (oral, video, etc.)? What would a “Muslims in America Digital Archive” look like? Others disagreed, seeing digital methods as a democratizing force for incorporating marginalized perspectives (Arabic, Persian, Islamicate languages) into the DH conversation. While both sides recognized the problems inherent to utilizing “authorized” manuscript traditions (what one participant called “low-hanging fruit”), DH advocates saw their work as following Muslim communities’ lead in constructing Islam as a self-fashioned logocentric tradition. The second panel focused on the intersection of activism and public scholarship, and included Khaled Beydoun (University of Detroit Mercy School of Law), Namira Islam (Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative), Krista Riley (Muslimah Media Watch), and Su’ad Abdul Khabeer (Purdue University). These conversations revolved around how we can serve a variety of constituents by personally engaging broader audiences, translating jargon-filled scholarship into digestible language in order to equip activists, supplying original research, and building communities of allies. What became clear for many was that academics and publics are co-producing. Our activities and curation of ideas can create a narrative – whether countering or broadening a dominant one – that can then be deployed in broader social spheres by others. Projects like Sapelo Square, Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, and Muslimah Media Watch educate publics about marginalized, silenced, or underrepresented communities. These types of digital spaces can become hubs for people engaged in particular issues, making materials available that can serve as catalysts for real action. The use of the digital, whether it be centralized in websites or scattered through social media, enables scholar-activists to draw attention to alternative media narratives, produce perspectives that aren’t available elsewhere, critically curate materials, and amplify work being done on the ground. In the end, we are responsible for the digital footprint we create, which become sources from which publics draw, so we should consciously attempt to not simply respond to the sensational or what is in the spotlight but set our own agendas about what we want discussed in the public sphere. Namira Islam, Executive Director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, presents on MuslimARC and its activities on a panel with Khaled Beydoun of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law) and Krista Riley of Muslimah Media Watch (photo credit: A. David Lewis). We then proceeded to a more focused discussion about digital communication and technologies with Mia Bloom (Georgia State University), Bassam Haddad (George Mason University), and Maryam Jamshidi (NYU) and Claire Sadar of Muftah. We explored the material and social production of dominant discourses through a demonstration of the Knowledge Production Project (an initiative of the Arab Studies Institute) as well as the challenges of fostering emerging voices in journalistic endeavors through Muftah. Localized material focused on the Middle East enables reporting that communicates how communities might portray themselves, providing unique experiences and normalizing perspectives from another part of the world. The digital framework for a project like Muftah highlights the various ways different publics interface with content. Muftah’s long-term vision of publication supports the production of “evergreen” content that has a long afterlife and may be engaged in multiple unique ways depending on social change over time. Haddad’s continued success with multiple projects and scaffolding approach to research and communication (Arab Studies Institute, Arab Studies Journal, Jadaliyya, Tadween Publishing, Forum on Arab and Muslim Affairs, and Quilting Point) opened up new concerns about positive results and production maintenance. Questions of funding and vision begin to collide more often with large scale projects. Can funding alter your agenda? Do you change objectives because they might not be viewed positively in the next funding cycle? Does money mainstream you? Is funding sustainable? These important queries were applicable to smaller goals discussed throughout the program as much as they were for these bigger projects. While compensation of authors and content producers is ideal, it is not always viable in the types of journalistic or research projects discussed here. However, cultivating an egalitarian network around work and vision – the art of volunteerism – can foster a team spirit of working for collective objectives, shared by project leadership. Of course, not everyone has this luxury. Maryam Jamshidi of NYU Law School and Claire Sadar present on Muftah on a panel with Mia Bloom of Georgia State University (photo credit: Michael Pregill). The concluding session was a provocative conversation intended to create more questions moving forward; it included Elias Muhanna (Brown University), Todd Green (Luther College), Zareena Grewal (Yale University), Hussein Rashid (islamicate, L3C), and A. David Lewis (MCPHS University). Muhanna’s most recent Digital Islamic Humanities Project event made him ask how academics might work with for-profit publishers, the concerns we should be thinking about in doing so, and what ethical questions we should ask. Will research be compromised or drawn in directions that support corporate objectives, for example? If funding issues continue in years to come, these types of partnerships are likely to continue to grow. We must begin to determine what valuable relationships can be created, and what the ethical and practical parameters of relationships with for-profit enterprises should be. Rashid raised the question of contingent faculty and the structures of traditional academia. The academic standards that historically stand behind the awarding of tenure do not consistently align with common academic practice in digital spaces where sometimes an online presence is seen as good, while at other times it is perceived as a distraction or detriment. This negative perception further complicates the intersectional goals of individuals who are often at once educator, advocate, and activist working within multiple social spheres (some primarily in digital spaces) that operate with differing standards and expectations. Green, a specialist on Islamophobia, interrogated the relationship between public scholarship and activism. Most agreed that the digital realm opens up possibilities for scholars, but, as he noted, it also enables counter-perspectives with more potential weight (i.e. the “Islamophobia Network”). Students have a hard time parsing out reliable perspectives, so how can we address that as educators? Is that what our role is? Does that then make us activists or advocates? The delicate balance is difficult to maintain but the digital can produce accidental paths of scholarship depending on how we want to affect the multiple publics we are in contact with. Grewal echoed many of the group’s concerns and articulated a clear vision for how we can deploy our time and resources when in positions of relative power (i.e. tenured faculty). The work of academics seeking to address negative stereotyping is emotionally depleting; those engaged in such work often experience a sense of acute ineffectualness or futility, especially in the face of aggressive counter-messaging. But scholarship and journalism can be used as transformative tools. If we struggle to respond to every instance of media sensationalism it can take an enormous toll on us. Our role as scholars is extremely useful in creating content to equip publics with the information and strategies they need to support positive change. We cannot predict the afterlife of our work, so we should focus on what we can do in the present, which is attempt to produce quality content, aiming toward long-term effects rather than the concerns and causes of the moment. During our final conversation, Muhanna also asked what these three themes (activism, communication, and scholarship) have in common. Why are we grouping them together? Are we all involved in the same thing, or are these enterprises just linked by the digital component? After reflecting on the meeting it did seem that there were several productive intersections despite apparent discontinuities. While there are certainly differences in the questions we ask, goals we set, or strategies we employ, a few themes cross all of our terrain. First, the role of the audience shapes all of our work in particular ways. Multiple publics exist that we are trying to reach with our messaging or research. The structural requirements of diverse audiences – whether it is students, researchers, policymakers, or activists – shape how we design and deploy our work. Determining who our audiences are fashions how much we should try to do and how we go about it. Elias Muhanna of Brown University presents on the Digital Islamic Humanities Project on a panel with A. David Lewis of MCPHS University (photo credit: Michael Pregill). Another consistent thread during our time together was thinking about what gets to count in our individual institutional settings. Similarly, questions of productive labor enter the scenario when thinking about credit and recognition. Who is doing the work? How is the labor compensated and evaluated? Therefore, when approaching a project one should ask what is in it for the contributor. Across these domains there is a variety of possible payoffs – public exposure and recognition, financial compensation, institutional credit, societal change – that need to be calculated within the structures of one’s individual subjectivity and social position. We largely agreed that long-term success requires us to be attentive to who is at risk and how we can safeguard the individuals who perform the labor. Since many of us are producers of archival or media resources, thinking through how development may be sustained was also central. For example, what is the afterlife of a project once the leader is not guiding it? Ensuring suitable compensation for participants and incentivizing contributions in multiple ways can preserve continued and collaborative growth. Unfortunately, as several people argued, unless we do this work ourselves, no one else is going to do it for us. When resources or perspectives aren’t available, what are we to do? Someone actually has to sit down and do the work. In the end, it seemed clear to many of us that the face of scholarship is changing in dramatic ways and being rearticulated in new media or with broader goals in mind. The divisions between traditionally-defined scholarly research and new academic spaces, communities, or projects are being blurred. An especially pressing task is the creation of strategies for ensuring recognition in traditional academic institutional settings for new types of work. For this we can rely on methods that are already legible at colleges and universities – peer review and assessment. We should create continuities across the digital divide by connecting work to analog projects, especially by drawing parallels between new and old technologies. We shouldn’t limit language to the digital, but redescribe our work to our peers in familiar ways. Encyclopedias, scholarly networks, journals and other publications, and so forth are all technologies, for example. If we want non-traditional work to be recognized, we should provide horizontal solidarity and ask how we can we support each others’ efforts, for example by treating digital work in more traditional ways such as reviewing and highlighting each other’s work in journals or through citations. Pressuring scholarly organizations to produce criteria for evaluating digital scholarship, as has occurred in the American Historical Association or Modern Language Association, would also be helpful. We can serve each other as our own best allies in making the digital life of a scholar (or activist, or journalist) a more sustainable reality. A Storify narrative by A. David Lewis presenting a timeline of the Pardee School workshop events can be found here. Additional photographs from the Pardee School workshop can be seen on the Mizan Instagram feed here. KRISTIAN PETERSEN is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and co-director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He is on the advisory board for the forthcoming Introductions to Digital Humanities: Religion series published with De Gruyter, and is co-editing Introductions to Digital Humanities: Research Methods in the Study of Religion with Christopher Cantwell. He is Assistant Director of MRB Radio at Marginalia Review of Books where he hosts a podcast called Directions in the Study of Religion and contributes to the First Impressions series. As the host of the New Books in Religion and New Books in Islamic Studies podcasts he discusses exciting scholarship with authors of new books. His first book is Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently editing a collection for the Mizan Series with ILEX Foundation, Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology, and writing a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims.