Mariam Durrani got her degree in Anthropology and Education from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Profoundly influenced by decolonial and feminist theory, she had been addressing issues of Muslim identity and its representations in a global perspective, concentrating - among other topics - on the predicament of Pakistani students in home as well as US institutions in the wake of the 9/11 'War on Terror'. Mariam doesn't just use conventional academic channels to communicate her views, but invests substantial efforts in a multimodal communication strategy, in which blogs, podcasts, social media and visual materials play an important role.
Mariam Durrani on Scholarship and the public debate
Jan Blommaert: Mariam, you moved from systems engineering and mathematics to anthropology. And not just a descriptive and analytical anthropology but an anthropology that takes advocacy seriously and explores innovative ways of communicating science to various publics. Now, see from where I stand, you chose a terribly difficult road. In Trump’s America, you have become a prominent voice in debates on issues that are, to say the least, sensitive: you stand up for gender equality and fairness to Muslims, both in the US and at the global level. You could have chosen more anodyne topics for your research and public work, no?
Mariam Durrani: I appreciate how you've framed my work. Thank you for that. I don't know if I, as an anthropologist can or should be doing any other kind of work or if there's a distinction between my analytic projects and my public voice. In other words, it's not so much a choice as much as a responsibility to be doing research with Muslim youth and to not speak about the injustices that they are facing. What kind of scholar, or human, would I be, if I saw my work as merely describing these injustices but not speaking publicly against it? As an anthropologist of Pakistani-origin addressing Muslim college students in Lahore and New York City, what kind of a scholar would I be if I ignored the ways that both student groups dealt with how the "war on terror" manifests in their lives and on their neoliberal college campuses?
What kind of scholar, or human, would I be, if I saw my work as merely describing these injustices but not speaking publicly against it?
My research found that students' future mobility and aspirations depended on social and financial capital (as it does everywhere). But that college students in both contexts were also grappling with the ways that the US-led Imperial War (as I describe it), in the form of surveillance and racial profiling in the US and in more visceral forms of daily violence and insecurity in Pakistan, affected their educational and professional lives. It became clear to me that the way many people understand the category "Muslim" needs to be complicated for how it's used in the 21st century, with two particular concerns. First, people who continue to focus only on "religion" are missing the bigger picture and, second, the question which actors have decided that Muslims are the "problem" remains largely unaddressed.
The ethnographic method, as you have argued in your work, is intensely descriptive and analytic, particularly semiotic anthropology. Therefore when I started to write up in 2014, I felt called to write opinion editorials about my work and how the media continues to misrepresent and racialize Muslims to justify their wars and violence. From there I kept writing (unpaid) public scholarly pieces for a few reasons. Although I started writing as a college junior at the University of Arizona, where I was also studying engineering, when 9/11 happen and I began writing anti-war essays, it has been since finishing the PhD that I have come to understand why my work (and so many other scholars' work) must present their analysis to more public audiences.
Once I began to do more public engagement through my writing, podcasts, or social media, I started conversations with other public scholars, which was a necessary education to do this work properly. Reading public scholarship across disciplines and contexts taught me how necessary this kind of solidarity work is with others who blur the normative separations between their academic work and their public-facing work. These solidarities have supported me when I face attacks from white nationalists. And they have also called me to be more vocal about other injustice issues such as speaking about #MeToo and more recently my work on college speech codes and how their disproportionate implementation gestures towards the failures of racial and gender integration in American higher education. Across all these issues, there is something about the ethnographic method that allows us to see how everyday interactions are entangled with history, politics, violence, etc. And then it's a question for all of us, not just scholars of course: once you see the injustices, what are you going to do about it?
Jan Blommaert: That’s right, and I’m particularly touched by the close connection you establish between an ethnographic method and a specific kind of argument to be made in the public debate. In my case, it’s the unique capacity of ethnography to expose the lived experience of the people we work with – the reality of their subjectivity if you wish – that enables us to talk in different ways about, say, migration compared to experts deploying figures and statistics.
But two issues continuously emerge as soon as we do that. One is the popular perception of ‘science’ as something that should never address subjectivity and demands figures and stats as the emblems of expertise – the objectivity requirement, we can call it. The other is the allegation that we are partisan, biased activists whenever we show the lived experience of people we work with – the neutrality requirement, so to speak. How do you navigate this?
Mariam Durrani: That's a great question. My take is that the subjectivity/objectivity debates is an artificial binary designed to obfuscate more important issues such as what are we actually going to do about abuses of power across contexts. That may seem controversial to some, but I disagree that there ever was such a distinction between the two, especially for social scientists. Organized as opposing viewpoints, this divide which says that a person who has experienced an abuse of power would somehow be "biased' as opposed to someone who was not harmed, can very easily marginalize and silence dissent or critique.
If the only person who is seen as objective is someone who does not question the status quo and simply "reports" on it, we are not having the same scholarly conversation.
If the only person who is seen as objective is someone who does not question the status quo and simply "reports" on it, we are not having the same scholarly conversation. As ethnographers, if we understand that everyday social actions are occurring at the same time as these massive inequalities created by systems of power, then should we not ask how our research on inequality helps reduced inequality? This doesn't seem controversial to me, but it does mean that we have some moral purpose for doing this kind of work. If we want to talk about migration in 2020, we can't keep using the same scholarly frameworks that have maintained the historic imbalance of power.
For example, Wimmer and Schiller wrote their 2002 paper on methodological nationalism, and yet most scholars are often still talking about migration in terms of national borders and legal documentation to cross these borders. There is a reason for this. There is the simplistic reduction of migration as a complex historical, radicalized, gendered social and political process to the statistics about the X or Y people attempting to cross a man-made border, often interesting only when it's a Western country or Western ally. This reduction makes it unlikely for us to get beyond the objective/subjective conversation and to really ask what is happening, and why? And what can we as scholars do to steer the conversation towards a more humanizing discourse.
The last thing I'll say is that for some of us, the stakes have always been higher. We are part of communities that have been affected by the "objectivity" of colonialist scholarship, including anthropology's colonialism. When I think of the anthropologists that most inspire me most, it's people like Deborah Thomas, Miyako Inoue, Angela Reyes, Christen Smith, and others who shows how illuminating a critical anthropology can be. And scholars like Adrienne Keene who started a blog in graduate school that has changed public debates around the appropriation of indigenous symbols in the US or Jonathan Rosa and the Committee on Language and Social Justice which got the Associated Press to stop using the word "illegal" to refer to people without legal documentation in their style book.
No such thing as neutrality
Jan Blommaert: How do you transfer those principles and observations into your teaching? I’m asking the question because – in Europe as well – we’re all involved in ‘culture wars’ as academics working in universities. And a recurring argument there is: it’s fine to have such views as ‘opinions’, but they should be kept out of the lecture halls. Talking and writing is fine, but teaching isn’t – it should be ‘neutral’ in tone and content.
Mariam Durrani: Two things come to mind with this question. First, a pedagogy question about how do I teach a more critical anthropology? And maybe a more work-related question, what kind of work do I want to be doing this work in the academy?
I think the question on pedagogy is incredibly urgent and drives much of my teaching philosophy. But the second question is what many academics across contexts are having to think about as we face increasing forms of state surveillance and corporate interests influencing our colleges. One way to address the anti-intellectualism of both-sides thinking and related fictions of neutrality is to do a deep dive into the literature or rethink how to teach methods. It's not enough to teach about colonialism if you are not teaching Fanon or Said. If you are teaching discourse analysis, focus on an interaction where something is called out as sexist or racists and how that's debated in the public sphere.
It's not enough to teach about colonialism if you are not teaching Fanon or Said.
We know that the "culture wars" are nothing new for academia. I look to the generations of thinkers and writers who have been pushing for changing the academy as models for how we must keep doing this work. I understand this is a decision that each person makes for themselves. For myself, I think back to writing anti-war opinion columns after 9/11 and the negative mail telling me to "go back home." To be sure, it felt scary at times but it also strengthened my resolve because people also wrote that they appreciated my articles. Similarly over the last few years, I've been targeted by white nationalist media online as well as had senior scholars tell me to be careful about my public writing. Unfortunately I think these kinds of responses are to be expected.
But they should not deter us for coming up with better pedagogies and collaborative projects because we know that political histories and social life are more complex than just choosing between two sides or abstention. And more than that, the existential threats currently facing the planet demand from us to become more critical in our framing of the problem. There is no such thing as neutrality.
Reaching out to different audiences
Jan Blommaert: True – whenever some topic is called “controversial” it excludes any form of neutrality for those engaging with it, and my view is “so be it”, let’s just offer “controversial” views when other ones are not available.
But that takes me to a related issue, the issue of audiences: those we address from the viewpoint we have taken. You have mentioned two audiences already: students in the US and students in Pakistan. How different are they, and how different is the way you address them?
Mariam Durrani: I guess this question really takes me to the concept of a participant framework where my relationship to the message being relayed and to different audiences is different. Aside from academic and professional spaces where my professional affiliation is what gets me the invitation to engage, social media offers a different way to engage with public audiences. Twitter is where I write my most public-facing online discourse, where I share my ideas about teaching, scholarship, political critique, and advocacy around anti-Muslim racism, #MeToo, immigration policy, et cetera. Aside from the Twitter public of other anthropologists, and the even smaller world of linguistic anthropologists on Twitter, I try to be in conversation with migration scholars, journalists, race scholars, and civil rights activists in the U.S. In Pakistan, my public profile is less visible than it used to be - I haven’t lived there since 2013 - but Twitter helps me stay connected to Pakistani political and cultural discourses, particularly the stories that don’t make it into the mainstream media in the U.S. or Pakistan.
As someone writing about Pakistani youth, I have to be on Instagram, very popular for many young Pakistani media makers, especially feminist activist-artists. For me, this is the most creatively exciting media space, but to be honest, I mostly just observe Instagram. For example, in 2015 it was more common for Pakistani transnational male youth to create videos, hosted on YouTube, and to share them on multiple social media accounts. Now with all the Pakistani women doing comedy, art, fashion, and writing on social media, I recently saw a young 20-something Pakistani Canadian social influencer interviewing a comedian in Pakistan on Instagram live, about how they have encountered public harassment as Pakistan women online. Facebook groups also allows me to engage with several closed groups for Pakistani women, but where I also speak to other women of color academics in the U.S.
I think as a group, we have a tendency to be so absorbed within our fields of specialty that communicating those ideas beyond the scholarly community can be surprising.
Across these platforms, I definitely engage in multiple genres of talk, again depending on the others present and on the issues that bring us together. Am I there to listen and learn or do I have something useful and productive to contribute? As a scholar invested in public scholarship, I try to be engaged with multiple non-academic audiences. I think as a group, we have a tendency to be so absorbed within our fields of specialty that communicating those ideas beyond the scholarly community can be surprising. And yet given the direction of our world, how can that remain tenable? In my department meeting, we recently had a discussion on the issue that, if public scholarship is going to be valued, we should consider it an expectation, along with academic publications, for tenure and promotion. Does this place faculty from certain departments at a disadvantage compared to other disciplines where public scholarship is less valued, if at all? The academic institutional apparatus will likely shift many times before, if it ever, moves in a progressive direction, but in the meantime, I’m grateful to be doing this work.