Center for Strategic Communication

Part one of the 2d edition of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s autobiography – Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (Knights2) – is 560 pages in translation.  Written during Zawahiri’s 60th year, the text is a broad, personal look at life inside (what I will call for the sake of this post) the global jihad movement.  Its scale challenges the reader to sit and read, closely, its many, somewhat confusing sections, and to think about writer and his reasons for writing.   It also challenges the reader to consider why they are reading it.

This may sound like a frivolous academic exercise, but the reasons why we read any jihadi-salafi “text” touch the core of why anyone would study jihadi-salafi movements (jihad studies, for short) in the first place.  We read to understand – to make sense of – a phenomenon that touches tens of millions of lives in complex global play of piety, personalities, and geopolitics, the dynamics of which seem to change daily.  

I've done close readings on several documents since I starting blogging in 2004, including Hassan al-Banna's Toward the Light, Issa al-Hindi's Army of Madinah in Kashmir, and an unfinished attempt at Martyrs in a Time of Alienation. The goal of close reading a text like Knights2 is to understand the text as it is written.  My role as the reader, then, is to simply read closely without prejudice in order to make sense of the text and what it can tell us about its author and the movement he leads.

By contrast, intelligence analysts are trained in what I call “defensive reading.” In intelligence work, an adversary’s media product (text) is scrutinized for any intelligence value.  The text is something to be exploited (“mined”) for “actionable intelligence.”  To devote months of personal time to a single text in order to build a scholarly understanding would be an unthinkable waste of time and dwindling financial resources. Generally, once a text has been exploited for its intelligence value, analysts never pursue it again.

However, when it comes to reading a long text like Knights2, an analyst is ill-served by their utilitarian tendencies (what I call “analytical utilitarianism”) and professional skepticism. The point of reading a large text like Knights2 isn't to glean "actionable intelligence," but instead to build the analyst's professional knowledge of jihadi-salafi milieu, and to add to their understanding of this remarkable phenomenon — its history, personalities, and their motivations, etc — and to share that insight with an interested audience. 

The resulting tension between analytical utilitarianism and the kind of qualitative analysis that relies on in-depth knowledge of the jihadi-salafi text remains unresolved at present, posing several challenges.

First, jihad studies lacks a super structure of analytical norms and commonly accepted facts that would distinguish it from other, more established, disciplines.  As a result, its practice easily becomes a mishmash of historicism, new historicism, post-colonialism, and amateur exegetical discourse that unconsciously scavenges freely across disciplines but never fits fully into any of them.  From the perspective of established disciplines such as sociology or literary criticism, such eclecticism undermines the jihad scholar’s credibility.  Jihad studies needs to leave its youthful wandering among the disciplines and find a place of its own.

Without establishing epistemological identity that distinguishes it from other disciplines, such as Middle East Studies, the nascent discipline of jihad studies could be reabsorbed into its multidisciplinary parent sources such as foreign policy or sociology, as students seek to find a job that will provide a paycheck and an opportunity to learn and grow as professionals. Without a distinct identity represented through an association or other types of formal and informal communities, the profession could fade completely as a distinctive elucidative source in foreign, military  and public policy.  And the jihadi “text” will remain subjected to the whims of analytical utilitarianism. 

A second challenge is in the academic institutional culture. In a September 2011 interview at Abu Muqawama, Thomas Hegghammer briefly articulates the extent of the challenges facing jihad studies, specifically  United States’ failure to produce a cadre of scholars, drawing from ideas discussed in a 2008 article

There is a core of specialists who continue to do fantastic work, and we see some new recruitment to the field. But the community is still very small and populated mostly by people who are on the fringes of the academy, institutionally speaking (and that includes myself)……A related problem is that jihadism studies in the US lack an institutional home. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has partly filled this role, but even the CTC has rarely had more than one or two Arabic-speaking al-Qaida specialists based at West Point at any one time; several of the CTC’s best reports were written by off-site contractors. Another potential hub for al-Qaida studies was the Centre on Law and Security at New York University, but it recently scaled down its activities and looks set to close downHow America – with its huge academic workforce and enormous counterterrorism budget – in ten years has failed to produce a research institution with more than two permanent jihadism specialists is beyond me. [emphasis mine]

I share his astonishment.  He also identifies one of the primary “disincentives” stifling the development of jihad studies:

The fundamental problem is still the same, namely that the incentive structure in the universities, especially in America, is set against people specialising in the study of jihadi groups. Studying al-Qaida usually involves qualitative methods and requires high-level skills in Arabic or some other oriental language. Graduate students with an interest in jihadism thus work against two strong biases: the quantitative methods hegemony in the social sciences and the skepticism in American Middle East Studies toward the study of hard security issues. These biases affect hiring decisions and have some striking aggregate effects: for example, there are virtually no tenured faculty specialising in terrorism (let alone jihadism) in any Ivy League school or in any Middle East Studies department in America. Rational graduate students with academic ambitions see this and wisely stay clear of the topic.

I would also add to the list of disincentives a third challenge: the paucity of access to jihadi-salafi media.  Servers that host the material are attacked, files removed.  In some countries, such as Great Britain and soon France, merely reading or keeping copies of this material can be a criminal act.  Lack of knowledge of foreign languages such as Arabic is also a barrier, but it goes hand-in-hand with the lack of quality translations.  Talented students who may have interest in the topic could be turned off by the frustrating lack of primary source material in English and other Western languages.  

I would emphasize the troubling developments in Great Britain and France (and here in the US) which represents a fourth challenge.  The criminalization of access and possession of jihadi-salafi media could relegate the study of global jihad movements to the interests of national security.  Under such laws any scholarly research could be called into question by security organizations, creating an environment where scholars are at the will of security agencies for access to such material.  Any effort to disengage jihad studies from its utilitarian function could founder in the face of draconian laws against the collection and storage of jihad media.

I’m certain others are more sanguine about the future prospects of jihad studies, and would welcome any contrarian opinions (I’m opening up the comments section below). I'm pessimistic about the future of jihad studies, because I see it through the lens of nearly two decades in a long-established profession (library science).  With its own professional schools, associations, peer-reviewed publications, etc, library science offers numerous formal outlets to exchange new ideas, recruit young talent and adapt to changes.  Jihad studies faces its own challenges, but without a clear identity or organizational cohesion.

Why does this matter? Professional societies provide leadership and accountability needed to identify challenges and redirect financial and intellectual resources to tackle them.  For example, library science professionals faced tough challenges to their relevance throughout the 1990s.  It also faced a demographic crisis that I discussed in my book in 2000.  The profession survived both crises primarily because professional associations focused financial and intellectual resources to address them.  Now, library science rpofessional once again face difficult crises, and its anyone’s guess what will happen, but the social infrastructure is in place to address them.  I see none of this for jihad studies.

Jihad studies has no association, no professional leadership, and no financial support mechanism. Any effort to strengthen the profession should begin with the creation of a scholarly society, and an accountable leadership that seeks to advocate, raise funds and begin to address issues such as state attempts to control access to jihad media, and the recruitment and retention of ambitious scholars.   I’m not claiming this would be easy — the legal, financial hurdles are immense — but I’m not sure there is any other way to do it.

Scholars drawn to study the global jihad movement are few, because of its breathtaking demands: knowledge of foreign languages, history, religion, politics, and foreign policy are essential to the general approach to jihad studies. The scope of knowledge (multidisciplinary, operational, quantitative and qualitative) required to command basic facts is exhausting. The daily research required to maintain a grasp of the movement’s global ebbs and flows is daunting.  Yet the few drawn to it love it, and I suspect, would dedicate much of their waking lives to it if they had the opportunity.  It may be an elite, but it’s an elite dedicated to a new profession that deserves a future. However, I’m concerned that time may have already run out on the hope of their ever being a scholarly profession that is dedicated to the study of the global jihad movement. 

Update #1: I notice that some commenters (via Twitter and e-mail, too) equate jihad studies with that of the study of militancy and terrorism.  I understand militancy and terrorism as studies in behavior and social science, not jihad studies.  The confusion is understandable because jihad studies is often integrated into the study of militancy and terrorism for obvious reasons.  That confusion goes to the heart of the problem: what is jihad studies?  Without an answer, any definition will do.  

Also note that distinquishing jihad studies from other related disciplines doesn't reject the validity of other disciplines or the need for an interdisciplinary approach.  On the contrary, a defined discipline can easily integrate other disciplines into its ontology.  For instance, many of my early professors of medieval English participated in archeological digs in the UK.  Archeology has a legitimate place in the qualitative study of medieval civilization.  However, jihad studies doesn't have an ontology (yet).

Update #2: I made a few edits.