Scholars of Islam urged to leave 'ivory towers'

March 20, 2008

Islamic studies academics must leave their "ivory towers" and "get their hands dirty" if the discipline is to fulfil its role as a Government-mandated "strategic" subject, an academic has said.

Ron Geaves, professor of the comparative study of religion at Liverpool Hope University, said: "We need to think beyond studies of ancient texts and bring ourselves much more into the contemporary world."

He called for greater collaboration between universities and the British Muslim community in areas such as imam training. "Higher education could help imams to become effective in dealing with the very sophisticated communities of the 21st-century Western world," he said.

"The Government is screaming for that because of its role in anti-extremism and integration. The question is, do we maintain this ivory tower, pure-research approach, where we just talk to each other through learned journals and conferences, or do we 'get our hands dirty' and work for integration and these other political issues?"

Speaking before his inaugural lecture at Liverpool Hope last week, Professor Geaves said that the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists of recent years and the "War on Terror" had transformed the field from a "quiet backwater" to one where "we're now in constant demand by policymakers, intelligence services and governments".

But the additional attention and financial resources came with serious ethical questions. "Recently, for example, there was a request by the US military for anthropologists to work alongside their units in Iraq," he said.

"On the positive side, you may think it could help to have someone who knows local communities and cultures. But one also has to be aware that they may want the academic to make them more effective as a military operation rather than to bridge cultures."

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