Professor shares unexpected insights on ISIS.

Amina Steinfels

Being an Islamist is not automatically a qualification to speak on terrorism, but it created some provocative learning opportunities for a professor who has served as a presiding expert in campus discussions of ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France.

Mount Holyoke College Professor of Religion Amina Steinfels, who specializes in Sufism in medieval South Asia, discusses in Religion & Politics how her knowledge of these groups has helped spark some important discussions on the college campuses where she has taught—and contributed to her own understanding of the events.

“Scholars of seventeenth-century British history or of Romantic poetry are not usually asked to explain current events in Britain,” she wrote. But “for those of us in any academic field related to Islam or the Middle East … it is par for the course to be asked to speak on almost any current event involving Muslims.”

The phenomenon reveals the “very special way in which Islam is understood in both popular and academic discourse,” she said. “Islam is assumed to be monolithic and explanatory of all aspects of the lives of Muslims in any time and place.”

Steinfels nevertheless agreed to be on the panels, and found herself learning as much as teaching in the process of preparing for and participating in them. On the ISIS panel, she talked about the use of apocalyptic imagery in propaganda that ISIS may use to induce terror in its enemies and to create a sense of inevitability of its triumph. On the Charlie Hebdo panel, she discussed the historical understanding and use of the idea of blasphemy as a way to suppress dissenting voices of the less powerful, characterizing blasphemers as those “willing to speak truth to power.”

The discussions, she said, were opportunities for her to engage in discussions that deepened her understanding of Islam—and the community’s.

“Though I question the assumptions underlying these panel discussions, I do not regret participating in them,” she wrote. “I am glad that … there is an interest in learning about Islam and religion. And if my tight-knit community continues to believe that my insights are valuable, I must be doing something right.”