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News of anthropologists in the military starts circulating on Muslim website

31 October, 2007

A few days ago, Pal Nyiri forwarded to me another article on anthropologists in the military. I was taken aback to find that it was published on one of the websites I am already following for a little project of mine (on cyberfatwas on new reproductive health technologies),

There is little info about IslamOnLine in its “about us” section, but according to Gary Bunt (author of Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments), is a Doha, Qatar-registered website in Arabic and English that is guided by Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and staffed by some 100 people based in Cairo, including graduates of al-Azhar University. It has a lively “Ask the Scholar” section in which websites users can pose a question and receive a personalized fatwa (i.e. a nonbinding opinion by an expert in Islamic jurisprudence) on any number of issues, ranging from the extraordinarily mundane to the peculiar but still extraordinarily mundane (which is a nice counter to the ideas about what a ‘fatwa’ is that circulate in Western pop culture, where it seems to be synonymous with controversial death sentences). It also has a news section with info about and commentary on contemporary issues affecting Muslims, including of course the Global War of Terror.

It is in this news section that the item about anthropologists in the U.S. military appeared on October 18th. The article, in English, starts out reading like a near-verbatim version of original NY Times article about anthropologists in the military, and it covers the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, but goes on to pair the regurgitated NY Times coverage with some quotes from Professor Donald Abdallah Cole about anthropologists and the military. Cole is an American anthropologist and convert to Islam who did his original dissertation research in Saudi Arabia and now is a senior faculty member at the American University in Cairo. Here are the last three lines of the article:

“Dr. Cole believes Arabs and Muslims should be wary of western anthropologists.

‘But we should be wary of everything that is written about us, whether by local people or by foreigners. To be wary does not mean to reject. We need to read what anthropologists say about people in the developing world and what they say about Islam and Muslims,’ he explained.

‘We can expect to trust the reliability of professional academic anthropologists who are subject to peer review and evaluation. But for others who are not fully professional, we need to be more careful.'”

I scoured the site carefully for a version of this story in Arabic, but so far I haven’t found one. I’ll be sure to post if I do. However, this puts us on notice that the story about anthropologists in the U.S. military has started to circulate in the Muslim cyberspace.

I’ll be going to Cairo in a few months and I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading finding out what people are saying about anthropologists. I admit that I worry that it will make it that much harder to work as an anthropologist in the Arab world. Half of my Egyptian friends and informants already suspect that I’m really working for the CIA, and this will fuel their suspicions. No, wait, maybe it doesn’t matter since they already reckon I’m either working for the U.S. government directly or being used by it indirectly.

It’s great to have a spokesperson like Cole who can temper the skepticism about anthropological ethics in such a climate, but you’ll note that his thoughtful comment, about the professional ethics guiding different kinds of anthropology and the fact that every representation deserves careful scrutiny, was rendered into a simplistic “Arabs and Muslims should be wary of Western anthropologists.”

L.L. Wynn

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    31 October, 2007 2:19 pm

    This reminds me of China, where Western researchers are automatically presumed to represent the putative interests of their nations, just as Chinese are. It doesn’t mean they are bad; this is just the order of things in a world where nations are locked in a fight for power. That is the prevalent view. (See my other blog:

    But isn’t Yusuf Qaradawi the chap who is credited with much of the responsibility for the Muhammad cartoon wars? If so, I am surprised that his website publishes such moderate stuff. I am sure there is a more complex connection. Can you explain?

  2. 1 November, 2007 8:40 am

    I’m not exactly sure how to answer your query, TTD, since it seems to hinge on what you consider “moderate stuff” and how you evaluate reactions to the cartoon wars (you don’t say, but seem to imply, that the reactions were not ‘moderate’).

    Qaradawi is an influential scholar and his name frequently appeared in the press in connection with discussions about the offensiveness of the cartoons and protests against them. Here is an article that discusses his approach to dealing with the cartoons, compared to that of the charismatic Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled: As the article makes clear, Qaradawi was not interested in immediately smoothing over relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims after the cartoon was published and instead advocated using it as an opportunity to “unify the ummah” — i.e. the community of believers — in opposition to an offensive Western attack on Islam.

    But is that an ‘extremist’ position? There is a fatwa on his website that specifically addresses the ways to protest offensive cartoons of the prophet which advocates peaceful protest and says that violent protests such as setting fire to Danish embassies are not acceptable. See
    Note that, although appearing on the website founded by Qaradawi, this “group fatwa,” if you will, was produced by three North American Islamic scholars.

    Note also this other item filed in their ‘fatwa bank’ — it’s not really a fatwa, though; it’s a response to a questioner who says, “Why are Muslims so upset over the sketches from Denmark of their Prophet? It seems to me the “mighty Islam” is really a weak religion when you have to get so upset over such a trivial thing.”:
    I find it striking that they answer such a question on their website. It’s an attempt to explain why sentiments ran so high over the cartoon, and in its earnest engagement in dialogue with a questioner who implicitly insults the religion, it seems to me to be very ‘moderate.’

  3. 2 November, 2007 8:37 am

    Meanwhile, Kerim over at Savage Minds has a very funny spoof posting about Al-Qaeda using Edward Said’s theories against the American counter-insurgency…

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