Alexander Thurston is a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University and a Luce/ACLS Fellow in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs. His research focuses on Islam and politics, particularly in the Islamic Maghreb and North Africa. ACLS talked with him about the role of religion in international affairs, his tips for engaging with non-academic audiences, and his fellowship plans for the upcoming year.
ACLS: What attracted you to the Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs?
AT: The Luce/ACLS Program offers the unique combination of a writing fellowship and a platform for engaging with journalists. That strikes me as very valuable; as I write, I will be thinking carefully about how to intervene in public debates, both through my book and through vehicles such as blogging. I am also excited to be part of a cohort of scholars who are likewise seeking to make their work relevant to a broad public.
ACLS: Your scholarship focuses on a hot-button topic: Islam and politics. What do you see as the primary challenges in navigating the media discourse on global Islam? Are there any encouraging trends?
AT: Much of the media is quick to demonize Islam and to hold Muslims collectively responsible for any act of violence committed by an individual Muslim. In the mass media, Islamophobia is alive and well, driven by an industry that includes not just hate groups but also some think tanks and politicians. Some scholars of Islam have entered the mass media space and have eloquently refuted Islamophobic talking points. Yet their words, I think, mostly fall on deaf ears. Elite media discourse remains dominated by a very narrow range of viewpoints. That narrowness, in turn, plays a role in narrowing policymakers' thinking. And so in the United States we find our elites trapped in some of the assumptions that took hold after 9/11, especially the assumption that the United States is locked in an existential contest with jihadists. I do think that social media and self-publishing have, on the whole, broadened and improved the media conversation. But scholars of Islam still face a huge uphill climb if they seek to genuinely influence the national and global conversations on Islam.
ACLS: You have contributed to journalistic outlets like Foreign Policy. What are some of the key distinctions between writing for an academic audience and writing for a non-academic one?
AT: Journalistic outlets typically want short, narrative pieces that use current events as a hook for analysis. Sentences tend to be shorter, references to theory or existing literature are minimal or absent, and the writer should assume that the reader will be completely unfamiliar with the subject. Another distinction is that you have a bit less editorial control than in academic writing. This is why I sometimes prefer blogging, because on my blog I can fully control what I say. On the whole, though, writing for journalistic outlets will make you a better writer by forcing you to be clearer and more economical in your prose. Finally, a piece in a journalistic outlet will reach a much broader audience than almost anything you write for an academic publication. If you're really interested in sharing your knowledge and perspective, then writing for journalistic and other popular outlets is a must.
ACLS: One of the aims of the Luce/ACLS Fellowship is to foster greater public understanding of the role of religion in international affairs. How do you see your work as advancing this type of public engagement?
AT: I find the public discussion of religion to be very polarized. In the media and in policy circles, some voices identify religion as the driving force in Muslim societies and particularly in jihadist movements, while other voices deny religion any explanatory role and view religious symbols and discourses as a mere cover for people's material interests and ambitions. I would like my work to advance an understanding of religion that lies somewhere in the middle: an understanding that religion can be one factor among many in shaping people's behavior, and also that religion is not always reducible to other interests and identities. As I work on my book, I will attempt to offer a deep, historically informed account of jihadism in northwest Africa, but to do so in a way that still appeals to a wide audience.
ACLS: What advice would you give to an applicant for the Luce/ACLS Fellowship in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs?
AT: Having a critical, well-informed perspective on a policy-relevant topic strengthened my application. It is easy to have any one of those elements in isolation; scholars can sometimes be reflexively critical without being well-informed, or policy-relevant without being sufficiently critical, or critical and well-informed but not relevant. Putting those elements together is more difficult, and in my case it took a few years of experience and reflection before I was able to home in on an area where I could make a distinct contribution. Sometimes it can be challenging for academics to navigate the media landscape, but that kind of approach has given me a theme, or even a talking point, that I can use this year as I engage journalists. So while the Luce/ACLS fellowship prepares scholars to enter more fully into public conversations and policy-oriented discussions pertaining to religion and international affairs, it might be helpful for applicants to spend some time talking with policymakers, journalists, etc., even before they apply.