To conduct professional research is not easy, it’s difficult and in particular the most difficult thing is to plan the research and test these plans for accuracy. Another reason for which research is not easy is that it should be ethical; and I cannot emphasise this enough. For this reason, doctoral students are carefully trained. When research has an amazing impact on human beings (or even animals) the ethical concerns should be paramount. Today writing and research about Muslims, because of the political situation and increasing, highly concerning, anti-Muslim sentiments, should be of the most professional level and ethically and methodologically correct.
The report is an investigation concerning the availability of ‘radical’ literature threatening non-Muslims and Muslim apostates within UK mosques and Islamic institutions. The result is that, of all the mosques and Islamic institutions visited, only fifty-two had some books that referred to material that the authors classified as ‘radical’, or unacceptable to British standards, or just ‘separatist’ literature. Yet they admitted that only some pages of the accused books contained these passages. Overall the passages all together amounted to 2780 pages, more or less the equivalent of 13 books.
So, what the report demonstrates, despite claiming the contrary, is that in the UK there is a very limited presence of radical and ‘separatist’ literature within mosques and Islamic institutions. Among the mosques mentioned, and to my great surprise, was the central mosque in Edinburgh. I know the mosque quite well, and I know the literature available there and nothing can be really described as ‘radical’ or even separatist. Indeed the mosque is well known for its efforts to create bridges between Muslims and the wider Scottish communities. I also often bring my students to the mosque and they are very welcomed.
This is surely good news, despite the fact Policy Exchange, a conservative think tank and charity, wants to lead us to believe that mosques and Islamic centres are schools for extremist thoughts. However, because of my experience as an anthropologist, I know that they are investigating the wrong places. The majority of the so-called ‘radical’ literature, when available, is in private homes and in Islamic book shops. Places that, interestingly enough, the author of the report and his mysterious researchers have neither explored nor considered.
Indeed, this brought me to read all the report and conclude that ‘Policy Exchange’ hijacks professional research. The report is, in academic standards, extremely amateurish and I suspect even unprofessional and unethical. Of course, I can only base my observations about the report from the report itself. Only a serious investigation on how the research has been conducted could provide a final answer. Yet the report provides us with enough evidence to at least allege that whomever prepared the report did not know how to organise a serious research. To properly evaluate a report and a research, before even reading its material and conclusions, involves evaluating the methodology that has been employed.
This particular report is based only on the written material (some in English some in Arabic and other languages) found in the mosques and Islamic institutions. As you can understand, a book in a place where there are many books and often a library does not tell us very much.
My university library has a considerable amount of books and documents authored by Adolf Hitler. I am sure that among our 13000 students, not all of them read the books just for curiosity or scholarly interests; in other words, I cannot exclude a priori that some students, or even members of the public, or staff, read Adolf Hitler’s works for political reasons or inspirational motivations. Yet does this fact make the library of Aberdeen University and the university itself a Nazi university or an institution providing dangerous material?Of course, for the author of the above report the answer, if he is coherent, should be ‘yes!’.
The report, even if professional methodology and ethical codes of conduct were respected, will be useless and produce material only of sensationalist interest. It is how books are used, and not the fact that books are there, that tells us something. You need long research, fieldwork and participant observation to understand how people interpret and use books and readings to make sense of the world around themselves.
But you may be curious as to the identity of the leading expert and scholar who conducted the research and wrote the final report. He is Dr Denis MacEoin, a fellow of the Royal Literary Fund in Newcastle. He presents himself on his institutional web page in this way,
My chief focus at Newcastle is to assist with academic writing, but if anyone needs help with writing reports, CVs, letters, or even — dare I say it? — e-mails, I am more than happy to talk them through the process. Although I happen to have an academic background, I was appointed chiefly on the strength of having written twenty-three novels, many short stories, and a certain amount of journalism.
We also know that ‘Since 1986 he has pursued his principal career as a novelist, having so far written twenty-three novels, several of them best-sellers. He uses the pen-names Daniel Easterman (international thrillers) and Jonathan Aycliffe (classic ghost stories in the Jamesian tradition, some short, but most full-length novels)’.
So what does the novelist Denis MacEoin have to do with executing, what seems to an anthropologist specialised in Muslim communities and the challenges they face, an extremely difficult research project and report? Well, it happened that for a while Dr MacEoin had studied Shi’ism, and written a PhD dissertation which dealt with two heterodox movements in 19th-century Iranian Shi‘ism: Shaykhism and Bábism. He has taught from 1981-86 in Arabic and Islamic Studies, Department of Religious Studies, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne as a lecturer and he has been, between 1986 and 1996, an Honorary Fellow at the School of Arabic & Islamic Studies, University of Durham. In other words, Dr MacEoin, who now is a writer of novels, has been trained in traditional Islamic studies with a clear classical orientation. He has never been trained for a research such the one he has conducted for Policy Exchange.
I have no problem to appreciate Dr MacEoin for his writing skills and his novels, yet he is certainly not a leading scholar of contemporary Islam, and he has no real knowledge of Muslim communities in the UK. This is also very clear from the report that he has written. I can say that Dr MacEoin has hijacked the field of the study of Muslims in the UK and the issue of radicalism, reducing it to his own experience of being a scripturalist.
Therefore, I can understand how methodologically and even ethically the report is dubious and extremely flawed; yet I cannot condone this because the report has been prepared for clear political reasons and Machiavellian intent.
Now, I will only focus on the methodology and the issues there. Indeed there are many other flawed areas in the report, which are useless to discuss, since the seriousness of the lack of a real methodology deprives the report of the necessary foundations on which to stand. Moreover, the majority of the report is a list of the passages translated (yet the Arabic or Persian version is not provided at all!).
Here is what we know about how the research has been planned and conducted (pp. 16-17 of the report, emphasis in bold added):
In November 2006 four research teams (each comprising two people) were dispatched over a six month period to almost 100 Islamic institutions in a variety of locations cross Britain. The researchers included males and females of varying nationalities from outside the UK: Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi and Arab. The focus for their research was on sites of religious instruction – which for the most part meant mosques, but also included some Islamic schools and Islamic cultural centres where religious teaching takes place. The teams’ brief was to investigate the extent to which literature inculcating Muslim separatism and hatred for the ‘non-believer’ was accessible in those institutions – both in terms of being openly available and also being obtainable ‘under the counter. […] Furthermore, it is important to stress that it was not within the teams’ remit to search for or identify hate speech in the mosques they visited. Earlier television documentaries have already done good work in this regard. That said, it should also be emphasised that the discovery of offensive material at a specific institution should in no way be taken to mean that that institution necessarily condones, permits or encourages such literature. In some cases, this literature was available openly and could be accessed with little effort. On other occasions, it was only accessed on a private basis after the teams had won the trust of the suppliers. In such instances the teams were tasked to spend several days, even weeks, in the relevant mosque/school in order to maximise the reach of their investigation. In these cases, the presence of this hidden literature may not always have been known to mosque elders, who, at a minimum, are clearly in need of official support in the task of eliminating such material from their places of worship. Sometimes, the elders themselves may be in need of replacement altogether.
Is this an acceptable standard for a research methodology? Of course, any serious scholar, experienced in preparing research applications for funding would agree with me that it is not. I review research proposals for different national and international funding bodies and I have seen bad methodology, but this has a twist which is highly concerning. This piece of research is potentially unethical. Let me ask some questions, which I invite Dr MacEoin or Policy Exchange kindly to answer:
- How is it possible to conduct research, sometimes for weeks, in more than 100 mosques and Islamic institutions when the overall research was only 6 months?
- How was the leading researcher of the overall project?
- Why were the researchers only Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi and Arab?
- Which qualifications had these researchers? Why are there not names mentioned?
- Were the institutions and the people involved in the research, as well the informants, properly informed of the real intent of the research of studying ‘the extent to which literature inculcating Muslim separatism and hatred for the ‘non-believer’ was accessible in those institutions’?
- Were the institutions informed of the reason for the research? Which institutions were providing the funding for the research? Also, when and where were the results of the research intended to be published?
- How was the ‘trust of the supplier’ achieved?
- Was the ‘supplier’ aware of the research, of the final author of the report and that the research was conducted on behalf of Policy Exchange, a conservative think tank and linked to the conservative party?
- Where was the ‘literature’ actually found? In which part of the mosques or Islamic institutions?
- How many people have admitted to read such ‘literature’?
- In which way have the passages been taken out of their original context (for instances some are widespread hadiths!!)
- Were the mosques and institutions involved in the research, and allowed it to take place, given the results in advance?
- Was the discovered literature, in particular that which was not publicly available, discussed with the mosque or Islamic institution committee?
- Was anybody interviewed (and if so why is there not evidence of that) during the research or were the researchers only collecting the material?
- In which form was the material collected (photocopy, electronic material and so on)?
- Is the material accessible to third parties now (for instance, can I have a copy of them)?
- Finally, and just for personal curiosity, I would like to know how much has– if Dr MacEoin has—been paid for the report and how much also the researchers were paid. or if any of the ‘supplier’ were paid for their services.
I could go on for at least four or five pages, but being this a blog I fear that my readers may become bored, also because I am sure that the questions will remain unanswered. I have the impression that the research was presented to the mosques and Islamic centres involved in a very different way; that they were not aware of the real sponsor of the research and the reason for it. Now, if this was just journalism I would not be surprised, though I have often condemned, even in this blog, undercover research. But here academics, though certainly not experts in Muslim life in the UK, were involved.
If I am right, and this report is based on an unethical research, the damage that Policy Exchange has done is absolutely unquantifiable. They have created possibly a situation where an anthropologist like me, familiar with working with the Muslim community on a basis of honesty and spending years with different organizations, will be mistrusted thanks to the unprofessional conduct of Dr Denis MacEoin and his conservative thinking friends.
I expect that Dr Denis MacEoin will be surely able to provide strong evidence that my doubts are just the result of reading a totally unconvincing description of a methodology in the report, and that their unprofessionalism is limited to the fact that he has not been able to write a proper methodological section within the report. But to convince not just me, but the public, he has to provide quite substantial evidence that in not one instance had the material been taken from the ‘providers’ without their being fully informed of the reasons behind the research, the aims, the sponsors and the way in which the material would be selected and presented.
Of course, I do not deny that in some mosques and institutions (and more actually in book shops and private homes) there are books and pamphlets presenting controversial or even appallingly regrettable arguments. Yet this research in any case teaches us nothing. Otherwise, if we think that it does, we have to accept the fact that my university library, as well as many others in this country, is providing material for anti-Semitism as well as Nazism.
If so, it is possible to start to think that we need a legislation which forbids books, and maybe collect them and publicly burn them. I am sure that, though I usually disagree totally with him and his ideas, Rushdie and I would be on the same side.