Investigating Islam: Q and A with Professor Avi Spiegel, PhD

Investigating Islam: Q and A with Professor Avi Spiegel, PhD

Avi Spiegel 1

Avi Spiegel, PhD, is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego. He specializes in Middle Eastern and North African politics. He is the author of a new book, Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World from Princeton University Press. USD News Center asked him questions about his book, his thoughts on ISIS and what conversations are happening in his USD classroom.

Q: You’re teaching a class this semester called “America in the Middle East.” What types of conversations do you lead in the classroom? How are students responding to the materials and class discussions?

It’s a great class! This is a class that focuses on understanding American policy toward the most globally significant, and certainly contentious, region of the world: the Middle East. I design all of my classes around an overarching question — a big question — and this one is no different. Here, we investigate what guides American foreign policy toward the Middle East, especially in the midst of repeated US-led military interventions. Through diverse sets of readings, in-class debates, and even simulations, we work together to try to understand U.S. Middle East policy. We look in-depth at the role of oil and domestic politics. And we study specific case studies: from the Iraq War of 2003 to President Truman’s decision to recognize the state of Israel in 1948. We’re also studying the challenges presented by the rise of ISIS and of political Islam in general. The nuclear deal with Iran is another fascinating topic that we explore.

Q: Can you share the types of work you’re doing in collaboration with the prestigious Brookings Institution?

I was recently invited to take part in a newly formed working group on “Rethinking Political Islam” at the Brookings Institution. Funded by the Luce Foundation, the project brings together scholars from around the world — and our first meeting took place this summer at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. Brookings has assembled one of the most robust and ambitious projects ever created to study the future of political Islam. This promises to be a fascinating intellectual endeavor where scholars from all over the world debate and consider how to understand this critical phenomenon. You can read our first set of working papers:

Q: You have written a new book, Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World. What inspired you to write this book?

There is so much thirst out there among even the educated public to better understand Islam, and more importantly, to understand how young Muslims are living and making sense of their religious beliefs. And people are frustrated: for the more we seem to hear about Islam in the news, the less we also hear sophisticated, scholarly analysis. My own interests lie in the area of politics, or put differently: how Islam is influencing politics. The fate of so-called Islamist movements — movements that are seeking to apply the teachings of Islam to the practice of politics — is a major question facing the Middle East and North Africa. My book tackles this issue head-on.

Q: In reading your new book, what do you hope the reader walks away knowing, or more fully understanding?

I hope the reader walks away with a more sophisticated understanding of political Islam. One of the early reviews of the book called me a “rare creature” — “an academic who presents serious fieldwork in a totally accessible form.” And that was precisely my goal. On the most fundamental level: my book seeks to help readers — scholars and students and general readers alike — better understand the relationship between Islam and politics. The intensive fieldwork I did among young Islamist activists allows readers to do that in a way that has not been possible.

Q: ISIS continues to bring destruction and death in the Middle East. Daily media coverage brings the violence to the forefront for Americans. Are you doing any research surrounding ISIS?

Thank you for asking this. No scholar of political Islam can study the subject today without looking at the phenomenon of ISIS. And, thus, my new research seeks to understand the future dynamics of political Islam in the wake of ISIS. I have thus far traveled to Qatar to meet with various Islamist activists from around the world. I also participated in the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Government of Qatar. In addition to scholars, policy makers, and government officials from around the world, General John Allen, the US envoy in charge of countering ISIS, also participated.

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