Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Expertise

Monty, a blogger, whom We have encountered at the Ace of Spades Headquarters, is wont to disclaim that the knowledge he has is from reading, and therefore one ought to take his claims with a grain of salt. His exact words, in one instance, are:
DISCLAIMER: I am not a soldier or a diplomat (or a doctor, lawyer, or Indian Chief). I've read a bit and consider my opinion more informed than most, but that's all it is: my opinion. I don't have access to any classified materials or intelligence assets, so in a sense I'm flying blind here and may be completely misreading the situation. Proceed with caution and a healthy dose of skepticism.
We find this be curious.

What makes one authoritative in and an expert of a subject is one's knowledge. For certain subjects, this knowledge may be gained indirectly (through reading books, assimilating the observations of others, researching trends, scholarship, research) or directly (experiencing fundamental aspects of the subject first-hand) or both. Monty would rely primarily on the former, while others, such as Bassam Tibi and Oriana Fallaci and Abdelwahab Meddeb, would rely on the latter. Some, such as Bernard Lewis, rely on both.

It is understandable for people to place greater faith in those who have gained their knowledge directly - in which category Monty, We would assume, would fall into - but We would respectfully disagree with such a perspective. There are ample examples of those who, despite gaining their knowledge directly, are still oblivious to key components and trends of the subject at hand. We would go further and say that those who derive their knowledge directly are at a greater risk of being oblivious. This is because of the simple fact that in order to gain one's knowledge directly, one has to be involved, and this involvement necessarily means that one's perspective is biased to some degree or another. The three people mentioned above are good examples of this. Despite being acutely aware of threatening aspects within Islam, both Messrs. Tibi and Meddeb retain key fallacies and biases (with Mr. Tibi that a peaceful reformed Islam can exist, with Mr. Meddeb that the West is partly to blame for Islam's violent nature and its rising radical faction). This causes one to suspect their work: what else are they not seeing? what do they claim that may, in reality, not exist? With Ms. Fallaci, her personal involvement caused her observations to be expressed - pillowed, even - in a highly emotionally-charged rhetoric.

Our favorite author, so far, in this subject is David Cook. In one sense, one may say that he combines both sources of knowledge, but his major focus seems to be indirect knowledge. And this, in Our opinion, helps establish him as an expert. Why? He is not personally involved in the subject at hand, even though he has studied primary, secondary, and tertiary texts with relation to Islam. If he does gain knowledge directly, it is through what the people under observation (militant Islamists in one book, Muslim apocalyptists in another) are saying to and among each other. He reads their words in the original language, he analyzes them, he compares them to historical trends, he integrates them into the framework of Islam as it has been and as its fundamental authorities say it should be. This man is brilliant, and precisely so because he is an outside observer and, as such, can see what insiders may (and often do) miss. His research, so far that We have read, is impeccable.

From this, We have formulated in Our mind that to become an expert, one must remain, necessarily, an outsider while at the same time delving into the mind and words of those whom one is studying. We utterly reject the proposition that only an insider can understand the subject; indeed, We believe the opposite to be true: an insider cannot properly understand or comprehend the reality of the subject because of one's insider-ness. One's mind is clouded by bias or by being trained to dismiss or ignore certain aspects of the subject. In short, cognitive dissonance gets in the way.

Indeed, the useful and productive knowledge We have gained about Islam has been primarily after Our separation from Islam. Only then were We able to see trends and issues that before could not be seen. Only then were We able to critically read and integrate texts on Islam, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, whether for devotional or academic purposes. We know of many Muslims who are supposedly well-versed in Islam yet who are oblivious to what is obvious to those outside.

We mean no spite, but it also for this reason that we reject the label of "expert" for Esposito. He is not an outsider, a detached observer but rather quite involved and biased, for his own reasons and purposes. Being detached, which David Cook accomplishes and which Bernard Lewis, to a degree, also accomplishes, is difficult but important, for otherwise crucial information would be suppressed and important trends would be ignored, if not hidden.

inna naHnu-l-a'lam.


At 7:20 PM, Anonymous blackflag said...

hmmm, interesting. If I may ask, what is your opinion of the works of Daniel Pipes?

(sorry if I dont reply right away, Im very busy with work this week ;)

At 7:42 PM, Blogger Muslihoon said...

I like Daniel Pipes. The weird thing is that a year or so ago I bought In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power. I found out a few months later that my father had bought the same book in the 80's. That this book would be relevant than as now says a lot.

I admire what Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson have written. Both are also quite insightful. Mr. Emerson engaged in in-depth investigative journalism, actually attending events and listening to speakers as if he were an insider, and so he is particularly useful. (I like to call this stealth reporting.)

The good think about David Cook, though, in contrast to the above, is that his name has not been picked up by the hypersensitive Muslims. Unfortunately, both Messrs. Pipes and Emerson have been thoroughly denounced and condemned - unjustly, I must add - by hypersensitive Muslims, which does affect people's perception of them. Messrs. Emerson and Pipes are not hate-mongers or anti-Islamic: they're simple reporters, in a way. What they have seen, heard, or observed, they publish. If hypersensitive Muslims have a problem with them, they have a problem with facts and reality (or, rather, people revealing facts and reality). Messrs. Pipes, Emerson, Cook, Lewis, Robert Spencer - they all pierce gaping holes into the sheet of misrepresentation some Muslims are wont to weave, with which they wish to blind people to pertinent realities. For their efforts, these Muslims hate them and against them fling all sorts of baseless and ridiculous accusations and insults.

At 9:22 PM, Blogger atomic_amish said...

I really enjoy your posts. Very smart stuff.

I havent got your gift for writing, but i'll try to get my thoughts out about what an 'expert'is as best I can.

A person can read countless books and devote their entire lives to learning about a religion; and they may gain great knowledge from it, but they wont have 'understanding.'

A man must be born inro a religion and be immersed in it his entire life to really understand it. Can an athiest feel the love of God by reading a texbook? Can the fear of death and Hell be understood by an unbeliever in a classroom? No. They may be able to discuss others beliefs at length but they will never truly be able to understand these feelings unless they experience them for themselves.

Your right - a person who holds their own religious beliefs can never be a truly impartial observer. They will see everything through a lens of faith no matter how hard they try to be objective. And how could it be otherwise?

To me, an expert is someone who was born into a religion. Someone who knows it. Someone who has felt it. And ultimatly someone who has turned their back to it in order to gain perspective and true objectivity.

A true expert is a person who has a deep understanding of faith,who throws off the shackles of his blind obedience to his beliefs and then compliments that understanding with knowledge gained by extensive study of the more worldy aspects of his former religion.

I think you are well on your way to becoming what I would call an 'expert.'

sorry for my poor spelling.


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