We talked to Ahmet Selim Tekelioğlu from George Mason University about the Muslims in America and The Maydan project. Abdullah Bardakçı and Memduh Erdoğan asked.
Firstly, thank you so much for accepting this conversation.
Thank you for inviting me to converse these issues.
Firstly, can you introduce yourself shortly?
My name is Ahmet Selim Tekelioğlu. I was born in 1981. My family is originally from Kayseri. I lived in İzmir, in Adapazarı and then in Ankara before coming to the United States in 2007. My undergraduate studies were in international relations and I had an interest in international relations theories and religion. After I finished my undergrad in 2004, I did the master’s program in Middle East Technical University where I also did my undergrad focusing a bit more on the scholarship on the international relations of the Middle East from a theoretical background. In 2007, I came to the United States to join the doctoral program at Boston University in political science. My idea at the time was that I would most likely focus on the Middle East, IR theory, religion, etc. But my interest evolved over time and I ended up working on a dissertation that looked at how American Muslims’ debate issues around identity, the concept of umma and their cultural frameworks in the United States. I looked at six institutions in Boston, in San Francisco bay area and I did some extra research in Los Angeles, and looked at the national landscape as well. Alhamdulillah, that was completed in 2016, and since then I work at George Mason University at Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies where I managed the Maydan Project.
Why did you choose “the Muslims in America” as the topic of your PhD? Why is this topic important? Regarding the international affairs, was there a specific reason for choosing this topic?
That is a good question. As I said, it was not on my mind from day one that I would do a study on American Muslims. Rather when I first came in 2007, it was, of course, my first long-term residency in the United States. Previously I had spent about 2 months in the US while doing an internship back in 2003. After arriving at the time as a graduate student, I was engaging with other grad students, other Muslims, I was observing how Islam in the United States was. But, at the time, I was not planning to work on this subject. It is a combination of my interest evolving and some realities that shape graduate students’ lives. Initially, I had an interest in looking at this idea of transnational Muslim identities, international relations theories, the questions around the concept of ummah; which runs counter in some ways to these ideas that define mainstream and orthodox international relations theories, which posit that states are only concerned about their national interests. Of course, this theory has a long, trenched and developed critique. My initial thought was that I would take the case of European Muslims as a case study to explore these ideas and I have looked at issues around ummah discourses and how these discourses would interact with some of the assumptions that derive mainstream IR theories. That idea was that I would look at Britain and France in comparison and would explore how state policies toward religion shape these issues in conjunction with some of the culturalist discourses around Islam in Europe. However, one of the reasons why I switched over to a focus on American Muslim landscape is actually that I was not able to secure the grants and the financial structure that would be needed to carry out the fieldwork into countries in Europe. That would mean that I would at least spend about a year in Britain and France and that required a major financial undertaking. I applied to several grants but it did not work out. I had done a fellowship in Vienna back in 2010, that was very helpful and yet it was not enough to secure the data that was needed for the fieldwork. So, that is one reason why I had switched over.
Within the American Muslim landscape I was involved with several mosques and Muslim institutions in and around Boston. So, I thought if the whole Europe story is not working out, maybe I could develop a similar project but now focusing on the American Muslim community which was more readily available for me, which was easier for me to access, and was less costly. While contemplating all of these, one of my advisers was invited to lead a research project that would actually focus on Los Angeles and would explore issues around the American Muslim identity and American Muslims’ engagement with modernity. So, that also came in the right time for me alhamdulillah and my advisor invited me to lead that project, which would come with funding. So, all of these combined, developed my interest in American Islam and that is how I ended up studying it. Of course, it would be several years for this interest to actually mature and become something that would eventually lead me to complete the dissertation on it.
It is obvious that the Muslims around the world face many challenges. Regarding this research topic of yours, what kind of different experiences have you seen between Muslims living in America and in other sides of the world?
That is another good question. It is really in some ways a very important question but it is also very difficult to answer. I am now more convinced that developing an informed perspective on a particular manifestation of Islam and a particular part of the Muslim world -if we can use that concept- is difficult. So, this is all to say that as I am not familiar with Islam in the Mali, it is hard for me to make a comparison between that part of the world and American Muslim landscape. Perhaps what I can speak to is Turkish landscape and over here and to say few general things about Muslim American reality here. One thing many people do not -in the Muslim majority context- think about is that Islam in America is a small religious community making up at best 1-2% of the broader population and this really gives a special flavor to the kind of Islam that develops here in the United States. The other aspect is the diversity of the community. There are many parts of the Muslim world that are very diverse; it is not to say that America is exceptional in this regard. Nevertheless, the diversity defines the US in important ways in comparison to some other places. For example, in Turkey, Turks are the majority. In different parts of the world, in a certain country, they would have this national identity. Here in the US, there is a broader context and discussion, especially in the post-9/11 era, of being American. But the community is very diverse, there is no dominant ethnic group that really takes the lion’s share in any poll survey. Yes, I mean there is a major South Asian, Arab community, but none of these is majority. Then, of course, another peculiar aspect of the American Muslim landscape is the presence of the native and indigenous Muslims. That is not the case with many European Muslim contexts. So those are the aspects that distinguish the American Muslim landscape from many other parts, but at the same time, it is not to say that it is a singular case, there might be situations and contexts that are similar to this. While comparing the American Muslim experience with several other places, we should bear in mind these aspects, qualities and peculiar sides.
What is the purpose of your currently ongoing project, The Maydan?
There are two things, one of them is this themaydan.com project, which is an online publication site, is a digital scholarship initiative of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. The origins of the project goes back to 2014. I got involved in it in 2016, and essentially, it was my responsibility to carry the project forward, to translate it into a reality, into a concrete website, project and publication from the idea phase. The idea was essentially that the increasing range of the digital publications on religion which was becoming more widespread in the American academia. There were multiple platforms that were looking at issues around theology and religion, and these were what we call digital Islamic studies, digital religious studies or digital scholarship projects. Some of these are manuscript projects, some of them are blogs or online publications like the Maydan. The Maydan Project essentially looked at this landscape. There were websites like the Immanent Frame that was published by the Social Science Research Council; there were several other platforms that were focusing on Islam or Muslims in America on the online platform. Some of them had academics in their leadership or contributors team. But, the team, the steering committee at the center at George Mason University essentially made an observation that came to the conclusion that none of these websites are dedicated specifically to Islamic studies. There were some projects that were based out of centers for Islamic studies or centers for Middle Eastern studies like the Islamic commentary in Duke University and several others, but many had either died off in time or had just lost pace. The idea of the Maydan was to fill that gap, to produce and online publication that would 1) speak to the Islamic studies in the digital sphere, 2) create a website that would not focus only on political developments in the “Muslim World”, because there were, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a lot of online publications and websites that were focusing on the Middle East politics. The idea was to focus on the academic study and to really make that academic study around Islam more intelligible for a broader audience, including non-expert audiences beyond academia. Yes, we are targeting academics, professors, graduate students; but we are also hoping to engage Mr. Joe on the street. So, a part of the idea is to inform the conversation about Islam with informed, meaningful perspectives. A second goal behind the Maydan project was to give equal weight to multiple manifestations of Islam all around the world. So, we did not want to talk merely about issues in the Middle East, we wanted to give equal weight to what was going on in South Asia or in Africa. For example, Nigeria is a huge Muslim country, but we do not know much about what is going on over there, we do not know much about their scholarship around Islam. There are people who are doing good academic studies, but taking those and translating them into a consumable version for a broader audience was not being done. This is not to say we have achieved all of these goals, we are still working on some of them. Our coverage is still skewed towards more of a central and commonly known parts of the Muslim world and scholarship on these lands, but we have a conscious effort to give equal coverage to Africa, Southeast and Central Asia, and also to different understandings and interpretations around Islam and Islamic studies as well. Those are the main drivers of the Maydan Project, and I feel blessed that I have been involved in it; I am the project lead for it. We do get apart from our steering committee, we have faculty members from other universities who advise us and help us out. We are hoping to bring in more editors for different sections of the Maydan in order to make sure that we give equal attention to multiple issues both thematically, regionally, and also in the ways how we are disseminating these. Our audience is not nearly the tenured professor, but it is as much a master student and a doctoral student. That is partly why, despite its financial cost, we have been adamant in supporting our authors with moderate and humble honorariums to encourage their scholarship.
What does “having an academic language in a social media” mean? Can we regard this type of academic internet study as a new era of study? How do we use social media as an academic language in website forms?
It is a challenge. First of all, the Maydan is not a peer-reviewed sort of publication, its cycle is also faster. In online platforms, the cycle of conceptions is fast. So, you don’t have the ability to receive a submission, send it for pre-review and wait like one and half month and send it back and then publish it. So that the usual cycle of a pre-reviewed journal takes even longer time periods. Now, does that fact mean that what we publish is not of good quality? We are trying to ensure and apply editorial steps to make sure that our quality continues to be good and stops short of any major issues or mistakes. Second, there is a concern around some people who say, “In online platforms people really do not take it very seriously.” From time to time, we get things like “This is just a blog, so I am just going to scribble few things and then submit it, and then it will fly.” We make sure that does not happen to be the case. But writing takes time, there is a limited amount of time that everyone can give to writing, especially with teaching loads and academia becoming what they are these days. Many academics are overburdened with too many works like administrating, teaching, this and that. Of course, it is not to say that either administrating or teaching are not important, I am also continuously teaching. But this is all to say that your professors have limited time. So, when we approach academics to write for us, the reaction we get is “It is an online publication, I am trying to publish a journal article, I am trying to finish my book.” Therefore, we are competing for people’s time. We know that time is important and valuable. So, that is what makes this digital publication a challenge. Secondly, someone might give quite bit of time for writing an article for us to publish it because we have a complicated back and production process including ed-ads, visual aspects. But then the day you publish it, it may not generate enough interest, because in online platforms too many people have too many channels that they are connected with, so what you publish, however good quality, it is likely that it will not get enough attention. For us, it has been and continues to be a challenge to build this audience online for people to engage with our content in social media. Unfortunately, it continues to be a one benchmark or reference point for us to follow. The other thing is as we said; we use it as a dissemination channel. But yes, all of these digital publications and digital scholarship initiatives share similar challenges, as much as printed books and journals, how many people actually purchase and read them? There is a debate within the academia about this. We are all not buying books but talking about books that we do not buy, and now there is even a trend for people to talk about books that they do not read. So, in the online consumption cycle, that is even more off the case. People usually would come across and they are aware of the Maydan, and we are increasing their awareness through public programs, conferences, and talking about it through engaging people in academia.
Thank you so much. Do you have something to add?
Because this interview will be published in Turkey, I want to say a few things. One of our mid-level goals is to translate these publications to English, and by that, I do not mean just translation from one language to another, but really to play a role in making sure that non-Turkish speaking audiences in the West are aware of the scholarship that is produced in Turkey, in Turkish or in other languages. That is partly why we published the interview, which received quite bit of interest honestly, with İsmail Kara. He is a major name who works on Islamism and related issues, but his work was not properly known in the English-speaking world because he writes in Turkish. Occasionally some experts would be aware of it, but we wanted to publish it because of this. But with other scholars in Turkey, we are highlighting different projects that were done in Turkey for the English audience. We are hoping to engage more and more people in this. Hopefully, down the line, the Maydan will become a platform that is going to be able to produce on all of the languages of Islam, but for now we tell people “If you want to translate what you have done, like produce a three-thousand-word essay for an English speaking audience, we are ready to publish it.” We have done several of these, which I think continues to be important. So, in general, this is an important aspect of this project, and we are hoping that we are going to be able to do that service properly. Once again, it is a numbers game in some ways when people judge platforms based on their follower numbers online, so, we realize at what fields we are competing. We are hoping to get some grants to work on different aspects of the Maydan to improve it further. I really encourage everyone who reads this interview to seek out the Maydan, to consider submitting their work to the the Maydan and benefit from the researches that we have produced, especially for graduate students, scholarships, job opportunities, what we call the journal round-ups, the book displays, the summer language programs resource. All of these programs, we really pay attention to being able to contribute to pedagogy around Islam and Islamic studies, because where we are coming to this from is “What did I really wish that could have been out there, that could help me.” In addition, we encourage people to send us feedbacks: “Why don’t you do your project on this? Let us consider that.” We work as a small team, but we hope to expand in the future.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for doing this interview with me.