Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, 'terrorism expert' Steven Emerson went on Fox News to describe 'no go zones' across the UK and France and to discuss radical Islam and terrorism in Europe; comments that were widely ridiculed in the media and online.
Drawing on their work and highlighting an upcoming IPR Conference Understanding Conflict: Research, ideas and responses to security threats, here Professor David Miller, from our Department of Social & Policy Sciences, and Tom Mills, Research Fellow the Department, respond.
When veteran terrorism expert Steven Emerson appeared on Fox News and claimed that Birmingham was an example of a 'totally Muslim [city] where non-Muslims just simply don't go in', he was ridiculed online, and later issued an apology. The Prime Minister David Cameron described Emerson as 'a complete idiot'.
The claims were idiotic. But Emerson is not simply an 'idiot', or a hopelessly misinformed 'expert'. As we show in a longer piece, an examination of his background, the sources of his ideas, and funding, show that he is part of what a 2011 report described as ‘a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts’ that ‘peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam’.
Questioned about his sources of information, Emerson refused to name any, saying he was taking responsibility for the error. He did refer to consultants and researchers who worked for him and to 'people I know and sources I'd relied on'. Such claims are not new. As Emerson commented in a Radio 4 PM interview, 'It's been discussed for years now.'
Indeed, they originate with British conservatives some years ago. The notion of Muslim dominated 'no go zones' has been one key concept in a much broader assault by the conservative movement on British 'multiculturalism'. In January 2008, the then Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, a leading conservative evangelical, wrote of 'no go areas' in an opinion piece for The Telegraph.
Within what can be termed the Counterjihad movement, the major propagator of the Islamic 'no go zones' myth has been the New York based think tank, the Gatestone Institute, an organisation chaired by the Bush era diplomat and foreign policy hardliner, John Bolton.
Gatestone is important both because of its catalytic role in the no go story and because it links together US and UK anti-Muslim forces.
Emerson runs a Washington DC-based think tank called the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which was listed in 2011 as one of 'five key think tanks... primarily responsible for orchestrating the majority of anti-Islam messages polluting our national discourse today.'
US public records show that the largest single donor to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) in each of the years 2010 to 2012 was the Middle East Forum (MEF), the ultra conservative Philadelphia based organisation run by Daniel Pipes. The largest grant given by the MEF in 2012 and 2013 was to the aforementioned Gatestone Institute, which received $1,098,878 from MEF in 2012 (and a further $1,383,471 in 2013). However, MEF, in turn receives a majority of its funding from a foundation run by Gatestone president Nina Rosenwald. Of the $1,792,100 of MEF income listed on the Conservative Transparency website, a total of $1,212,000 came from Rosenwald's New York based Abstraction Fund.
Though it is based in New York, Gatestone is notably transatlantic in its makeup, with several European-based board members including three from the UK – Viscountess Bearsted (formerly Caroline Sacks), Baroness Caroline Cox and Lord Daniel Finkelstein – together with a Paris-based columnist for the London Daily Telegraph. Among other recipients of Abstraction Fund grants is the London-based neoconservative think tank, Henry Jackson Society, which in recent years has become increasingly shrill in its anti-Muslim statements. Its associate director, Douglas Murray, was listed on the Gatestone website as a board member until as recently as October 2014. Other British activists also appear as writers on the Gatestone website. They include former 'Islamist' turned neocon, Shiraz Maher, who is research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College London. His ICSR colleague, Alexander Meleagrou Hitchens is also listed. ICSR staff have been widely interviewed in the aftermath of the attack in Paris.
A wider problem
The problem is that many apparent 'experts' based in universities are linked to highly conservative, sometimes anti-Muslim funding sources, or to military, police or intelligence organisations. As a result the field of terrorism studies has remained highly politicised and prospective 'experts' find themselves caught between scholarly approaches and the demands of the 'users' of terrorism expertise in government, police, military and intelligence agencies.
Some in the terrorism studies field have recognised these difficulties. Former CIA field officer Marc Sageman, for example, provoked vigorous debate when he argued that terrorism studies post 9/11 had involved 'an explosion of speculations with little empirical grounding'. Addressing the very issue which the Emerson case highlights Sageman, who will be one of the keynote speakers at our conference on 'Understanding Conflict' in Bath in June, notes that 'self proclaimed' experts fill the airwaves and freely give their opinions to journalists, thereby framing terrorist events for the public. However, they are not truly scholars, are not versed in the scientific method, and often pursue a political agenda … The press plays a role in echoing the most outrageous and sensationalist claims.
IPR event in June
These issues will be examined in detail at our conference in Bath in June. As well Marc Sageman, who will talk about the changing way terrorism has been conceptualized, we have invited leading international experts to give keynote talks. Reflecting on the Paris attacks will be an important part of the event and we will focus specifically on questions of media and freedom of speech as well as on the sources of anti-Muslim racism. Among those from the US speaking on this will be Prof Deepa Kumar from Rutgers University, Arun Kundnani, of New York University, Prof John Esposito of Georgetown University in Washington DC and a leading UK authority Dr Salman Sayyid (University of Leeds) will examine the politics of 'De-Radicalisation' Meanwhile Max Blumenthal (Author Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel) will discuss networks of anti-Muslim think tanks and Norman Finkelstein (author Method and Madness: the hidden story behind Israel’s assault on Gaza) will focus on the Israel/Palestine 'peace process'.
The issue of the politics of research on terrorism related issues will be raised specifically. If many apparent experts on terrorism are compromised by conflicts of interest, we ask how easy it is to conduct serious research when there are strong pressures from state institutions to both monitor and infiltrate apparent dissenters. Professor David Price (St Martins University, Washington State) will talk about the 'weaponisation' of anthropology in Afghanistan and Dr Mark Hayes (Southampton Solent) will talk specifically about the politics of research on the Irish question. Professor Jenny Hocking (Monash University) will speak on Counter- terrorism and the effect of anti terror laws. Both Professor Jeremy Keenan (SOAS) and Prof. Jeff Goodwin (New York University) will talk on state terrorism a concept widely downgraded amongst mainstream terrorism experts, yet responsible for vastly more civilian deaths than the enemy du jour.
Given the seeming role of experts in misinformation we will run a stream of presentations on propaganda including a keynote address by Prof. Christopher Simpson (American University) on 'Propaganda, Ritual and Structural Violence'. We hope that publications from the event will help to begin t reorient understandings of conflict and encourage further research on issues such as expertise, anti-Muslim racism and misinformation and propaganda.
For further details on the conference see http://www.bath.ac.uk/ipr/events/news-0126.html.