A longer entry this time as I have been buried in various projects of late and have not written here for a while. This year I am on sabbatical from the start of October 2015 through to May 2016. It’s a chance to move my own publications forward, in particular my book-length study of Islam in pre-twentieth century German culture, which is provisionally entitled Between Enmity and Fraternity. Representing Islam in Germanophone Cultures, 1750-1918. In summer 2015, however, I was also granted funding from Warwick University to run a public outreach project exploring how the research that informs this book could be brought to a wider, non-academic public, and to analyze the so-called ‘impact’ this material had on the diverse audiences I would be speaking to over the next year.
So what is ‘impact’ in this sense? For those who are not caught up in machinery of British academia, the impact agenda refers to a drive by UK government and funding councils over the last decade to impel academics to find ways to make their work serve society beyond academia, and to demonstrate this through evidence and analysis. A key characteristic of what funding councils and trusts think of as impact is not merely a matter of showing you've a media splash with your work, nor is it about simply talking to non-academics in order to show what you know. Impact is about showing that you have re-communicated your work in a way that is accessible to and enriches public debate, ideally changing or impacting on the way that people think, their quality of life, or on how institutions make decisions and on the economy of the country. One particular version of impact, as it manifests in the humanities subjects and as defined by Professor Shearer West, pertains especially to my work: impactful work involves “enhancing intellectual life, divergent thinking and tolerance; building on centuries of heritage, maintenance and growth of UK cultural richness”. Winning external and institutional funding for academic research has become increasingly contingent upon the ability to have and to demonstrate impact and to narrate it analytically.
The idea that we should ensure that the academy, funded by the tax-payer, is not a self-serving esoteric enterprise, but plows something back into society, and that not merely in a narrow material or financial sense, seems basically sound to me. Yet the impact agenda has produced some pretty vitriolic and equally justifiable criticism, not least from arts and humanities scholars, who have often felt their material was inherently less impactful than, say, medical research, and from social scientists who often see impact case studies to involve crude analyses based on limited or flawed empirical data that wouldn’t make it to pass level in undergraduate ethnographic studies and prove little or nothing. Recognizing that impact looked like it was here to stay in some form, and given the potential topicality of what I am writing about, I decided to see in what ways and to what extent my work could be seen as impactful, and to see if I could make it work for me in a meaningful way.
My project involves me in public outreach work. I am touring religious centres, including mosques, churches, community centres, and interfaith forums across the UK. Most of the events will involve some kind of presentation, lasting twenty minutes to an hour, in which I pitch some key findings from my research. The presentation is supported by a mobile banner exhibition containing images and translated textual excerpts from my study and structured around a series of critical questions that guide the visitor to reflect on specific themes. Following each presentation there are group discussions centering on the themes raised. The whole process is captured on film and audience responses are gauged through questionnaires, filmed interviews and written testimonials. The premise is that, despite blanket media coverage to the contrary, many of the tensions that inflame dialogues between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in contemporary Britain derive as much from ethnic tensions and the burden of colonial history, as they do from a contemporary a clash of faiths. So by talking about Islam in German history, runs the thought process, we offer a less fraught pathway into an unavoidably difficult cluster of topics – but at least discussions take place and audiences gain insight into this foreign material whilst encountering themes familiar to them.
My most recent research has been feeding directly and productively into the project’s planning stages. I have become fascinated with the way in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German writers did not merely reduce Muslims to the outsiders, enemies or ‘others’ of Europe, but also sought to establish new relationships based on common values, shared heritage and, frankly, a cosmopolitan vision of humanity. A recent academic volume co- edited by my colleague Professor Anil Bhatti (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) dedicated to Ähnlichkeit (similarity) has helped to frame these thoughts: similarity between cultures is a shifting concept, that can both serve as positive corrective to the unpalatable notions of difference or otherness, though can equally bring with it notions of enforced assimilation and normalization that suppress religious and cultural individuality. As I have been weaving these ideas into my book, so I have used them into my public work. Drawing on material as diverse as the plays of G.E Lessing, Goethe’s poetry, political propaganda and photography from the WWI, I talk about how my often ambivalent material at times produces images of Islam that reduce the faith to its relative difference, though also explore its similarity to German culture. That ambivalence can be shown to be relevant to Muslims in Britain today, who seek to explore critically their position and identity within British society without alienating themselves from it, or who seek to integrate and explore shared beliefs and values whilst retaining the right to differentiate themselves and, on occasion, to dissent from mainstream views and values.
By trying to use this kind of material in this way, I have managed to build the interest of a range of non-academic partners across the UK. Local to Warwick University is Coventry Cathedral, already a site of intensive interfaith, peace and reconciliation work delivered by a team at St Michael’s house, which includes Rev. Dr. Sarah Hills, Mr. David Williams and a raft of highly engaged interns. This coming week, I’ll be meeting that team again to plan the focus and logistics of a public lecture I’ll be giving in Coventry Cathedral next spring, where my exhibition will also have its inaugural outing. It’s also great to have the input from Dr. Abdullah Sahin, director of the Centre for Muslim Educational Thought and Practice and Senior Lecturer at Markfield Institute of Higher Education, and also Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, Research Fellow in Faith and Peaceful Relations at the Centre For Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Both of these colleagues work on Islam in Britain from differing perspectives and are offering input into the planning process. I’ll be writing more on this event as it unfolds.
The project is also rolling out in Surrey. Through the help of friends and contacts in the Anglican Diocese of Guildford interfaith team and the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, particularly Kauser Akhtar, a sequence of events is already in motion. Last month, the Woking People of Faith interfaith forum invited me to take part in an after dinner discussion on the topic of ‘Valuing Culture and Faith: The challenges of integrating in society whilst retaining our identity’. Following keynote speeches by the Bishop of Guildford Andrew Watson and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former cabinet minister and the most prominent Muslim woman in UK politics, and in front of an audience of several hundreds at the H.G. Wells conference centre in Woking, we moved to a panel Q&A session and plenary discussion. It was great to hear Baroness Warsi pleading the case for an Islam that is integrated into British society without ‘losing itself’. Whilst she critiqued against the uphill struggles Muslims have to face, such as having to apologize profusely for the Paris massacres despite having no connection to them other than being a Muslim, she also spoke up for the role of the Anglican Church as an important platform for interfaith encounters. It seemed to mesh well with Andrew Watson’s idea of a “roots down, walls down” approach to interfaith relations – an analogy asserting that the more we embrace and embed ourselves in our own faith, the better placed we are to understand the faiths of others. In conversation I was able to compare these ideas with the notion of similarity as a concept that allows us to connect and compare, to share and celebrate together, without losing both ourselves and our mutual distinctiveness. My historical work on Islam in Germany is showing me how elusive that balance was in the past – and reminds me how difficult it is today, who seek to remain ‘integrated’, without being ‘assimilated’.
My work in Woking has also put me in touch with Dr. Zafar Iqbal, Senior Policy Officer for Community Engagement at Woking Borough Council. Zafar has been instrumental in the renovation of a beautiful Muslim burial ground at Horsell Common near Woking, a project that was in many ways complex and challenging, but also hugely rewarding. I am thrilled to have been asked by the council team running the ongoing outreach programme associated with the cemetery to advise on how they can take the more the historical narratives that accompany the project to a wider public that might not necessarily visit the site itself. This, in turn, will provide a platform for me to bring my own exhibition and public talks to Woking, later next year.
It’s a busy time, and I am relishing taking my work off campus. In doing so, though, how can I be sure that I am not merely engaging in a series of talking shops? How can I be sure that my work, as it morphs and (I hope) connects with different audiences, is not merely preaching to the converted – the liberally minded wings of different faith groups already well disposed to interfaith work? In other words, how can I be sure that I am engaging in makes that elusive break through to genuine impact in the sense discussed? Here, again, I am lucky to have help. It comes in the form of Rev. Canon Prof. Leslie Francis of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit. Leslie is an empirical theologian and has been a prolific publisher of studies that employ quantative analysis methods to understand many aspects of religious congregations, usually in Anglican cathedrals. Together we are co-designing a series of questionnaires to be used first in Coventry, which ask people how they thought and felt before and after event. Subsequently, we will use a range of analytical metric methods to abstract from the data gathered any impact that my material might have on audience thinking: I am grateful to him for his help and part of me looks forward to having a case study at the end of the project.
In a quiet moment recently a colleague of mine, who is largely well disposed to my work, reminded me that real impact is not something that we do as academics. Rather, she told me, it is something that good researchers have in all kinds of intangible and possibly immeasurable ways that elude the snapshot that a narrative case study can offer. Provided that we, as researchers, are engaged with non-academic publics and thinking about how we can make our work relate to them, I think I agree. If I do end up with a workable case study that helps both me and my institution, then that’s great. When I began this project I thought needed to do this kind of work in order to move with the times. Admittedly, the impact agenda gave a nudge in this respect. That nudge has moved me into a new place in my career, however. Taking my work off campus has become something that is now an inherent part of what I do and what I perceive contemporary academia to be about. What drives me to talk to communities of all kinds is a need to communicate and share my material with them, convincing them, I hope, of its ongoing relevance – and learning a great deal myself in the process. Sure, it is exhausting, there are many dead ends, and it can end up eating into the time you’d like to spend writing the essays and books themselves. Whether or not it remains part of governmental policy, though, and whether or not your work ends up in some faculty case study for the UK's next Research Excellence Framework (REF), finding your own pathway off campus with your work is well worth doing. If you are an academic, try it. You might be surprised by the impact it has on you.