The Saint: What made you want to be an academic?
Dr Jasmine Gani: Well, it wasn’t an obvious choice at first. I got an inkling toward the end of my undergrad, as one perhaps should, that this is what I wanted to do. During my Masters at LSE, I migrated from history to the theory and history of IR. This was just after the Iraq war and post-9/11, so it was a time in world politics when everything was in flux, and the norms of IR were being scrutinized. I found myself coming out of my seminars and finishing my essays and wanting to say so much more.
Academia was the perfect route to study these ideas and continue pursuing this love for knowledge, while at the same time being able to write about it, push the boundaries, ask questions that weren’t being imposed on me by others necessarily. While doing my PhD I recognized how much I love teaching and engaging with students, who I always find I can learn a huge amount from.
TS: Just on the cusp of the uprisings in Syria breaking out in 2011, you finished your PhD thesis and book, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation. Can you talk a bit on what inspired this?
JG: During my legal research, I came across this case in which the US had been complicit in the sending of a Canadian national to a “black site,” which is a detention camp often in dubious parts of the world where there are no legal recourse of human rights that these people could turn to. In this particular case, the site was in Syria. It was a part of the world I’d always been interested in, but it triggered in me an awareness.
Here are two countries that don’t have diplomatic relations. The US had imposed sanctions on Syria and has considered them state sponsors for terrorism since 1979 when Syria was the only country that recognized the new Islamist republic in Iran. In that political context, this collaboration of intelligence and something considered illegal in terms of human rights law was fascinating.
The PhD came out of that, but I broadened it to understanding the framework of US-Syrian relations, which had been largely neglected in scholarship prior to the current conflict except by a few dedicated researchers.
TS: On your Twitter page, you’ve tweeted recently several victims’ personal narratives of the conflict in Syria. You’ve also mentioned in recent talks the importance of listening to individuals’ narratives in a conflict rather than losing them in the statistics. What role does narrative play in your research, and what role do you think it should play in IR?
JG: I remember setting out as a research student being aware of the perception that narrative was of lesser academic and scholarly importance compared to analysis and philosophical discourse. Narrative is “just description,” so it was described in a pejorative way. I found that a lot of researchers around me undermined the role of history and historical narrative because “you’re just telling a story.” But sometimes narrative is the practice that challenges existing frameworks and discourses. Narrative becomes emancipatory in itself.
Narratives are constructed. So, who’s doing the constructing, and why? What function does it serve? With every narrative there is analysis and evaluation that takes place in what you select, what you leave out, what you choose to emphasize.
With my talks and my Twitter feed, I’m requesting a shift from focusing on a narrative that places primary emphasis on states and the elites to trying to understand the voices and the stories at the grassroots level, the voices that are marginalized. I think sometimes rather than jumping to philosophical debates and trying to unpack things with sophisticated academic tools, we just need to listen.
TS: Do you think media attention can have a tangible effect on terrorist movements, e.g. the #bringbackourgirls campaign?
JG: I think the media does have an impact on terrorist movements, and terrorist movements have an impact on the media. There’s a symbiosis that exists between the two. Stories on terrorism help the media tick the boxes of sensationalism, accumulating readership, demonstrating the necessity of the media in the first place, keeping people aware and protecting themselves. But the terrorist organizations also depend on the media to actually get their message out there. Terrorists rely on creating a visual impact. If they don’t have the media as a vehicle to carry the message to their target audience, then they fail. So there’s a mutual relationship between the two, even though it might not be an intended one on the part of the media.
TS: The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris garnered much more media attention than the Baga massacre in Nigeria, in which the terrorist group Boko Haram killed perhaps more than 2,000 people, just a few days earlier. This is a clear example of Western media bias. What do you say to those who believe that massacres that occur in Africa are irrelevant or uninteresting to Western audiences?
JG: On one level, I think it’s absolutely valid to recognize that humans will relate to those that they are in greater proximity to. The reason why I think we can’t apply that rationale to the lack of coverage of issues in Africa is because there is a long-standing philosophical, moral, ideological architecture in the West that places Africa at the bottom of a civilisational hierarchy.
TS: The dark continent.
JG: Yes. And the Middle East, the Subcontinent and Latin America sit somewhere on that spectrum as inferior to the civilisational ideal of the West. But at the very bottom is Africa.
It’s an ideology that has been used to justify colonialism at an extreme level. And at the more subtle level – but still very much part of the same perspective – the perception that African lives matter less and that the entire continent is homogeneous. It ties in with the rhetoric that you cannot teach them [Africans] to resolve their problems because there’s an intellectual incapacity. And so a massacre of potentially 2,000 people is a part of a norm. This doesn’t just reflect an inability to empathize with those that are far away from us, which may seem very natural, but also demonstrates a continuation of deeply embedded historical perceptions of Africa, as those whose lives are less valuable compared to the lives of the civilized ideal.
TS: You hold an uncommonly expressed position on the Charlie Hebdo attacks: you condemn the attacks, but you also do not support the cartoons published in the magazine. Can you speak a little bit about this?
JG: The shootings of the journalists were utterly horrific and truly shocking. I can understand and sympathize with the widespread outrage that occurred. Expressing solidarity with the individuals who were killed and their families is not anything I have issue with. But Charlie Hebdo as a magazine – these attacks do not justify their insensitive and often racist approach to its publication. And it’s not just Muslims who have been a target of its magazine, but it’s black people and Jewish people as well, historically. I think we need to be a bit more nuanced in the way that we respond to such events. We have the capacity and responsibility to separate condemnation of an action, as horrific as it was, without also having to conflate that with immediate, knee-jerk support for a magazine whose principles we don’t agree with.
TS: If I may, I would like to end on a more personal note. You choose to wear a hijab, and, coming from the so-called Bible Belt in Tennessee, this is something I would rarely see at home. Even in the UK, where it is more common, wearing a hijab provides a visual difference between you and the majority. I think a lot of people respect this but don’t fully understand it. If you don’t mind, can you explain what the hijab means to you?
JG: I’m happy to talk about it. The hijab has become so politicized, and it carries so much symbolic meaning for different groups of people. For some non-Muslims, it symbolizes oppression, and it may be the experience of some who have worn it. For me, the hijab is just an act of spiritual agency and a fulfilment of something that enables the individual wearing it to be able to focus on the internal rather than the external.
It is about resisting the type of oppression that can come from feeling pressured to look a certain way that is dictated to you by society and others. Again, it must be 100 per cent agency and freedom on the part of the individual choosing to wear it. To fulfil that conceptual idea, it simply cannot be something imposed by another individual or the state or whoever. I do not think that a hijab is the only route towards that emancipatory experience. There are pluralist ways in which somebody could reach that sense of emancipation and focus on the internal rather than simply the external.
TS: This is a meaningful answer for me because it is different from how I perceived the hijab – as a sort of external expression of religious and symbolic meaning. Instead it represents something that is just the opposite, something spiritual and from within. Thank you for speaking with me, Dr Gani.