Michael Munnik – Defending scholarship in public debates5 November 2018
A small corner of Twitter has recently been occupied with a debate that cuts close to our work here at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. The specific matter is the robustness of a report by UK think tank the Quilliam Foundation concerning the proportion of ‘Asians’ involved in child sexual exploitation in Britain.
As with so many social media storms, we have to look further back to see the context for the debate. Here, it is the criminal conviction of 20 men in Huddersfield in mid-October. The case garnered national attention and set off a spate of other events – notably, charges of contempt of court brought against Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, who reported on the trial in ways that risked compromising it.
Following the mid-October convictions, Home Secretary Sajid Javid – himself a British Asian man – tweeted his bullish challenge to ‘those sick Asian paedophiles’.
These sick Asian paedophiles are finally facing justice. I want to commend the bravery of the victims. For too long, they were ignored. Not on my watch. There will be no no-go areas https://t.co/cZGqDOxt4u
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) October 19, 2018
It was reaction to this tweet and the easy association of ‘Asian’ with ‘child-grooming’ that resurrected interest in Quilliam’s report on precisely this topic. The report, published late in 2017, examined cases of what it called ‘grooming gang’ convictions and offered the startling claim that 84 per cent of such offenders were Asian, far out of proportion to their demographic share.
Not only was the report shared, it was, as often happens, contested. One such rubbisher was pop singer and author Lily Allen.
Actually that @quilliaminstitute study has just been outed as being utterly useless. They got their nationwide averages from a total of 5 victims or something. https://t.co/jVj3SislZV
— LILY ALLEN (@lilyallen) October 27, 2018
Here’s where the trouble really began. Allen is followed by 5.6 million accounts on Twitter. She speaks, to put it simply, with a loud voice on the platform. Perhaps because of this, Quilliam’s chair and co-founder, Maajid Nawaz, and the two authors of the report came out swinging. The best defence, it seems, was a good offence, with Nawaz especially taking an aggressive, derisive and, to follow his Twitter style, rather characteristic tone. This pool has widened over the week to include UCL lecturer Ella Cockbain.
It’s not our place here at the Islam-UK Centre to arbitrate in this dispute. We have a dog in the fight: the tag ‘Asian’ is frequently connected with ‘Muslim’. Indeed, ‘Muslim grooming gang’ is an easy epithet used by groups, including parts of the British press. This can give the false impression that grooming children for exploitation is somehow typical behaviour of Muslims. It may only be in the interests of strict accuracy that detractors used ‘Asian’ in this context, as one of those convicted in Huddersfield is a Sikh. Accuracy is important. Much of the sociological research we do is to reveal the diversity of Muslims in Britain – the term is not coextensive with Asians, and we resist such implicit or explicit coding.
More generally, though, it is our place to stick up for the work we and our colleagues do – the scholarly enterprise. There is nothing magical about having a PhD, but it is a certification that demonstrates we are qualified to do certain things: research, generate and manage data, read critically, and interpret information. Others can do this, too, such as journalists, but it’s a pretty uncontroversial description of the work we do. Likewise, such work isn’t limited to a university. People with PhDs don’t just work in higher education. They also work for charities, government departments, and think tanks.
But in all these spaces, we commit to open enquiry. When I got my PhD, I had to pass a viva: two scholars read what I wrote and asked me critical questions about it. I had to satisfy them, and they symbolically represent the whole community of scholars who expect me to craft my findings in certain ways. When I try to publish my research, it is again subjected to peer review. (It can be withering.) When I give a seminar or present at a conference, I expect other scholars in the room to ask me questions about what I’m proposing – sometimes tough questions, though I hope they are respectfully put. When I teach my students about social theory and qualitative research methods, I am helping them understand what kinds of questions they will be asked and how to make choices early in the research process so that they are able to give good answers.
These are the kinds of questions critics, including Cockbain, are posing to Quilliam on social media. Now, social media is not really suited to this kind of discussion. It could be; there’s no reason it can’t be; but it so often isn’t. When I look at how Quilliam staff and Nawaz in particular describe the people asking tough questions of their research, I don’t recognise it as scholarly. (Nor should I skate over Cockbain’s language: if the goal is to hold the debate to higher standards, the phrase ‘inflammatory tripe’ won’t help.) Nawaz has form, concocting the term ‘regressive left’, complete with its own hashtag, to characterise ideological opponents. I have no doubt it works well in the hypermediated space of Twitter, but it’s not how academics go about their work. He developed a new term for this debate, ‘activdemic’, to slur scholars who also take an activist role. (This has gathered some adjectives, as Cockbain is sometimes described as a ‘nasty socialist activdemic’, presumably because she gave an interview to the Socialist Worker.)
Further, the responses from Quilliam have racialised the debate, emphasising Cockbain’s whiteness. Lily Allen is also described as white – a ‘white saviour’ on top of being a ‘pop star’ and ‘posh’. Privilege is entangled in this discussion, and Nawaz pitches Allen’s original intervention as bullying, sending her 5.6 million followers to harass him and the report authors. These are ad hominem attacks, critiquing the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. It’s not how we’re taught to make our case in academia, and if students do it in their essays, I give it the digital equivalent of a big red circle.
Yet it is a part of Twitter stylistics. To her credit, Cockbain has not ducked behind a bush. She remains active on social media, asking critical questions of the report and defending her own methodology and interpretations. Her reason for doing so may simply be to prove a point and not be cowed, and this may also explain Nawaz’s persistence. Unhelpfully, this may simply create the conditions for a stalemate contoured by abusive language.
As scholars, funded in no small part by the public purse, it is our responsibility precisely to be in these spaces with our data, our clarity, our analysis, and importantly our questions. When the stakes are high for policy and for social wellbeing – such as in the abuse of vulnerable people or the vilification of certain demographic groups – we need to engage, even in places ill suited to our particular ways of constructing arguments. I hope, though I am not hopeful, that we can be heard and acknowledged among the clamour.
Dr Michael Munnik is Lecturer for Social Science Theories and Methods with Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion and the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. His research concerns the production of news about Muslims in Britain and the participation of Muslims in the news media. Dr Munnik is the Communications and Publications Officer for the Sociology of Religion Study Group for the British Sociological Association.