February 23, 2004

Everything in moderation

By Eric Rangus

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham has a problem with work. Her work, specifically. It's a little difficult to explain.

In the big picture, Wickham, associate professor of political science, studies politics in developing countries, primarily in the Middle East. She is most interested in nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes, and how it can become an effective catalyst for change.

With a well received book to her credit (2002's Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt) and two recent grants ($100,000 from the Carnegie Foundation and $20,000 from the U.S. Institute for Peace) Wickham is set to tackle her next project.

The Path to Moderation: Lessons from the Evolution of Islamism in the Middle East, the book she has just begun researching, will be an exploration into the intricate nature of "moderate" Islamist political groups. In the Arab world, they are by definition opposition groups since none have power and the closest models they have to build on are from the seventh century.

Wickham must be highly detailed in the description of her work since it contains so many loaded words. "Islamists," for example, should not be painted with the broad brush of extremism--most are not. An Islamist is simply someone who seeks to achieve reform based on the principles of Islam, but what those principles are, and how they are to be applied to modern times, remain hotly contested.

Then there is "moderation," a word that carries a vastly different meaning in the Middle East than it does in the West.

"It's difficult to explain what I mean by 'moderation,'" Wickham said. "There is a sense in the Arab world that what Americans mean by 'moderate' is those in the region who think like us and are ready to embrace Western, secular models of government."

That view, Wickham said, is seen as one type of extremism. On the other extreme are those Islamists dedicated to a "rigid adherence to traditional Islamic rulings and opinions on issues such as women's and minority rights and citizenship," Wickham said.

A moderate Islamist is one who defines him- or herself as in the middle: someone who believes in a form of government based on the teachings of Islam but more humanist and pluralist in its tone--one that lacks the hard line of extreme governments such as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It's a touchy subject, and not an easy one to research. Wickham has spent years carving a reputation for herself and despite that work still finds the occasional roadblock.

"There is a great deal of suspicion of Western researchers in general and American researchers in particular," Wickham said. "What are my ultimate goals?" she said, giving an example of one question she has faced in the past.

"Do I work for the CIA?" she said, offering another. "Do I work for the Mossad? [They ask] do we know you are who you say you are? If we share with you sensitive information about our goals and they way we mobilize support, how do we know that information is not going to come back to hurt us? And even if you are sincere and you do have our best interests at heart, how do we know that once this information reaches the public domain it won't be used by others against us?"

Wickham has a pretty consistent answer to these serious questions: "I am trying to portray the goals of the Islamic movement in as fair and accurate a manner possible."

Once she is able to establish trust with her interview subjects–with 15 years' experience in Egypt and Mobilizing Islam on her resume, Wickham is not an unknown commodity and has developed a solid rapport with many of her sources–she must concern herself with the state.

"Authoritarian governments in the Arab world are not interested in Westerners conducting research on Islamic opposition groups, to put it mildly," Wickham said.

While in Egypt researching her previous book, Wickham suspects she was followed by state security forces and had her phone tapped. One Islamic militant she interviewed said the only reason he sat down with her was because his group had used its contacts in the state security office to check her file. When they described Wickham as "sympathetic to the movement," the interview took place.

For her current project, Wickham will be talking to high-level leaders in the organizations she is studying, so there will be no trudging around the slums of Cairo as she has done in the past.

Her expertise is such that some Islamist leaders have asked her for her opinion on their movement, as a group of Tunisian exiles did during an interview in London last summer.

Despite the many complications Wickham faces in her work, she is drawn to the Middle East for many reasons. Wickham first visited Egypt with a cousin while an undergraduate at Harvard. "From the moment I set foot in the country, I fell in love with it," Wickham said. "I found it endlessly fascinating and I feel an affinity with Arab culture and society." On and off, Wickham lived in Egypt for three years.

Living abroad has never been a problem for her. Before college, Wickham also lived in Quebec, Brazil and Switzerland. At one point, she could converse in six languages, but now her fluency is limited to English and Arabic.

"There were times I felt so comfortable in Egypt that my life in the United States seemed very remote," she said. "It was like having one foot in each world."

Wickham's research trips to Egypt were not her first encounters with Arab society. That came when she was 15 and took a trip to Israel with her family. While there, they were invited to dinner with an Arab family on the rooftop of their home.

"There was a sense of hospitality and warmth between our two families," Wickham said. "I was struck by the tragic nature of relations between Jews and Muslims today and I felt a deep, idealistic desire to help build bridges and promote understanding between the two peoples."

And that's not easy.

Wickham, who is Jewish, must negotiate the enormous anti-Israeli sentiment among the members of the Islamic movements that dominate her research. Calling into question some Israeli governmental policies toward the Palestinians–as Wickham does--during her talks at synagogues generates some lively discussion, as well.

"Some people are very defensive of Israel and don't want to hear any criticism of Israeli policy," Wickham said. "I think the responsibility is shared [between the Israelis and Palestinians], and I don't want to demonize those on either side of the conflict."

In March, Wickham will be returning to Egypt for the first time since the birth of her youngest daughter, Iris, 2. She will be in country for three weeks. Over the next year, she will visit Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia and possibly Algeria as part of her new research.

Before Wickham had children--she also has a 7-year-old daughter, Anna--she thought nothing of being out of the country for two months at a time. But now she has scaled back her time abroad.

"How do you balance your commitment to being an active presence in your children's lives with meeting your responsibilities at work?" Wickham said, repeating a question asked by many a professional woman. "I try to be a very accessible and responsive teacher, both inside and outside the classroom. I enjoy that tremendously, and I'd like to think I have an influence on the lives of my students."

That must be true, since one of her former students just told her he received a tenure-track position in Middle Eastern politics at the University of Texas. Part of the reason he got into the field was her mentorship.

"I constantly feel there aren't enough hours in the day," Wickham said. "But I lead a very rich and rewarding life. It's just difficult to navigate among the different worlds."

Since coming to Emory in 1994, Wickham has taught 30 courses, creating 13 of them. She has been at the forefront of foreign-language education on campus, co-teaching Emory's first undergraduate course conducted in Arabic with Middle Eastern and South Asian studies' Kristen Brustad.

In 2001, she received the William H. Fox Crystal Apple Award for Emerging Excellence in Teaching and Service to the Emory Community. So there is quite a bit of evidence that Wickham is successful in the classroom.

"When I look out at a sea of students, I do not think of them as an undifferentiated mass," said Wickham, who admits she is somewhat embarrassed by the attention she has received and credits her department for giving her the freedom to teach in her own way. "I think of students as individuals, each one unique, whose thinking I want to challenge and stimulate. The goal is not to hand out information like you're handing out lozenges."

To accomplish this, she has tried role-playing exercises, focus groups and debates, among other things. "How do you transform the learning experience from one of passive reception of knowledge to participation in the construction of knowledge?" she said.

Through her teaching Wickham constantly works to find an answer. And the effort? There is nothing moderate about it.