Professor Roxanne Euben Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship for Her Field-Leading Research on Islamist Rhetoric

November 2, 2016
Professor Roxanne Euben

As the presidential election nears, the media have begun to report on what the next president will face regarding the threat of ISIS. One person a new administration might turn to for guidance would be Roxanne Euben, the Ralph Emerson and Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of Political Science at Wellesley and a well-known scholar in the area of Islamic political thought. This year, Euben received a highly coveted Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; she was one of 178 recipients (and one of just three winners in the field of political science) selected from a pool of nearly 3,000 scholars and researchers around the nation. She was appointed “on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise,” the foundation said.

Euben’s research “has helped pioneer a vibrant new area of inquiry sometimes called ‘comparative political theory,’” according to the foundation’s website. “This is an understanding of political theory not as coextensive with Euro-American canonical texts ‘from Plato to NATO,’ but as inclusive of intellectual traditions of the ‘non-West’ and global South, as well as of indigenous traditions in but not of ‘the West.’”

The fellowship will support Euben’s field-leading work, specifically a book project that asks, “Why has the experience and act of humiliation come to be so closely associated with the bodies and minds of Muslims in the current political and historical moment? And how is humiliation defined?” She will analyze examples of Islamist written texts and ISIS video propaganda as well as examples of humiliation by Muslims, occasioned by, for example, the pictures of slain U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia, or the attacks on 9/11. Finally, she will study how what she calls “the rhetorics of humiliation” work as political tools and messages, and how they, for example, mobilize different audiences to either retaliate or find creative new ways to overcome the experience of degrading powerlessness.

Euben has previously studied Muslim cosmopolitanism; jihad, martyrdom, and political action; travel, translation, and comparisons; commonalities between Muslim and European perspectives on science and reason; Islamic critiques of modernity; and the political thought of Muslim thinkers ranging from Ibn Battuta to Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi to Sayyid Qutb, said the foundation. In addition to extensive academic publications, Euben has also published an op-ed for Quartz entitled “ISIL and the armchair Islamist: How execution videos sell a fantasy of masculinity.”

When it comes to offering advice for the next president, Euben said she would warn against depictions of ISIS that do little to help combat the group. “While understandable, it’s not helpful to see ISIS leaders and members as savage, nihilistic psychopaths, or to depict new recruits as either sadists, thugs, and criminals already inclined to violence, or naïve youths duped by utopian propaganda and personalized outreach,” she said. She added that such depictions make it very difficult to understand how and why ISIS propaganda and rhetoric work to attract potential recruits. “After all,” she said, “you can’t ‘kill’ the power of an idea or a way of seeing the world, but you can aim to undercut ISIS recruitment by undermining its particular appeal.” 

Euben also stressed that it will be equally important for the new president to “take a powerful moral stand to lead the country back from the anti-Muslim rhetoric and hatred unleashed during this election cycle.” She added, “This, in combination with the sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslims, or those taken to be Muslims, and the proliferation of legal initiatives in a number of states targeting—and misunderstanding—Islamic law, need to be directly and quickly addressed by the new president, as they violate American principles in particular and the principles of justice in general.”