Everyone’s an Expert

When people find out that my research field is the global rise of religious violence they often start to ask questions. “What do I think of ISIS?” they may ask. Or, “do you think that religion causes terrorism?”

I suppose such questions are understandable, even though I hesitate to answer them. Even though I am sometimes interviewed on television or on radio with the descriptor that I am a “terrorism expert,” I’ve never felt comfortable with that label. I am keenly aware of the limits of my own knowledge, and feel uncomfortable being described as an expert in anything.

Still, religious terrorism is something that I study. And I’ve done it for over 30 years. I’ve written several books and scores of articles about the topic, and have interviewed dozens of people directly involved in terrorist acts or supporters of them. I’ve interviewed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Doctor Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, leaders of Hamas; Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the key organizers of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the anti-Palestinian Koch Party; Rev Michael Bray, convicted of bombing clinics that provide abortions on the East Coast of the United States, and Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist anti-Muslim activist whom Time magazine called “the Buddhist face of terror.”

So yes, I should know something about the subject of religious terrorism. For this reason, against my better judgement, I often try to answer these simple questions. Hesitantly, in words that I think are uncomplicated and relevant, I try to give a common sense response about what is for me a very complicated subject without sounding like I’m giving an academic lecture.

But often before I can utter more than a word or two, I’m interrupted. “Well this is what I think,” the questioner will say. And then they’re off on a lengthy diatribe that often echoes comments that they have read or seen on television.

Sometimes they have decided that a particular religious tradition is at fault, invariably Islam. At other times it is religion in general that is the cause, regardless of the degree of religiosity expressed by the perpetrators of particular terrorists acts. And occasionally they aver that the problem is political leadership and cowardice in “getting tough” with evil doers.

My attempts at correcting, nuancing, or qualifying their opinions are to no avail. They know what they know, and they want me to know it.

Why, I wonder, did they bother asking me if they were not interested in my analysis? I’ve given some thought to this interesting situation, and tried to make sense of it.

Part of the problem, I think, is the proliferation of talk-shows on radio and television—sometimes in a daily 24-hour format—that is all about opinion. Everyone has one, everyone has the right to express theirs, and talk shows are the way to do it. Real expertise is simply not a part of the talk show equation. Asking an expert something is simply an excuse to give one’s own opinion on the topic.

I discovered how this format affects conversation when, soon after 9/11, I was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, a talk show host on Fox news. When he opined that Islam produced terrorism, I tried to politely point out that the 9/11 attackers were a minute number of a very marginal fringe of an extremist branch of Islam that virtually all Muslims would disparage what they did.

“That’s an interesting opinion,” O’Reilly said. I tried to explain to him that this was not just “an opinion,” it was a fact based on evidence and a part of my analytic judgement as someone who studies the relationship between religion and violence comparatively around the world. But then I realized that I was speaking into a dead microphone, he had already cut me off and was on to something else.

So part of the problem is that an expert is just someone else with an opinion, no better and probably worse, than opinions expressed by people whom others trust. Some of these opinion setters are media hosts like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Others are authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They present convincing templates of reality that are difficult to penetrate by people such as me who actually study some of the things that these opinion setters have pontificated about.

Another problem is related to globalization. We live in an era in which increasingly information is decentralized and divorced from structures of authority. Encyclopedias are an example. When during the European Enlightenment, Denis Diderot produced an Encyclopédie, the idea was that the most authoritative versions of knowledge would be available in one place. In the 21st century, the most commonly consulted encyclopedia is Wikipedia, which anyone can alter and amend at will. It is only as authoritative as the last person to edit the entries.

The problem is even more pronounced in reporting on the world’s news. In the United States, as in most countries, news information was disseminated to the general public through very limited sources, usually ones in which the public had great trust. During the later decades of the 20th century the nightly news of the major networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—were the arbiters of the received knowledge of daily events. At that time, Walter Cronkite, the anchor for CBS-television news, was regarded as “the most trusted man in America.”

In the 21st century everyone is trusted and no one is trusted. We can pick our own version of the news, and viewers of MSNBC and Fox News seem to inhabit different planets. If one does not trust any of the televised variants of current events, the Internet provides abundant fora for alternate views, some of which are downright bizarre.

No wonder, then, that experts don’t count. In these media realms independent experts simply do not exist, or are deeply suspect. If they offer counter narratives they are presumed to be speaking from an opinionated position that cannot be trusted.

“Are you one of those liberal professors?” This was the question posed by a Mid-West relative of mine who admitted that her main source of information came from Fox News. No matter that I was a once-trusted relative and that I had spent years in the University presumably becoming accomplished in some arena of knowledge, the very fact that I spoke outside her media box was cause for suspicion.

So I supposed in an era of media opinions and the globalized decentralization of information, I should not feel insulted if no one trusts me to be an expert. I can live with that. I’m more disturbed, however, by what this says about the diffusion of knowledge and the lack of public consensus in the global era. That is an issue about which we should all be concerned.