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On the track of 'global jihad,' professor studies rise of Islamist movements

ASU Professor Abdullahi Gallab on a recent panel addressing 9/11.
October 04, 2011

On September 11, 2001, the term “global jihad” burst upon the public consciousness. For Adbullahi Gallab, who began documenting the rise of Islamism in the 1980s as a journalist in his native Sudan, it was a term that was all too familiar.

Gallab is now an assistant professor of African and African-American and religious studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of the faculty advisory committee of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. But in 1989 he was on a Humphrey Fellowship in Boston when the Islamist government of al-Bashir consolidated its power in Sudan. Unable to return home, Gallab was able to stay in the United States where he began a much more extensive research program about the development of Islamist and violent jihadist movements in Africa and the Middle East, work that resulted in two recent books, with a third one on the way.

“At the time I began these studies as a doctoral student in the 1990s, the term global jihad wasn’t well known, Osama bin Laden wasn’t well known,” Gallab says. “Now, the field has become increasingly important because it has so much more to do with our lives.”

His books, “The First Islamic Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan” and “A Civil Society Deferred: the Tertiary Grip of Violence in the Sudan,” which focus on Sudan as a case study, address profound issues for understanding the local and global interactions and transformations of political Islam and the political uses of violence.

Gallab’s field work in the Sudan and his extensive travels across the Middle East and Africa have given him a deep and rich knowledge of the cultures and trends that make up that part of the Muslim world. It is this rich knowledge that informs his research and makes him such a popular teacher among students pursuing the Undergraduate Certificate in Religion and Conflict, an interdisciplinary program that draws on courses from the humanities and social sciences to teach students about the dynamics of religion, conflict and peace. He also advises graduate students.

In spring 2012, he will teach two courses: “Different Voices within Contemporary Islamic Discourse” and “American Islam.”

Haneen Odeh, a global studies major who is now in graduate school, says “Different Voices” was a great course because it covered a range of intellectual and political thought, including that of Islamists, Sufis and traditional scholars.

“I learned how Islam is used in political and religious aspects of society and it was applicable because we studied current events like the Egyptian revolution,” Odeh says.

Other courses Gallab teaches include “Islam and Islamic Societies in Africa: A Social and Political History,” “Islam and World Affairs,” and “Introduction to Africa.”

Gallab is also known as an exceptional mentor for students in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict’s Undergraduate Research Fellows program. In fall 2010, two students in the program assisted Gallab with research for another project, “Signposts in the Track of Global Jihad,” which addresses the inner and outer forms of actions of global jihadists, including figures like Aymen al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden.

Jenny Reich, a junior majoring in religious studies, worked with Gallab on the project and calls him one of her favorite professors at ASU. Reich said he helped her grow as a writer and scholar, giving her substantive work as a fellow and developing her research skills.

“He inspired me to pursue Middle Eastern studies further, and I am currently learning Arabic to enhance my understanding of the field of Islamic studies because of my experiences under his mentorship,” Reich says.  “I feel very privileged to have worked with a professor as supportive, knowledgeable, and engaging as Dr. Gallab.”

This year Gallab, with a seed grant from the Institute for Humanities Research, embarked upon a new and ambitious project titled “Islamism in the Crucible of Immigration.” Over the summer, Gallab spent a week in Greeley, Colo., the place where Sayyid Qutb, a key ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, lived in 1948 and developed his worldview in opposition to Western and American culture. In Greeley, Gallab had the opportunity to meet and interview people who knew Qutb’s then, and examine documents available at the University of Northern Colorado.

Gallab says his interest in the subject is “an attempt to understand, through the study of the grand affair that immigration offers, how certain individuals and sometimes groups…drift toward Islamism.”

Immigration, observes Gallab, often creates tensions and polarities contrary to the melting pot view that assumes immigrants assimilate into the dominant culture. He is particularly interested in following the multiple flows of Muslim immigrants, including guest workers, refugees, labor migrants and asylum seekers as they moved from their home countries to other parts of the Muslim world as well as to the West.

“In each one of these host countries, whether Muslim-majority or Western, immigrants were locked in by cultural, political, racial, or religious arrangements. Irrespective of these barriers, however, other opportunities opened up for them,” Gallab says. “In some cases, it was better employment, in others, it was encounters with Islamists from other parts of the world.”

He says immigrants on individual and group levels were compelled to confront these complexities, and for those with an Islamist bent, it sometimes led to transformations from peaceful to violent Islamism, as well as the reverse, or from unidentified Islamists to active Islamists.

Undergraduate research fellows will be working alongside Gallab this semester on the immigration project, unearthing information from newspapers, journals and government documents, compiling and summarizing written material, and learning the basics of drafting and editing research manuscripts.

Outside of the classroom, Gallab works to bridge the gap between academia and the public by giving talks about Islam in the community and at interfaith gatherings, visiting mosques and churches, and participating in events such as the conference the center held last year on “Women, Islam and Peacebuilding” and a more recent panel on 9/11. He also writes articles and blog posts on current events that have appeared in such online outlets as "Religion Dispatches" and the Social Science Research Council’s Sudan blog.

Even if students are not religious studies majors, Gallab stresses the importance of learning about contemporary and historical issues surrounding religion.

“The areas of understanding conflict, war, peace and the human experience are all wrapped into the study of religion,” says Gallab. “Learning about different faiths is vital for long-term communication and cooperation among diverse communities.”

“This is also why the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is so important – because it brings together faculty and students to address this important area.”

Story by Nesima Aberra, a communications and operations intern with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.