Politics, Interrupted: An Interview With Professor Anver Emon

Tali Green (3L)

Professor Anver Emon on terrorism policy, Islamic-Jewish taboos, and taming the political beast

You may know Professor Anver Emon as that man who so eloquently taught you Constitutional Law, Torts, or Statutory Interpretation. Notwithstanding his proficiency in a dizzying array of areas, Professor Emon’s main focus at U of T Law is developing his world-renowned expertise in Islamic law and history. We met recently to discuss the attacks in Brussels, perceptions of Muslims, and his new book on Islamic and Jewish law.


Professor Emon was born and raised by immigrant parents in an Indian Muslim home in Los Angeles, California.

As a kid, I would see infighting among boards of directors of mosques, and the challenge of thinking of curriculum for Muslim youth in complex settings like the United States. No one was putting their mind to these things while I was growing up, so by the time I was old enough to recognize the problem, I thought – why don’t I think about this?

By looks of his CV, there was much to think about. Emon received his BA in Rhetoric at Berkeley, a JD at UCLA, and a Masters in Islamic Legal History from the University of Texas, Austin. He followed his Masters’ advisor to UCLA for a PhD in History, and then to Yale for an LLM. Emon embarked on a SJD at Yale, which left him working on two doctorates in completely different disciplines, which, he stresses, “I don’t recommend for anyone.”

After being in school from the age of 5 to 39, getting a job in 2005 at U of T must have felt exhilarating…but strange. What helped him get here? Humbly, he explains that while he did have a personal connection with then Law Dean Ron Daniels, world events were the driving force:

Everything changed after 9/11…the Academy changed. I think we need to recognize that I am probably here because there was recognition that after 9/11 that there was a gap in the way we think about the world.

Interrogating The War On Terror

Our meeting took place almost fifteen years after 9/11, and one day after the Brussels attacks. According to Emon, the West’s immediate response to Brussels—and to much of the terrorism since 9/11—indicates that the gap has not yet closed.

What was the point of the Brussels attack? Did they just want to see us suffer?

Any time there is suffering, our immediate reaction is, predictably, to reduce the suffering. They know that we will react to suffering by, in this case, increasing our military presence. They are banking on our ongoing opposition. They need us to be opposed to them in order to maintain their legitimacy. Political identity is defined here in terms of opposition, a negative.

According to Emon, people like Donald Trump are “relying on rage, fear, and anxiety to create a vision of government…but that’s essentially what ISIS is doing as well. ISIS is using fear, intimidation, and anxiety to control Muslims who are under their authority, but also to influence the West. They predict that our emotional reaction will perpetuate the notion that we are facing an inherent clash of civilizations.”

Emon suggests that rather than reinforce claims that the West is in ideological conflict with Islam, we need to ask uncomfortable questions if we are to understand, let alone change, the course of events.

As a thought exercise, imagine ISIS is a state, acting like a state, however roguish its behaviour. Then the containment policies directed at North Korea come to mind. If you contain ISIS, then they will have the same governance problems that every state has, and may suffer a legitimacy problem that they currently avoid by directing attention at an aggressive West.

He describes it as a choice between playing the long game of containment or “the short game of trying to wipe them off the map.”

As for a domestic response, Emon argues that characterizing terrorists based solely on religion and targeting local Muslims who happen to share that religion is, to say the least, misinformed and potentially counter-effective.

Let’s contrast the way we think about terrorism with the way we think about gang violence. With terrorism, we have the spectre of the other – usually a foreigner coming in across the border. We have an image of an ideology that is not our own.

While the war against terrorism is pitched as ideological conflict, with gang violence, “these are citizens; they are often racialized, and the postal code they live in reflects a certain class-based structure.” We might see gang violence as reflecting “the inability of the state to reach them effectively.” Emon clarifies that in the gang analog, “it’s not that there isn’t a criminal element, but there is a backdrop, a story we tell ourselves.”

Emon worries that when we focus solely on ISIS’ or Al Qaida’s ideology, we “saturate their act” with Islam and ignore that the story of their violence “has its own history of dispossession, some of which we in the West are responsible for.”

But does Islam not demand jihad from its devotees? Emon agrees that violence is part of the Islamic tradition, and that there are text-based directives that invoke this spectre of violence. For Emon, however, the question is “Are today’s Muslim practitioners completely defined by their textual tradition or do they have an agency separate from text?”

Emon argues that Western leaders “elide the Muslim with the text in order to make policy” because they don’t, and can’t, have perfect information. The text “provides us in the West with an objective means” to evaluate the Muslim and what he or she might do in a context of limited information.

Even the most observant Muslims, according to Emon, should not be defined by their textual tradition. It all depends on their community and personal interpretations of the text.

For example, Emon explains that some communities, such as Sufi Muslims, have a strong mystical relationship with the text that can take a politically non-violent tone. Others rely on a historically legalistic view of the duty to perform jihad as a communal duty, where, as long as certain groups of people are doing it, everyone else is off the hook. In contrast, Al Qaida interprets those verses, “in a post-colonial context in which they view the state suspiciously,” to mean that the jihad duty “is an individual duty.”

Interpreting Islam Through The Other

To witness Emon’s own work is to appreciate why he would be so frustrated with the West’s attempt to mold Muslims into misinformed stereotypes. His most recent book, available May 2016, is called Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: Encountering Our Legal Other. The book showcases conversations on Jewish and Islamic texts derived exclusively from texts dated before 1500 CE, before recent politics “cast a distorting shadow on the relationship between these two traditions.” This “allowed us to open up a space that hadn’t been possible.” He stresses this book is not an attempt at interfaith peace-building, but an attempt by the authors to gain a deeper understanding of their own legal traditions by encountering their “legal other.”

Does Emon feel that he is betraying the Muslim community by helping to foster a deeper understanding of Jewish, and especially Zionist, legal issues?

No, actually, for me it was exhilarating. The virtue of scholarly critique, for me, is through irony, and the irony of [one of the book’s articles that he co-wrote with Professor Arye Edrie, an Israeli Jewish law scholar, addressing the Jewish law of war] is to suggest that what Arye showed the religious Zionists are doing is what I show that my very fundamentalist religious Muslims are doing. They are doing the exact same thing.

They are attempting to “make the past present,” which Emon argues is illusory and impossible in both cases. But ultimately, he finds that both groups’ work is important because “they are cultivating what it means to be the religious Zionist Jew or the conservative Muslim as they interact with the other – the gentile or the non-Muslim.”

Challenging Politics

Emon claims that his books do not have policy goals and are focused solely on academic scholarship. He seems to envy scholars who study less “pertinent” legal traditions, such as Roman law, because “there is a way to teach their subject without instrumentalizing it for policy purposes.” However, he admits that his work is not oblivious to the political winds thrashing against his ivory tower. His work responds to these winds by suggesting that they might be blowing in the wrong direction. “Part of what I’m doing is intervening in that instrumentalization to break it,” he explains.

To problematize the Islamic the way that I do in my work is to make it harder to instrumentalize it for political purposes. And by making it harder to instrumentalize, because…it is a complex legal tradition, forces policy makers who want to instrumentalize it to think twice about their question, and think twice about the answer that they think Islam will provide them.