April 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 4

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

Sociologists Needed to Study Terrorism

To what extent will American sociologists teach and study this country’s responses to terrorism?

Thus far the answer appears to be, not much, at least to judge by my review of course offerings of departments around the country and of tables of contents for journals (including books reviewed in Contemporary Sociology). My search was admittedly unsystematic, but it was extensive. Even in the small number of sociology courses about terrorism that I did uncover, the great majority of reading assignments are works by non-sociologists.


For our profession to pay scant attention to the topic of terrorism, or cede it to other disciplines, strikes me as not only unfortunate but unnecessary. Many of the largest subdisciplines in sociology have much to contribute: political, cultural, and comparative and historical sociologists most obviously; and also—given by whom and against whom the "war on terror" has been fought—scholars of sex and gender, race, immigration, and social movements.

While I would never presume to decree where my colleagues should focus their time and talents, as I write this, the need for sociological perspectives seems especially acute. The news media and political discourse is currently preoccupied with the unsuccessful attempt by an airline passenger to ignite his underpants. Billions of dollars and incalculable hours of labor and queuing are being spent in reaction to this latest attempted attack on Americans.

For my own part, I elected a couple of years ago to give priority to terrorism in my writing. As I began work on a new edition of The Culture of Fear (the first since the book came out in 1999), I found myself with many potential topics that merited extended discussion. In the end, I made the decision to devote considerably more space in the new chapters to terrorism than to anything else.

Arguing that the principal fear narrative in the United States shifted from "there are monsters among us" to "foreign terrorists want to destroy us," I draw comparisons between the so-called "war on terror" of the Bush administration and campaigns by previous administrations, such as the "war on drugs" and the "war on crime." I suggest that from those earlier "wars," American journalists and their audiences had been conditioned to treat seriously shocking statistics that were not fully explained or verified; dire warnings that flared and faded, often without any actual effect on our daily lives; and testimony from self-appointed experts as vested interests in whipping up anxieties.

Following 9/11 and throughout the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the same patterns ensued, only this time, the statistics, warnings, and expert testimony came almost entirely from the Administration. One study found, for example, that more than 90 percent of news stories about Iraq covered by NBC, ABC, and CBS during a five-month period in 2002-03 came from the White House, Pentagon, or State department.

Using a sociological perspective means trying to bring a sense of proportion, pointing out that the total number of deaths from terrorist attacks worldwide in 2001 (the worst year on record) was 3,547, more than three-quarters of which were on September 11. About the same number of Americans died that year from drowning. Nearly three times as many died from gun-related homicides, and five times as many in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents. Over the last four decades, lightning has killed as many Americans as have terrorists.

Statistics such as those, it seems to me, further underscore the need for sociological insights into the social constructions and realities of terrorism.

Barry Glassner, University of Southern California

Problems at the University of Kurdistan

In recent years English-language universities have mushroomed around the globe, promising their students a better-quality degree than those who get a degree in their own language. For American and British university instructors, these seem to offer ideal opportunities to grow professionally as well as personally by contributing to innovative programs for deserving populations.

Behind these ideal opportunities, however, lurk unforeseen dangers. We have worked at one such institution in the Kurdistan Federal Region of Iraq, the University of Kurdistan-Hawler. Kurdistan has enjoyed good security, an economic boom, and some steps toward democratization. The University is fully funded by the Kurdish Regional Government, which appeared sincere in establishing an institution meeting international standards in the British mold.  During 2008-2009, progress was "in the air."

But problems began when a new Vice Chancellor was appointed in July 2009. As one of many examples of "handwriting on the wall," it became apparent that despite recent hiring of five faculty in the sociology department with three-year contracts, the administration had plans to close the program within one year. It stonewalled against attempts by the department to attract students, such as a proposal for a degree scheme for Communication, Media and Society, even though it was approved unanimously by the School of Undergraduate Studies Committee. A survey indicated that about one-third of the University students would have chosen that major.

Still, the faculty tried to put the University on the right path. We proposed to include elected members on the Academic Board. We established a faculty association and urged changes through proper procedures. The administration resisted every step. The doors of the Governing Board were closed to us, leaving no room for grievances. Many faculty members became fearful of dismissal for expressing their views. One indeed was formally threatened with dismissal merely for expressing his concerns to members of the committee charged with those concerns.

In one case, Daniel Wolk, in his role as Chair of the nascent Faculty Association, felt compelled to question the hiring process for new administrators that flouted written university procedures and offered only token faculty involvement. After a petition signed by the vast majority of academic staff requesting more faculty participation was ignored, Wolk wrote an e-mail to the signatories of the petition explaining how rules and procedures had been violated and criticized the Vice Chancellor for failing to respond to the petition.

Within a week, Wolk was summarily dismissed with a letter allegedly emanating from the Governing Board. There were no grounds explained to him (either verbally or in writing), no attempt to go through academic disciplinary procedures, and not even a notification to the Head of Department. Wolk was forced to vacate his office immediately and leave his apartment and the country within 15 days. Even with the best efforts of a distinguished lawyer, he could not obtain an injunction delaying these orders.

Officials who reviewed the case agreed that it is one of wrongful dismissal. Nevertheless, security officers with automatic weapons appeared at Wolk’s door to evict him forcibly. His lawyer managed to hold them off for a few hours. After further "bureaucratic" inconveniences, Wolk was escorted to the airport by a guard and placed on a flight out of the country.

The issue is one of academic freedom as well as of the standing of sociology. Our department was targeted for elimination ostensibly because we have a small undergraduate program (albeit a strong graduate program), but it is widely believed such elimination hinges on the fact that sociologists have been vocal in defending the values of academic freedom and open discussion.

We appeal for the support of fellow sociologists in protesting the lack of due process in the dismissal of Wolk and in the closure of the sociology program. Documentation has been sent to the ASA and further information is available at sites.google.com/site/ukhtruth. Send e-mails of support to the Secretary of the Governing Board of the University of Kurdistan-Hawler at: k.khanekah@ukh.ac. Because there is no assurance that your emails will be passed on, "Cc" the Ministry of Higher Education at mhe@krg.org, Daniel Wolk at dannowolk@gmail.com, and Wolk’s lawyer, Jiyan Aziz Gardi,
at jiyangardi@gmail.com.

Daniel P. Wolk, (formerly) University of Kurdistan-Hawler, John Cross, James Dingley,Chris Whitney and Francesca Recchia, University of Kurdistan-Hawler

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