Gregory D. Johnsen knows a great deal about Yemen. He has traveled to the country several times over the past decade to conduct research on the civil war that divided the country in the 1960s. He speaks and reads Arabic, is pursuing a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and has earned several fellowships, including a Fulbright, to further his work. Along the way he has also become something of an expert on Al Qaeda’s growing influence in the Arabian Peninsula, which culminated in a book published last year, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and the Battle for Arabia (W.W. Norton & Company).
That work earned him spots on National Public Radio and in The New York Times. When it came time to look for a tenure-track position, though, he was warned by colleagues to play down his Al Qaeda expertise. The reason? Nobody wants to hire a scholar focused on terrorism.
“For whatever reason, Al Qaeda research is not viewed as academic or very credible,” says Mr. Johnsen. “It’s not something that a lot of people seem very eager to have.”
Mr. Johnsen’s experience is not unique. Academics who study terrorism, whether just beginning their careers or looking back on decades of work, say it is a tricky field to navigate. The September 11 attacks may have drawn scholarly attention and government money to the topic, but that doesn’t mean it has earned much respect. That’s a problem, the researchers argue, when students are clamoring to learn more about jihadism or radical Islam, when pseudoscholars pass themselves off to the public as experts, and when the government is the only major supporter of such research, encouraging topical studies rather than more-conceptual work. <Read more.>