In 2008, a theologian I admire and hold in high regard spoke on the radio of an apparently brilliant Islamic scholar hardly anybody had heard of. He was one of the most influential public intellectuals of our age he enthused, and a spiritual guide to millions of followers. Why was it, he wondered aloud, that so few knew his name, or were familiar with the tolerant and moderate interpretation of Islam that he taught.
I should not have been surprised by the esteemed academic’s enthusiasm, for in the same year, the political magazines Foreign Policy and Prospect published the results of their poll to determine the world’s most influential public intellectual. To the surprise of the organisers, votes for Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk and ninety-seven other known intellectuals were quickly surpassed by tens of thousands of votes for an obscure imam they had not heard of either. Five hundred thousand votes later, he was conferred that now oft-repeated title: the world’s most influential public intellectual.
That did not come as a great surprise to me, for I had received the viral email asking me to participate in the online vote. Though many of my Turkish friends considered it a duty, as a matter of national pride, I chose not to cast a vote (I had recently been rebuked by a friend for begging for votes in an online blogging contest known as the Brass Crescent Awards, and was still nursing my bruised ego). No matter, for the imam’s appearance in the vote had been announced on the cover of Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper, a beautifully produced broadsheet I likened to The Guardian, published by the imam’s associates. It was also publicised on three Turkish television stations, national radio, dozens of websites and forums and in numerous Yahoo email groups. The imam, it turned out, had won the vote on the basis of a concerted campaign to ensure he won.
It was lucky that this poll did not necessitate an examination of the intellectual’s intellectual output, for as far as anybody could tell there was none. Outside his own circles, he was more likely to be characterised as a theatrical demagogue, best known for his hysteric sobbing episodes before vast crowds of sobbing men, who in a heightened state of emotion would part with their meagre salaries to support his cause and mission. That, however, was not the depiction his supporters wished to portray, as they focused their efforts on a public relations exercise of mammoth proportions.
Over the same period, the imam’s supporters hosted numerous conferences at major universities in Britain and America, framed as independent academic studies of the imam’s influential grassroots movement. On one side, there were secular academics well regarded in their own fields, on the other Muslim academics affiliated with the movement itself. In paying the contributors’ expenses in full, the organisers more or less guaranteed the active participation of the invited scholars.
At the end of every conference, the output would be transformed into edited volumes, which were subsequently distributed through academia as an ever-increasing body of scholastic literature, exploring the movement’s role in the interface between east and west. It seemed as though the organisers had achieved legitimacy by association. Certainly, prominent public figures associated with those conferences formed — for a time — uncritical appraisals of the movement spawned by that hitherto unknown imam, now likened to Ghazali and Rumi. Thus the legend of a progressive, pacifist, liberal and egalitarian movement was born, the image of an intellectual imam permanently cemented in place.
Today, it does not matter if we now bring up videos showing the imam uttering very intolerant sentiments, inciting extreme violence against those he classed as enemies. Nor does it matter if we publicise videos showing him sobbing and wailing, and winking, before crowds of sobbing and wailing men, stirred into an emotional frenzy. Nor will it make any difference if we analyse some of his nonsensical statements. None of that matters, for a scholar has been born — nay, the world’s most influential public intellectual — and that alternative reality has been made undeniable by association with minds truly worthy of consideration.
Some people consider this nothing but good PR. I consider it nothing but fraud, but I must be biased, for friends tell me that the imam is indeed brilliant. Perhaps so. Perhaps all the conferences, lectures and cross-cultural dialogue served to reveal a humble man the world must get to know. Perhaps this is how a scholar is made.