précis Interview: Richard Nielsen, assistant professor of political science, MIT

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  • Fall 2013

Richard Nielsen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, MIT

November 1, 2013

précis: How did you become interested in International Relations and Middle East politics?

RN: It really started with September 11. I had just started college. I thought I was going to be a math and science major of some sort (my dad's a chemist). Then 9/11 happened, in my second week of college, and it really affected my thinking on a lot of things—I spent several weeks just thinking about the events themselves. That was the initial spark and in some way I've circled back to that event with my research. It's been a long circle back—and a lot of steps along the way that didn't have to do with 9/11—but it got me interested in political science. I took an intro to International Relations (IR) class a couple of years later and that was really my first political science class. It's one of the reasons I'm passionate about teaching Introduction to IR here because that was the thing that turned me on to what I'm doing now. I also did a research design class shortly thereafter and was a research assistant for the same professor. That set in motion the events that got me headed to grad school and to all the topics I'm interested in.


précis: This fall, you're teaching an introductory course on International Relations (IR). What do you think are the most important subjects in IR to introduce to undergraduates at MIT?

RN: I think the most important thing is strategic thinking. We've really spent the first half of the semester on strategic thinking in various contexts, primarily with issues of war and peace. We'll be turning to international economics more in a couple weeks, and international institutions, but I think strategic thinking is at the core simply because all of the main theories and paradigms of international relations deal with strategic thinking in some way even if it's to critique a kind of strict logic of strategic thinking. And more importantly, strategic thinking is perhaps the most important thing an undergraduate will take from the course and will affect how they view life, interactions, and undertakings in very different contexts. I often enjoy pointing out places in ordinary life where the same strategic logic that we're unpacking in, say, a security dilemma or international cooperation on measurement and standards, actually applies to how they interact with their friends and how they deal with the pressures of school. 

I also think it's really important for students to see primary documents. So to mention a couple of things we've done: We actually read through several transcripts of documents that have been collected through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests on near nuclear catastrophes or mistakes with nuclear weapons. One involved an unauthorized shipment of nuclear weapons between air force bases and the other the Goldsboro 1961 incident in which there was almost a detonation of a 15–megaton nuclear warhead on North Carolina because of a B–52 breakup. Another exercise we'll do on terrorism is to read through one of Sayyid Qutb's pieces.


précis: This spring, you'll be teaching a graduate course on Comparative and International Politics of the Middle East. Tell us a little bit about what you have in mind for the course and how you see the material you'll be discussing as contributing to broader debates in political science.

RN: Part of the course will try to match student interests, so the syllabus may be flexible. It will include a mix of classics and some cutting edge stuff that gives students a sense of what's at the edge of the field both methodologically and substantively. 

In terms of broader debates in political science, I think the Middle East is valuable for studying democracy, authoritarianism, social movements, and religion and politics&mdashthere's a lot coming out of the Middle East on those topics right now, and a fair amount of theorizing to do. Another debate is about the extent to which Middle East politics is area studies or a subfield of comparative politics. I think the primacy of theory plays into that and that's a debate we'll take up. Another part of the debate is the belief that the Middle East has had "bad data" and to study it, you had to do it in particular ways. I'm quite a pluralist in terms of how I think people should study things and I think with Middle East politics the balance has been focused on qualitative and ethnographic approaches because people have felt there wasn't data to do anything else. So I want to give students ideas about how to do mixed methods research with quantitative sources to supplement the qualitative sources we've known about for quite a while.


précis: Beyond those courses you're teaching this year, are there other courses you'd like to teach in the future?

RN: I'll be teaching Scope and Methods with Gina Bateson next fall and I'm very excited about that. One of my goals is to reconcile the growing experimental ethos in political science with the reality of IR where it's very difficult to think about meeting the conditions of a randomized experiment in any research design. I think it's worth reminding the randomistas that there are other ways to learn about the world, but I'm also optimistic about the potential for creative and innovative work that takes IR more in this direction. 

I'm thinking about a course on "Jihad and International Affairs," perhaps for undergraduates. 

I'm also thinking about something called "Hacking for Political Scientists" or "Fun with Big Data." My research has benefited incredibly from the ability to harness computational resources that are essentially force multipliers. It makes it possible to analyze hundreds of thousands of documents when in a prior era a graduate student could only have carefully analyzed 100 documents. The benefits, especially to graduate students who don't have access to a research assistant, are just huge.


précis: In your own work, you've adopted a unique approach combining statistical methods, text analysis, foreign language, and fieldwork. What do you see as the unique contributions of these approaches to your work?

RN: So the unique contribution is definitely the combination of approaches and methods. I will freely admit that I am not the best at any of the things I’m cobbling together. There are people better at statistics, language, fieldwork, but there's really no one pulling these things together, at least in Middle East politics.

Arabic and fieldwork really ground what I do. It would be easy to make a lot of very wrong statements without being able to speak the language, reading a lot of documents, and having spent time on the ground. My fieldwork has been very ethnographic. In Egypt, I spent a lot of time praying with a congregation. I sat in on a lot of classes on hadith. I sat in on Quranic recitation classes. I showed up at 9:00 AM, did whatever people were doing, and left at six. When there wasn't anything going on, I grabbed a Quran and worked on memorizing the Quran. It wasn't the most systematic fieldwork, and at times it wasn't always clear what I was getting out of it, but now when I go and analyze 30,000 documents using text analysis, I can spot when things are going wrong and when things are going right. 

I think the statistics are also important for complementing the fieldwork. It's quite easy to take the ten things you observe in your fieldwork and then to assume that those incidents are representative of all incidents. That's often not the case. And there's more ground you can cover when you bring in the ability to analyze 30,000 documents. You can really start to make statements about "here's how general this set of ideas is."


précis: Your work on religious extremism could be described as existing at the nexus of Comparative Politics and International Relations. Do you see yourself as working in one subfield or the other? What do you think about the prospects for more work at this nexus?

RN: I do think I'm working at the intersection of Comparative Politics and IR. I'm trained as an IR scholar and I'm much more comfortable covering broad areas of IR that I'm not working in. My training in Comparative Politics is much more eclectic and it mostly includes the areas I work in. It's difficult to cover two subfields. There's a lot of literature to keep up with. But I think some of the best work is happening at the intersection.


précis: How has your work evolved since arriving at MIT? Has the community here affected your work in any way? What do you see as the unique opportunities for work in international studies at the Institute?

RN: My work has evolved quite a bit in my short four months now sitting at MIT. For one, new environments bring new ideas and new projects. It was partly hitting the end of my dissertation that made for some space where I wanted to start new things, but I've just started working on a number of exciting things that I think are promising. Some of those things have been fueled by MIT's UROP program [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program] in which MIT funds undergraduates to be research assistants for a semester or longer. It's been really exciting because my work uses a lot of computation and there are a lot of people at MIT with computational skills. So I have someone putting together a Twitter database for me, and we're going to try to map jihadist sentiment worldwide with this data. I'm working with a friend from CSAIL [Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory] who has the data and an undergraduate researcher who is helping push things forward. I've just found the community to be very stimulating—lots of exciting ideas. Is correlation causation? I don't know, but I hope so.


précis: The Washington Post recently reported on the efforts of Egypt's military–backed government to promote a more "Egyptian Islam." What do you think of the prospects for independent religious institutions in Egypt and the broader Middle East in the aftermath of the so–called Arab Awakening? Are state efforts to promote a more moderate Islam likely to be effective?

RN: I think that independent religious institutions will face challenges. The Muslim Brotherhood looks like it's going to suffer, and my guess is that even if there's a move toward some democratization in the future under the military regime, the Muslim Brotherhood will be outlawed from participation and groups representing salafi candidates will also be outlawed. But on the other hand, I think that will backfire. I think that the more the state represses these groups, the more it fuels extremism. It sets up a dichotomy where clerics are either seen as bought out by the state or true clerics are seen as sticking to their principles and are radicalizing. It doesn't leave any room for a moderate cleric sticking to his principles but who, at the same time, criticizes radicalization. 

I'm skeptical that the Washington Post had the whole story—that al–Azhar is going to be a credible, moderate voice for the regime. Al–Azhar flexed its muscles during the revolution, and while it's true that in my interviews with clerics there they repeatedly said "we are the face of moderate Islam in Egypt," and that "we do not instigate fights between any of the schools or between Muslims and non–Muslims," at the same time they really like their independence and it will be difficult for the state to retain them somehow as both a legitimate institution and an independent institution. They'll either have to rein them in, and then it will lose legitimacy, or they'll have to give them some leeway. My guess is that the azharis will tepidly support the regime as a matter of survival, but this will make them irrelevant to the Islamist opposition so there won't be any new "Egyptian Islam."


précis: Critics of recent U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East suggest the best thing the U.S. could do to reduce violent extremism directed against the U.S. is to reduce the U.S. profile in the region. Others suggest that a change in U.S. policy would do little to mitigate such threats and a lower profile may even embolden them. How do you view the contribution of U.S. policy to fostering violent extremism in comparison to domestic factors in the region?

RN: I personally side with scholars and others who think a lower U.S. profile in the region would be beneficial. It takes two to fight. A lot of the bite of jihadi rhetoric is that U.S. actions can be interpreted through a lens jihadis are offering. If the U.S. stopped carrying out those actions, then when jihadists claim that this is the reincarnation of the Crusades, it would start to sound a lot more hollow. They would fire up the youth less. The major concern with pulling back is that we would see an increase in terror attacks attempting to provoke further Western involvement in the region. I worry that Western politicians would take the bait on that one. But I also think standing down in a few of these situations, trying to avoid being provoked by jihadists, would take some of the wind out of jihadists' sails.


précis: Many foreign policy analysts are alarmed at the growth of extremist groups among the opposition fighting in Syria's civil war. Is there anything the U.S. can do to influence the direction of the Syrian insurgency?

RN: I think the allure of foreign fighting is strong. Syria has been declared a jihad by many, many clerics. And not just radical clerics. Yusuf Qaradawi has a weekly television show on al–Jazeera and has dedicated at least three episodes in the last three months on Syria and has been encouraging a Syrian jihad. The Shi'is are also encouraging jihad on the other side. I'm pessimistic that U.S. involvement would win over the opposition or be able to clean the opposition of the extremist elements. The extremists were allied with the opposition before we ever were. And the extremists are more likely to be stalwart allies than the U.S. ever will be. I think moderates see the alliances with jihadist groups as a kind of necessary evil. Competing with jihadists for the future of Syria will be bad, but competing with Bashar al–Asad for the future will be worse. I think that means there's not much the U.S. can really do to try and influence the nature of the opposition. The U.S. is in a tough place choosing between "do we let al-Asad stay in power?" or "do we attempt his ouster and open up a can of worms with the U.S. not able to control the outcome?"


précis: What are you working on now and what's next?

RN: I've been working on a project about drone strikes that does two things. First, I'm attempting to look at the effect of drone strikes using sentiment on Twitter; and second, the effects of strikes on the legacy of jihadist intellectuals who are killed. I have some interesting data on how popular the writings of different jihadists are over time. I'm also hoping to build on citation data: whether the intellectual influence of jihadists grows after being martyred. So in addition to inciting civilians to further extremism, we may be lionizing the targets in some way.

The other thing I'm really excited about right now is looking at the sources of political attitudes among Shi'i clerics. This is actually where my initial interest in fatwas came from. I was following the 2009 Iranian elections and watching some clerics split from the regime and say that the elections were illegitimate, which for a regime run by clerics was quite surprising. It turned out to be too challenging for a dissertation at the time, but now I have an RA who is an Iraqi Shi'a who brings a lot of cultural knowledge and we're doing it. We're collecting public statements on whether each cleric agrees or disagrees with the Iranian principle of vilayat–e faqih (or "Guardianship of the Jurist"), which establishes a cleric as supreme leader of Iran. There's some substantial variation in agreement with this principle because it's almost a neologism in Shiite Islamic law. There's also a divide between political and quietist clerics that, as far as we can tell, is not correlated with attitudes on Guardianship of the Jurist, and we think the sources of both those things may be from academic networks, especially on whether the concept of Guardianship of the Jurist is valid or not. In addition to collecting public documents, we're hoping to contact some of the clerics soon going forward.