The weather did its best to sabotage our Islam in Central Asia conference.  It failed – all participants reached Exeter (some a little late); and all were able to continue on their onward journey without major mishap.  The floods and high winds in the South-West of England were only part of the story – there were landslides, snow storms, vehicle breakdowns and powercuts.  Despite all of this, it is a credit to the participants that they remained good humoured throughout – and ready for intellectual exchange.  For someone new to this area of research, the conference was a crash course in the latest research into the complex of Islam, politics and society in the region from an international set of tutors.  I – and the other members of the LIVIT team – learned much – and also realised there was so much more to learn.  The conference was also regaled with the testimony of activists working in the various movements and expressions of Islamism in Central Asia. To hear about how Islamist ideology – or political movement inspired by the ideas of Islam – had changed and might develop in the future was a window onto the ideas of the movements we, as academics, study.  Seeing the passion within which activists engage with the ideas of their movement, whilst also responding to comments and observations from “outsiders” (i.e. us academics), was an interesting spectacle for the anthropologists amongst us.

It is a methodological question as to whether academics and activists can usefully interact – someone might want the academic researcher to avoid any contact with their “subject” as it might infect the objectivity of their analysis.  Others might see the participant as providing a crucial voice – as academics we have a duty to reflect on perspectives from within the movements – to understand what motivates and excites those developing the ideas we study.  I am still working this one out, but it is clear that, in the UK at least, academic research can no longer remain entirely independent from the subject it studies – not just because the tax payer expects “engagement” and “impact”, but also because the notion of objective research has been challenged quite comprehensively (particularly in the humanities and social sciences).  The mixture of academics, activists, former and current diplomats, researchers and campaigners at the Islam in Central Asia conference presented a methodological and logistical challenge – and I only hope we rose to the occasion. Special thanks are due to Dr Mansur al-Khonaizan and the Arab Center for Research and Strategic Studies for cosponsoring the conference, to Dr Saud al-Sarhan, the LIVIT Honorary Research Fellow for proving logistical support, and to Dr John Heathershaw (of the Politics Department here in Exeter) for giving advice and helping out.  A more detailed report will follow – but these are initial reflections on a fascinating two days.