This interview is part of a series of interviews with academics and practitioners early in their careers. Current research and projects as well as advice for other young scientists are discussed in the interviews.
Saloni Kapur is Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Social Sciences at FLAME University. Her research interests include critical security studies, international relations theory, and the politics of South and West Asia. Saloni holds a PhD in International Relations from Lancaster University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Warwick, and a BA in Economics from the University of Pune. Her doctoral thesis used the theory of the English School to examine the responsibility of the great powers for the insecurity in Pakistan. She is currently working on two research projects dealing with the relationship between South and West Asia. She is the author of Pakistan after Trump: Great Power Responsibility in a Multipolar world and co-editor (with Simon Mabon) of Securitization in the non-west.
What (or who) made the most significant changes in your thinking or encouraged you to pursue your research area?
There were several events and people that pushed me to think about the political world in new ways and helped me develop my critical thinking. Probably the most significant shift came in 2001 when I was a student at the University of Minnesota, just two weeks in my undergraduate studies in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology when the 9/11 attacks took place. The experience of being in the United States as an Asian student during this traumatic period is the most important factor that piqued my interest in international relations, security, and terrorism.
Individuals who have made important changes in my thinking about international relations include Faisal Wani, my Kashmiri classmate at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce in Pune after dropping out of undergraduate studies in the United States and returning to India; Maja Zehfuss, who taught a course on post-structuralist international relations at the University of Warwick during my master’s degree; and Nauman Malik, a Pakistani government official who was my roommate during my PhD program at Lancaster University. All of these people forced me to question my previous assumptions and the prevailing narratives that I encountered in the media, among my friends, and in my family.
In your book Pakistan after Trump: Responsibility of the Great Power in a Multipolar World, You have used the concept of great power responsibility to interpret the insecurity in Pakistan. Why did you choose a normative approach for this study?
Several scholars from the social sciences, political science, international relations, and the English School have argued that there is a need for more normative and praxeological sciences that actively pursue political relevance. The idea is that political philosophers dating back to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, in political research, essentially looked at ethics, justice, and the question of how to achieve a good life for the citizens of a community by getting the right one Type of ruler or political system. However, in trying to mimic the natural sciences, the social sciences have distanced themselves from issues of politics, justice, and ethics in order to present themselves as rational and scientific. Authors such as Bent Flyvbjerg, Jacques Derrida, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, John Gerring, Joshua Yesnowitz and John Williams have made a strong case for maintaining and promoting the normative tradition of science in the social sciences, political sciences and the English School of International Relationships.
In addition, I position myself as a critical indigenous qualitative researcher who draws on Smith’s work. This means that my research as a South Asian and indigenous person of Pakistan does not strive to fit into the western form of an “objective” investigation of the dark-skinned other. Rather, I try actively to serve the research objects and explicitly strive for social justice through emancipatory research. This requires the adoption of a normative approach.
How can an English school approach improve our understanding of security in Pakistan? Does this approach offer a Eurocentric lens through which South Asian politics can be viewed?
The English School is a theoretical approach that is traditional and inherently normative, despite efforts by recent scholars like Barry Buzan to reinvent the school in structural terms. For Hedley Bull, order and justice are the two central goals of international life, and the great powers have special rights but also a special responsibility to help secure the international system. In addition, the English School’s interlinked concepts of an international system, an international society, and a world society provide a fascinating way to understand globalization and the proliferation of non-state actors, including transnational terrorist groups, in our interconnected world. Buzan’s work on global society opens the way to understanding terrorists as social actors who interact with other actors by violent means.
The English school has sometimes been criticized for being Eurocentric. It has been argued that the institutions of international society are institutions that the West imposes on the non-West. However, I agree with Yongjin Zhang’s assessment that the common norms, values, interests and institutions of international society are in many ways the result of interaction and communication between different cultures throughout history. This suggests that non-Western states, including illiberals, have played a role in negotiating these common values and norms, and history cannot be viewed as a one-way street of Western domination and imperialism. In fact, this is a view that denies the agency of non-Western states and peoples and represents an amnesia in relation to world history before colonialism. Institutions such as law, equality and war cannot be viewed as purely Western inventions, as they have historically existed in different forms in other cultures. Furthermore, as Kwame Anthony Appiah provocatively puts it, “there is no such thing as Western civilization,” as the ideas often associated with Western civilization are ideas preserved by Muslim scholars in Asia while Europe is its so-called “Darkness” went through ages. “
In your book you write about the dehumanization of terrorists in the official discourse on the “war on terror”. How is this presented and what are the effects?
Richard Jackson, who has done crucial work in the field of critical terrorism studies, points to the dehumanization, demonization and depersonalization of terrorists in the official discourse of the “global war on terror”. As a result, they have been portrayed as “evil” and “crazy” as less than human and their goals have been depoliticized by ignoring the politics in which terrorism is embedded. Colin Wight further underscores this by showing how post 9/11 terrorism research has focused on psychological factors that motivate terrorism while neglecting structural factors such as politics and history. My book uses the English school concept of global society to locate terrorists as social actors within Pakistani society who interact with other state and non-state actors through violence. I pay serious attention to the history of the development of terrorist groups and the politics underlying their rise after 9/11, including the terrorists’ own discourses, which Mona Kanwal Sheikh captivates in her book Guardian of God, as well as Jessica Stern in Terror in the name of God. Finally, in terms of policy, my book focuses on the army’s terror rehab program as a “soft” anti-terrorist approach that deserves international aid as well as “hard” military operations.
What role can regional cooperation play in the fight against terrorism in South Asia?
My chapter on South Asia focuses on Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, the security of which is linked by the Kashmir conflict and the use of transnational terrorists across the borders of these three countries. These phenomena have their roots in the decolonization and insecure borders with which post-colonial India and Pakistan were born, resulting in longstanding territorial disputes between Pakistan and India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and India and China.
I use the concept of the International Society of the English School to assess the strength of the regional society in South Asia. This forms the basis for hypotheses about the potential of regional security cooperation. Surprisingly, I find that regional society is resilient and that Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have consistently and repeatedly turned to the institutions of international society to resolve their conflicts. This suggests that there is a strong institutional framework that could serve as the basis for regional security cooperation if regional political leaders decide to embark on a peacebuilding and conflict resolution process. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization offers a promising forum for Asia’s great powers-mediated counter-terrorism cooperation. Ultimately, contemporary terrorism is a transnational phenomenon that must be addressed through regional cooperation for counter-terrorism measures to be effective. However, the pattern of securitization, mutual distrust and counter-accusations embedded in security relations in the Pakistan-India-Afghanistan triangle is difficult to break due to history, geopolitics, religious differences and ideological conflicts. Uncertainty would mean that political leaders choose to treat terrorism as a political issue with political roots and as a political solution – i. H. to remove it from the security agenda.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on two projects related to the relationship between South and West Asia using Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT). The first is a book I co-edited with Umer Karim of the University of Birmingham that is using the RSCT to examine the links between South Asia and the Arab Gulf States. The second is a special edition of the magazine Global discourse jointly published with Umer Karim and Simon Mabon of Lancaster University, which expands the scope of the study of regional connections between South Asia and the wider Middle East. These are exciting projects that scientists from both regions (and beyond) are participating in to understand the impact of recent developments on interregional dynamics, including re-imposing sanctions on Iran, India’s emerging power, and the United States’ withdrawal from it Afghanistan and the dwindling interest in the Middle East.
What is the most important advice you can give young scientists?
The most important advice I can give young scientists is to value intuition and emotions as much as rational research. As Flyvbjerg points out, intuition, experience and context are as important to research as analysis, rules and rationality, and in fact intuitive knowledge is a sign of mastery of a subject. In addition, normative questions of justice and ethics represent a balance between mind and heart, which is crucial in order to produce sociological knowledge with a positive effect on society. There is exciting new research on emotions in international relations that seeks to incorporate affects and emotions into our understanding of international politics, conflict, and security. I encourage young academics to explore these fascinating new avenues of research in international relations.
Further reading on e-international relations