From aspiring priest, to atheist, to Muslim

I spent most of my life intending to be a Catholic priest and preparing for that vocation through rigorous study of Christian theology, scriptural exegesis and “higher criticism” of the Bible. However, following a crisis of faith, I abandoned this calling.

The next several years were spent wandering—managing enterprises in the private sector, attending community college off and on. Throughout this period, I continued to explore the questions raised by theology—albeit in a secular context—through an intensive private study in continental philosophy and critical theory.

At the time, I considered myself an atheist. And I zealously tried to prove my unbelief through my lifestyle. However, I struggled to truly internalize atheism: fundamentally, I was a believer. This insight was the beginning of a journey which culminated with my conversion to Islam, and a renewed sense of purpose.

From anti-philosophy to experimental philosophy

Attempting to capitalize on my now-deep background in philosophy, I enrolled in a program at the University of Arizona—at the time, ranked among the best in the world in the discipline. Initially, I was an odd fit: my intellectual foundations were theology and continental philosophy; towards the end of my studies I had developed a deep affinity with the anti-philosophies of Lev Shestov, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.  The U of A, meanwhile, is rooted firmly in the American analytic tradition.

I felt uncomfortable in the academic realm overall: I came from a military family and a military community, I had years of private-sector experience under my belt, I was a good decade older than most students, I had started a family, I came from a community college, I was black, Muslim and allergic to idealism, utopianism, and positivism. These life experiences and perspectives were alien to most in the Ivory Tower, and they were certainly not well-represented in my department.

Nonetheless, my tenure at the U of A was transformative: while I remain deeply skeptical of many of the methods and axioms of analytic philosophy, I evolved into a pragmatist, inspired by William James, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty. Then, under the tutelage of my thesis chair, I emerged from the program as an experimental philosopher.

The “ex-phi” movement is premised on the idea that many philosophical questions can be explored through empirical investigation rather than relying primarily (or exclusively) on logical arguments, counterfactuals, abstract models, or intuitions. Those theories which are testable should be tested—and at the very least, philosophical positions should be informed and constrained by empirical realities. In pursuit of this ideal, experimental philosophers establish a firm foundation in, and try to remain current on, scientific literature and social science research relevant for the questions they want to explore.

From theory to practice

I was also shaped by the death of my twin brother–killed in June 2010 while deployed with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. This was devastating in its own right, but compounded by the reality that the military campaign which claimed his life has been an abject failure relative to its initial goals.

Up until that time, I had been largely removed from politics, gravitating towards what I perceived as “higher” pursuits (questions related to teleology, phenomenology, metaphysics, etc.). However, this tragedy drove home the profound impact that policy decisions can have on people, and I resolved that regardless of the outcome of the particular war he fought in, my brother’s sacrifice would not be in vain. My lifelong desire for service, which I initially planned on realizing through the vocation of priesthood, was turned towards the ends of improving U.S. national security and foreign policy–particularly through the study of epistemology:

Both of my parents had been involved in military intelligence–and indeed, I was raised in the community surrounding the U.S. Army’s principal intelligence base. As a result, I had long been sensitive to problems related to knowledge and uncertainty in the political and tactical spheres. The work of F.A. Hayek and Nassim Nicholas Taleb both underscored the practical significance of these issues and pointed towards viable adaptations.

However, in order to better understand the particular challenges faced with regards to national security and foreign policy, I pursued a simultaneous B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, and became involved with an academic consortium (SISMEC) which united academics, combat veterans and refugees/ expatriates from war-affected areas for the sake of fostering greater public understanding and community engagement on issues related to war, terrorism and social unrest in the greater Middle East. Upon graduation, I began teaching courses on national security policy and foreign relations for the Department of Government and Public Service at the University of Arizona’s South Campus. And now, I am continuing my applied research as a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University.

From treatises to op-eds

Over the course of this journey, I have come to believe that theory gains value primarily through its implications and applications for real-world contexts—in particular, by addressing the problems ordinary people struggle with in their daily lives, and the issues they care about. As a result, my academic research is collaborative and interdisciplinary, with an eye towards application,  published near-exclusively in open-access and policy journals.

However, in order to ensure that my work was not only useful in principle, but impactful in practice, I also recognized a need to connect directly with the public and policymakers. I honed my abilities to convey important ideas in a concise, accessible and compelling manner—and eventually, began to publish in popular outlets across the political spectrum including The Atlantic, Al-Jazeera, The Conversation, Times Higher Education, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Quartz, The Observer, Salon, AlterNet, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, The National Interest, MarketWatch and The American Conservative.

My research has subsequently been highlighted in dossiers by the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Army War College, the Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, and Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education. Work has been cited in textbooks and journal articles, and featured by the Woodrow Wilson Institute, the Brookings Institute, the New America Foundation, RAND Corporation, and in popular outlets such as Foreign AffairsNew York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and  New York Magazine. I am also regularly tapped for print, radio and television interviews–both in the U.S. and abroad–to include spots with China’s Global Times, Egypt’s Al-Ahram, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Voice of Russia, RT America, Newsmax, Voice of America, and Agence France-Presse (AFP).