Prizewinning Journalist Joins the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict

Prizewinning journalist and sociologist Anand Gopal has recently joined the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict as an assistant research professor.

“We are so pleased that Anand Gopal has accepted our invitation,” says John Carlson, associate director of the center.

“The center’s leadership team recognized, really from the moment we met him, not only his tremendous talent, but the unique blend of skills, experience, insight, and expertise that he brings to the kinds of research questions that we ask and pursue in our daily work.”

The “unique blend” that Carlson refers to is not only a product of Gopal’s academic work, but also his decision to be a journalistic pioneer of sorts. The frontiers that Gopal explores are the conflict-ridden frontlines of the Middle East.

Gopal’s path into warzone journalism began with a profound experience, one that ultimately led him to reset his career trajectory. On 9/11 Gopal found himself huddled beneath a car, breathing fresh air through a subway grate for hours as the dust of the Twin Towers rained down.

As he described the years following 9/11, he felt like the United States wasn’t getting a lot of information. Gopal committed himself to addressing that problem.

“Iraq was still the main story,” Gopal said in a 2014 interview, “[but] from what I was seeing, things in Afghanistan were getting much worse. So when I decided to switch careers it seemed like the obvious place to go to see what the war on terror looks like on the ground.

I got a motorcycle and rode around the country for months and just showed up in villages and relied on Afghan hospitality,” said Gopal.

“People would take me in and feed me. What struck me in that journey was that the stories people were telling, the explanations they gave about why there’s a war, and their understanding of who the good guys and bad guys are, were so radically different from my preconceived notions.”

Gopal chronicled his experiences in No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes. The book, published in 2014, went on to win the Ridenhour Book Prize in 2015 and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

“I know of no other academic,” says Carlson, “who has so courageously pursued his calling to find the truth that he would fly to Afghanistan, grow a beard, learn Pashtun, and live among the Afghan people so we could tell the story of the U.S. war through Afghan eyes, the story that so many embedded journalists never saw.”

Gopal continues this kind of on-the-ground research, collecting the stories of the people he encounters and reporting them out in publications that include the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His most recent piece, “The Hell After ISIS,” appeared in The Atlantic in 2016.

Gopal’s on-the-ground, day-to-day experiences as a reporter in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have also shaped the kinds of academic questions that he pursues.

Just as people in one village would help him get safely to another village through their networks of family and friends, Gopal began to realize that these same sorts of networks may also hold the key to problems of state formation and national identity.

These insights led him to research and write a series of papers that formed the foundation for his dissertation. They were also the subject of a series of research fellowships, including being named Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at New America Foundation and Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow at Columbia University.

“With a doctorate from Columbia and his ethnographic approach to reporting, Gopal is quickly emerging as a significant voice in understanding the sources and persistence of war and conflict in the Middle East,” says Carlson.

“As a visiting research professor at ASU, he will be able to contribute to and expand on the work of the Center in an interdisciplinary environment where scholarly excellence is brought to bear on practical issues and problems facing our world today.”

To learn more about Anand Gopal’s work, listen to a podcast of a lecture he gave at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in 2015.