Briefly describe your research
On August 27, 2018, the U.N. fact-finding mission dispatched to study the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar recommended that the International Criminal Court officially investigate the Myanmar military for genocide and crimes against humanity. My dissertation seeks to discern the origins of Burmese Islamophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. In it, I argue that Islamophobia first emerged in the 1930s as the result of right-wing Burmese nationalists using Muslims as a scapegoat for political and economic issues caused by British and Indian capitalist elites. This research accomplishes two major goals. First, by examining the origins of Burmese Islamophobia, my work challenges the authority of Islamophobic tropes developed in the colonial period and used by the Myanmar military today to justify ethnic cleansing. Second, it provides a broader case study for asking what kinds of subversion challenge authority, and what kinds uphold it. The Burmese nationalist focus on anti-immigrant racism in the 1930s served only to “divide and rule;” racial hatred ultimately distracted from the true structural causes of impoverishment and disenfranchisement, unrestricted capitalism and colonial rule.
Why do the humanities matter?
My pitch for the humanities can be summed up in three words that serve as the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the first modern scientific societies in history: Nullius in verba, “On the word of nobody,” or colloquially, “See for yourself.” The way that people learn, from a student in a classroom to a scientist discovering the laws of physics, is the self-determination to question the world around them and think critically about it. The humanities do not only impart knowledge, but also get people thinking for themselves, encouraging their curiosity and pushing them to analyze complex questions. In an age when you can Google any fact in an instant and where machines can now do skilled jobs, the most valuable thing to take away from the humanities is not a list of dates, events, and names. The value in the humanities comes from understanding how to apply knowledge about the course of human events to present day problems, and to understand why the world is the way that it is today.
What do you look forward to this year as a Humanities Center fellow?
As an historian, I look at the past in order to understand human behavior and how people interact with the structural factors of their time and place. I am excited to be participating in the Humanities Center Fellowship this year because I will be able to collaborate with scholars from other fields that have different insights on these same questions. As a work that addresses present-day problems, my dissertation must engage with sociology, political science, and other fields in order to better back up its claims. Therefore, I am very much looking forward to working with my fellow scholars this coming year and learning from my colleagues to make for a complex and interdisciplinary dissertation.
Matthew Bowser is a PhD Candidate in World History at Northeastern University. He previously graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Philosophy in History and Classics in 2013. His research focuses on the British Empire in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean world, looking specifically at the intersections of capitalism, nationalism, Islamophobia, and the Indian diaspora in Burma. He is a 2019-2020 Fellow of the Northeastern University Humanities Center, and has received research grants from the Northeastern Provost’s Office, Department of History, and Asian Studies Program. His article, “Partners in Empire? Co-Colonialism and the Rise of Anti-Indian Nationalism in Burma, 1930-1938” is currently under review by the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. He also contributed guest blog posts on his research for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives website in the summer of 2018 (https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer-2018/misdirected-rage-the-socioeconomic-roots-of-burmese-islamophobia).