Q&A with Thomas Roland Harris

November 25, 2019
Thomas Harris at Dougga, Tunisia
Thomas Harris at Dougga, Tunisia

Thomas Roland Harris is a second-year student in the AM in Middle Eastern Studies program.

How did you become interested in Middle Eastern Studies?

My interest in Middle Eastern Studies started early, before high school, and I think came from a desire to explore shortcomings in the popular narratives about the region we often see in the West. This is a region often viewed with suspicious or paternalistic attitudes, at best. A sense that there had to be some level of cultural misunderstanding that contribute to this present situation drove me first to Washington, D.C., then to Cambridge to study the culture, religion, politics, and language of the North African sub-region. The region which gave rise to the first known human civilizations is as relevant as ever in the twenty-first century, and it is under-studied.

What are your research interests?

My thesis will examine the discourse and debates surrounding the role of Islam in the development of democratic institutions in post-revolution Tunisia, with a particular focus on the 2014 constitution. I am further interested in topics relating to the use of Islamic rhetoric and practice by a broad range of actors in Tunisia. As “secular” autocrats worked to build new national identities region-wide after independence, their use of religious rhetoric augmented the political and religious spheres in those countries. This deliberate fusion of religion and politics by avowedly secular figures had deep and unanticipated consequences and has raised many questions for us to examine today. These include topics relating to secularism in North Africa, religious legitimacy, and post-colonial legacy. I am interested in these puzzles as well as the politics of both state and non-state Islamist actors more broadly.

What do you like best about studying at Harvard?

My experience at Harvard has been greatly enriched by the people I’ve come across, students and faculty who are affiliates of a diverse range of Harvard departments and schools. You study and work alongside leaders in all sorts of fields. This can be intimidating and feel intellectually demanding, but I’ve found it to be mostly inspiring. I think the academic environment here pushes you to be a more inquisitive, more refined version of yourself on a daily basis. Additionally, the support for academic research is unparalleled. The library system, faculty resources, and possibilities for funded travel and research make it easy to enjoy being immersed in subjects which might otherwise feel like a chore. The university does not cut corners in its resourcing or support, and stands out for that reason.

What travel/research opportunities have you pursued during your time at Harvard?  

So far I have taken advantage of two separate opportunities for travel and research in Tunisia, and am currently contemplating a third. The first program I participated in was a winter term trip through CMES which provided me a great baseline for exploring the country in the future, as we spent most of our time traveling to different cities and sites around the country. I returned for the summer for another program through Harvard CMES in Tunis, with a focus on improving reading skills in Modern Standard Arabic, as well as some independent research. Both trips were fully funded and provided me all the tools I needed to begin to undertake serious research on the country. Harvard’s resources devoted to Tunisia specifically are tremendous and I would recommend all who are able to take advantage of them.

Thomas Harris at Dougga, Tunisia
Thomas Harris at Dougga, Tunisia

What kinds of extracurriculars have you pursued at Harvard?

While at Harvard I have had a lot of fun with extracurricular athletics. I’ve played both intramural basketball and ultimate frisbee. These leagues are well organized and the graduate student vs. undergraduate student gives the competitive spirit an extra edge. Intramurals are a great way to meet people outside of your subject area. I am also the co-president of the Harvard Middle Eastern Cultural Association, a sort of social anchor for those who are a part of the Middle East studies community both inside of CMES and out. There is a wide variety of extracurricular opportunities for graduate students; these are especially easy to get plugged in to during your first year.

What are your plans after finishing your degree?

I am in the process of applying for PhD programs around the country (and in Europe). After I graduate in May I hope to continue to be able to work on similar research questions to those that I am working on now. As part of this goal I hope to continue my development in both Arabic and French, for use in academia and beyond. After the completion of a PhD I intend to pursue a career in the United States State Department, and beyond that return back to academia as a professor.

What advice would you offer a prospective student?

I think in searching for the right program fit you should look carefully at the research interests of faculty. Though you need not apply to work with a particular professor, I think this is a good way to gauge which subject areas or specialized areas of interest will be well resourced. At Harvard specifically the resources are extensive, but it is still important to determine whether your area of interest is well represented. The program at CMES offers a great deal of flexibility and you will have the freedom to explore and expand your areas of interest. This has been a huge positive for me throughout my study here.