Sikh professor educates AWC students

Naunihal Singh, professor of African Cultural Studies, Regional Culture studies at the Air University's Air War College. (U.S. Air Force Photo By Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook)

Naunihal Singh, professor of African Cultural Studies, Regional Culture studies at the Air University's Air War College. (U.S. Air Force Photo By Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Al. -- He likes to take walks around the base to help him think and clear his mind. His colorful shirts with matching turbans and an ever-present smile peeking out from beneath his flowing beard make him stand out amongst the military uniforms and civilian suits on Maxwell.

Dr. Naunihal Singh is a Sikh, a religious group that requires its male adherents to not cut their hair and to wear a turban. They also believe in protecting the religious and political rights of all people and preventing discrimination.

Singh is a professor of African Political Studies at Air University's Air War College.

"It's an incredible privilege to be able to teach the future leaders of America," he said.
"What we are doing here is very important. We are teaching people who will go on to make important leadership decisions in strategic environments. We are teaching people things that will matter in an applied situation. That's a great privilege."

Born in New York City in the 70s, he grew up on the upper west-side in a mostly Jewish community. The environment, a multicultural one with survivors of the Holocaust and refugees from conflicts across the globe, had a profound impact on his world view.

He remembers an elderly neighbor telling him that while it was good to have friends, to never really trust them, because one day, in the middle of the night, "they" might come and kill them all.

He remembers his father's stories of the Indian partition; it shaped him, Singh said. He wanted to protect his son, but at the same time it taught Singh not to assume that the world will be peaceful and normal.

"I grew up in a time in New York when it was a much more violent city than it is now," Singh said. "When I was leaving high school it was so unsafe. Things were just very dangerous. You deal with it. You are constantly engaging in precautions and you know what is going on around you at all times. That then translates to an understanding of the world where you say, 'Yeah, it's good to want everything to work out, but in order to get there, you don't assume everything will work out well.'"

That's what led him into human rights and into security studies, and to a certain extent, he believes, he shares that outlook with members of the military.

"As a youth I was an activist," Singh said. "I marched against apartheid; I marched against the Chinese occupation of Tibet; I marched against all kinds of human-rights issues; and that's because in the 80s, that was all around you and you didn't have to look very far to hear about it and then want to learn more about what was going on."

A graduate of Yale and Harvard Universities - first studying computer science and then changing his focus to political science - his educational experiences there continue to influence him as a teacher.

He said he believes he has been really lucky in having the opportunity to attend some of America's best educational institutions. Places where he said people really cared about teaching and about learning,

"It was sort of the equivalent of being division-one football," Singh said. "In each of these environments I went out of my way to take the toughest classes that I could and to be taught by the best teachers available. You are inculcated into a way of approaching things that is about the pursuit of knowledge."

His first job was working for the computer systems company Oracle for the Navy. His position there involved interfacing between two different organizations, two different parts of the same large whole. In that sense, he says it was very similar to working in a joint environment.

"I was trying to make sure the concerns of one part were translated to the concerns of another," Singh said. "I was in a command position there. It was very interesting because it taught me firsthand how to operate in that sort of joint organizational environment. You have one foot in one organization and another in a different one, and you try to make sure things work as well as possible."

During his time in Silicon Valley, he saw the entirety of the World Wide Web. It was very small then, only 14 websites. He visited all of them.

"That was a hoot," Singh said with his characteristically wide, toothy smile.

"I didn't have an understanding of how quickly it was going to blow up," he said. "You didn't know that all of a sudden you were going to go from websites largely being official sources for governments and universities to being an area where everyone could participate. The explosion of the web was quite surprising and quite fascinating."

After his time at Oracle, he took some time off and decided to concentrate on his passions in the field of human rights.

"What you see with me is a sort of curiosity about the world and about things that I think matter to people's lives," Singh said. "So why is it that I care about democracy and economic development? Well, I've got friends who are prisoners of conscience, who were in jail 14 times in their country. I had friends who fought against apartheid, who were in jail and tortured. It gives me a sense of how important these things are. I've been in countries where I have seen kids with swollen bellies and yellow eyes. My father grew up without running water or electricity. To me all these issues I study are issues that affect people's lives, and what's more, they are interrelated. Conflict affects democracy and democracy affects conflict."

He worked for the Human Rights Watch to help gather evidence used to form a coalition of nations to prosecute Saddam Hussein for war crimes in the 1990s. His work, along with many others, lead to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

"I was working on the Anfal campaign, also known as the Kurdish genocide, and we were trying to form an international coalition to get Hussein in front of the world court for violations of the genocide conventions," Singh said. "The U.S. was concerned and many other nations were as well. This was a multinational effort. In the end we didn't succeed, but in that time period the International Criminal Court was formed, and I do think that the one effort influenced the other."

After a year there, he began work on his doctorate at Harvard, which he earned in 2005. He then went to teach at Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute. For eight years, he taught students about genocide, conflict, civil-military relations, military coups d'état's and democratization, geographically focusing on Africa.

"I'm trained as a 'comparativist,' broadly, but I am interested in the politics of the developing world," Singh said. "I have chosen to specialize in Africa because I think that Africa as a region has a lot to teach us about the challenges of democratization, it has a lot to teach us about the challenges of economic development, and it has a lot to teach us about human rights. What I really care about is trying to understand the contingency of power, the changes of power, because of the consequences they entail."

He spent a year in Ghana, studying the coup d'état attempts in that nation. Ghana had 10 coup attempts--six successes and four failures.

"It was a fantastic laboratory for understanding why some coups fail and some succeed," Singh said.

After his year there he spent four years crunching numbers and developing his theories.

"I was trying to understand what the dynamic is," Singh said. "What is it that happens during military coups that determines whether they will succeed or fail?"

He interviewed many retired military officers about successes and failures. About the choices that they made.

"I went through and I tried to understand how it was that individual military leaders made their decisions, and how these variables all interacted to lead to either success or failure," he said.

The critical factor seemed to be who controlled the radio or the television stations, Singh said.

"The aggressors would get on the radio station and say that they had already taken over and they have everyone's support," Singh said. "They would create self-fulfilling expectations. If everyone believes the coup is going to succeed, then it has already succeeded. It's not about shooting at people; it is about convincing them that you are going to win and gaining their support."

During his interview for his current position, he impressed his colleagues with the thoroughness of his understanding.

"He has an excellent academic background," Chris Hemmer, AWC Regional Cultural Studies chair, said. "What made him stand out was when he came here for his interview, he gave a presentation on his theories about military coups, and he did it in a room full of people who all had different regional expertise. Everybody tried to trip him up by talking about the case they knew best out of the hundreds of cases he was looking at. He handled it brilliantly, he wasn't flustered, and he was able to talk about all the cases in depth with all of our regional experts. Somebody with that level and breadth of knowledge, able to engage on that level, was the most impressive thing about him. That is what set him apart during the interview process."

His experiences and studies in Africa taught him about the importance of military and influenced his interest in teaching military members.

"I take the military very seriously as an institution," Singh said. "My experiences there taught me the importance of this institution; they instilled me with a belief in the importance of the mission here [at the Air University]. It's a privilege to be a part of training leaders who will be a part of shaping America's strategic position in the future. That's not a responsibility I take lightly. It is very important that we do this."

He continues to be a part of the public policy debate, contributing articles to New Yorker magazine and working with an organization he helped found: the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund.

"American intellectuals and academics used to do much more of this, but because of the academic specialization that's happened, we have grown more insular, where most of the debates happen in academics circles and we don't talk to people outside of them as much," Singh said.

All of the problems he tries to solve are problems of real-world consequence. He said he believes that if people are interested in problems in the real world, they should also be engaged in dialogue and discussion with the real world. They should learn from the real world, their theories should reflect the real world, and they should want to take that knowledge and what they have learned and try to inject that back into the sphere of public intellectual and policy debate.

"I think that what we are teaching here are things that don't just have academic interest, but they are things of moral interest as well. You want to remain engaged with the subject matter and these issues that we study and teach here, because they are of moral consequence, and we have a moral responsibility," he said.