Just a Thought: Emilia Justyna Powell

Author: Mia Moran

Emilia Justyna Powell"

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Emilia Justyna Powell is a professor of political science and a professor of law at the university. Originally from Torún, Poland, Powell attended the University of Nicholas Copernicus (Poland), the Jean Monnet Center for European Studies, the University of Cambridge and Florida State University. Powell’s areas of expertise include international law, international courts, international dispute resolution, the Islamic legal tradition and Islamic constitutionalism. Powell has written several books on these subjects, including “Islamic Law and International Law: Peaceful Resolution of Disputes,” a book published by Oxford University Press (2020), “Domestic Law Goes Global: Legal Traditions and International Courts,” a book co-authored with Sara McLaughlin Mitchell and published by Cambridge University Press (2011). Her new book, “The Peaceful Resolution of Territorial and Maritime Disputes,” coauthored with Krista E. Wiegand, will be published by Oxford University Press. Currently, she teaches a junior seminar for political science titled “International Justice” and a Law School course titled “Islamic Law and Constitutions.” 

Why did you decide to study topics such as law or resolution on an international scale?

I believe that peaceful settlement of territorial and maritime disputes — or really any disputes — is really, really important because we have so much conflict in the world. We have so much military activity. Settling things peacefully really does good for us as humans. I have studied and always been interested in international law. I focused on international law in my dissertation during my PhD studies at Florida State University. It’s always been of interest to me. While the domestic [scale] is also very important, it’s just my personal passion to encourage peace on the global level. 

Why the specific focus on Islamic affairs? 

I studied law in Europe for many years. I studied Polish law; I studied the law of the European Union; I studied British law. Then when I wrote my first book, “Domestic Law Goes Global: Legal Traditions and International Courts,” I was thinking about different secular legal traditions like civil law and common law. But I also mentioned Islamic law, and I really didn’t know anything about it yet, but I wanted to explain how states operating under Islamic law feel about international law because international law is really Western, so we think. I started to learn more and more and I taught myself. I became absolutely obsessed, I would say, with Islamic law and explaining to people what it is and what it is not, and dealing with the many misperceptions that people have about Islam. While we write about the secular legal traditions a lot, I think that Islamic law is usually criticized and misunderstood, and I wanted to address that.

Has there been anyone or any event that inspired you during your studies and research?

I think I was flying one time — I don’t know where — and a man sitting near me said, ‘I think I know why you’re doing the research that you’re doing.’ I thought, ‘Wow, why? Why do I study an underrepresented group, Islamic law states?’ He said it’s because I grew up in a communist society in Poland, and I developed as a child this sense of empathy towards underrepresented groups, whether it be individuals or states, and I want to help them. I think that really made a big impression on me. I still remember that conversation. I thought, ‘I think he’s right. Because I was raised in a certain regime and definitely not in a country that mattered at all on the international scene.’ That was just so impactful for me.