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Rebuilding Iraq


The two faces of Islamic studies

By Bruce Fudge, 12/15/2002

S THERE SOMETHING intrinsically violent about Islam? Is the West destined to face a perpetual threat from hordes of angry Muslims?

Scholars of the Middle East have been wrestling with such questions since well before Sept. 11, 2001. On one side of the debate are those who are suspicious of Islam and Islamic movements, and who see a deep gulf between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. On the other side are those who question the very possibility of making generalizations, or at least pejorative generalizations, about a group comprised of over a billion members around the world. The two sides of this ongoing debate were recently on view at very different academic events.

The first of these events, held on Nov. 20-22, was a Conference on Religion and Terrorism sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Faculty Club. A select group of foreign policy advisors, political scientists, and terrorism experts were in attendance - including Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Princeton, and author of the best-selling "What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response"; and Harvard professor of government Samuel Huntington, advocate of the controversial thesis that there is a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam.

At the Harvard conference, Huntingon did not speak of civilization: "The problem in Colombia used to be `drugs.' Now it's `terrorism.' " He commented that he disliked the Bush administration's use of the term "war on terrorism": It obfuscates things, he said. "There's a difference between a war on something, and a war with something." Huntington went on to say that terrorism is "the tactic of the weak, of insurgent groups, and therefore in a war on terrorism we are backing the status quo."

Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology and religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, and Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, discussed their work on the use of religious justifications for political violence. The overwhelming majority of terrorists, they noted, are young, single males. A recurrent theme in interviews with these men is one of personal humiliation and feelings of victimization. According to Stern, Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, has himself stated that "violence is a way out of humiliation." This humiliation may be fueled by sexual or marital frustration, commented Stern. She cited the example of Mir Aimal Kasi, the Pakistani national who was recently executed in Virginia for the murder of two CIA employees, and who told Stern that if his mother had been alive, he might not have killed anyone -- because, she explained, "she would have made sure he was married." Another extremist interviewed by Stern referred to himself as "vaginally defeated." Juergensmeyer bluntly summed up: "Can't get married, can't have sex, so they blow things up."

Not every speaker found this line of argument persuasive. If the United States bombs Iraq, asked Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, "will bin Laden and al-Zawahiri be sitting in a cave somewhere, wondering if Cheney and Wolfowitz are getting enough sex?"

Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, participated in the Weatherhead Center conference. Kramer has been at the forefront of a small but vocal group condemning the academic Middle East studies establishment for its pervasive anti-American bias, for concentrating on obscure subjects, for failing to predict Sept. 11, and for profiting from federal funding while contributing nothing to national security. Kramer is also affiliated with the Middle East Forum, a group that has recently set up a Web site,, to monitor academics for anti-American activities. According to the Web site, "academics seem generally to dislike their own country." Also, "Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them."

Kramer's chief target, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), held its own annual conference in Washington on Nov. 24-26.

Certainly, an outsider at the conference would have been struck by the absence of papers directly dealing with al-Qaida, the Taliban, or other matters of urgent public concern. However, the collective feeling seemed to be that to dwell on "religious terrorism" is to miss its broader political and historical context. Besides, MESA's membership includes scholars from numerous academic fields -- historians mingled with economists, literary critics with geographers -- so a narrow focus on one topic is out of the question. Panels this time around, for example, ranged from "Iranian Cinema: Questions of Reception" to "The Arabic Linguistic Tradition."

In his MESA presidential address, Stanford historian Joel Beinin criticized the "willful historical amnesia" that Americans display when it comes to their own misdeeds in the Middle East. Beinin's speech was well received -- but for this group, Beinin's point of view is hardly controversial. There is a sense of solidarity amongst MESA's members, one reinforced by recent criticisms that they are irresponsible citizens who prefer to "blame America first." At a session on the direction of Middle East studies after Sept. 11, panelists spoke of heightened tension in the classroom and their dissatisfaction with the media.

Sept. 11 does pose a thorny problem for MESA members: It's easy to defend those Muslims who didn't participate in the attacks, but it's difficult to explain away the terrorists' use of shared religious symbols to justify their actions. A number of recent works by prominent scholars emphasize Muslim faith and practice while giving only bland summaries of radical movements, and while these works are popular, they were the target of some quiet derision at the conference. One graduate student I talked to envisaged a Washington official calling an Islam expert about an urgent terrorist threat and being told, "Well, let me tell you about fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. . . ."

Perhaps the problem here lies partly with the study of religion in general. According to Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, assistant professor of religion at Reed College, Americans are predisposed to take a benign view of religion. The ideal of religious pluralism "leads some scholars who wish to defend Muslims to describe Islam in terms of rituals and activities that can be accommodated by a tolerant society. This is different from those who take it to be a system of ethics inherently different from `ours.' " But, he concludes, "neither view can explain violence in the name of Islam."

Bruce Fudge is a doctoral candidate at Harvard

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 12/15/2002.
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