Islam and Other Challenges

Carol Iannone

America is a heterogeneous country, open at least potentially to people of all backgrounds willing to accept her defining principles and to assimilate to the culture that embodies them. Since the 1960s, however, mass non-Western immigration, coupled with the advance of multiculturalism and the “celebration” of “diversity,” has weakened the understanding and transmittal of those unifying principles.

And then came September 11, 2001.

As Hillel Fradkin, director of the Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute, remarks, “radical Islam poses an unusually severe problem for multiculturalism,” in that it “is self-consciously hostile to liberal democracy, while at the same time demanding a place in American society. That’s an obvious and difficult contradiction.”1

Even to speak freely about Islam and to find the correct vocabulary to do so has been difficult. President Obama, following President Bush, describes Islam as a “religion of peace” that has been “hijacked” or distorted by a few violent extremists. Many use the terms “Islamism” and “Islamist” to distinguish the radical element from the more moderate aspects of the faith. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group that enjoys frequent access to the mainstream media, seeks to divorce terrorism from any reference to Islam whatsoever, and to use the stringencies of political correctness to do so. In a debate at Baruch College in New York City in November 2010, writer Jonathan S. Tobin reports, a representative for CAIR declared, in Tobin’s paraphrase, that “it was racist to even use the word ‘Islamist,’ or to dare point out the danger from radical Islam.”2

Undeterred, Roger Kimball, for one, speaks of “Islam’s fundamental, essential incompatibility,” not just with multiculturalism but with foundational Western values like free speech, the separation of church and state, and equality under the law. “Such things are not simply missing from Islam,” Kimball maintains, “they are positively repudiated by Islam, a fact that is ingredient in the very word ‘Islam,’ which, pace the multiculturalists, means not ‘peace’ but ‘submission,’ i.e., submission to the will of Allah.” Acknowledging the inevitable protest that Islam is “a great religion,” Kimball rhetorically asks, “How could it be fundamentally incompatible with all those good things we like to celebrate in the West?...Aren’t we beyond all that hawkish, ‘divisive’ talk about the ‘conflict of civilizations’? Very possibly,” he concludes, “if wishes were horses, which they are not.”3

While not necessarily following Kimball, many people are ready to admit that Islam does contain a radical element that commands not only violent jihad in the name of the faith but also the effort to impose Islamic values and Islamic law, or shariah, wherever Muslims live. Fradkin draws attention to a document written in 1991 describing a strategy for the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States: “The Ikhwan [the Brothers] must understand that all their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within and sabotaging their miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all religions.”4

Although some dismiss such pronouncements as the emanations of fanatics breathing out slaughters, disturbing statements have also been made by figures generally considered mainstream. Omar Ahmad, one of the founders of CAIR, is reported to have said in 1998 that “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant.” Ahmad has denied saying this, while the journalist who first reported it sticks by her story. Undisputed, however, is that CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper conceded in a 1993 interview with the Star Tribune that (in a double negative that equals the affirmative) “I wouldn’t want to create the impression that I wouldn’t like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future.” He stipulated, however, in words he somehow imagined would be reassuring, that “I’m not going to do anything violent to promote that. I’m going to do it through education.”5

Bernard Lewis and other experts on the Islamic world point out that there are moderate interpretations of the faith, citing periods in history when peaceful co-existence and tolerance prevailed, radical elements were held in check, and art, literature, and scholarship flourished. Islam can pose a special challenge to self-government and Western liberal democracy, however, where guaranteed freedoms can be used to undermine the very culture that guarantees them. As Ibn Warraq remarks in the interview that constitutes the first entry in “Islam in Scholarship and Education,” our special section for this issue, “The Islamists are quite capable of using the democratic process to destroy ‘liberal democracy.’” As for the project of bringing democracy to the Middle East, Warraq warns that “free elections in many Islamic countries could well usher in an Islamic theocracy.” (While Iraq is not an Islamic theocracy, one thinks, lamentably, of how Christians have been harassed and persecuted under the elected government fostered there by America and her allies.)

Be that as it may, if there are radical Muslims, there are also many moderate Muslims, a couple of whom appear in this issue, who believe that their faith can comport with modernity and liberal democracy and are aware of the need to stand up to the Islamists. If the more moderate element is to prevail, however, it is clear that it will have to be fought for; it won’t just happen automatically.

And that goes for academic questions as well. For if radical Islam swooped down upon an America in the grip of multicultural madness, it enters an Academy in shackles, an Academy already disposed to champion any minority group against the majority—including those groups opposed to principles of freedom, equality, and the rights of women—an Academy already mired in political correctness and corroded by America-hating radicalism and nihilistic postmodernism. And the contributors to our special section point to developments that give cause for alarm.

Thus Ibn Warraq, author of seven books about Islam, discusses the absence of rigorous scholarship on the Koran at present (something that admittedly antedated the left-liberal ascendency within the Academy), and explains how a perfect storm of postcolonialism and postmodernism produced the sham scholarship of Edward Said’s Orientalism and allowed it to become a defining work in Middle Eastern studies today. He argues that Islam needs an Enlightenment, in which the Koran must be subject to the same kind of criticism that has been applied to the Bible. By the by, in the context of Warraq’s discussion, we are reminded of the fine tradition of Western scholars who have managed to treat Islamic history with respect while employing legitimate standards of intellectual inquiry.

M. Zuhdi Jasser is a physician, and founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. In his “Islamic Schools and American Civic Culture,” we discover one of the unappetizing fruits of multiculturalism, and also a downside of the charter school movement championed by many conservatives—publicly funded charter schools organized with a separatist focus, including some African American and Latino-serving schools, and now most dubiously from a constitutional perspective, some with an Islamic orientation. Jasser warns that many Islamic charter schools, along with many private ones, are promulgating ideas and beliefs contrary to American principles. Of particular interest is a network of over eighty primary and secondary charter schools under the influence of a shadowy Islamist Turkish nationalist.

In “Blurring the Line between Mosque and State: Public Education in the Twin Cities,” reporter Katherine Kersten details the goings-on at a K–10 charter school near St. Paul, named for the Muslim general who conquered Spain, and shows how far it has crossed the line into Islamic practice. Kersten also describes how the administrators at two publicly funded community colleges in the area blandly and cravenly made concessions to Muslim students the likes of which they would never in a millennium accord to Christians. But her article also offers encouragement that boldness in exposing and pushing back against such developments can be effective.

In the course of her discussion, Kersten intimates how moderate Islam can be overtaken by radicalism. The practice of foot washing before prayer, for example, is not deemed necessary by moderate clerics for Muslims in situations where it is not convenient, but radicals encourage the disruptive washing of feet in the sinks of public restrooms, in order, one can only conclude, to thrust Islam into the awareness of the culture.

In “Islamo-Correctness at Hartford Seminary,” Andrew Bieszad gives a startling firsthand account of his experience at that once venerable institution, where Muslims alone are dispensed from the attitudes of objectivity, tolerance, and pluralism expected of others, and are allowed astonishing latitude in addressing non-Muslim students and in promoting their faith. As if echoing Ibn Warraq, Bieszad reports that the Koran is taught according to Islamic orthodoxy and is not subject to critical analysis.

Once again, we see in Bieszad’s account the problem of radicalism submerging moderation. While he maintains that his academic career was nearly destroyed by students and professors who wrongly used ideas of “tolerance” and accusations of “bigotry” in order to promote their religion, Bieszad acknowledges that “brilliant, highly educated Muslim and non-Muslim scholars do teach at Hartford.” Unfortunately,” he concludes, “it was my experience that their efforts were often overshadowed by the many other HS professors who seemed more interested in engaging in Islamic apologetics than in critical historical or theological exegesis about Islam.”

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, and in “The Terrorist War against Islam: Clarifying Academic Confusions,” he rounds out our special section with a piece of clarifying scholarship. He explains some of the inadequacies in the terminology used to describe radical Islam, and points to a specific misappropriation as especially dangerous: the way the term Salafism, which correctly refers to a movement devoted to the example of the first generations of Muslims and to ameliorative reform, is wrongly used by journalists and academics as a synonym for Wahhabism, the violent and coercive Saudi-sponsored jihadist movement behind 9/11. Schwartz maintains that the confusion is meant to obscure the true nature of Wahhabism, not least to Muslims, as progressivism was once used as a duplicitous euphemism for communism.

Along with Islam, a full range of other topics are covered in this issue. In “Sexual Ethics: Princeton’s Peculiar Double Standard,” Russell K. Nieli discusses a recent decision by the Princeton administration to deny the traditionalist Anscombe Society a center on campus to promote chastity and abstinence. This, while a gleaming new lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender center has been created for those purportedly marginalized students. Nieli shows, however, that at Princeton it is the traditionalist students who are the real outsiders.

Daniel E. Ritchie’s review essay of Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities uncovers additional blind spots in our academic elites. Nussbaum promotes the oxymoronic “world citizenship” as the aim of humanistic education, while slighting actual citizenship as understood and practiced. Demanding that we live in allegiance to the “moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings,” she ignores the ways in which real communities live. And, fittingly, Nussbaum preaches “empathy” for what she believes in and bites the head off of anyone who disagrees.

AQ executive editor and NAS chairman Stephen H. Balch reviews The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower, by Stephen H. Norwood, about the surprising history of academic complicity with Nazism, and sees lessons for the Academy today, especially in its all-too prevalent assumption of an attitude of moral superiority toward the rest of society.

The title of the book, The Next 25 Years: Affirmative Action in Higher Education in the United States and South Africa, edited by David Featherman, Martin Hall, and Marvin Krislov, sounds so terribly important, but our reviewer, Carl Cohen, an old hand at affirmative action debates, exposes it as a compendium of puff pieces by the same folks who brought us Grutter v. Bollinger and dumped racial preferences into the Constitution of the United States of America for the first time in history. Cohen shows how these folks continue to rehearse their increasingly unconvincing arguments, citing each other and the faulty scholarship they used to make their case. Especially telling are the confused and confusing pronouncements of Sandra Day O’Connor in her entry.

Jane S. Shaw reviews The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms, edited by Robert Maranto, Richard E. Redding, and Frederick M. Hess, which includes contributions by AQ editor and NAS president Peter Wood, Stephen H. Balch, and Victor Davis Hanson, among others. Although the term politically correct is sounding a little tired in Shaw’s ears, she admits that it still has cogency and that exposure, analysis, criticism, and possible antidotes are still needed. She especially favors John Agresto’s roadmap out of PC toward genuine education.

Brian Bolduc first appeared in our pages while still a student at Harvard as part of the “Student Life” symposium in Summer 2010. Here he gives his insider take on the widely praised film, The Social Network, about Jeffrey Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook while still an undergraduate at that esteemed institution. Bolduc notes that actual education at Harvard is given short shrift in the film and, not surprised, he explains why.

Our poet for this issue is a new contributor, Charles Doersch, and his erotically tinged “Lover’s Hands” finds mathematical precision in natural joys. No stranger to our pages, David J. Rothman is our guest author for “Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.” He offers a refreshingly frank assessment of the mixed record of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, founded at the prompting of NAS sixteen years ago as an alternative to the grotesquely politicized and terminally trendy Modern Language Association.

The West is finally waking up to the folly and mendacity of multiculturalism. From Germany, Britain, and Australia we hear open pronouncements of its failure and the call for greater assimilation. The challenge we face in radical Islam is continuous with the battle we have long been waging against other enemies of freedom, that is, to uphold the principles—social, political, academic, scholarly—that are the infrastructure of our culture and our civilization, and for which so many have fought and died.

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