It was recently noted at Jihad Watch that generally those who teach Arabic or Islam become apologists and propagandists for Islam. There are several reasons for this. One is that many who go into this field may be self-selecting. Something about it “attracts” them and makes it “appealing” to them.
This is not because of the fascination of what’s difficult, or from an interest in what needs to be studied by Westerners because it is only they who can dare to study, say, the origins of the Qur’an or the Hadith (think of Ignaz Goldziher) with the mental freedom and the scholarly resources that only the West, but not the Islamic world, provides. If you want to find out about the warsh and nafs versions of the Qur’an, you do so in the West. If you want to study and publish on the Qur’an the way Mingana did, or Arthur Jeffery in that lavish publication on foreign words in the Qur’an, paid for by the Gwakior of Baroda, you do so in the West. If you want to study, as Joseph Schacht did, Muhammadan Law, you may spend time in Egypt gathering material (when Schacht lectured in Cairo, he was capable of doing so in Arabic), but you will write in the West.
Those were different people, entirely of a different level of linguistic and other training, and of broad cultivation — as is true in so many academic fields based on the study of history and literature. They above all were steeped in, and had been from an early age, a system of rigorous education that assured their knowledge of, and therefore the natural appreciation for, the artists, the scientists, the thinkers, of the Western world, of the Western tradition.
The Western world has not quite realized how difficult, if not impossible, it is for a Believer who is a teacher of any subject having anything to do with Islam, to be, at the same time, anything other than a stout if sly Defender of the Faith — a Defender who has no conception of, or fealty to, the idea of disinterested academic study. This Believer will most likely attempt to prevent others from learning about, much less teaching about himself, the real progress being made in Western study of early Islam. Indeed, he will not permit any study of Islam that appears to open up Islam to Western criticism. Thus the entire subject of the dhimmi is either ignored, or reduced, in the Lewisian manner, to a few paragraphs, or a single completely misleading phrase, of the kind any of us can so easily compose.
Here’s my version: “Non-Muslims living in the Islamic world were treated with far more tolerance than were non-Christians living in Christian-ruled countries; they could live quietly, practice their religion, and of course everyone knows that the Ottoman Sultans, just like the chivalrous Saladin, always had Jewish doctors.” Sometimes, if the instructor thinks the undergraduates may have heard about it and wants to pre-empt any doubters in the house, he will refer to the “Jizya” as “a tax on non-Muslims which was simply a substitute for the ‘zakat” that Muslims had to pay.” All completely false in the sly meaning so slyly conveyed — but to deconstruct every phrase, to show what is misrepesented, and what is omitted entirely, takes time — and most students will have no idea how deeply and gravely they have been misled.
MESA, or as it is more accurately known around here, MESA Nostra (the Middle East Studies Association) in 1970 had a membership consisting of perhaps 5% Muslims. Now the Muslims among its members constitute 60%. But that is not the only important thing. Non-Muslims must work with and attend departmental meetings with these Muslim colleagues. How awkward it would be to be in the same department with people who will bear an eternal grudge against you if you dare say one word about Islam that they find is not to their liking, if you dare to present Islam as anything other than something wonderful, and if you dare to suggest that the Muslim and Arab view of the universe is not always and everywhere to be endorsed. Non-Muslims must rely on Muslim colleagues, who have and will always have power over them — whether for obtaining grants as a graduate student, or on a doctoral examination committee, or vetting your thesis, or recommending that one’s thesis be published by a certain press, or later giving one teaching assignments, and then voting on tenure. Many are not deemed suitably compliant, insufficiently “collegial,” as that curious criterion is now officially deemed important in judging one’s fitness for academic promotion and tenure — an absurdity that would have appalled Joseph Schacht and Franz Rosenthal and so many others. This is, of course, part of the simpering sentimentality that would have kept out so many great teachers and scholars, and favors the careful-to-offend-no-one mediocrity. Thus are whole departments ruined, degree by degree, appointment by appointment.
If you are a non-Muslim professor, you are at the mercy of your Muslim colleagues. Forever you will need those book blurbs, those easier teaching assignments, those recommendations for grants, grants, grants, that trip to Bellagio and the Lago di Como. It never ends. And if that depends on your not offending so many powerful Defenders of the Faith — well, you are not going to say a word about Luxenberg or Patricia Crone, or Ibn Warraq’s anthologies of scholarly writing. You are not going to say a word about “Jihad” that makes any real sense. You will never refer to the Shari’a in a way that conveys just what it means for non-Muslims. You will not discuss the tenets of Islam and their incompatibility with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You will not discuss the real treatment of non-dhimmis. You will never mention the killings of 60-70 million Hindus under Muslim rule, never come to grips with what it is in the statements of Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri and so many others that come straight from the Qur’an, the Hadith, the details of Muhammad’s life. You will never discuss inshallah-fatalism in courses on “economic development in the Arab/Muslim world,” will never discuss the Islamic suppression of free and skeptical inquiry, or the narrow limits placed on acceptable vehicles for artistic expression. You will, essentially, lie and be a collaborator in lies. And your courses will be almost entirely worthless. The keenest students, capable of reading on their own, capable of comprehending along the way what is happening, are likely simply to leave the field, not to enter it. And the ones who enter it will be those well-satisfied with what, say, Hamid Dabashi or Omid Safi or any number of others tell them about Islam. They will enter clutching their copies of Sells’s bowdlerized Approaching the Qur’an (the “lyrical” parts only, so as not to trouble anyone), or Carl Ernst’s apologetics, or that favorite for Muslim instructors, that compilation of old romantic cliches and up-to-date misinformation, Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World, all about that “convivencia” in Islamic-ruled Spain that so many still want to believe in — because if it somehow was true somewhere, then won’t, please won’t it be again, in the islamized Europe toward which we are heading, and which we do not know how to stop?
MESA, MESA Nostra. And it is just as bad wherever, of course, Arab money has managed to create “Centers of Islamic Studies,” or endow certain chairs for certain purposes. When the Saudis and other Arabs give money, they make sure that their rules are applied, and they install local enforcers in those centers, and departments, to make sure that they get their money’s worth. Look at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, at Georgetown, run by lean, mean, jogging apologist John Esposito, making a living far beyond what he ever dreamed of before he found his true calling. Look at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, also at Georgetown, so convenient to both the corridors of uninformed and unwary power and to those members of the press and television who will call you up to take advantage of your proffered, amiable, furrowed-brow serious, “expertise.”
I could go on. But you get the dismal picture. A crock, almost everywhere you look.