Some Jihad Watch readers recently wondered — bizarrely — if Noah Feldman was either a convert to Islam or what some of them insist upon calling “a self-hating Jew,” or both.
He is neither of those things.
Rather, Noah Feldman is a thrusting young academic. Noah Feldman is a smoothie. Noah Feldman is a pin-striped careerist — what would Paul Freund or Arthur Sutherland say?
And by the way, Noah Feldman is a keen senser of which way the wind is blowing. He is quite capable of modifying, or “nuancing,” his stated views if he senses that what he’s produced so far in the Esposito-Ernst-Mottahedeh line’s welcome is wearing thin in Pound and Langdell Hall.
Besides, he has some very intelligent colleagues who may have given him a pass, or even supported his hiring, because they, for a minute, let down their guard — and since they “knew nothing about Islam,” they trusted that he must be fine and carefully vetted, and could not possibly be an apologist. Otherwise, why would he have been asked by the American government to practically write the Iraq Constitution all by himself? Why would well-known professors such as John Esposito, with his very own Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, have so glowingly recommended him? Why would Roy Mottahedeh (a slightly different, Benchley-quoting, kettle of fish, not quite the blatant apologist and schemer that Esposito is) have also glowingly recommended him? And so on.
But they will not ask themselves why it was that no one thought to consult Bernard Lewis, Hans Jansen, or a dozen other well-known scholars of Islam. Nor will they ask themselves why scholars who are outside the orbit of MESA Nostra, at such places as Aix and Leiden, were not consulted. Instead, Noah Feldman’s recommenders, and those in MESA Nostra or the government who seconded them, were quite enough. Enthusiasm all round. But the committee failed to understand that the enthusiasts themselves constituted a closed circle, and all dissenters and skeptics were carefully kept at a distance. And Noah Feldman had a narrative that worked wonders: he was an expert on Islam who was raised as an Orthodox Jew. Who could resist? That story helped him get his Times gig, a gig that has in turn proven so valuable in boosting his fortunes in the groves — in the sere, the yellow leaf, I’m afraid — of academe.
Nor did anyone on the hiring committee think to ask a scholarly defector from Islam — I am thinking of Ibn Warraq — what he thought of Feldman’s work, and of Feldman’s grasp of, and presentation of, Islam. I can imagine — no, I know — what Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali make of the likes of Noah Feldman.
But don’t worry about his career. If Noah Feldman senses that among his more intelligent colleagues and students (not all of whom are quite so taken with him) some show signs of learning about Islam on their own, he may begin to distance himself from Islamic Studies. The subject, after all, is hardly forbidding. It is far closer to Kennedy School current-events than it is to elementary physics, and the barriers to mental entry are low. If Noah Feldman begins to worry that, as his colleagues learn about Islam, they may possibly come to regret, with wincing recognition, their hire in the area of Islamic Legal Studies — a kind of hire-and-promotion-committee esprit de l”escalier — then he may distance himself further from Islamic Studies. He may begin to act as if it was always just an afterthought, and make known his eagerness to move to pastures new, possibly as a new Tribe, so as to allay suspicions, fears, and of course regret at his presence. But he will still be in charge of the Islamic Legal Studies program. He will still be the one deciding which speakers to bring in to enlighten the students and “the Harvard community.” And that means trouble not just for this year, but for a decade or more to come.
Oh, if he suspects a shift in the wind he’ll shift too, to other subjects, or to a “change in nuance.” He”ll land on his feet, all right. Such people always do.