Carl Ernst is the one who pushed on unwitting colleagues the notion that incoming freshmen to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should be forced to read that comically bowdlerized version of the Qur’an, Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Lyrical Suras. Carl Ernst is also the one who schemed to have Omid Safi hired at Chapel Hill after Safi was turned down at Harvard Divinity School, when Leila Ahmed, ably aided by Diana Eck and William Graham (who could not receive tenure himself in the ordinary fashion), were foiled by the other faculty, more alert than most.
Omid Safi is there in Chapel Hill now, smilingly working among the young and naive his defender-of-the-faith apologetics. And there are those who will be taken in by a little carefully ostentatious “concern” for them, as shown by invitations to share a meal of chicken-and-pita — what a swell guy, what a genuine good guy, what a contrast to all those other professors who are so aloof and standoffish — or by one of the other MESA-Nostra bag of tricks for winning the allegiance of students who will have no idea whether what they are being taught makes sense, or is studiously and hideously misleading, because that professor is that “swell guy” who, gosh darn it, “really cares about his students.”
There are plenty of people on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who are no fools. While some of them have avoided looking too closely at the likes of Carl Ernst — faculty autonomy, and a hesitancy to judge outside their own field — some have no doubt seen right through him, and not a few others no doubt could do so if they chose to look into the matter.
In Carl Ernst’s list of charges made against Robert Spencer, he mentions Robert’s “lack of credentials.” Ah yes, “credentials.” Ernst means, of course, the “credentials” you will find — the doctorates all in place, the thesis written that neither the writer nor anyone else will ever wish to read — at, for example, the MEALAC Program of Columbia. “Credentials” of the kind awarded to Rashid Khalidi (the quick, no-coursework-required D. Phil. that for decades St. Antony’s under Hourani, a plump abbot dispensing his favors, would distribute in its Middle Eastern annex, not to be confused with its legitimate Russian section, nor with real Oxford colleges with real dons, demanding real work). “Credentials” of the kind awarded to Hamid Dabashi (every single one of whose books are simply endlessly detailed compilations with not the slightest sign of a mind at work — and if you want a sign of Hamid Dabashi’s mind at work, simply google “Edward Said” and “Hamid Dabashi” for his ex-ungue-leonem treacly tribute), and to Joseph Massad the full-time propagandist, and to so many others, all with their postcolonial credentials, their postcolonial anti-hegemonist credentials intact.
If possession of “credentials” are not a guarantee of someone’s being a guide to anything, what of the absence of such “credentials”? The crazed autodidact is one thing, the person with his wild theory about the ancient Egyptians, or some such. But the person who specializes as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student in a field, learns a good deal, and also learns what it is about the current teaching and scholarship in that field that make it so hard to pursue what would once have been so easy, is quite another. Imagine someone who quite unsuspectingly enrolls at Columbia to do graduate work in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. Imagine that that person enrolls in 1950, or 1960, so that he will be taught by Arthur Jeffery, or by Joseph Schacht. Now imagine that same trusting student, trusting that is in the reputation of Columbia, whose presumed luster, like the light from distant stars that arrives long after the emitter of that light has died, enrolling today in that same department, that once had Schacht, and Jeffery. And after a year or two of nonstop indoctrination, that student decides to drop out of the doctoral program. Then what? What if that person does not drop the subject, but continues to study, and to write for a non-scholarly audience, pointing out things which may be regarded by some as “polemical,” but which would have been taken as the most obvious obviousness by Jeffrey, by Schacht, by Tisdall, by Snouck Hurgronje? (“Polemical” is a sneer word that could be employed to dismiss the works of Edward Gibbon on Rome, Michelet on the French Revolution, and Macaulay on everything.)
I’d reverse it. I’d say that anyone who has a “credential” obtained by listening to the likes of Carl Ernst and most of the members of MESA Nostra, and who then goes on to produce a thesis suitable for such people — “The Construction of Palestinian Identity” or “Postcolonial Discourse in Pre-Colonial Palestine” or “Portable Seclusion or, The Burqa as Liberator” or “Donny George. Matthew Bogdanos, and the Post-colonial Seizure and Rape of Muslim Antiquities” — has a negative credential, and carries with him his own warning flag. If you want to find out about Islam, its doctrine and its practice, and how it is relevant in the modern Middle East, stay away. And well away, and welladay.
More than two years ago I wrote a “Tribute to Carl Ernst.” In the antepenultimate paragraph of that tribute I nominated Carl Ernst for the King Faisal Prize, in the category for which he carries outstanding credentials: Services to Islam. I wrote the tribute in 2006, and so was nominating Ernst for the 2007 prize. But 2007 came and went, and there was no King Faisal Prize for Professor Carl Ernst. And 2008 came and went, and there still was no King Faisal Prize for Professor Carl Ernst. And now I’m afraid his acceptance of a prize from Shi’a Iran, archenemy of Saudi Arabia, may queer what would otherwise no doubt be his excellent chances to win the King Faisal Prize. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps someone like Ernst, who is an apologist for Islam, but in the eyes of the Al-Saud and their tame clerics possibly not sufficiently Sunni in his orientation, just isn’t precisely the right kind of apologist. If so, then I apologize to Professor Carl Ernst and to his supporters for nominating him when he had so little chance to win. It was not intentionally cruel. I simply miscalculated. As, come to think of it, Carl Ernst may also have miscalculated, in agreeing to accept the Farabi International Award given by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thereby queering his chances for even more money from the Al-Saud.
Anyway, here’s that little tribute, which does not date.