“Is Islam an enemy of the West? It does seem like such a ridiculous question, doesn’t it?” asked Georgetown University professor Tamara Sonn on February 22 at its Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). What seemed manifestly obvious to this Qatar-funded Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam at the ACMCU presentation of her new, eponymously-titled book, is not clear at all to skeptical observers. Thus, her work resembles that of many of her Middle East studies colleagues, who long ago replaced rigorous scholarship of Islam with a fawning approach that blames the West for the region’s systemic problems.
Sonn presented her “little, airport-size book” to an ACMCU conference room filled with about fifty listeners, included like-minded Georgetown colleagues Jonathan Brown, Jordan Denari Duffner, and Father Drew Christianson. “How can an ancient, global religion be an enemy of a modern geopolitical construct?” she asked, as if Islamic doctrine merely defined a religion, not a “geopolitical construct” that has historically attacked other civilizations, particularly the West. For Sonn, such reasonable conclusions were superficial compared to her survey of “Islamophobic” reactions to jihadist violence in recent decades. “If you only know headlines and blog posts, you have reason to be afraid,” she concluded.
Many of Sonn’s questionable arguments merited greater scrutiny, such as her citation of a 2008 Gallup poll of Muslims surveyed worldwide that was conducted by ACMCU founding director John Esposito and his protégé Dalia Mogahed. Sonn sought comfort in the survey’s finding that only seven percent of Muslims considered the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks “completely justified,” while ignoring that, in total, 36 percent considered the attacks at least partially justified. She also claimed that “Muslim religious authorities unanimously condemn terrorism,” based on a September 2001 denunciation of 9/11 signed by, among others, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Palestinian affiliate, Hamas. Historically, the MB is behind much jihadist violence (consider its mourning of the recently-deceased leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), while several countries, including the U.S., have designated Hamas a terrorist group.
While referencing her involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood-derived Muslim Students Association as a professor at William & Mary University, Sonn described the Islamic understanding of jihad in terms of a Venn diagram. Accordingly, jihad is the “struggle to do the will of God in all circumstances, all times, and a tiny part of it is military effort under specific circumstances controlled by Islamic law.” In contrast, native Arabic speakers, such as the Egyptian-American Christian Michael Youssef, strenuously reject this marginal definition for what Islamic canons typically describe as warfare in Islam’s name.
Sonn’s other depictions of Islamic doctrine were equally suspect: her claim that Islamic law “forbids declaration of war by anyone but a duly recognized head of state” is only true during offensive jihad. She added that the “terrorists believe their anti-West campaigns are defensive, because they believe that the West is at war with Islam,” an assertion that would make jihad mandatory upon individual Muslims. The Middle East’s long-suffering Christians would also reject her ridiculous contention that “Islamic law has preserved pluralism since the revelation of the Quran, since the first constitution dictated by the prophet” of Islam, Muhammad. Although commonly cited by Muslim apologists, this “constitution” is a slim historical reed for justifying Islamic tolerance.
In further sophistry, Sonn described the 1981 jihadist killing of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a “standard political assassination.” “The assassins condemned Sadat for his authoritarian ways and his collaboration with the U.S. and Israel, despite its violation of UN Security Council resolutions calling for withdrawal from occupied territories” such as Jerusalem. Yet in 2011 a leader of the assassination plot, which included current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, described the goal as an Islamic revolution whose extension would ultimately involve Hamas’s long-desired destruction of Israel.
While opposed to Western policies, Sonn maintained that the majority of Muslims, “instead of attacking the West in order to achieve those goals . . . work through peaceful means at the local, national, and international levels to achieve their goals.” Without citing specific examples, such as BDS, she portrayed this as selfless political activism in the best democratic tradition, asking, “any of you who have ever tried to be a community organizer, do you know how hard that is day-in, day-out?” By contrast, jihadists such as those of the Islamic State are “pitching their message to the marginalized underclass, the unemployed, and especially those who feel rejected by the mainstream,” an oft-debunked claim.
Predictably, Western sins, such as colonialism, loomed large for Sonn, who, in discussing Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, described the nation as “one of the most highly challenged post-colonial countries on earth.” She attributed the alleged “scapegoating” of Muslims in Western countries to those “who are actually benefiting from the declining economy of the middle class.” These elites are utilizing “fears of generic, former middle-class U.S. and European people who are feeling threatened by declining economic security.” Such “scapegoating,” she maintained, distracts from the “unimpeded tyranny of capitalism . . . the terrorism, as Pope Francis calls it, against all humanity.”
While wealthy Gulf State backers see a handsome return on their petrodollar investments in Sonn and ACMCU, few will appreciate her whitewashing of Islamic doctrine and history amidst screeds against the capitalist West. Her shallowness is a damning indictment of modern Middle East studies, while her allegiance to politicized, biased models of scholarship is entirely predictable in contemporary academe. This status quo unfailingly cheats Georgetown students of their education and the nation of deeply informed views of the region.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.