This week, the Muslim Public Affairs Council published a study attacking some of America’s most prominent critics of political Islam and jihadism. With a title as subtle as the people it attacks, “Not Qualified: Exposing the Deception Behind America’s Top 25 Pseudo Experts on Islam,” is approximately as indirect as a head-butt by a drunken Glasgow football fan. Balanced assessment is neither its strong-suit, nor its point.
Instead it is a direct attack on the Who’s-Who of the country’s leading public counter-jihadists: Bostom, Geller, Coughlin, Spencer, Pipes, Phares, Yerushalmi, et al. If you know this topic, you will recognize every name. MPAC’s point – and, like Ellen, they do have one – is that these are people who speak and write a great deal about Islam and Islamism (in some cases it’s a lucrative gig) without being constrained by knowing what they are talking about.
Off the bat, I am sympathetic to MPAC’s viewpoint here since, as a scholar myself, there are few things I like less than self-styled “experts” who attack others based on flimsy evidence. And the “terrorism studies” field, particularly when it goes into matters Islamic, is chock-a-block with self-declared “experts” who are not infrequently charlatans without any real grounding in the subject.
MPAC takes aim at Stephen Coughlin, whom I’ve also taken down as emblematic of the self-proclaimed doyen of Islamic studies who really has no business being considered an expert in anything but his own, rarified opinions, since he has zero scholarly grounding in the study of Islam, yet feels himself eminently qualified to make sweeping judgements on the meaning of the Koran and the Hadiths (which he, like most of these “experts,” cannot read except in translation).
Ditto on Dr. Andrew Bostom, whom the MPAC study lambastes justly. Bostom – he’s an M.D., not a Ph.D., much less one in anything remotely relating to Islamic studies – has created a nice side career, next to his real job as a professor of medicine at Brown University, as a loud denouncer of Islam in all its forms. Suffice to say that he has as much business being taken seriously as a commentator on Islam as I do as a commentator on connections between homocysteine and cardiovascular disease (his actual field of expertise).
The list goes on, and many of the targets of this MPAC paper are, in the opinion of this scholar of terrorism (especially its Islamist variant), guilty as charged. One would have to be blind not to note that many of MPAC’s “Bottom 25” made the list for their undisguised advocacy for a militantly Likudnik vision for Israel and the entire Middle East, to which the anti-Islam aspect is only a necessary adjunct. In the eyes of some of them, believing that Palestinians are actually people too is mere steps away from strapping on a suicide bomb vest in the name of Allah – all, of course, with ample Koranic sanction, since there is nothing the unsavory element of the counter-jihad crowd loves more than citing the alleged “real truth” about the Koran and the Hadiths.
As an aside, this historian cannot help but notice the creepy similarities between the analysis of Islamic holy texts done by today’s (mostly unqualified) counter-jihadists and similar efforts made by the Nazis to uncover the alleged “real truth” about Jewish texts, the Talmud in particular. There was nothing which delighted the Streichersphere more than explaining how the Talmud told Jews to lie, cheat, steal, rape, and even murder, as long as the victims were goyim. This was not a figment of hateful imagination altogether, as leading scholars have elaborated, and, Nazi exaggerations aside, the Talmud indeed includes passages about Jesus and the Virgin Mary which are vile to any Christian (not to mention far worse than anything about Christianity to be found in the Koran). Yet nothing written in any centuries-old text can justify persecution of real-live humans today, much less the genocide which the Nazis perpetrated. Given how many of the “Bottom 25” are Jews, they should be more sensitive to the fire they are playing with.
And yet, and yet … It needs to be said that the MPAC study shows its considerable biases when it elaborates the stringent qualifications one must have to be a halal commentator on Islam in America. As it explains:
For the purposes of our study’s research focus, an expert on Islam is defined as an individual who has formal academic qualifications in Islamic Studies from an accredited institute of higher education in the West or those institutes of higher education in Muslim-majority countries that rank among the world’s top 500 universities. In order to be classified as “expert”, as defined above, one’s credentials must also be publicly verifiable.
Such a high standard of expertise seems reasonable for anyone making detailed pronouncements about Islamic foundational texts – which, MPAC concedes, exactly one person among the 25 profiled, Daniel Pipes, does possess – yet it is absurd to suggest that you need a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies to comment intelligently about the challenge of political Islam today. Somehow, Raymond Ibrahim is deemed by MPAC to be insufficiently qualified, despite the fact that he holds a couple degrees in the history of the Near East and speaks fluent Arabic, as the son of Egyptian immigrants. One suspects that Ibrahim’s real sin, in the eyes of MPAC, is that he has fallen in with the counter-jihadists. Similarly, MPAC’s condemnation of Andrew McCarthy is revealing. McCarthy, best known for his op-eds at National Review, is a pretty hardline right-winger and a former Federal prosecutor with experience in terrorism cases, most famously the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Which, given the fact that McCarthy writes mainly about the political – not theological – activities of Islamists in America, would seem to be an ideal background.
McCarthy’s real sin seems to be that he previously called out MPAC as a front, or at least fellow-traveller, of the Muslim Brotherhood in America. It cannot be denied that MPAC’s founders included Brotherhood activists, some with direct links to Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian schoolteacher who established the Ikhwan (as they are known worldwide) in 1928. Exactly what MPAC’s relationship is with the Brotherhood is less than clear, presumably by design, yet it is not a “hate crime” to note that the Ikhwan are a conspiratorial organization with a far-reaching political agenda which cannot be considered compatible with post-modern Western concepts of secular democratic governance.
MPAC and related organizations in America and beyond work hard to stigmatize and marginalize those who point out that Islamists have a political agenda which most Westerners would find unacceptable if they knew its details. This study is a clever piece of propaganda which aims at further limiting debate on the political role of Islam in the West. It is unfortunate that parts of the MPAC study are accurate, and it is even more unfortunate that small-minded people in the United States, often in the furtherance of their own ethnic agenda or merely for personal profit, give the Islamists powerful ammunition.