“Islam is not a danger to democracy, but a source of strength for it,” claimed University of Pennsylvania political science professor Anne Norton during an online conference hosted by Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (IZU). She somehow missed the irony of making her claim at a forum sponsored by the elected Islamist regime of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has imprisoned thousands of academic and political opponents. But Norton and other American participants were in good company: Western academics ignored Erdogan’s persecution of their Turkish peers to attend conferences in Istanbul in previous years. Why would they suddenly develop a conscience?
IZU’s Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) hosted the “Fourth Conference on the Muslim Ummah” from December 12 to 18, 2020, to analyze “Governance and Political Authority in the Muslim World: Examining Theory and Practice.” Signaling the regime’s endorsement of the proceedings, Erdoğan’s son Bilal introduced the conference.
The nepotism continued with CIGA’s founding director Sami Al-Arian, who led the conference along with his son, Georgetown University-Qatar professor Abdullah Al-Arian, and son-in-law, Georgetown University professor Jonathan Brown. The United States deported the elder Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida computer science professor, to Turkey in 2015 after he pleaded guilty to aiding Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated terrorist organization. CIGA Senior Research Associate and Islamist apologist Üveys Han whitewashed Al-Arian as a “leading advocate for civil and human rights in the United States” who had suffered “unjust allegations.”
Calling for Israel’s destruction in a rant against this “settler-colonial project,” Al-Arian and the conference’s rogue’s gallery of Muslim Brotherhood–tied (MB) individuals embodied CIGA’s blatantly illiberal character. In this spirit, Mohsen Saleh, general manager of Beirut, Lebanon’s Al Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, discussed “resistance” against the “Zionist project.” Al-Arian, meanwhile, claimed falsely the nuclear-proliferating Islamic Republic of Iran as a peaceful country that “tries to produce its own nuclear energy,” yet the “whole Western structure is trying to frustrate that effort.”
Without any evidence, Norton assured her audience that “Muslim prayer teaches democratic practice, it teaches discipline.” Yet Quran 61:4’s militaristic imagery makes such “discipline” appear less than democratic, particularly given the condemnation of Jews and Christians in traditional daily prayer interpretations. Particularly Egyptian Christians would question her comment that during the 2011 “Arab Spring,” an Egyptian friend from an “extremely secular family of artists” learned that “he didn’t need to fear the Muslim Brothers.”
By contrast, Norton claimed that the “anti-democratic character of the Israeli state is becoming more and more visible,” a slander echoed by her fellow panelist, University of Denver Middle East studies professor Nader Hashemi. He castigated Israel’s recent historic establishment of diplomatic relations with various Arab states under the leadership of President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. “What possible good could emerge from a secret agreement between a racist American president and his deeply corrupt son-in-law, a neo-fascist Israeli prime minister, and several Arab dictators?,” he fumed. This diplomacy “exposes what has long been wrong with U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, specifically its deep dependence on authoritarian and repressive regimes,” he argued, as if the Middle East were not uniformly undemocratic.
Norton’s dubious argument that “sharia law can be applied in the modern nation-state” found concurrence from her fellow panelist, University of Massachusetts-Lowell political science professor Deina Abdelkader. Sharia “has to be malleable” and “is open to human reasoning and to interpretation,” she said, yet her description of sharia’s maqasid (goals) only highlighted its sectarian nature. “Restricting inebriation,” she stated, “is typically the way protecting the mind is interpreted in Islam,” and “preserving property is also observed by obviously prohibiting riba” or interest.
Abdelkader’s comments only underscored the problematic declarations of Islam’s democratic character by University of California-Los Angeles law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl during the conference’s opening day. Shura, or consultation, “was always present as a moral ideal” throughout Islamic history, he noted, but, by contrast, Islamic doctrine has traditionally prized preserving Islamic order over any status quo disruption. Thus Islamic literature has a “constant theme” that a “thousand years of tyranny is better than one hour of chaos” — hardly a ringing endorsement of democracy.
University of Massachusetts political science professor Andrew March raised similar contradictions in his December 14 presentation on “The Caliphate of Man: Examining the Theory of Islamic Democracy.” “The most important horizon for Islamic political thought today is a post-statist, even post-sovereigntist one,” he stated. Islamists like Tunisia’s Rashid Ghannouchi have during their life experiences become the “greatest witnesses of the brutality and danger of state power.” Therefore they now envision society as a “space for expanding the freedom from state tyranny for a variety of ways of life, not only religious, but also materialist, secular ones.”
Nonetheless, March noted that amidst this pluralism a global Islamic caliphate “may seem impossible now, but is something to constantly be strived for like any moral or ethical ideal.” His fantasy assertion that “there were very, very rare cases of actual religious persecutions” in Islamic history exposed the propagandistic nature of his remarks. He likewise offered no proof for his claim that the late MB ideologue Sayyid Qutb “structures his reflections around a humanity that might well be conceived as born free.”
March’s fellow panelist, University of Toledo Islamic studies professor Ovamir Anjum, only emphasized Islam’s inherently political nature. Contrary to any modern understanding of an “Islamism” distinct from personal Islamic piety, he judged that “Islamism isn’t really a thing outside of a sort of analytical category for Western scholars.” “I don’t think there is such a thing as an Islamist as a category of being or a category of thought,” he concluded.
The disconcerting questions CIGA (inadvertently) raised about Islam’s political implications exposed the superficiality of academics like Georgetown’s John Esposito, who at conference end obsessed once again over “Islamophobia.” Modern Muslims face serious issues about how they can embrace global, pluralistic norms, yet institutions led by terrorist supporters like Al-Arian in Islamist, authoritarian Turkey are the wrong venue for exploring paths to liberal reforms. By promoting such individuals and institutions, American Middle East studies professors reveal the unseriousness of their stated intentions and further discredit their academic field as a taxpayer-subsidized Islamist propaganda forum.
Andrew E. Harrod is a Campus Watch Fellow, freelance researcher, and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod.