Hamas is “represented in a hysterical way,” stated Fordham University associate professor of modern Islam Sarah Eltantawi, during an August 20 webinar on “The Nexus of Anti-Palestine Campaigns and Islamophobia.” Her apologetics for Hamas were just one of several disturbing aspects in her discussion with Salam al-Marayati, the radical president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), an Islamist organization.
Eltantawi, who noted that she became MPAC communications director on September 1, 2001, spoke as part of MPAC’s online lecture series “The Palestinian Struggle: A New Approach.” Marayati recalled that Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks occurred little over a week later, after which the federal government shut down several Islamic “charity” organizations for terrorism financing, often to MPAC protests. “Most of the charities had to do with Palestine, even though Palestine had nothing to do with 9/11,” he said, although Israel’s destruction is a longstanding Al Qaeda objective.
Hamas’ 2017 public relations ploy of supposedly abandoning its genocidal charter symbolized for Eltantawi the moderation of this terrorist group, which she said served “to distract us from the bigger picture” of Israeli actions. Thereby she claimed that “moral outrage about what was happening to the Palestinians” should be “natural.” While discussing “political Islam,” she wondered absurdly “how is Hamas different in terms of some kind of idea of religion and politics” than non-terrorist Christian Zionists, who defend Israel’s right to exist.
The vehemently anti-Israel Eltantawi took a dismissive attitude to threats to Israel while discussing the late California Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos’ views on Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Lantos created in August 2001 a “big scandal because he cited the Treaty of Hudaybiya from the Prophet’s time” wherein “Muslims went back on a treaty that was signed with a Jewish tribe,” she said. Lantos correctly worried that this treaty signed with pagan Arabs could serve as a canonical Islamic precedent for betraying Israel, as Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat himself had argued. Yet she was shocked that Lantos had “argued in the U.S. Congress” that “it is impossible for Muslims to negotiate fairly with Jews” and “you can’t really trust what they say,” despite a long record of Palestinian duplicity demonstrated by Arafat.
Eltantawi conceded that “Israel has a better record with LGBTQ issues, which is undeniable,” compared to Palestinian society and the wider Middle East, but denigrated any international human rights praise for Israel. Such “pinkwashing” only “frames the Palestinians as barbaric,” she said. After all, she quipped, “these are complicated issues.”
“Pro-Israel” advocacy indicated for Eltantawi “metastasizing Islamophobia” – a word coined to silence all criticism of Islam. In particular, the “Middle East Forum [MEF] is at the center of the Islamophobia network,” she said, charging falsely that its founder, Daniel Pipes, is “probably one of the most notorious Islamophobes.” She charged mendaciously that a “blacklist site” such as MEF’s Campus Watch features people “always with misquotes.”
By contrast, Eltantawi opined optimistically that what she defined as “expansionist” progressives “might be the majority” among America’s Muslims. These Muslims “push the boundaries of Islamic theology and law and practice as wide open as possible” such that “it is hard to see what is specifically Islamic,” she said. “Sometimes I read the bylaws of organizations that I would put under the expansionist camp. If you took out the word Islam, I could be reading the ACLU bylaws,” she elaborated. This “very wide interpretation” and “hollowed-out perspective” with “very little focus on actual Islamic law and theology” emphasizes “identity politics.” Marayati countered that more “orthodox” Muslim groups are “more organized,” and noted that Muslims had criticized MPAC for various pro-LGBT positions.
Webinar viewer Carl Goldberg, a vocal critic of Islamism, expressed skepticism in online comments about such liberal understandings of Islam, particularly given the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but Marayati remained firm. “The Taliban does not represent Islam,” Marayati responded, adding that “nobody is celebrating the Taliban here.” When Goldberg then referenced Hamas, Marayati stated “we don’t speak for Hamas,” a claim that overlooked past refusals by MPAC to condemn Islamic terrorism.
Eltantawi’s reply to Goldberg’s question, “is there such a thing as nonpolitical Islam,” was unconvincing. She stated naively that the “vast majority” of Muslims practice a “personal and nonpolitical form of Islam,” while she noted that Hamas had congratulated the Taliban on their victory in Afghanistan. Contrastingly, she expressed more populist sentiments when she discussed Tunisia’s “revolt against Islamism,” in which the Tunisian president had suspended parliament on July 25 as part of a campaign against the Islamist Ennahda party.
Nonetheless, Eltantawi admitted that since colonialism’s end “there has been a rise of political Islam,” which has become “one of our main forms of Islam in the world.” Moreover, “arguably from the beginning of Islamic history, it does have a political component,” a point that “is actually undeniable.”
However much Eltantawi may evoke a woke Islam of personal autonomy, she is no sheikh, and the reality of Islam worldwide – exemplified by some of her own beliefs – is far more political and dangerous than she is willing to admit. Her open hostility to Israel, apologias for Hamas, and MPAC connections further undermine her claims for a liberal-minded Islam that poses no threat to Western nations or ideas. Unfortunately, absent massive reforms within Middle East studies, students, journalists, and policymakers will continue to be misled by Eltantawi and her many like-minded colleagues.