COMMENTARY: Scholarship About Islam in America

Print More

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is the author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) When the White House recently nominated Daniel Pipes for an appointment at the United States Institute of Peace, the media controversy was not entirely unexpected.

Scholarship about Islam in America has become controversial. It touches on questions of freedom of expression, respect for religious sentiment, racial profiling and deep, innate prejudices. As Pipes is a well-known scholar in the field, his appointment was bound to raise discussion and debate.

Muslim groups expressed outrage, accusing Pipes of being Islamophobic. They argued his appointment would further isolate and alienate the Muslim community and therefore was not a good political move.

The Muslim community has felt under siege since Sept. 11, 2001. The enormity of the crime on that day created a double outrage for the community: its beloved nation _ the United States _ had been attacked; and worse, the attackers were Muslim. The media depiction of all Muslims as extremists and terrorists further angered the community. They expected the scholars of Islam to explain to Americans this is not the case and that is why they were particularly disappointed in scholars like Pipes.

After his appointment, I was asked to comment.

I had met Pipes only once, briefly, when we appeared together on a panel, so I went back to his work and the issues it raises.

I discovered he has a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has spent several years in Egypt and can read Arabic. He has taught Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago and Harvard. He is the author of 11 books and is director of the Middle East Forum. He has published in magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs and New Republic. Newspapers like The New York Times and Los Angeles Times publish him regularly.

After Sept. 11, Pipes became a familiar face as a commentator. He appeared not only on American television but also on Arabic television, including Al-Jazeera. He became an important voice to those parts of the media who tended to depict Islam in a negative light.

There is much to debate about the ideas of Pipes. But whether we agree or disagree with him, we need to draw general principles from an examination of his case.

There is a need to examine closely _ and coolly _ the work of those who are accused of being anti-Islamic scholars such as Pipes. Is Pipes really anti-Islamic?

“Not being a Muslim,” Pipes has written, “I by definition do not believe in the mission of the Prophet Muhammad; but I have enormous respect for the faith of those who do. I note how deeply rewarding Muslims find Islam as well as the extraordinary inner strength it imbues them with. Having studied the history and civilization of the classical period, I am vividly aware of the great Muslim cultural achievements of roughly a millennium ago.”

Muslims need to accept that scholars must have space to develop their own ideas about Islam even if they are not in accord with traditional Muslim thinking. After all, the Muslim community in the United States is living in a society that cherishes freedom of expression. Responding to criticism or implied criticism with threats is not a convincing way in which to present a counter-argument.

The Salman Rushdie controversy should have taught everyone some lessons.

The discussion about Islam should include the most sensitive areas of Muslim tradition _ including the holy Book and the holy Prophet. There is a great need for Muslims to explain the core features of Islam calmly and convincingly to America. In the face of the media attacks on precisely these central features of Islam, the need is even more urgent.

Pipes has been highly critical of what he calls “Islamists,” whom he equates to the men of violence in Islam: “Islamism is a global affliction whose victims count peoples of all religions; Islamism is perhaps the most vibrant and coherent ideological movement in the world today; it threatens us all. Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims must cooperate to battle this scourge.”

Pipes does not see himself as a critic of the Muslim community. Indeed, he believes if his words are heeded they may help in improving relations: “The Islamists’ approach is deeply antithetical to the American way, and so I predict that as they and their work became better known, major problems will follow, and these will first of all affect the American Muslim population. My urgent hope is that moderate Muslims get involved in communal affairs and take interest in these matters, and so to redeem the Muslim institutions from the extremists’ control.”

One of the challenges facing America after Sept. 11 is how to deal with Islam. There is a need to understand the Muslim community, its history and its traditions. Who is better placed to act as a bridge than the scholar of Islam?

What better challenge for Daniel Pipes than to assist in creating genuine dialogue with the Muslim community?


Comments are closed.