President Obama’s infamous proclamation that ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is “not Islamic” was received sympathetically within the ranks of Middle East studies. While many scholars of Islam and the Middle East have condemned ISIS’s heinous actions, a stubborn refusal to acknowledge their theological underpinnings lingers. Those who do concede ISIS’s Islamic supremacism are branded “Islamphobes.” Others attribute ISIS’s rampage of mass murder, beheadings, rape, slavery, and strict Sharia law in pursuit of a caliphate to Western-inspired “grievances” or “root causes.”
John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is at the forefront of such obfuscation. Disregarding ISIS’s adherence to Quranic literalism, Esposito declared:
I do not think that this is a very Islamic vision at all. . . . Theirs is a kind of religion that is extraordinarily full of violence and abuse that is not in accordance with the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet or even with Islamic Law.Hatem Bazian, director of the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley, lived up to his title by invoking victimhood. Bazian claimed that:
When Islamophobes point to the Koran and Islam as the problem, they are epistemically reinforcing ISIS’s claims and also pushing every Muslim into the same categorization. . . . For me, religion is a rationalization rather than the root cause.Responding to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s public acknowledgement that British Muslims are joining ISIS, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole ranted, “It’s just a way of beating up on the Muslims in the UK. . . . Cameron is grandstanding about this and it’s Islamophobia, it’s just racism.” Perhaps Cole is unaware that Cameron, speaking at a reception for British Muslims, kowtowed to political-correctness by declaring that ISIS has “nothing to do with the great religion of Islam, a religion of peace.”
Meanwhile, Sahar F. Aziz, Texas A&M University law professor, condemned those who are “blindly blaming religion . . . rather than root causes,” lamenting that, “Thousands of miles away from the Middle East, it is tempting for Americans to view the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) as further evidence that something is wrong with Islam.” Instead, she asserted, “The politics of authoritarianism, rather than religion, explain the rise of ISIS.” Given that ISIS arose in a power vacuum, there is little basis for blaming authoritarianism.
Going to ridiculous lengths, Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, faults humanity itself:
I am mindful of the fact that much of the Islamophobic discourse of today holds Muslims in the West accountable for atrocities of ISIS. In that context, it makes a fundamental mistake. . . . All of us, Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and people of no faith and people of occasional faith, we are all responsible.That is, since everyone is responsible for ISIS, no one is responsible.
After conceding that “Muslims have a responsibility to speak out against ISIS,” Safi then entreated,
[A]ll of us to speak out with the same vehemence . . . about the victims of the American drones, about the victims of the allies of the United States? Can we mourn Palestinians? Can we mourn Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin? Can we mourn the 2.5 million Americans caught in a penal industrial complex?A better question for Safi would be whether there is any unrelated societal ill that cannot be associated with condemning ISIS?
University of California, Riverside creative writing professor Reza Aslan denied that ISIS has any appeal whatsoever to devout Muslims, marveling over “how little religion plays a role in this group, how little the idea of reading the Koran or praying or those kinds of things play a significant role on the ground among these militants.” Granting that “religion is the sort of underlying, unifying aspect of it,” Aslan then contradicted himself: “But the idea that ISIS is drawing excessively religious people to it is factually incorrect.” Elsewhere, he alluded to the “grievances . . . that a lot of Muslims around the world have” and warned that ISIS’s appeal would remain, “unless those grievances can be addressed.”
Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, suggested that Muslim scholars respond to ISIS by proclaiming:
What you are doing, killing innocent people, implementing so-called “Sharia” or the so-called “Islamic State”, this is against everything that is coming from Islam. . . . It is not a caliphate. It is just people playing with politics referring to religious sources.While it is indeed necessary for Muslim moderates—a group that does not include Ramadan—to condemn ISIS, it is self-defeating to deny the Islamic basis for its behavior.
Other academics engage in moral relativism, equating ISIS’s unbridled aggression with the defense of Western democracies. Absurdly, Musa al-Gharbi, a University of Arizona instructor, described the U.S. as the bigger evil: “It would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS.” Al-Gharbi also dubbed Mexican drug cartels more destructive than ISIS and maintained that, “What is fueling the disproportionate reaction to ISIL is Islamophobia.”
Mark LeVine, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, simultaneously absolved Islam and demonized Zionism by likening ISIS fighters to religious “fanatics” of all types:
[The Islamic State] is as real a form of expression of Islam as the violent and chauvinist Israeli settler movement is to Judaism or as extreme Hindu nationalism, Rahkine Buddhism and militant Christianity are to their religions in India, Myanmar and the United States.Georgetown University history professor Abdullah Al-Arian drew a cruder comparison on Twitter:
Israel and ISIS sitting in a tree, K-I-L-L-I-N-G, First come the bombs, then come the savages, then come the U.N. to survey the damages.Likewise, Steven Salaita, a former Virginia Tech University English professor whose offer of a position at the University of Illinois was withdrawn, tweeted nonsensically, “#Israel and #ISIS are but two prongs of the same violent ethnonationalism.”
Stretching credulity even further, Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University, alleged that ISIS “would be positively affected if the United States stopped its biased support of Israel.”
Seemingly bucking these trends is an open letter to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi signed by over 120 Muslim leaders and scholars, including the aforementioned Hatem Bazian, Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College, and Brandeis University’s Joseph E.B. Lumbard. However, the letter calls its sincerity into question in its calculated ambiguity, endorsement of Sharia law, and the Islamist bent of many of its signatories.
Plainly, these Middle East studies academics are reluctant to admit the existence of Islamic supremacism. The rise of ISIS has challenged their ideology even more than the growth of al-Qaeda. Instead of addressing the monster to which Islam has given birth, as French Muslim philosopher Abdennour Bidar recently put it, they blame the non-Muslim world. Quite simply, the “experts” have buried their heads in the sand.
Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.