The “more strongly you are committed to your faith,” emerging church leader Brian McLaren stated at Georgetown University on November 21, 2013, the “more tolerant and compassionate you are.” McLaren’s equivalency among all faiths fit perfectly into the conference “Muslim-Christian Relations in the 21st Century: Challenges & Opportunities,” a day-long, one-sided presentation of Islam as a pacific faith unjustly maligned by Christians and others.
Presented by Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the conference has already produced considerable controversy. The keynote address by popular British religion writer Karen Armstrong, for example, unconvincingly argued that Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks resulted from Muslim grievances inflicted by the West in general and the British Empire in particular. Outside of the conference’s estimated 100 attendees at Georgetown’s Copley Hall, Armstrong’s arguments have met with universal revulsion, if comments upon my previously published analysis are any indication (see here and here, for example).
A panel moderated by Islam scholar Natana J. DeLong-Bas, meanwhile, preceded Armstrong. As a moderator, DeLong-Bas did not have much too say, which was probably just as well, as research has revealed her to the unsuspecting at the conference and elsewhere as an Islamism apologist and 9/11 truther. Among other things, she has doubted the role of Osama bin Laden in 9/11 and has praised the “democracy” efforts of Hamas.
Armstrong and DeLong-Bas were perhaps predictable given the tone set at the conference’s morning introduction by ACMCU’s director, the frequent Islamism apologist and internationally renowned Islam scholar John Esposito. Along with the “Arab Spring” becoming “potentially the Arab Winter” and “Sunni-Shia sectarianism,” Armstrong’s fellow United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) High Level Group member Esposito identified the “rise of Islamophobia” as a global issue facing Islam. McLaren likewise during the conference’s final panel spoke of Islam substituting for Communism after the Cold War’s end had for many Americans “take[n] away their enemy” and identity “crutch.”
Participants on “The Arab Uprisings, Islamic Movements & the Future of Democracy” panel, meanwhile, seemed mystified by any threat perception within Islam. Emad Shahin, for example, judged concerns about Islam’s compatibility with democracy a “useless question.” According to Shahin, anyone, not just the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), could have “made mistakes” ruling Egypt following the downfall of its dictator Hosni Mubarak. Opponents of deposed Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi from the MB “should have respected the process” and the Arab Spring’s “people power.”
Shahin’s fellow panelist, the late addition Radwan Masmoudi from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), also decried the “myth that Islam and democracy are not compatible.” As CSID’s president, Masmoudi claimed that his organization had produced hundreds of papers demonstrating that Islamic faith and freedom could coexist, a claim Masmoudi saw borne out in the Arab Spring. “We are going to succeed” with an Islam-democracy combination, Masmoudi confidently predicted.
Like Shahin, Masmoudi considered it “not fair” to judge Egypt’s MB rule a failure in light of the “long process to build democracy” cut short after fewer than two years. While Masmoudi assessed post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as a “mess,” he nonetheless considered Middle East democracy promotion under George W. Bush to have been “great.” “Foreign intervention” in Tunisia and Egypt, meanwhile, from Western countries “afraid of democracy” had repeated America’s historic “mistake” of supporting Middle East dictators, “one of the main reasons for extremism.” By contrast, “good relations with the Arab and Muslim world demands democracy.”
Fears of countries like Egypt emulating Iran’s theocratic dictatorship received little consideration from Masmoudi. United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s determination that Egypt’s “Muslim Brotherhood stole democracy” baffled Masmoudi. He correspondingly criticized a supposed American “green light” for the Egyptian military’s July 2013 ouster of Morsi, even though most evidence indicates that President Barak Obama opposed Morsi’s removal.
Rather than question any “faith in the people” in majority-Muslim societies, Masmoudi saw recurring elections as the means of controlling any Muslim political malfeasance. Thereby Masmoudi discussed “Islamism” as a “most misunderstood word,” for, according to him, variants of Islamism existed, not all of which were malignant. As a practical matter, Masmoudi considered impossible the political exclusion of Islamists, estimated by him at about 30-40% of Arab Spring country populations.
Contrasting with this positive presentation of Islam, leftist evangelical Richard Cizek offered comments critical of American evangelicals while sharing the stage with Armstrong. Once the National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) top staffer as Vice President for Governmental affairs, Cizek left NAE in 2008 after his support for same-sex civil unions as well as climate change theories and the recently elected Obama caused uproar in evangelical circles. Now heading the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good with funding from leftwing atheist billionaire George Soros, Cizek at Copley Hall criticized evangelical “subcultural bubbles.” Here prevailed a “black helicopters” view of the United Nations and complaints about an “alleged intrusion” upon religious freedom by the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate.
With respect to evangelical relations with Islam, Cizek had several complaints. Christian Zionism, for example, supported the “theft of Palestinian land.” Cizek also critically cited a figure according to which 60% of evangelicals rejected the assertion that Western civilization had a significant Islamic heritage.
Cizek also noted his meeting with fellow evangelical James Dobson at the National Cathedral following 9/11. In contrast to Dobson’s understanding of 9/11 as jihadist aggression, Cizek, like Armstrong, seemed to express understanding for Al Qaeda’s motives. Cizek referenced American military personnel stationed on Saudi Arabian soil at the time of 9/11 and an Arab-Israeli conflict having claimed 4 million dead and wounded, according to Cizek.
Yet most estimates of Arab and Jewish casualties since fighting began during Zionist settlement of the British Palestine Mandate are far lower. One accounting lists 115,000 dead and 102,000 wounded among civilians and soldiers. In a ranking of conflicts with over 10,000 fatalities since 1950, the Arab-Israeli conflict occupies 49th place. Cizek also did not explain why the defensive deployment of American forces to Saudi Arabia is any less justified than similar American deployments around the world.
Appearing with Masmoudi and Shahin, Georgetown professor Yvonne Haddad offered the one indication during the conference that all was not well with Islam. Haddad described a “panic” among the Middle East’s Christians as a “vanishing minority” who resented Muslim-majority domination expressed in terms for non-Muslim monotheists like “dhimmis.” In Syria there were “targeted killing of Christians,” something Haddad ascribed to rebel anger at Christian unwillingness to fight the Bashar Assad regime and not general Islamist persecution of non-Muslims. “Bush’s Spring” overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq had also unleashed Islamist furies and Christian flight.
Yet Haddad’s assessments of Arab Christians’ friends and foes were surprising. Discussing transient Western interventions in the Middle East going back to the Crusades that had always ultimately weakened Christian communities there, Haddad asserted that Arab Christians did not want outside rescuers. Denominational disputes with Western evangelists had also antagonized Arab Christians in the past.
Israel is also no friend of Christians in Haddad’s view. One evangelical group’s online map of Christian persecution in the Middle East received her criticism for omitting Israel. Yet Israel is for Haddad a country that places Arab Christians and Muslims in “concentration camps,” an increasingly popular slander of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Christian Arab population statistics tell a different story, however, as indicated by me in a question to Haddad. In contrast to the Christian exodus from the Middle East noted by her, Christians in Israel have grown in number from 34,000 in 1949 to 125,000 in 2011. Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem from 1949 to 1967, meanwhile, saw the Christians there decline from 25,000 to fewer than 13,000.
Appearing on DeLong-Bas’ morning panel, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, had called upon his audience “to embrace shared space” in an “exciting world of multiculturalism.” In such a world the existence of a “mosque in Cape Town” reciprocally demanded the allowance of a “church in Saudi Arabia.” This new paradigm also involved a “move away from competitive faith to cooperative faith” amidst a “declining carcass” of believers in an increasingly secularized world.
Interfaith harmony invocations, though, rang hollow at this morally inverted conference. While Islamism’s uniformly aggressive and authoritarian aspects went unexamined, conference panelists attributed prejudice and persecution almost exclusively to Christians and Jews. Yet concerns about Muslim-majority societies in the Arab Spring and elsewhere undergoing something other than Rasool’s described “surge for freedom” are hardly “useless,” pace Shahin. Nor does religious devotion always have a direct relationship with human decency, as Esposito’s reference to Sunni-Shia sectarianism indicates contrary to McLaren’s assertion.
Peace among peoples can only result from considered respect for principles such as human equality, something requiring rigorous intellectual inquiry and not the ACMCU’s Islamophile illusions. Rasool’s claim, for example, that Muslims have “no monopoly” upon a “fundamentalist-extremist mindset” given Israeli “fundamentalism” and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s “economic fundamentalism” deserves closer scrutiny. Rasool’s assertion with respect to Jews in the Third Reich and 1948 Israeli War for Independence Palestinian refugees that “we all carry the burdens of victimhood” is also suspect. Such examination necessary for Christian-Muslim or any other understanding, however, is unlikely ever to occur at Georgetown’s ACMCU.