New Wave or Clever Ruse?

Upon the appointment of Omid Safi as director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center (DISC) in July of 2014, the dean of the university’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences proclaimed that “Duke has a long tradition of extraordinary scholarship in the study of Islam. We are thrilled that Omid Safi will continue that pursuit.”

But a closer examination of Safi and others involved with DISC reveals that the Center is building a circle of academics whose suspect scholarship and lack of objectivity make them apologists for Islam’s unsavory aspects.

The question that remains is whether Safi and his Center colleagues are sincere but misguided “useful idiots” who believe that Islam can be seamlessly merged with the progressive values of the American Left while in denial about Islam’s supremacist side, or whether they are duplicitously providing cover for violent jihadists.

The former view is advocated by Aaron Hughes, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester who writes about modern Islamic scholarship. He says that Safi belongs to a new wave of American Muslim academics who are “interested in creating a liberal Islam that they believe is in keeping with western, democratic values.”

Yet their rejection of Islam’s troubling aspects only extends so far, and they tend to judge the Western world much more harshly. While Safi has indeed spoken out against terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, he does not explore their existence critically as a real part of Islam. Hughes writes that Safi:

mentions in passing the so-called Wahhabis, who as puritans seek to destroy the popular cult of Muhammad in Islam. He nowhere says that these Wahhabis -- who refer to themselves as Salafis, i.e., the “pious followers” of Muhammad -- also create their version of Islam in the image of Muhammad.

Instead of an objective look at Islam and Muhammad -- the real work of an Islamic scholar -- Safi expresses the inspiration he derives from them -- the musings of a believer.

And his actions sometimes hint that he is neither against violent jihad nor merely blind to it, but complicit with it. While he seeks to blend Islamic and Western liberal cultures, he appears just as eager as the most ardent jihadist for the end of a Jewish Israel.

In a recent Facebook post titled “It is time!,” at the end of a sugary call for “love” and “justice,” Safi rejects the two-state solution that would permit Israel and Palestine to coexist side-by-side and insists on a single “democratic state with equal rights for all her citizens.” This is a leftist trope that, while sounding just, in truth will mean the takeover of Israel by a Muslim majority bent on extreme retribution -- perhaps even genocide.

According to Hughes, Safi routinely misinterprets text to further his aims. On occasion, he approaches outright fakery. In 2013, the Religious News Service web site removed his article, “Israeli atrocities at Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, 65 years ago… and today,” for “inaccuracies.” Among other things, he used a photo of bodies from the Buchenwald concentration camp at the end of World War II without documentation, leading readers to think they were seeing bodies from Deir Yassin (where, in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, rogue Israeli soldiers attacked a village).

Not only is his scholarship at times dubious, but Safi has a long track record of questionable behavior. In 2004, he falsely accused Middle East scholar Robert Spencer of threatening to kill him and his family -- a patently absurd claim. 

He is also given to profanity. One student warns about Safi on the Rate My Professors website, “Get used to F-bombs!” And after the Republicans took control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, Safi wrote the following poem, entitled “To NC Republicans seeking to establish an official state religion: Screw You.”

So all I have to say to you is this: Screw you.
Screw you and your prejudice.
Screw you and your moronic arrogance.
Screw you and your bigotry.

Safi is also given to making dubious moral equivalences to present Israel and the United States in as bad a light as possible. For one, the article on Deir Yassin made the argument that the Israelis were conducting the same sort of systematic genocide as the Nazis did, when the killing of Muslim civilians in 1948 was a spontaneous act by a rogue military unit in wartime, which the Israelis immediately condemned and apologized for.

It should be clear from all these incidents -- and more -- that Safi lacks both a scholarly temperament and respect for the truth. That would not be much of a problem if the bad scholarship of Safi and the other DISC apologists disappeared into obscure academic journals to be ignored forever.

Yet Safi is already widely sought as a commentator on Islamic matters, having appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, and elsewhere. Now he could go even higher by following the path already established by Abdullah Antepli, Duke’s first Imam.

Antepli’s appointment -- just like Safi’s – was hailed in the mainstream press. Yet in his first year as Imam he held an event in which the speakers justified violence by Palestinians against Israel and rejected any solution for Palestine and Israel other than a single state with equal voting rights. (The participants’ positions were known long before the event occurred.)

Over the years, Antepli has grown smoother in presenting a moderate front as somebody who wishes to blend American and Islamic cultures without provocation. By doing so, he has managed to climb the ladder of influence in liberal academic and political circles to where he is now an advisor on the Middle East to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Another member of this new wave of Islamist apologists at Duke is miriam cooke, an Arabic professor and the wife of Bruce Lawrence, DISC’s founding director. She is a leading proponent of the theory that Islam empowers women. If women are treated badly in Islam, according to cooke, it is the fault of the West through colonialism and globalization. “When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women,” she wrote in 2003.

“The colonial experience complicated relations between men and women, so that it is only in the desert beyond the reach of the colonial arm that fear does not predominate and Islam can operate as it was originally intended for the benefit of women,” she claims, in denial of the fact that the current relations between the sexes in Islam were spelled out many centuries before Europe become the dominant power in the world.

Certainly cooke’s opinions might come from gullibility mixed with romantic wishful thinking. But in 2007, she participated in a rally calling for the exoneration of Sami al-Arian, “a former University of South Florida professor who pled guilty to conspiring to aid Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization.”

With its growing roster of major Islamist apologists, DISC is likely to gain further influence, potentially affecting both national policy and culture with devastating effects. Their claims need intense scrutiny: whether the Islamic “scholars” of DISC are unintentional dupes or deliberate subversives, their words should not just be accepted on face value.

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