Islamists Find Willing Allies in U.S. Universities

Two graduate students and two undergraduates recalled personally experiencing the July 15, 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government at a December 7, 2016, Georgetown University panel, before a youthful audience of about fifty. As crews from Turkey’s TRT Haber television network and Anadolu Agency (AA) filmed/recorded, the panelists praised the coup’s popular foiling as a democratic victory, irrespective of Erdogan’s dangerous Islamist policies.

Such willful blindness mirrors that of other American-educated Middle East studies scholars whose actions and pronouncements lend a veneer of legitimacy to Erdogan’s dictatorial policies, including mass purges and arrests of academics and teachers throughout Turkey. Erdogan’s personal spokesman is Ibrahim Kalin, a George Washington University Ph.D. who serves as a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Saudi-funded Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He joined Juan Cole of Michigan, Cemil Aydin of UNC Chapel Hill (Harvard Ph.D.) at an October 2016 conference in Istanbul even as innocent educators languished in prison or faced academic ruin.

Islamism certainly colored the experiences of the panel’s two graduate students, Harvard University Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations doctoral student Rushain Abbasi and his wife Safia Latif, who were in Istanbul during the attempted coup. Abbasi is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-affiliated Muslim Students Association and a former teacher at the Boston Islamic Seminary, an affiliate of another MB group, the Muslim American Society. His previous writing stereotypically attributed Islamist violence to the “histories of colonialism, imperialism, and economic exploitation that still plague the non-Western world,” maintaining, “[i]t is not the texts of Islam . . . that are in need of reform.”

Latif, a Boston University doctoral student in religious studies who earned an M.A. in Middle East studies from the University of Texas, was like-minded. She previously participated in a conference chaired by the notorious Islamist and UC-Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian at California’s Zaytuna College. Having witnessed Egyptians in 2013 overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi, she despaired of the same thing happening in Turkey. “To see another democratically elected government with an ostensible Islamist president fall was almost too much to bear. My first reaction was a religious one; I took to the prayer mat and I began praying for the Turkish people.”

Latif blasted the “shameful Western reactions to the coup,” such as media reports of its popular support and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeting that Turks are “taking their country back!” She complained that after the coup, a “lot of the media focus was on political grievances against Erdogan, him consolidating [sic] power, [and] his authoritarian, totalitarian, dictatorial nature,” all of which are, in fact, critical concerns under Erdogan’s Islamist rule. Instead, she blamed the West, claiming that it “doesn’t support democracy and freedom overseas, especially when Islamists are in power,” as “it seems to threaten the universality of the West and its political hegemony.”

Abbasi agreed: “If the coup was successful, we would be very happy” in America. In contrast to reporting on coup casualties, “all the headlines the next day I had seen were about freedom of speech and Erdogan. What are we talking about?” he asked, implying that free speech is trivial.

His comments about the American-based Turkish Muslim leader Fethullah Gülen, who is widely considered (albeit without any evidence) in Turkey and among the panelists as the coup instigator, were intriguing. Many of his friends became religious through the Gülen movement, but left after having “realized the cult nature of the group” and “the hidden motivation, essentially setting up a parallel state, which was displayed on that night” of the coup. The Gülen movement has a “nice veneer to it, but there is very kind of dark underside to a lot of it, in the same way that so many colonial regimes set up schools,” he said, referring to the movement’s worldwide private school network.

Unanimously expressing relief at the coup’s failure, the panelists showed a misplaced optimism in Turkey’s future under Erdogan, whose threats to democracy remained unmentioned. Latif gushed about seeing “Turks defeat the coup across the entire political and religious spectrum” without the slightest indication of dissent from or dissatisfaction with Erdogan. Likewise, after the coup Abbasi emailed to his friends worldwide that “we are essentially going out every night and partying with Turks” amid a “huge sense of camaraderie and brotherhood.” Social media reports demonstrated to him that “every single person was inspired that night in other Muslim countries,” although it’s unclear whether a supposed victory for liberty or for Erdogan’s Islamism was the inspiration.

The Georgetown panel, sponsored by the university’s Turkish student organization, marked another chapter in the hagiographic apologetics for Erdogan’s Islamism prevalent in American Middle East studies. Hypercritical of the West’s established democracies but indifferent about majority-Muslim countries like Turkey rapidly losing any remaining vestiges of democracy, the panelists exposed their pious confidence in Islamism. They were oblivious to why some informed observers, including Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes, rooted for the coup.

Abbasi described his visit to a mosque the morning following the rebellion. The “salawat, the prayers of the prophet, were being sent out from all the mosques, and it was a very inspiring feeling.” Yet any attempt to combine the panelists’ faith with freedom in countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Abbasi’s native Pakistan will require critical self-reflection, not disdain for the West and its freedoms.

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.