On Halloween, when University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann agreed to be photographed at her annual costume party (at which she dressed as Glenda the Good Witch) with a student dressed as a suicide bomber, she acted as an independent moral agent. So did the student, Saad Saadi, whose exercise of poor judgment became a weapon in the hands of Penn's PR flacks, who callously sought to shift the blame from Gutmann to Saadi.
But neither Gutmann nor Saadi acted in a moral vacuum. In modern academe, and especially at elite schools like the Ivy League Penn, a morally aberrant atmosphere has for decades corroded standards of conduct and opened the door to actions that common sense and simple decency condemn. Behind this moral decline lies the long, steady politicization of the American university, in which learning has become the handmaiden of "progressive" ideologies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of Middle East studies.
In an era of worldwide conflict between civilized life and death-loving radical Islamist terrorism, Americans should expect learned men and women in university posts to address key problems — jihadism, extremist varieties of Islam, and suicide bombings — with an eye toward their defeat. After all, the freedom of conscience on which scholarship rests, as well as the civil society that makes university life possible, are directly threatened by radical Islamist ideologies that would happily replace Western pluralism with Sharia law.
Yet one looks in vain for such insights from a professoriate accustomed to reaping the benefits of a stable, affluent America while professing hatred for the virtues, habits and sacrifices necessary for the preservation of liberty. Few scholars of the Middle East bother to investigate thoroughly, much less condemn, radical Islamist terrorism.
A few examples from among many:
Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University has drawn a moral equivalency between suicide bombers and their victims. He was quoted in the New York Post as saying: "Israel has killed three times as many innocent civilians as have Palestinians, for all the media hysteria about suicide bombers. Killing civilians is a war crime, whoever does it, although resistance to Israeli occupation is legitimate in international law."
Bruce Lawrence of Duke has soft-pedaled the true meaning of jihad: "a jihad that would be a genuine struggle against our own myopia and neglect as much as it is against outside others who condemn or hate us for what we do, not for what we are. … For us Americans, the greater jihad would mean that we must review U.S. domestic and foreign policies in a world that currently exhibits little signs of promoting justice for all."
Omid Safi of Colgate, for example, has asked his students to report on persons who "contribute to a negative public presentation of Islam and/or Muslims," and helpfully provided the candidates: "unrepentant Orientalists, outright Islamophobes, Neo-conservatives, Western triumphalists, Christian Pentecostals, etc."
Duke professor Miriam Cooke blamed 9/11 not on the Western-educated, affluent perpetrators, but on the U.S. and Israel: "9-11 has a long history going back through the Gulf War to the establishment of Israel in 1948."
At this week's annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, the professional umbrella group for scholars of the field, only two presentations mention terrorism in their titles, and only then in looking at how the battle against terrorism affects Muslim societies: "Impact of September 11 on Civic Participation of Muslim Women," and (even more indirectly) "The Star, the Cross, and the Crescent: Politics, Religion and Terrorism in Myriam Antaki's Verses of Forgiveness."
Given this abdication of responsibility by those entrusted by the society that supports them to engage in research and teaching that would, if exercised competently, increase our security by adding to our understanding of the nature of our sworn enemy, the Gutmann affair loses some of its shock value.
Years of scholarship and pedagogy by professors more concerned with issuing apologias for evil-doers than exposing the true nature of their deeds have given us leaders who lack the will to staunch the ongoing decline of the modern university.
Until real suicide bombers are met with the same moral and intellectual opprobrium meted out to history's other odious actors, be they Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot, Klansmen, slave traders, or the guards at Auschwitz, we'll continue to pay a heavy price through a weakened ability to withstand the threats from violent jihadists.
No small number of those self-inflicted wounds will come from our unwillingness to instruct talented young people to discern right from wrong — even in matters as black and white as suicide bombings.
Winfield Myers is a member of The Examiner's Blog Board of Contributors and blogs at DemocracyProject.com and CampusWatch.org.