Audience members in the packed Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium just down the block from Columbia University might have been gratified to see hijabs and yarmulkes adorning the heads of Muslims and Jews coming together for interfaith dialogue on the evening of October 25. The title of the event, "Islam in America: Assimilation and Authenticity," drew a large, mixed crowd, perhaps three hundred strong, eager for interreligious conversation. The anticipation of imams and rabbis in reserved front seats, or students filling other rows to the brim, was understandable -- isn't this, after all, the conversation Muslims and members of other faiths need to start having?
This optimism at the prospect of dialogue between mainstream Muslim organizations and their Jewish and Christian counterparts resurfaces often, and rarely for good reason. Monday night was no exception.
The event, a joint project of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Islamic Society of North America, featured several high-profile speakers, including JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen; the Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, President of the Union Theological Seminary across the street from JTS; and two familiar faces from ISNA's side: Ingrid Mattson, the immediate past president of ISNA who moderated the panel and said little, and Sherman Jackson, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Michigan and a convert to Islam who specializes in Islamic law and the black Muslim-American experience.
ISNA, an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terror trial, has a history of doublespeak when it comes to religious dialogue. The panel's moderator, Mattson, also has a troubling history. She presided over a number of embarrassing ISNA gaffes, including her own claim that Fort Hood murderer Major Nidal Hasan was "not the responsibility of the Muslim community," and an anti-Semitic imam's rant given at an annual ISNA conference. Mattson also once claimed rather ludicrously on CNN that Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Wahhabism is a "reformist ideology, like the Protestant Reformation." She even teaches students at Hartford Seminary the radical writings of Sayyid Qutb, an inspiration to radical jihadists across the globe, as an example of "how the Qur'an functions as sacred scripture in Muslim history and contemporary life." Jackson, for his part, has expressed extreme views, sometimes toning them down for particular audiences, sometimes not bothering.
The JTS audience was treated to friendly faces speaking friendly words, a tactic that made Jackson's subversive approach easy to miss. For example, following Chancellor Eisen's call for religious pluralism grounded in authentic faith, Jackson ostensibly agreed, citing a Qur'anic source. His example was perhaps reassuring to those unfamiliar with the Qur'an:
The Prophet Muhammad ... when he was forced out of Mecca to Medina, there was a standing Jewish community in Medina. And the Prophet himself was responsible for promulgating and putting together a document called the Constitution of Medina. The document said the following: "We Muslims, and we Jews, and even we pagans here in Medina, will enter into a pact to protect the sanctity of Medina as the home of us all."
A nice story, evoking good old constitutional democracy and religious pluralism. Yet Jackson skipped the part of the story where Jews are ethnically cleansed from Medina, and one of their tribes, the Banu Qurayza, are beheaded en masse. Jackson called his story a "precedent" for interreligious cooperation. The Jews of Medina and Khaybar probably would not agree.
Jackson's other comments echo earlier statements he has made to the effect that assimilation of Muslims into American society is neither possible nor desirable; rather, they should be "indigenized." This is academia's way of saying that the only way Muslims will comfortably join American society is if the latter morphs to accommodate Islam. He believes that black Muslims and immigrant Muslims view any "assimilation" as "capitulation," behavior befitting an "Uncle Tom."
When pressed by an audience member during a question-and-answer session on whether, like the Christian panelist Jones, he ever feels his religion has been "hijacked," Jackson lapsed into predictable apologetics. Yes, he admits, some Muslims have committed atrocities, but Islam has been "mediatized." We don't hear, he said, about all the progress of the Muslim world. He asserted, rather absurdly, that most of the Gama'at Islamiya, a group he claimed was responsible for assassinating Anwar Sadat (this remains unclear, with Egyptian Islamic jihad usually assigned responsibility), have repented of their actions and committed themselves to fighting terrorism theologically. While some terrorists have indeed been released from Egyptian prisons for good behavior, Aymen al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command, seems pretty convinced that a renewed alliance with the Gama'at Islamiya is alive and well.
The entire panel avoided discussion of the most substantive issues in need of address: ubiquitous anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, the rising popularity of jihadi ideologies, and radicalism spreading through the ranks of even American Muslims (no surprise, when Muslim Brotherhood affiliates like the Muslim Student Association and ISNA are the "moderates" engaging in "dialogue"). Instead, the audience was treated to evasions and honey-tipped words from disturbing figures with troubling histories.
Was this the beginning of true interfaith dialogue between moderate Muslims and members of other Abrahamic faiths? Or was it yet another duplicitous moment in the lives of radical Muslim professors? In the final analysis, it seems that on Monday night, "authenticity" was absent.
Alan Jacobs is a student of Middle Eastern studies in New York. This essay was written for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.