David Cook, Professor of Religion at Rice University in Houston, is author of, among other works, Understanding Jihad, has written for the Middle East Quarterly, and is a member of the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch Advisory Board. Cook spoke to a March 11 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview conducted by Winfield Myers, director of the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch project, about the "problems of teaching the history of Islam in the modern university."
Cook spoke about accusations of "Islamophobia" meant to silence many in academia who attempt to teach honestly about the history of the Middle East and Islam. He made clear that because "Rice is a pretty moderate university," he has not experienced the kind of political attacks that can derail one's career. Cook's "winning formula" as a professor is to be "Islamo-critical" while also "maintaining relationships with Muslims on a teaching level."
Most challenging are the "hostile reviews" he undergoes for his books at the "pre-publishing level," tarring him as "the worst type of Orientalist." Myers explained that the term originated with the late Edward Said, whose 1978 book Orientalism claimed that "his predecessors and peers [were] racists and orientalists," and who viewed Islam with "a Western imperialist mode."
Even though, according to Cook, Said has "long passed on," his methodologies – which he finds "beyond the pale" – are "extremely prevalent inside Middle Eastern studies." He said that Said's influence is a "major problem" for students entering the field and believes one of the casualties of the "Saidian critique" of his field is that "Jewish students are more reluctant to actually study the world of Islam." Because he finds its politicization "beyond the pale," Cook is no longer a member of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the umbrella organization for the field that ironically claims to defend academic freedom.
Because of this politicization, Cook says it's difficult for students drawn to Middle East Studies who reject the Saidian approach to "develop the thick skin that they need in order to weather all the way through it." Nevertheless, he wants to "make a plea for people to do just that." "I can't say that it's an easy thing to want to do," he adds, because "you have to go through a lot of insults, a lot of times you have to swallow your tongue" and develop "very thick skin."
But "the only way to recover the profession is for people" to "weather the storm and to come out on the other side." And despite all the drawbacks, "this is still an incredibly rewarding field," Cooks says; "I have no regrets."
Cook said the Middle East studies programs that are more likely to produce a student that can "come out as a reasonable person" are the "traditional" programs at the University of Chicago and Princeton. On the other hand, Cook said "I can't say that I would even look at somebody coming out of Columbia; it's over." Asked about Georgetown University, he said some faculty there "revile my name." Taking it all in stride, he quipped "I don't have any major problems with it."
Cook: professors who are "inquisitorial" in their disagreements with others are impossible to deal with.
Cook said Middle East studies has changed in the last three to four decades and is now at a "low point," but he maintains it is not "immutable" and can be improved in the future. He distinguishes professors who are on the "other side" politically from the "inquisitorial other side." "It's the people that are inquisitorial that I really cannot deal with," he says. They are oppositional and "there's no way you're ever going to win [them] over."
Asked how those both on and off-campus can protect academic freedom, Cook advises "holding these guys to their own rules," a tactic he deems "the most useful." His real target, he says, is "the vast majority of people who haven't really taken a side yet. Those are the people you want to influence." Many of these people's "little bugaboos can just be dismissed" Cook advises, "just by looking at the sources" historians use in their work.
For example, among the problems Cook encounters when teaching about Islam is students' ignorance about historical facts such as Muslim slavery. Apologists insist slavery is "some sort of uniquely Western phenomenon." He corrects them by "acquainting people with the sources," which challenges "historical lies."
Postmodernist academics display a level of nihilism that prevents any rational discussion.
Not one to shy away from thorny topics in his area of expertise, Cook said he can "give as good as he gets" when challenged, but is frustrated attempting to engage with the "postmodernist" academic who denies established historical fact. Such people display a "level of nihilism" that prevents any rational discussion.
The ubiquitous term "Islamophobia" is so prevalent in the "generation of students" Cook teaches that he must start at a basic level of "different definitions" of the term in order to challenge assumptions. He discusses the "different contradictions, and in some cases, ludicrousness of these definitions." Despite his effort to build relationships with local mosques, the imams falsely consider him to be "Islamophobic." He is more successful with Muslim groups that are not part of the "mainstream," such as Ahmadis and Ismailis.
Cook's academic critics attack him most often for his methodology – no surprise since he believes firmly that "Islam should be subjected to the same sort of criticism that Christianity or Judaism is subjected to" and that Islam or Muslims should not have "some sort of privileged position." While he maintains good relations with Muslims he teaches, he rejects "the methodological point" that "Islam needs to be protected in some way." Cook examines Islamic sources rigorously and is particular about "linguistic knowledge" in teaching the Quran and the tafsir [exegesis]. His standard, for the most part, protects him from "charges of Islamophobia" because the Muslims on campus "ask me questions that their imams and their parents won't answer."
Cook said in spite of its problems, Middle East studies is "still an incredibly rewarding field. I have no regrets"
Cook, who has had "harsh debates," recounted an experience at the University of Minnesota when he presented to Muslim students fatwas [Islamic legal ruling] in support of suicide attacks that were issued by "mainstream ulema [Muslim scholars in Islamic law and theology] during the 1990s and early 2000s." The students denigrated his information, but when Cook refuted them with evidence, "they began to be pretty demonstrative." "In the end," he said, "I've always come out of it."
Myers summed up Cook's advice for students who are in the field of Middle East Studies: "Keep your eyes on pursuing the truth that the sources lead you to. Don't let the powers that be dissuade you." Cook concurred, noting that despite its problems, "this is still an incredibly rewarding field. I have no regrets."