Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) will be hosting a conference on October 23 that asks the loaded question: "Is There a Role for Shari'ah in Modern States?"
The Saudi-funded ACMCU and its founding director, John Esposito, one of the foremost apologists for radical Islam in the academic field of Middle East studies, have certainly been doing their bit to make the idea more palatable.
The Saudi prince for whom ACMCU was named has been pumping millions of dollars into Middle East studies at Georgetown, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and beyond, and as the case of Esposito demonstrates, it magnifies the voices of scholars with a decidedly uncritical bent. As a result, ACMCU analysis regarding Sharia (or Islamic) law tends to focus not on its injustices (amputation, stoning, hanging, honor killing, punishment for blasphemy, execution of apostates, persecution of non-Muslims, sanctioned wife-beating, female genital mutilation, and so on), but rather on repackaging it in ways that will appeal to Western sensibilities. The concept of a more "moderate" version of Sharia law that is compatible with democracy is at the forefront of this effort.
While it's difficult to predict exactly what will take place at the upcoming ACMCU conference, the fact that Esposito will present the opening remarks provides considerable insight into the politics of the event.
Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, a book co-authored by Esposito and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies Dalia Mogahed, has been widely criticized for its blatant inaccuracies and attempts to whitewash anti-Western and extremist sentiment in the Muslim world. Accordingly, Sharia law is framed in a non-threatening fashion. As Robert Satloff put it in the Weekly Standard:
…Amazing as it sounds, according to Esposito and Mogahed, the proper term for a Muslim who hates America, wants to impose Sharia law, supports suicide bombing, and opposes equal rights for women but does not "completely" justify 9/11 is . . . "moderate."
At the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" blog earlier this year, Esposito referenced his book as a means of downplaying concerns over support for Sharia law in the Muslim world:
…for many any mention of Shariah is often equated facilely with Taliban-like laws. In fact, as the Gallup World Poll shows, majorities of mainstream Muslims (women as well as men) want some form of Shariah, religious values, as a source of law. This sentiment is not all that different from a majority of Americans who want to see the Bible as a source of legislation. (See Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think)
But comparing Sharia law under a dictatorial or clerical regime to biblical inspiration in a secular, democratic nation is like comparing apples and oranges. Yet this is precisely the kind of moral equivalency one expects from Esposito at the ACMCU conference.
Providing further cause for concern, keynote speaker and Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman is a notorious champion of Sharia law. In a March, 2008 New York Times Magazine article on the subject, Feldman claimed:
In fact, for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world. Today, when we invoke the harsh punishments prescribed by Shariah for a handful of offenses, we rarely acknowledge the high standards of proof necessary for their implementation.
…At its core, Shariah represents the idea that all human beings — and all human governments — are subject to justice under the law.
Reviewing Feldman's latest book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Jonathan Schanzer elaborates on this disturbing thesis:
Feldman's central premise is that the scholars of early and medieval Islam were guardians of justice. These independent scholars, he argues, kept the all-powerful caliph in line by judiciously ensuring that his decrees were in accordance with Shari'a law. The proper application of Shari'a ensured fair governance. Thus, Feldman claims, resurrecting the scholarly class is needed today.
Yet Feldman's book, Schanzer concludes, "fails to convince the informed reader that Islamic law and democracy are destined for marriage."
In an aptly titled piece on Feldman's scholarship, "Shilling for Sharia at Harvard," Hillel Stavis warns that "it can only be a matter of time before the professor, having asserted that Sharia law is desirable, will assure us that its introduction in the United States is inevitable."
Considering recent developments in Britain, the inevitability of Sharia law may not just be an abstraction. As reported last week by The Times Online:
Islamic law has been officially adopted in Britain, with sharia courts given powers to rule on Muslim civil cases.
The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence.
Rulings issued by a network of five sharia courts are enforceable with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court.
Melanie Phillips, writing for National Review Online, notes the role of Saudi funding and Middle East studies in furthering this process:
Even thought itself is being Islamized, with academic objectivity in the teaching of Islam and Middle East studies set aside in favour of indoctrination and propaganda. An as-yet-unpublished report by Prof. Anthony Glees says that extremist ideas are being spread by Islamic study centers linked to British universities and backed by multi-million-pound donations from Saudi Arabia and Muslim organizations. Professor Glees says, ‘Britain's universities will have to generate two national cultures: one non-Muslim and largely secular, the other Muslim. We will have two identities, two sets of allegiance and two legal and political systems.
Britain can serve as a cautionary tale for the West. Scholars who downplay the threats to democratic societies posed by the encroachments of Sharia law, and push a sanitized, idealized version thereof, may one day help usher in our worst nightmare.
Now there's a subject that would make for a truly groundbreaking Middle East studies conference.
Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.