John Esposito, director of the Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, having observed that a large majority of Americans oppose an Islamic center at ground zero, could not decide whether American society now more closely resembles that of Birmingham, Alabama circa 1963 or Nazi Germany on the eve of Kristallnacht:
[Newt Gingrich is] somebody...from the South [who] can remember the problem of racism and civil rights. He's also reportedly a Christian.... He's got to remember how a theology of anti-Semitism led to a history of pogroms that ultimately led to the Final solution.
Such callous historical analogies were but one component of a concerted effort by a group of Middle East studies professors to discredit the opponents of the ground zero mosque, whom they helpfully labeled "rural rednecks," "so-called Christian ministers," and "the Israel lobbies."
Most of the academics echoed a warning that a "tidal wave of 'Islamophobia'" would soon overtake America -- act two of the "wave of hate crimes" that occurred "post-9/11." These statements ignore a basic fact: no such "wave" ever occurred. As columnist Jonah Goldberg writes, despite the rhetoric of the Left, statistics demonstrate this country is not particularly susceptible to "Islamophobia."
In 2001 (the year of 9/11), there were twice as many anti-Jewish incidents [in America] as there were anti-Muslim, according to the FBI. In 2002 and pretty much every year since, anti-Jewish incidents have outstripped anti-Muslim incidents by at least 6 to 1.
Undeterred by facts, these same academics offered spirited defenses of the "moderate" ground zero mosque Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf -- who called America an "accessory" to the 9/11 attacks and said Osama Bin-Laden was "made in the USA". What they rarely revealed is that their conception of a Muslim "moderate" is defined on a spectrum utterly alien to their American audience.
The prominent Egyptian sheikh, Yusuf al-Qardawi, sits at the center of the academics' spectrum. According to mosque supporter Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, Qardawi is a practitioner of wastataniyya or "centrism" and "a barometer of Muslim opinion." Esposito likewise calls Qardawi a "reformist". Rauf says the sheikh is "the most well-known legal authority in the whole Muslim world today."
The problem: Qardawi, as a "reformist" and exemplar of "centrist" Islam has said, for instance, that "[Hitler] put the Jews in their place," that homosexuality is an "abominable practice" which warrants the death penalty, and that women should be genitally mutilated to protect their chastity. Reassurances of Rauf's moderation ring hollow when this context becomes clear.
Although, according to these academics' definition of the spectrum of Muslim public opinion, one might expect that only fringe voices in the Islamic world would reject the mosque, in reality such prominent Muslims as Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, director-general of Al-Arabiya TV, oppose its construction. As al-Rashid, perhaps one of the best placed sources for analyzing popular opinion in the Arab-Islamic world, said:
I do not think that the majority of Muslims want to build a monument or a place of worship that tomorrow may become a source of pride for the terrorists and their Muslim followers.
But a genuine debate over the choice of location for the mosque, the radical connections of its leadership, and the opaque sources of its $100 million budget was apparently less edifying than painting all of the mosque's opponents as bigots. In the process, the academics revealed their own striking prejudices.
Richard Bulliet, professor of Islamic history at Columbia University, suggested one theory -- the malignant influence of Jewish paranoia.
I see [some of the opposition to the mosque] as linked to broad apprehensions, both in this country and in Israel that evil deeds...suspected of being a part of a Muslim master plan, pose an existential threat to the Jewish people.
The professor provided no evidence for his assertion, but perhaps he simply mixed-up the subject of the conspiracy theory he ridiculed: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which outlines a farcical Jewish "master plan" to rule the world, is a perennial best-seller in many parts of the Islamic world.
Moataz Abdel-Fattah, associate professor of Middle East Studies at Central Michigan University, took a swipe at Christians too, arguing that opposition to the mosque is rooted in "the theological bias of the Judeo-Christian tradition."
Muqtedar Khan, the director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware, chose to be vaguer, warning that "dark elements" have formed an alliterative "pernicious partnership between politics and prejudice." He added, "[This 'partnership's'] anger could manifest in myriad forms of discriminatory behavior towards Muslims."
Khan is an expert on "discriminatory behavior," having refused to sit on an academic panel with Israeli-American Scholar Asaf Romirowsky, because Romirowsky, like all citizens of the Jewish state, served in his country's armed forces.
Other scholars sought Khan's "myriad forms" of anti-Muslim behavior in an isolated incident in which the pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida called for burning the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The pastor was the subject of countless academics' editorials in which they stigmatized American society as "Islamophobic."
Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, was one such scholar; he warned in a CNN op-ed of "those promoting an orgy of Quran burning." Dabashi failed to mention that "those promoting" this "orgy" consisted of precisely one man, and that the state denied the pastor a permit necessary to do so.
Stephen Zunes, chairman of Middle East Studies at the University of San Francisco, told the Islamic Republic of Iran's state funded Press TV that, "We have seen [this pastor's] kind of extreme rhetoric for some time now," adding:
If you really look at Western history, you can see scapegoat[ed] minorities.... It shows an ugly aspect of Western societies despite claims of religious pluralism.
This "ugl[iness]" is obviously a uniquely Western phenomenon, since in enlightened "Eastern societies" like Iran Jews historically were not allowed to leave their homes when it rained because they were considered polluted, practicing Baha'is are still regularly arrested without pretense and -- of course -- "there are no gays."
Esposito seconded Zune's bizarre theme of America's exceptional intolerance in the eyes of the Islamic world, telling his American audience that opposition to the ground zero mosque "stunned...the vast majority of Muslims." Muslims living under the rule of Esposito's Saudi sponsors must be "stunned" by Americans' opposition to the construction of a thirteen-story Islamic center at ground zero, considering the erection of the most humble synagogue or church anywhere in Saudi Arabia is prohibited and non-Muslims may not even enter the cities of Mecca or Medina.
If you find yourself asking why the defenders of the ground zero mosque keep recycling hyperbolic accusations of bigotry, listen to the analysis of many of our nation's "leading" Middle East studies scholars. Their attempts to characterize all opposition to the mosque as examples of "Islamophobia" ignore the complicated emotions evoked by the 9/11 attacks and the genuine concerns of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike over the mosque's fundraising, location, and the radical connections of its leadership. Finally, if one must embrace these professors' infatuation with perceived prejudices, then associating "centrist" Muslims with homophobes, misogynists and anti-Semites -- while embracing conspiratorial charges against "so-called Christian ministers," "rural rednecks" and "the theological bias of the Judeo-Christian tradition" -- seems to fit the very definition of bigotry.
Brendan Goldman, a member of New York University's class of 2010, earned a B.A. in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.