Richard T. Antoun, 77, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Binghamton University, was murdered in his office yesterday, stabbed four times with a 6-inch kitchen knife. This atrocity recalls that, in addition to the figurative brickbats that go with the subject, Middle East studies has a lethal edge.
Abdulsalam S. Al-Zahrani, a 46-year-old Saudi student working on a doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology, "Sacred Voice, Profane Sight: The Senses, Cosmology, and Epistemology in Early Arabic Culture," was charged with second-degree murder. Antoun sat on Zahrani's dissertation committee and the two knew each other. His motives are not yet surmised: the district attorney in Broome County, where the murder took place, asserted that there was "no indication of religious or ethnic motivation" in the killing. Roommates of the accused describe him as obsessed with death and of behaving "like a terrorist".
This is not the first murder of an American specialist on the Middle East:
The most parallel murder, of a professor by a Muslim student, was that of Ismail al Faruqi and his wife in 1986 by a convert named Yusuf Ali.
There was an attempt by Armenian nationalists to kill Stanford Shaw, then 47, of UCLA in 1977 by placing a bomb at his house.
- An earlier ex-president of the Middle East Studies Association was likewise murdered in his office by angry Arabs, that being Malcolm Kerr, 52, then president of the American University of Beirut who was shot and killed in 1984.
Turned around, a number of Middle East specialists have been implicated in terrorism, a subject I covered in 2003 at "Terrorist Profs" and "More Praise for 'Terrorist Profs': Mohamed Yousry." Also, there is at least one case of a Middle East specialist being convicted of murder, that being Mine Ener, 38, of Villanova University who took the life in 2003 of her five-month-old baby daughter with Down Syndrome, then a few weeks later committed suicide while in jail. (December 6, 2009)
Dec. 28, 2009 update: Over three weeks have passed since Antoun's murder and the media appear distinctly uninterested in Zahrani's background, personality, or motives. As a result of this lack of coverage, we cannot assess if Zahrani is or is not a jihadi. One way to hide terrorism, in other words, is to ignore an event, leaving observers like me without information to proclaim that it is. And so this horrid dead goes down the memory hole. Fortunately, Zahrani is alive and apprehended, so – unless he plea bargains or pleads guilty – his trial should offer a window into his actions.