As an academic discipline, Islamic Studies had a political father and a spiritual mother. Political in that colonizing governments sought to understand the peoples they ruled over for more effective control. Spiritual in that Christian missionaries needed to understand Islam in forging conversion strategies.
Emergent identity pride appeared in the Muslim world in the wake of World War II and imperial withdrawal. Post-colonial intellectuals concluded that Muslims were victims of European ignorance, a notion most artfully elaborated in Palestinian-American literature professor Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism. Guilt-ridden western academics eagerly embraced the new rules, which said that criticism of Western religions was to be encouraged, while Islam was (until 9/11) seen as largely off limits.
Muslim groups — some with an Islamist agenda that envisioned the introduction of shariah into Western cultures — started funding marriages between Islamic Studies programs and prestigious universities. In some cases, university administrators turned a blind eye to the content of these programs.
Andrew Bieszad, who graduated with a master's degree from Hartford Seminary's Islamic Studies, the oldest such program in America, wrote a disturbing account of his 2007-2010 sojourn there for the National Association of Scholars blog. He described many episodes in which Islam and other faiths were held to very different standards in classroom discussions.
In one "interfaith dialogue" class, for example, Bieszad said, "I am Catholic and I do not believe in Islam." Following this, according to Bieszad's account, "one of the Muslim students spoke. She said that she was Muslim, and then she addressed me directly. In a soft, Arabic accented voice, she told me, 'You are an infidel because you do not accept Islam' and that 'according to Islam you do not deserve to live.' A second Muslim student heartily agreed.' "
Bieszad reports that when he brought such incidents to the attention of the administration, he was told that he was "intolerant of Muslims," and that the best solution was a better "understanding of Islam."
"Not a single classmate, Muslim or non-Muslim, ever spoke up in support of my opinion, even on the principle that different views should be respected," Bieszad writes.
One of Bieszad's professors at Hartford was a certain Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian Muslim convert born and raised in Kitchener, Ont. Last week, it was announced that Dr. Mattson had been named inaugural Chair of the new Islamic Studies program at Canada's own Huron College, a faculty of theology affiliated with the University of Western Ontario. This appointment ups the ante on controversy already swirling over the Chair's funding. Much of the $2-million endowment was provided by two organization — the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) and the Virginia-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) — both of which are alleged to be influenced by Islamist ideology.
In a press release about Mattson's appointment, Huron's Principal, Stephen McClatchie, spoke glowingly of her academic record and "impeccable credentials" for the job. But consider these aspects of Dr. Mattson's background.
z In 2006, as she notes on her own web site, Dr. Mattson was elected president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). This group has been described as a "key component of the [Saudi-sponsored] Wahhabi lobby" by Islam scholar Daniel Pipes. ISNA also was identified as an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 2007-2009 case of U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, which involved the covert financing of the terrorist group Hamas (though Dr. Mattson has not been accused of having had any involvement in any alleged illegal behviour).
z She has been disturbingly equivocal about Wahhabism, the repressive and backward strain of Sunni Islam that is the state creed in Saudi Arabia. In 2001, for instance, she told a CNN chat forum: "This is not a sect. It is the name of a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and rigid interpretation that had acquired over the centuries. It really was analogous to the European protestant reformation. Because the Wahhabi scholars became integrated into the Saudi state, there has been some difficulty keeping that particular interpretation of religion from being enforced too broadly on the population as a whole. However, the Saudi scholars who are Wahhabi have denounced terrorism."
z She has stated publicly that the best English-language Koranic commentary for Muslim youth is by Maulana Abul A'la Maududi, an Islamist author who wrote that "Islam wishes to destroy all States and Governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam."
z In commenting on the subject of "injustice," she lambastes the Taliban and the Israeli government in the same breath, because in both cases, people stood by as the two regimes perpetrated "oppression" — an odious juxtaposition, in my view.
Last spring, when I interviewed Huron's interim principal Trish Fulton by telephone and asked for her thoughts on accepting money from dubious organizations, she said, "We don't probe too deeply into values held by donors." At the very least, Huron College should probe the "values" held by the individual who will be shaping the Islamic Studies curriculum.