On September 18, 2014, the day that Yemen-born Mufid Elfghee, also known as the "Rochester man," was indicted in federal court for being an ISIS recruiter, the University of Rochester hosted a lecture with the intriguing title, "Interrogating Islamic Masculinities." The flyer for University of Miami assistant professor Amanullah De Sondy's lecture stated:
Rigid notions of masculinity are causing crisis [sic] in the global Islamic community. These are articulated from the Qu'ran, its commentary, historical precedents and societal, religious and familial obligations. This lecture will interrogate this global gender and sexual crisis as we attempt to understand Islam and Muslims in the world today.
The juxtaposition of Elfghee's indictment and De Sondy's lecture is an apt emblem of the profession's increasing insularity and abandonment of the American public. While radicals recruit their fellow Americans to join a murderous, misogynistic army dedicated to ethnically cleansing much of the Middle East under the banner of a restored Caliphate, Middle East studies professors continue their decades-long descent into politicized and trivial scholarship.
An actual "interrogation" of Islamic concepts of the masculine holds great potential for understanding current events: the psycho-sexual angst of the ISIS beheaders; homosexuality among the ostensibly homophobic Taliban; the phenomenon of "honor killings" among Muslim communities; the rash of child sexual exploitation by Pakistani men in the town of Rotherham, England; the confused sexual ambiguity of jihadi rapists.
Yet appearances can deceive, and it quickly became clear that De Sondy would pose no challenging questions, nor would he defy the political correctness that he and other conformists depend on for acceptance, tenure, and grant money. Instead, to a very sparse audience of five faculty members and fourteen students, he proffered an obligatory critique of the West, which De Sondy claimed is "capable only of cardboard cut-out stereotypes of Islam"; an equally-requisite praise of Edward Said's discredited, anti-Western ideology on colonialism and "Orientalism"; and evasion of topics that cast Islam in a negative light, a characteristic of far too much Western academic writing—for example: "The Koran is a perfectly ambiguous, disjointed text. It can say whatever you want it to say."
De Sondy used the term "political Islam," although he seemed to believe it was invented by Jamaat-i-Islami founder Sayyid Abu al Mawdudi (1903-1979). His apologia for Mawdudi included the claim that he "was reacting against colonial powers" and that "imprisonment made him more religious." In truth, as founder of a terrorist group, Mawdudi deserves some, though certainly not all, of the blame for the surge of militant Islam in the twentieth century. Ultimately De Sondy failed to explore the roots of Mawdudi's ideas or to acknowledge that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is the primary model for Islamic masculinity and Islamic gender relations. Indeed, he focused more attention on the Old Testament figures of Adam and Joseph than on Muhammad.
De Sondy's brief foray into "Muslim Feminist Hermeneutics" was a near-incoherent mixture of jargon and accusation. He argued that Muslim feminist critics such as Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, and Asra Nomani are incapable of seeing "through their own hetero-normative experiences" in "the failed search for a single Koranic masculinity."
The Q&A portion consisted mainly of faculty members trying to fill the uncomfortable silence with comments. The only student who participated, a young woman, noted that all of De Sondy's examples of feminist Muslims live in the West where they can write without fearing for their lives. She then asked him to explain the widespread abuse endured by women in the Muslim world. Momentarily shaken, De Sondy claimed, incredibly, that "a lot of women are happy with the patriarchal model." Before anyone could object, he was saved by a faculty member who claimed falsely, "when they have a chance to vote, Muslims simply don't vote for Islamists." This Middle East specialist was apparently unaware that Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AK Party have been winning elections in Turkey since 2002, steadily whittling away the nation's Kemalist secularism; that Hamas swept the 2006 elections in Gaza; and that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won Egypt's 2012 presidential election.
In stark contrast to the important Rochester news of the day, De Sondy's lecture on "Islamic masculinities" epitomized a common and unfortunate Liberal Arts proclivity for examining trivial matters in great detail while missing—either by ignoring or avoiding—far more significant ones. It also poignantly illustrated what Martin Kramer has described as the field's "cultivation of irrelevance" whereby "the new mandarins" overseeing Middle Eastern studies have "rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology." Nothing at this event contradicted Kramer's decade-old description.
A.J. Caschetta is a Senior Lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Fellow of the Middle East Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was written for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.