Princeton University professor Robert P. George lauded Imam Hamza Yusuf, the radical president of Berkeley, California's Zaytuna College, as "my beloved friend, my brother" at a recent Georgetown University day-long conference. George, a Catholic conservative luminary, was disturbingly uncritical of the Islamic apologetics that suffused the "keynote conversation" for "Muslim Minorities and Religious Freedom: A Public Dialogue."
Before an audience of about 120 in the Rafik Hariri Building's Fisher Colloquium, George emphasized ecumenical cooperation among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, notwithstanding the latter's assaults worldwide on non-Muslims. These "laborers in the same vineyard" have "common values," such as combatting pornography, an issue that, in the past, brought George and Yusuf together. Thus George at Jesuit Georgetown referenced Vatican II's Nostra Aetate with its praise of Muslims as fellow monotheists.
George noted that conference speaker Jennifer Bryson, an Arabic and Islam specialist, had found "laptop computers stuffed with pornography" among captured Guantanamo Bay terrorists. This contradicted for him the idea that increased Islamic piety incites jihadist violence. Yusuf concurred with George, pointing to his "defilement theory of terrorism" under which to "blow yourself up" is the "ultimate restoration" for Muslims consumed by sins of the flesh. Both speakers' analysis ignores the Islamic doctrine that martyrdom cleanses all sin and provides the only assurance of paradise, a teaching not incompatible with sexual vice.
Catholic school alumnus and founding director of Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, John Esposito, complemented George and Yusuf's claims with his customary apologetics. Esposito's past research purported to show that jihadist recruitment "drivers . . . were not primarily religious" but involved "underlying political issues," with Islam being merely the "legitimator" and "motivator." He did not explain how, for instance, Muslim aggression against Iraqi Christians or by Iran against Israel results from rational controversies, not Islamic sectarianism.
Esposito bemoaned the alleged "growth of Islamophobia" in the U.S., which he claimed is "almost a part of the fabric of our society," with "hardline Christians" being the "most Islamophobic." These Christians "bypass the incredible number of passages in the Old Testament" referencing violent prophets, yet criticize Islamic canonical accounts of wars waged by Islam's prophet Muhammad. This tired false analogy overlooks traditional Islamic understandings of Muhammad's commands to violence as eternally valid, unlike the Old Testament's singular events.
Echoing George's analysis, Esposito discerned among these same Christians "family values that are very close to what Muslims emphasize," ignoring Islam's less wholesome "family values," such as polygamy. Indeed, evidence indicates that some Muslims in Western societies might welcome a homosexual redefinition of marriage as a precursor to acceptance of Islamic polygamy. George would not be pleased.
Yusuf presented an undeservedly benign understanding of Islamic doctrine, pronouncing Islam's prophet Muhammad "profoundly concerned about . . . all human beings." Thus, he claimed, the "violent transformation" of the "Muslim world is really very alien to . . . scholastic Islam," a "very odious" Saudi Arabian global promotion of its "type of Islam" notwithstanding. Intoning a popular academic talking point, he alleged "a lot of similarity" between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and "thousands of beheadings . . . south of our border" perpetrated by drug cartels. Yet, "we are not invading Mexico," he added, as if ISIS merely consisted of greedy criminals with no explicitly stated designs on the wider world.
Yusuf praised Muslim Brotherhood-linked Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah as "one of the preeminent scholars of jurisprudence" in Islam, despite his extremism, including calls for violence against Israel and American forces in Iraq. With respect to "blaspheming" against Islam provoking violence, he warned ominously that, "if you push buttons in certain cultures . . . see what happens." "Religious identity and racial identity have great similarities," he added, while reprising his previous advocacy of restricting criticism of Islam, an idea, as if it were an ethnicity exposed to prejudice. Prompted by George's reference to Iranian "theocracy," Yusuf astonishingly called it a "completely alien term to the Islamic tradition." He conceded that a "relationship obviously to the religion" existed in Islamic governance, but explained that Muslim rulers always recognized their fallibility, as if this somehow negated defining faith-based Muslim rule as theocratic.
Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Yusuf argued, the eclectic leftist intellectual Ali Shariati "redacted Islam completely . . . into basically a religious Marxist ideology." He portrayed this one revolutionary, whose beliefs are analogous to Liberation Theology in Christianity, as more influential in the Islamic Republic of Iran's development than all the Shiite ayatollahs. For Yusuf, Shariati manifested how "Marxism had a massive impact on Islam," with the Muslim Brotherhood being a "good example," as if adaptions of Marxist elements replaced Islamic ideology. Volumes by Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation) Yusuf saw as a child in Berkeley, California, "look just like Chairman Mao books," he explained, therefore attributing aggressive and authoritarian elements in Islam to foreign influence.
Yusuf and Esposito's dubious, misleading, and ahistorical apologias for Islam suffused the panel, while George's understandable desire for ecumenical outreach with Muslims precluded critique. Yet, as fellow Catholic and oft-accused (by Esposito, for example) "Islamophobe" Robert Spencer has extensively analyzed, real religious dialogue demands a firm foundation of truth, however inconvenient. By contrast, blind acceptance of George's interfaith friend Yusuf can only create the illusion of mutual understanding. The resulting mirage will surely fade.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.