Board chairs and staff of host organizations didn't always begin conferences by hurling insults at audience members. But it's an annual ritual for Nader Hashemi, chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and professor of Middle East studies at the University of Denver. For the second straight year, Hashemi used his opening remarks at CSID's annual conference to accuse this reporter of being "a member of the Islamophobia industry." CSID staffer Mongi Dhaouadi later added that CSID does not consider its annual conference a success unless this author attends.
Held last month at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., CSID's yearly gathering also repeated its tired apologias for political Islam and downplayed the ideology's influence in the Middle East and North Africa before an audience of sixty. This doubtless pleased such attendees as Muslim Brotherhood (MB) allies Ermin Sinanović and Hisham Altalib from Herndon, Virginia's International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), and former Egyptian parliamentarian Abdel Mawgoud al-Dardery from the MB's flagship Egyptian branch, who came for the luncheon panel. Dale Sprusansky, assistant editor of the Israel-hating Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and Marymount University Professor Daniel Tutt, who expelled this author from a past conference, also attended.
After Hashemi's introduction, in which he remarked on Muslim-majority countries' "really disappointing landscape" for democracy, he moderated a panel on "rivalry between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia." Ignoring past Shiite-Sunni discussions about a recurring history of intra-Muslim conflicts, he rejected a "standard narrative" about a "seemingly intractable hatred between the two dominant sects of Islam that go back to the seventh century." Even as jihadists rage in Syria's sectarian strife, he maintained one of his stock claims that the conflict "is really about power and not piety."
Hashemi found it disturbing that even in the Middle East "increasingly, constituent groups, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, buy into this idea" of sectarianism. Apparently, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and other Iranian Shiite proxies find inspiration not in realpolitik, but in Iran's self-proclaimed jihadist theocracy. To "de-sectarianize the politics of the Middle East" is fundamental to Middle East democracy promotion, a goal he absurdly suggested would receive Iranian support.
Similarly, Hashemi's fellow panelist, National Iranian American Council (NIAC) President and lobbyist for the Islamic Republic Trita Parsi, asserted that a nuclear weapons-seeking Iran is a friend in the Middle East. Advancing Tehran's line, he claimed that with Iranian partnership "now there is an opportunity to move towards some sort of a balance in the region that actually would have an indigenous ability to sustain itself." That CSID promoted regime advocate Parsi over Iranian dissidents further undermined various speakers' emphasis on democracy for Muslims.
Meanwhile, Harvard Berggruen Fellow in ethics Andrew March minimized "political ideology or the interpretation of Islam and democracy," despite rising Islamic supremacism throughout the Middle East. He found it unbelievable that religion is the "only or even the most important factor explaining the success of democracy so far in Tunisia, the failure of it in Egypt, and the risk of it in Turkey." Yet his description of Rashid Ghannoushi, leader of Tunisia's Ennahda Party, as a "particularly democratic thinker within political Islam," inadvertently demonstrated how faith can endanger freedom.
Based on recent interviews with Ghannoushi, March described the Israel-hating, Hamas-supporting leader's totalitarian-sounding "perfectionist theory of political life": "The purpose of political life is to create the ideal conditions for as many people as possible to be the best possible Muslims." Therefore, government institutions "are meant to be united around certain kinds of moral purposes that are determined by Islam."
March explained Ghannoushi's transition since Tunisia's 2011 "Arab Spring" revolution by citing the leader's belief that the "state is primarily seen as an agent of harm and thus its own harm should be reduced." "This is very fascinating," for "using the state as a means to bring about the Islamic society was the political goal of political Islam for most of the twentieth century." According to March, the ultimately unsuccessful seventh-century charter that Islam's prophet Muhammad established for Medina's communities of Jews, Muslims, and pagans now represents Ghannoushi's "commitment to a radical kind of pluralism." His fellow panelist, Ennahda parliamentarian Oussama Sghaier, even claimed that his party members "are moving from political Islam to be Muslim democrats" and a "moderate conservative party."
Yet, Sghaier acknowledged widespread doubts about Ennahda's sincerity, and even Hashemi wondered whether "Ghannoushi's transformation" is merely "something unique to the dynamic of power distribution" in Tunisia. Hashemi observed that Tunisia's strong secular opposition denied Ennahda a majority mandate for Sharia rule. March agreed that since 2011, Ghannoushi "has to make do with what reality has proposed."
March provided little reassurance when he described a fickle Ghannoushi, whose "thought has always sort of bounced off what the currents were going on in Tunisia at that time." He conceded that with a stronger Ennahda, "you definitely would have had a lot of symbolic differences," such as the inclusion of Sharia law in the Tunisian constitution. Ghannoushi's recent support of the "knife jihad" against Israel and March's past willingness to accept Islamic polygamy and speech restrictions, cast doubt on the latter's minimization of such "symbolic differences."
But there is nothing symbolic about political Islam, a much greater threat to Western culture than violent jihad. In their quest to "de-sectarianize" Islam, CSID panelists deny both the obvious significance of the Shia-Sunni split and the central role Islam continues to play in traditionally Muslim societies. The insistence of such Middle East studies professors that modern believers have depoliticized Islam by confining it to the realm of personal piety serves only to cloak and therefore empower political Islam – a fact illustrated by the many adherents in CSID's audience and the sponsor's continuing displeasure with this reporter's presence. Under such cover, academics like Hashemi can virtue-signal their concern with "Islamophobes," confident that campus-based critiques of the House of Islam will remain the rarest of undertakings.
Andrew E. Harrod is a Campus Watch fellow, freelance researcher, and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod.