Less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, while America is still facing down Muslim terrorists, Harvard taps an Islamicist to head its Divinity School. The new dean, William Graham, specializes in ancient Islam--he's also a Christian who attends services at an Episcopal church. And he's the first dean of the divinity school without a divinity degree.
It is an interesting moment for an expert in Islam to take over one of the nation's oldest, and most prominent, American divinity schools. It is also, perhaps, a good time to hear more about Mr. Graham's views of recent events and of his mission at Harvard.
In an interview, Mr. Graham said that he finds it ridiculous that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--his alma mater--came under fire recently for requiring incoming freshmen to read "Approaching the Qu'ran: The Early Revelations," by Michael Sells. Critics said the book did not include the militant side of Islam, and they argued that requiring such a book in a state school breached the wall between church and state. Mr. Graham sees the whole controversy as a matter of academic freedom, and indeed a recent court decision, upholding North Carolina's reading list, agrees with him on this.
As for Islam itself, Mr. Graham believes that it is, as the phrase goes, a religion of peace. He explains that many everyday human-rights abuses committed in the name of Islam really occur because the Muslim world happens to overlap with a large swath of the impoverished world.
What about, I asked him, the Nigerian court that upheld an Islamic code requiring that a woman be stoned to death for adultery? The sentence, Mr. Graham says, isn't required by Islam. It is the result we'd expect in an undeveloped nation. "Not to apologize for it," he told me, but give these nations "200 years of development" and things will be different. It's not unlike the social norms "imposed by 18th-century American Protestantism."
What about the fundamentalist London cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri? Here is an imam who admits to sharing the views of Osama bin Laden and to being a Taliban sympathizer. "I think you can find more than Sheik Hamza," Mr. Graham explains. "Look at the IRA." Any faith has its extremists.
How should Americans view Saudi Arabia, a nation with a rigid patriarchal society that forces women to wear abayas and accept arranged marriages, that keeps them from owning property and requires them not to walk on the street without a male escort? "I don't think half of society would say they were oppressed there," Mr. Graham says of Saudi women. We look at it from our vantage point, he notes, not with Saudi eyes. Besides, Americans should not throw stones. "We're a country that can't pass an equal rights amendment." This is also the land where McCarthyism happened, he adds.
But Mr. Graham isn't, as he confesses, an international relations scholar or a political scientist. He is a student of Islam and now a divinity-school dean, and looking across the Muslim world he sees a lot of reason to be hopeful. "It's not impossible at all" for Islam to be integrated into the modern world, he said. "It's not going to be easy, but Islam is going to have to reform. . . . But religious movements do this all the time."
Throughout the Muslim world he sees two layers to society. On top is a dictator; but peel back his regime and on the grass-roots level you'll find that Islam is often the foundation of a civil society. Mosques and Islamic organizations provide health care, education and other services, he says, sometimes doing more than local or national governments. The people who run such groups would also be a force for moderation, Mr. Graham believes, if authoritarian regimes didn't squelch their calls for reform.
Mr. Graham is not talking about those who run the madrassas--schools where radicalism and militancy are at the core of the curriculum. They are ideological and promote a hijacked version of Islam, he notes, "which again is government-supported."
His own school, to teach modern Islam, relies on a professor in its women's studies department or professors from other schools within Harvard. Mr. Graham hopes to change that by hiring at least one new Islamicist.
And what is the U.S. teaching the Muslim world? Muslims everywhere, Mr. Graham thinks, are watching what we do in Afghanistan. Now Islamic reform is possible there. If we help construct a peaceful and prosperous country, we'll find it easier to promote reform elsewhere. The same is true for Iraq, "if the regime falls" and we have a willingness to rebuild the country's infrastructure.
"I'd like to see more leadership emerge" to give "the more moderate version of Islam." That we don't have such leadership now is "the real tragedy."
Mr. Miniter is assistant editor of OpinionJournal.com.