"The recommendations of this commission may end up formulating a ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim' policy for the United States." -Carl Ernst, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.
The 9/11 Commission offered a simplistic view of radical Islam in its recent report because it failed to draw on insights from academic scholars, some of those researchers say.
The report, released July 22, contains an analysis of the growth of the militant brand of Islam promoted by Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists, who led the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The commission devoted 24 pages of its nearly 600-page report to describing what it called "the foundation of the new terrorism."
"There are a number of factual errors that could have been avoided easily by having these few short pages reviewed by one of the hundreds of qualified scholars of Islamic studies," says Brannon Wheeler, associate professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at the University of Washington.
"It is astounding to me that the commission does not seem to have consulted any of the scholars of contemporary Islamic studies in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world in its attempt to explain Islam, Muslim religious activism or bin Laden."
The report briefly recounts the recent rise of extremist Islam, pointing especially to a 1998 call by bin Laden to kill Americans "in any country in which it is possible to do it." It also tries to outline basic Islamic beliefs and to describe some historic sources radicals cite to justify violence.
John L. Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, says the report, though valuable, did not have "enough depth and nuance. It was somewhat thin."
Hamid Algar, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California-Berkeley, was considerably harsher. He called the part of the report on Islam "both arrogant and delusional — arrogant, in that it presumes a right for America to shape the ideological development of the Islamic world.… (and) delusional, in that it disregards the real and substantial grievances many in the Muslim world feel," especially about the Palestinians.
Efforts to obtain comment from the 9/11 Commission about these complaints have been unsuccessful, though one published report quoted a commission spokesman as saying some scholars were "privately interviewed."
To illustrate his point that the report is misleading, Wheeler notes that it says "Sharia," or Islamic law, is derived from the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, and the Hadith, the authenticated collections of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. But, he says, "the Sharia also draws on other sources, and limiting the sources of the Sharia in this way is misleading."
The report's statement that there is no commonly accepted method of transliterating Arabic into English "is simply incorrect," Wheeler says. And the report's description of the Shiite branch of Islam, he says, is "too simplistic, and (it) misconstrues a far more complex and interesting spectrum of practices and beliefs shared by many Muslims."
Not all scholars are quite so critical. For instance, David B. Cook, assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University, says the report offers "a reliable version of recent radical Islamic history," though he thinks its description of the people attracted to bin Laden is too narrow.
"They had a solid grasp of some pretty complex material," says Natana DeLong-Bas, who lectures on Islam at Brandeis University and is the author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. But she says that "all of the solutions they propose seem to be very secular in orientation. It's not necessarily going to work in the Muslim world, where the separation between religion and state is not always accepted.
"What's missing is any attempt to address the ideology that fuels these Islamist terrorist groups. That's a major weakness."
Esposito says some of the sources the commission drew on to write about Islam "are good, but it's very uneven, very selective. You kind of wonder at times whether or not those writing the report were doing enough background reading to be able to tease out the different opinions."
That's a serious problem, he says, because the report "will be read by many people for many reasons. It'll become the bible in terms of how they understand a lot of the issues," including militant Islam.
Carl Ernst, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, also faults the commission for not focusing "on issues of international law and criminality."
By focusing instead on terrorism growing out of militant Islam, he says, "this report unfortunately perpetuates a conflict mentality that may end up unintentionally causing further conflict."
Ernst, author of Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World, says "the continued use of phrases like ‘Muslim world' and ‘the West' is historically questionable and, what is worse, almost inevitably serves as a pretext for imposition of political and cultural domination."
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, has praised the commission for specifically naming radical Islam as the "catastrophic threat" facing the United States. Pipes, whom many Muslims deride as anti-Islamic, wrote recently that "the great failing in the U.S. war effort since September 2001 has been the reluctance to name the enemy."
Esposito, who often disagrees with Pipes, agrees it's important "to get beyond a generic use of the term ‘evil.' It's too broad and too unfocused and reflects the administration's approach to global terrorism. But saying that the preponderant enemy is … Islamist terrorism is useful only as long as one distinguishes within Islamism — which has both mainstream (adherents) and extremists. Unless that distinction is made, the analysis is too facile."
The 9/11 report says "most Muslims prefer a peaceful and inclusive vision of their faith, not the violent sectarianism of bin Laden" but notes that "as political, social and economic problems created flammable societies, bin Laden used Islam's most extreme fundamentalist traditions as his match."
Those kinds of descriptions lead Ernst to conclude that the commission's approach was too simplistic.
"The recommendations of this commission," he says, "may end up formulating a ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim' policy for the United States."
If that happens, he says, "it then becomes the right of the state (in this case, the United States) to decide which Islamic opinions are acceptable and which are not. I don't think there is any justification for a democratic government to embark upon a policy of deciding which religious opinions may or may not end up being used for violent purposes at some point. If that (occurs), there would be few Christian denominations that would be exempt from similar suspicion."
Ernst says the report fails to take note of "the complex intellectual landscape of contemporary Islam."
Other criticism of the 9/11 report has come from a national Muslim advocacy group that complained the commission didn't talk with its representatives before drafting its report.
"Why would they fail to consult a key group who could help them understand what's going on in the Muslim world?" Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The Associated Press.
Several scholars also noted that the 10 commission members (five Republicans, five Democrats), in an apparent effort to prevent grid-locking along partisan lines, avoided comment on the war in Iraq and took no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Esposito says it's "nice to celebrate that you have this bipartisan report, but you have to say to yourself, ‘At what cost?' "
One cost, he says, was the failure to analyze ways in which the war in Iraq is leading to more terrorist acts.
"The continued application of the word ‘terrorism' only to non-state groups," Ernst says, "will likewise appear to be a hypocritical whitewash of extraordinary oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state in the name of security. … If the U.S. is serious about human rights, there cannot be any double standards."
Similarly Wheeler says he's troubled that the report fails to imagine that part of bin Laden's popularity "is due to the policies of the U.S. and other governments. … It may be the case that bin Laden is not unique but that he has tapped (into) and given voice to a rising tide of unrest that exists not only with Muslims (but) around the world in response to what is perceived of as political, economic, social and religious repression."