The Dean of General Studies at Columbia University, Peter Awn is described as a "renowned scholar of Islamic and Comparative Religion" on a Columbia website. It informs us that he "has lectured widely to academic and business professionals on the role Islamic religion plays in the current political and social development of the Muslim world."
Before he assumed the duties of administration, Dean Awn, who received his Ph.D. in 1978 from Harvard, had published his tenure book: "Satan's Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology, a study of the devil in Islamic mysticism." This study received an award from the American Council of Learned Societies. The word "Sufi" is one which many non-Muslims, naturally, associate with a kind of gentle mysticism, with the poetry of Rumi, with what they take to be its distance from jihad. But the Deobandis are Sufis, and Tabandeh, a theoretician of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was a Sufi. There are more Tabandehs than Rumis in Sufism.
Awn began his career with the mystical, feel-good side of Islam, the kind of Islam that leads to such titles as "The Semantics of Mystical Union in Islam" and to calls for a "multidimensional understanding." We know this kind of language. It is as one with "The Male Gaze," and "Sacred Spaces" and "Writing Islam" and "Constructing the Muslim ‘Other.'"
All the big subjects – the sources of the duty of jihad, the instruments of jihad, the carefully-elaborated treatment of non-Muslims in the Shari'a, the psychological pervasiveness of Islam in a Muslim society, the particular passages in Qur'an, Hadith, and Sira that have an overwhelming effect on hundreds of millions of Believers these are nowhere to be found in Peter Awn's work.
But unlike many of the other faculty members at MEALAC, who seldom deviate into sense, Awn often does. For example, he has understood that Islam is all-pervasive, all-encompassing, all-defining, for those who are Muslims in a Muslim society, and he realizes, therefore, that any voices of protest against that ruler or that regime will almost inevitably find their vocabulary, their system of allusions, their justification, their impetus, in Islam. Given the pervasiveness of Islam, it was to be expected that any protest or revolt against things as they are in the Arab regimes would turn to Islam, as the vehicle of that protest. Awn recognizes this, as he did in 2003 as a panelist at St. Bernard's school:
Muslims are no more religious than followers of any other religion, and most followers are terrified of the religious right in their environments. The arch-conservative religious movements increased the influence of Islam, not because people were more religious, but because it was one of the few areas open to protest. They have gotten powerful because they have offered young people a way to speak out.
That is true, certainly: the appeal of even more Islam (or "Islamism"), or more exactly, the retreat into a world of Islam and only Islam, naturally occurs to many who are disaffected.
But when the subject comes directly down to Islam, and such matters as what jihad means, Awn becomes far more troubling in his refusal to own up to what is actually in Qur'an, Hadith, and Sira. Consider how he has talked about jihad: "If you want to stigmatize some one today, you use the word jihad. The word has enormous emotional power, it really does."
One wonders what he means by "stigmatize"? The word jihad is everywhere in the Qur'an and Hadith and Sira. There are more than one hundred so-called jihad verses in the Qur'an. The word appears on every Muslim website, in Al-Qaradawi, in the khutbas of every imam in Saudi Arabia, in the texts of Ayatollah Khomeini, and everywhere that Islam is discussed by Muslims. Yet, when infidels begin to use the term, when they realize that this is central to Islam, that it was not wild for jihad to be described, by Muslims, as the "sixth pillar" of Islam, Awn would have us believe that they are using the word to "stigmatize."
And where did Peter Awn present this view of jihad as something benign? It was no mere classroom discussion. His presentation took place in the context of a real trial, that of the Virginia "Paintball Jihadis" who were tried, and convicted, and sentenced, for practicing to engage in combat. The "defense attorney said the government had twisted the meaning of the word and that jihad is instead a peaceful term that can mean anything from studying Islam to caring for the sick." Awn found this not to be a comical argument, but one he could, and with a straight face did, characterize as "quite legitimate." He thus became an accomplice in attempting to convince a judge and jury, in a courtroom where a trial for terrorist-related acts was taking place.
Millions of times a day, all over the Muslim world, the word jihad is used – by demonstrators in Gaza, or in Kandahar, or in Karachi. It is used by the doctors of Al-Azhar, in making rulings about the rights and duties of Muslims, both those living in dar al-Islam, and those sojourning in dar al-Harb. It is heard in the crowds that chant, in the email messages of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, Al-Zarqawi, and many others. It can be found scrawled on walls outside churches and synagogues in France and England. None of those demonstrators, those angry mobs, those plotting e-mailers, those Arabic graffiti artists, is using the word jihad as the defense attorney in the Paintball Jihad trial, so warmly supported by the scholarly authority of Peter Awn.
Hugh Fitzgerald wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities. It is part of a series of analysis addressing Columbia University's Middle East Studies faculty. We invite you to read Fitzgerald's introductory essay, and the entries in alphabetical order.