One of the founders of the Progressive Muslim Union (an organization whose fake-moderation I recently exposed) is an academic named Omid Safi. He makes a great noise about being "progressive" and has even written a book titled Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. (However, as Alyssa A. Lappen shows in an outstanding review at amazon.com focused on blinkered chapters by Khaled Abou El Fadl and Farid Esack, Safi's book is not at all progressive but "decidedly reactionary.")
I have belatedly noted the posting of the syllabus to Safi's course, "Religion 329: Islam and modernity," given in the spring semester of 2004. There is much that is pseudo-progressive in this document, but this assignment to students really caught my attention:
You are each required to turn in a report on a significant person who contributes to a negative public presentation of Islam and/or Muslims; whose political views and/or scholarship shape how Islam is presented today. This group is a broad coalition that includes folks from diverse backgrounds, such as unrepentant Orientalists, outright Islamophobes, Neo-conservatives, Western triumphalists, Christian Pentecostals, etc.:
Report: 3 pages. Include: a brief biography, intellectual history, and comments on Islam (and/or Middle East where relevant)
1) Bernard Lewis, 2)Samuel Huntington, 3)Fareed Zakaria, 4)David Frum, 5)Paul Wolfowitz, 6) Leo Strauss, 7) William Kristol, 8) William Bennett, 9) Daniel Pipes, 10) Charles Krauthammer, 11) Alan Bloom, 12) Robert Spencer, 13) David Pryce-Jones, 14) Stephen Schwartz, 15) Bat Yeor,16) Jerry Falwell, 17)Pat Robertson, 18) Francis Fukuyaman, [sic] 19)Patricia Crone 20) Niall Ferguson 21) Robert Kagan 22) Dore Gold 23) Ibn Warraq
[*Stephen Schwartz directs his critique at the Wahhabis, and is affiliated with Sufism, but he has fully identified himself with Neo-con think tanks and political ambitions.]
What is so particularly offensive about this assignment is not the topic itself – I am pleased for students at Colgate University to read my writings about Islam – but its prejudicial presentation. Robert Spencer noted this problem back in April 2004, when he criticized
the propagandistic basis of this list and the course in general. Labeling a group of people "Islamophobes" in a course about Islam is hardly conducive to freedom of thought. It is especially silly in light of the fact that one person on Safi's enemies list, Stephen Schwartz, is a Muslim himself
Call me old-fashioned, but I think a professor is supposed to inform and inspire his students, not tell them what to think. Safi's labeling the persons on his list symbolizes the insecurity and tyranny of Middle East studies. (December 3, 2004)
Dec. 4, 2004 update: Robert Spencer saw the above weblog and in response writes me:
In April, when I wrote the sentences you quote, the footnote explaining that Stephen Schwartz is a Sufi was not on Safi's syllabus. It was likely added as a result of my post, since several of Safi's students contacted me angrily when it was first posted.
Feb. 7, 2005 update: A new spring term brings a new chance for Colgate students to take Safi's "Religion 329: Islam and modernity." It also brings an interesting exchange between Spencer and Safi. Perhaps most telling is how Safi, like so many other academics (Juan Cole in his exchange these days with Jonah Goldberg comes first to mind), puffs himself up with degrees, titles, honors, and other academic paraphernalia, suggesting that these, rather than real scholarship, are what count most.
Feb. 9, 2005 update: Robert Spencer challenged Safi to invite him to Colgate and to debate, to which Safi snootily replied that Spencer lacks the requisite Ph.D. in Islamic studies. To which Spencer replies with an adjusted challenge:
I do not have the Ph.D. Safi demands, but many others on his enemies list do. Why doesn't he invite Daniel Pipes to Colgate for a debate? Assuming Dr. Pipes was willing to go, I could go along too and make a full report. I could even ask Dr. Pipes to bring his diploma. How about it, Omid?
Feb. 9, 2006 update: A year has gone by since Spencer issued his challenge and I still mope by my mailbox, forlornly awaiting an invitation from Professor Safi.
Mar. 17, 2008 update: Hot off the press – Omid Safi's article on "Progressive Muslims" has been endorsed by Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. And Wright has a master's degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School on Islam in West Africa during the nineteenth century, giving him extra authority in this field.