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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stephen Schwartz

Last Build Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2007 17:17:07 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Natana DeLong-Bas: American Professor, Wahhabi Apologist

Fri, 19 Jan 2007 17:17:07 -0600

In a long colloquy clearly intended to flatter her Saudi patrons, DeLong-Bas claimed that she had been studying the works of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi sect, for a decade, and had read all of them. But she was forced by a persistent Saudi reporter to admit that she had never read the Islamist preacher's correspondence, which critics of Wahhabism and other Saudis consider key to understanding him. She rambled on, claiming that Islamist terror has nothing to do with radical religious interpretations, and with an almost absurd predictability blamed everything wrong in the Muslim and Arab world on the U.S. and Israel. She even described the "democracy" of terrorist groups like Hamas and the Wahhabi agents in Somalia as superior in achievement to U.S. democratization efforts. Intellectually, Natana DeLong-Bas fits comfortably in the philosophical milieu of contemporary MES. For the majority of MES scholars in the U.S., certain clich�s--little more than slogans--have become the foundation for teaching a new generation of American scholars. These truisms include the claim that radical Islam is a construct fabricated by Western "Orientalists," that all the problems of the Arab and Muslim nations are caused by Western economic rapacity, and, of course, that American support for Israel is the principal cause of Arab and Muslim discontent. Prior to September 11, a relatively unknown DeLong-Bas appeared to be little more than one of many disciples of John L. Esposito, a renowned Georgetown professor and Islamist apologist who directs the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. She was a mere research assistant at Georgetown, completing a dissertation on Wahhabism and co-authoring a second edition of Esposito's volume Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002). When the fact that 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 suicide squad were Saudis came to America's attention, and scrutiny of Saudi Wahhabism began, Esposito introduced DeLong-Bas to the media as an "expert" to counter suspicion about the Wahhabi danger. DeLong-Bas argued in The Boston Globe as early as 2003 that the writings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the eponymous sect, were moderate and unthreatening and treated other Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, tolerantly and fairly. This outlandish opinion, delivered in the wake of the atrocities less than two years before, was fleshed out when her volume Wahhabi Islam was published by Oxford University Press in 2004. There she presented Wahhabism as anti-jihad and so benevolent as to be even feminist. Her book seemed to have been rushed into print with official Saudi support: DeLong-Bas thanked such individuals as Faisal bin Salman, whose status as a Saudi prince she failed to mention; Abd Allah S. al-Uthaymin, son of a notoriously extreme member of the Wahhabi clerical class in the kingdom; and Fahd as-Semmari, director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. She also acknowledged the latter foundation for financial support. Even during the worst period of American academic accommodation to Soviet Communism, in the late 1980s, it is difficult to imagine an American academic scholar admitting direct receipt of funding from Moscow. But Saudi Arabia, as we all know, is different, and DeLong-Bas is remarkably candid; she soon became the most strident defender of Wahhabism in the West, and especially in academia. Western politicians and academics, who determine and interpret, respectively, the course of world affairs, are more to blame for the public's ignorance of Middle East affairs than are the media. As an experienced news reporter for a major American daily, I believe most reporters simply followed the practice of the profession. Acting as "first responders" similar to firefighters, police, and nurses, they accumulated quickly-observable facts and then turned to academic "experts" to analyze them. It was among American professors of Middle East studies, rather than on the battlefield, that truth b[...]