Joke of the day: Robert Spencer as bridge-builder. (repost)

[This a re-post. Due to an unnoticed glitch in TypePad, the first version lost its first few paragraphs. Not sure what happened. ]

A controversy is brewing in academia over the inscrutable decision by the American Library Association to invite Islamophobe-e-Azam Robert Spencer to address a forum dedicated to, I kid you not, improving Muslim/non-Muslim relations through more effective outreach.  You'd be forgiven for assuming this to be a wicked parody dreamt up by the folks at The Onion after taking in a "Monty Python" rerun–not unlike the farcical Secular Islam Summit of 2007–but the ALA's Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) is a serious group, the stated objectives of which are:

  • To serve as a source of information on recommended ethnic collections, services, and programs.
  • To organize task forces, institutes, and workshops to carry out the functions of the Round Table as defined in the petition.
  • To develop for Annual conferences forums and symposia programs that deal with the key issues of ethnicity and librarianship.
  • To maintain a liaison with the Office of Library Outreach Services and cooperate with other ALA units, including the caucuses in joint projects for the betterment of outreach services.
  • To disseminate the work of the Round Table through a program of publications. There is an urgent need for an effective exchange of information in the Ethnic area in the form of a Newsletter to be financed by the nominal dues for the Round Table, e.g., $20.00.

It's hard to see what Spencer would bring to the table of such a forum. He's neither a librarian nor a community outreach professional–an understatement if ever there was one–and while the popular tracts against Islam that he churns out at such regular intervals may earn him an 'A' for effort he certainly isn't  taken seriously as a scholar in the fields of Religious Studies or  Middle Eastern Studies. So his qualifications and relevance seem exceedingly dubious for an event of this nature.

Most importantly, the participation of a figure as undeniably polarizing and partisan as Mr. Spencer–whose Muslim-bashing has been denounced by people across the political spectrum (e.g., here and here)–would not only make a mockery of the round-table's mission but torpedo the initiative by creating a bitter controversy sure to utterly overshadow the event as well as create new animosities between the communities it is attempting to bring closer together.

Not surprisingly, a group* of professors and librarians have released a petition calling on the ALA to reconsider this bizarre decision.  An Open Letter to ALA & the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable « An Open Letter to ALA & EMIERT Regarding 2009 Panel on Islam

 

We, the undersigned, would like to voice our concerns regarding the inclusion of Robert Spencer in the EMIERT panel “Perspectives on Islam: Beyond the Stereotyping.” As we are sure you know, Mr. Spencer is founder of the web sites “Jihad Watch” and “Dhimmi Watch”, author of such books as The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion; The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades); Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith; Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West; Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t; Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs; coauthor, with Daniel Ali, of Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics; and editor of the essay collection The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims.

Even the most cursory overview of Mr. Spencer’s oeuvre makes it clear that in fact he has no place on a panel whose aim is to dispel stereotypes about Islam. Indeed, we, as librarians, scholars, and individuals are deeply concerned by ALA & EMIERT’s choice of Mr. Spencer for such a panel: Mr. Spencer espouses a view of Islam as a system of belief which is essentially violent, undemocratic, totalitarian, exclusive and at war with all non-Muslims. Mr. Spencer in fact goes as far as to equate Islam with fascism. According to him,

The misbegotten term “Islamo-fascism” is wholly redundant: Islam itself is a kind of fascism that achieves its full and proper form only when it assumes the powers of the state.” (www.jihadwatch.com/islam101)


Hence a question arises as to the justification for inviting a speaker who cannot see anything positive about Islamic beliefs, cultures, societies, histories, etc. to talk to an audience in order to dispel negative views of Islam. We are indeed saddened and puzzled by ALA’s choice for their panel, especially in that this appears to be a rare opportunity to educate people about Islam against the backdrop of an overwhelming atmosphere of ignorance, and negative stereotyping (For example a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released right before Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo shows that only 1 in 5 Americans have a favorable view of Islam & 60 percent of Americans believe the Muslim world is at war with the United States. (http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/06/02/us.muslims.poll/)

We hope that you take our concerns into serious consideration. While we are not advocating censorship or the removal of Mr. Spencer from the panel and we affirm the values espoused in the ALA Library Bill of Rights, we ourselves advocate the choice of panelists who would be able to highlight in a rational and scholarly manner the richness, complexity, and multifaceted elements of Islamic cultures, societies and beliefs if we are to engage in meaningful discussions of Islam that can truly go beyond negative stereotypes. It would be unfortunate for such a distinguished organization as ALA to perpetuate such negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims and for panel attendees to return with those stereotypes to their home libraries and for such stereotypes to negatively affect services to Muslims. However, we look forward hopefully to a respectful and courteous information session on Islam.

Sincerely,
Tara Lannen-

  • Stanton, WorldLinQ Coordinator, New Americans Program, Queens Library


  • Kaoukab Chebaro, Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian, Columbia University
    Karim Boughida, Associate University Librarian for Digital Initiatives and Content Management, George Washington University

  • Dr. Alan Godlas, Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Georgia

  • Simon Samoeil, Curator, Near East Collection, Yale University Library

  • Beth Whipple, Research Informationist/Assistant Librarian,
  • Ruth Lilly Medical Library, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis
    Kristin Lalonde, Library Assistant, Arab American National Museum
  • Dr. Ali Hassan, Ohio State University
    Dr. Omar Khalidi, Aga Khan Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


*Our opinions are our own and are not the opinons of the institutions or organizations we are associated with.
Please feel free to add your voice of support or dissent in the comments section. Thank you.

As the authors rightly point out, the overheated titles on Spencer's C.V. alone testify eloquently of his unfitness for inclusion in a dialog project with Muslims. The gentleman is on a personal crusade to make anti-Muslim prejudice intellectually respectable, churning out tracts to disabuse the world of the supposedly mistaken notion that there is any worthy of admiration in Islam and to clear up any lingering suspicions that might share anything important with the civilized religions of Judaism and Christianity.

Predictably, his supporters are  declaring this a "politically correct" call for censorship rather what it obviously is, a legitimate call on the round-table stick to its mission. This is censorship, you see, because there's never a bad time or inappropriate venue to tear down Islam and insult Muslims. Even if it means derailing a forum intended to build bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim.

I contributed some comments. Below are the longer ones that sum up why I think the drafters of this open letter are entirely justified and why these cries of censorship are specious. [I've taken the liberty of correcting a few of my typos.]

Incidentally, has a more maddening and inefficient medium for debate ever been devised than the blog comment? What a confusing mess. There are currently 139 172 comments, many threaded.

One interesting thing is how several of the Muslim-bashing commenters display their Islamophobic prejudices with such insouciance that they matter-of-factly chat about the value of Spencer's attacks against Islam and the Prophet (s) as a means to demoralize the Muslim "enemy."  Spencer may speak in code that makes it hard to pin his agenda down, but the haters out there get his message loud and clear.

Update (2009-07-10): Added the comment about the FAIR report.

Update (2009-07-10): Noticed that the first few paragraphs had been somehow been deleted and reconstructed them. Also added the whole of the open letter.

As Spencer noted in his predictably evasive response of Jul 7, the quote concerning Islamo-Fascism was not drawn from one of his posts, but from an article of one Jihad Watch's contributors.

What Spencer didn't comment on, of course, is the obvious implications of this quote being found in an article entitled "Islam 101" on his website. Clearly, he agrees enough with the sentiment to feature its source prominently as a primer on Islam.

* Not that it makes any difference given the particulars of this
case, but one of them (Alan Godlas) is a former professor of mine at
UGA, where I did an M.A. in Religion a few years ago.

———————————

svend Says:
July 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Reply

I see that the Muslim-bashers are out in force, letting all their hate and bite-sized ideas hang out.

Love his work or loath it, there’s no question that Spencer is highly partisan and confrontational. As the original post rightly points out, even a quick perusal of his CV shows that he is anything a voice of dialogue, much less a credible commentator on Islamophobia (unless I missed the memo that this event was a how-to workshop).

Quite to the contrary, a closer examination of his writings reveals an unmistakable pattern of *rationalizing* rather than critiquing prejudice, as much of his output is geared towards explaining why all the insulting and dehumanizing generalizations we rightfully find objectionable normally are, in the unique case of Islam and Muslims, completely justified by “the facts.”

Now, perhaps you agree with him and think we Muslims are the root of all evil. Even if you are right, that doesn’t change how self-evidently unsuitable someone with his political baggage and deliberately confrontational message is for a forum committed to reducing fear and conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim.

What’s next, demanding that a roundtable on defending abortion rights give a platform to somebody from Operation Rescue? This is common sense and basic professionalism. So spare us the histrionics and charges of political correctness. Whatever role he has to play, it sure ain’t there. Were this an equally virulent critic of another, less widely vilified community, such a petition wouldn’t even be controversial.

[...]

SL Says:
July 8, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Reply

Qur’an 9:5 – “Fight and kill the Disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war.”

I’d love to see the PC Apologists on this panel discussing that Jihad verse! I’d love to see ‘em squirming in their seats as they endeavor, in the face of all contrary evidence, to keep proclaiming “Islam is peace.”

    • svend Says:
      July 8, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Reply

      @SL
      I usually ignore this kind of know-nothing heckling, but I’ll make an exception since it’s relevant to the broader discussion. This bigoted rant–which is methodologically if not stylistically in keeping with Spencer’s selective and instinctively adversarial style of interpreting Islam–completely wrenches a verse out of context to support your prejudices. There’s a long list of problems with this reading, but the simplest one is that it refers to the Meccan polytheists with whom the Muslims already were at war. The Quran does not teach pure pacificism, it is true, but it by no means encourages war, making it clear that war should be fought in self-defense and that even then it had to abide by strict rules of conduct. (Have Muslims always only fought defensive wars? Of course not. Welcome to the club.)

      For a serious analysis of this woefully misunderstood topic–and one that, it must be pointed out, reminds one how simplistic and tenditious Mr. Spencer’s commentary on Islam and Muslims often is–see “Islam, Quranic” [by Mustansir Mir] in the Encyclopedia of War and Religion by Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez. You can currently read much of it on Google Books at http://tinyurl.com/l3e9lt

John C. Barile Says:
July 9, 2009 at 2:50 am | Reply

Robert Spencer, director of jihadwatch.org, is a serious, respectable author, observer, and commentator; possessing integrity, principle, and wit. As a critic of ossified Islam in its unreformed expression, he is passionate but reasonably objective. He is a popularizer of information and ideas, yet not a self-aggrandizing sensationalist.

His is a valuable perspective on the collision of Islamic orthodoxies with modernity; a perspective to be weighed and considered, but not to be ignored nor shouted down.

  • svend Says:
    July 9, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Reply

    I find the notion that Spencer is merely a critic of “ossified Islam” quite curious given how hard he works to delegitimize contemporary reformers as being out of sync with authentic traditional Islam.

    As always, the devil is in the details. First of all, his selective and tendentious presentation of Islamic doctrine and tradition is recognizable to neither traditional Muslim scholars nor Muslim reformers or liberals, so the idea that he is just a chronicler of Islamic tradition is untenable. No one outside his Muslim-bashing circles recognizes this “Islam” that he deconstructs over and over. He’s a highly partisan critic, and one that most his supposed colleagues in academia ignore.

    Second and more importantly, his message–diplomatically articulated though it may be–boils down to a categorical (and utterly unproven) claim that even when one takes them in their historical context Islamic tradition, the essential message of the Quran and Muhammad’s career are inherently and irremediably opposed to modern values, Judeo-Christian values, etc. etc. What that translates to on the ground in the real world is the simple, dehumanizing principle that a good, civilized Muslim is either 1) an ex-Muslim or 2) a hopelessly inconsistent one who that rejects his faith’s most core beliefs and values.

    Now, imagine an evenhanded, respectable scholar arguing that traditional Christianity is inherently illogical, contrary to modern values, and ultimately dangerous while grandly conceding that there that “modern Christianity” was a whole different matter. Imagine if he then defined “modern Christianity” as *necessarily* rejecting the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection, the Afterlife and perhaps even the historicity of Christ himself.

    How meaningful would that olive branch to modern Christians really be? And how could anyone ever imagine him to be a moderate commentator fit for dialogue with traditional Christians?

    I’m not threatened by Spencer or his ilk–I see them more as a political syptom than an emerging school of thought; they will go the way of other politically motivated academic fads of past eras–and I fully realize that there are aspects of Islam or Islamic tradition that many non-Muslims find problematic or even threatening (shoot, there are supposedly “traditional” Islamic beliefs that I reject myself) .

    But it is disingenuous in the extreme to present a polemical thinker like Spencer as some neutral observer on Muslim affairs or a recognized authority on Islam. You can’t ignore scholarly standards and go for the jugular but then expect to be hailed as a dispassionate scholar. Nor can you make a living attacking a community and then pass yourself off as one of its well wishers. Sorry, he can’t have that cake and eat it, too.

    Some aspects of Islamic orthodoxies (which I agree need to be discussed in the plural) are indeed in conflict with modernity (singular?)–a state of affairs that is not unique to Islam–but there are frankly many scholars doing far more penetrating and evenhanded work than Spencer, some of them Muslim. For every valid point he makes, he makes a dozen more fundamental errors.

[...]

svend Says:
July 10, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Reply

Incidentally, it’s not just Muslims or traditional academics who decry Spencer’s dubious scholarship and lacking objectivity. It’s even caught the eye of media observers.

Take a look at media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) report, “Smearcasters: How Islamophobes spread fear, bigotry and misinformation” http://www.smearcasting.com/smear_spencer.html

There’s no question that Spencer’s endless attacks on Islam and Muslims have played a role in fueling the kind of irrational fear and bigotry against Muslims with the Republican Party that General Colin Powell so courageously denounced at the tail end of the 2008 presidential election.

As FAIR’s report points out, his prejudice has even been denounced by fellow rightwing critics of Islam, such as Dinesh D’Souza and Stephen Schwartz. When an inveterate Muslim basher like Schwartz, known for shrill attacks on pretty much all mainstream Muslim groups (not to mention his trademark obsession with Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism) is moved to speak out against your rants against Islam, that’s pretty serious.

Update (2009-08-09): All the posts on Robert Spencer/Jihad Watch exchange are available on a single page here.

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  • Qazu

    Svend, all I can say is that your post and ensuing responses are amazing! It is sad to even see that so-called “reputable” news-mags publish his hateful screeds.


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