“I don’t have any desire to debate Robert Spencer….I would never give someone like that a forum,” Hofstra University Professor Daniel Martin Varisco declared at Georgetown University on February 26, 2014. Addressing the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding (ACMCU), Varisco’s equally flawed outlooks on Islam and intellectual inquiry had disturbing implications for modern academia.
Prior perusal of the opening pages of Varisco’s 2007 Reading Orientalism: Said and Unsaid did not raise hopes for his briefing “Khutba vs. Khutzpa: Islamophobia on the Internet.” In this book, Varisco analyzes leftwing intellectual Edward Said’s Orientalism and its legacy, expressing agreement “with most of Said’s political positions on the real Orient.” Varisco reveals his discipleship of Said with condemnations of post-World War II United States having “become by stealth and wealth the neo-colonial superpower” in which a “neocon clique…engineered the wars” not just “against” Iraq but also Afghanistan. Varisco’s one-sided estimate of historical harms includes a “PhD cataloguing of what the West did to the East and self-unfillfulling political punditry about what real individuals in the East say they want to do to the West.”
Yet, Varisco writes, “Said hardly scratched the surface of the vast sewerage of racist and ethnocentrist writing, art, and cinema that for so long has severed an imaginary East from the dominating West.” “In particular,” Varisco emphasizes,
almost anything that Muslims would consider holy has at one time or another been profaned by Western writers. Perhaps the frustrated worldwide Muslim anger at Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was emetic justice for centuries of vicious and malicious verbal abuse from the West, where this controversial best seller incubated.
Both matters of principle and practicality deter further reading of Varisco. “Truth with a capital T does not exist for anyone,” Varisco nonsensically proclaims as one of his “own operational truths,” thereby placing in doubt Varisco’s views. Varisco’s attempts at humor also do not amuse, such as when he describes the book’s “anal citational flow of endnotes” designed to allow a person to “read for entertainment” Varisco’s turgid tome.
Nothing improved during Varisco’s presentation on “Islamophobia,” described in a Powerpoint image referencing a 1991 Runnymede Trust report as an “unfounded hostility” towards all things and persons Muslim. One Powerpoint on “Combatting Islamophobia on the Internet” set a leveling tone with a recommendation of a “[f]ocus on interfaith efforts, noting that all religions have positive and negative aspects.” This accorded with Varisco’s prior call for scholars to “be doing all we can to refute the notion that Islam is intrinsically more violent than other religions.” “I am not saying that these things don’t happen,” Varisco conceded when showing a picture of a woman undergoing a sharia stoning to death. Another Powerpoint, meanwhile, simply dismissed as “fallacy” controversies that “Muhammad was a pedophile and Islam is cruel to women.”
Varisco gave a historical overview of longstanding negative Western views of Islam. He noted, for example, Dante’s depiction of Islam’s prophet Muhammad in the Inferno and unfavorable 19th century American comparisons of an emerging Mormon faith with Islam. Varisco’s bias was evident when observing that John Smith fought Ottoman Turks before coming to America without ever analyzing whether Smith might have been justified to oppose Muslim aggression. Varisco also reiterated his previously written scorn for an “allegedly Venerable Bede, who condemned invading Muslims of his time as ‘a very sore plague.’” Why this single condemnation of marauding Muslims in France stopped at the 732 Battle of Tours discredited this pioneering English historian in Varisco’s estimation remained unexplained.
In discussing the 1797 American treaty with Tripoli, meanwhile, Varisco bizarrely claimed that “we were doing a lot of trade” with the Barbary States. As any schoolboy should know, though, this treaty, including a tribute payment, was part of American trade protection efforts against Barbary pirate depredations scourging the Mediterranean for centuries. Varisco then noted with a Powerpoint image America’s subsequent Barbary Wars resulting from the failure of diplomacy to dissuade the Barbary pirates from their attacks. “Economics is always in there somewhere,” Varisco stated in a similarly bizarre fashion when discussing the United States’ first encounter with jihadists.
Turning to the present, Varisco condemned as “Islamophobic” the Clarion Project along with its film Obsession, the website Answering Islam, and Franklin Graham for having called Islam “evil.” One particular focus of Varisco was the anti-Catholic writer Jack Chick who in his cartoon publications had wildly slandered the Catholic Church as Islam’s inventor. Another emphasis for Varisco was evangelical Joel Richardson’s website Joel’s Trumpet with its apocalyptic predictions of an “Islamic Antichrist.”
The little discussed elephant in the room for perceptive “Islamophobia” observers during Varisco’s presentation, though, was “Islamophobe” Number One, Jihad Watch website founder Spencer. Varisco cited a Spencer quotation from his book Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics listed at the website Spencer Watch. Varisco once again failed to explain why Spencer’s condemnations of Islam as an “often downright false revelation” and “threat to the world at large” were unacceptable. Varisco also noted a recent Jihad Watch entry criticizing his very Georgetown briefing.
Audience questions, however, focused on Spencer. Varisco discussed his refusal to debate Spencer as “someone who just hates Islam,” yet claimed that in any hypothetical encounter he “would beat the whatever out of him.” ACMCU head John Esposito concurred with the “Combatting Islamophobia in the Internet” assessment of “little value in debating Islamophobic speakers in academic settings since it gives them a forum.” Such encounters with Spencer “would be enhancing his credibility.” Yet in discussing partisan websites, Esposito complained that “nobody accepts the other side as objective.” “Cranks” like Spencer, an audience member meanwhile argued, belonged at Hyde Park Corner.
Although Esposito dismissed Spencer as a scholar, he nonetheless sneered that he wrote “best-selling books” while discussing worries about Spencer’s popularity. Noting the influence of popular culture, Esposito complained that “Islamophobic websites score very, very high.” Varisco bemoaned that such websites outperformed his own Tabsir website and without irony cited a need for people like him to create “more books…that people can read.”
The “Vast Rightwing Conspiracy is better at” advocacy “than our lefty friends,” the audience member who had called Spencer a “crank” agreed. “Lots of money” also appeared as an advantage for “Islamophobic” groups to Esposito. Esposito did not say whether this money outweighed the $20 million Saudi namesake grant to ACMCU or George Soros funding and six-figure salaries at the likeminded Center for American Progress and Southern Poverty Law Center, respectively.
Amidst this uniform opposition to Spencer et al. from fewer than 20 people in the briefing room, one audience member sounded an independent note. Observing that he was the only black person in the room, the young man discussed how he did not see Spencer’s work as a “race issue” but rather as opposition to Islamic extremism. Because of this “my country is in ruins now” he said with respect to the Somali homeland of his Muslim father.
Varisco answered by attributing violence in Somalia and other majority-Muslim societies not to Islamic ideology but rather to Somalia’s “colonial experience,” pre-Arab Spring dictators, or Western countries “pumping weapons” into these countries. Another audience member spoke of Somalia’s “tribal roots.” “I don’t think you put blame on one individual,” Varisco meanwhile responded to the black man’s query about responsibility for Afghan violence following Terry Jones Koran burning. Absolving Muslim murderers and other criminals at least partly from their individual responsibility, Varisco analogized to an arsonist setting alight a carelessly tended house.
In all, Varisco’s briefing exposed much of modern academia’s shallowness. True to multicultural shibboleth, Varisco refused to identify any uniquely disturbing aspects of Islam and dismissed all past aversion towards this faith as prejudice. Varisco’s minimalist treatment of Spencer, meanwhile, accorded with an unwillingness to respect this lucidly insightful scholar. Rather, Varisco grouped Spencer with far more lightweight individuals like Chick and Richardson with whom Catholics like Spencer or his colleague Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center have little commonality. The expressed worries of Varisco, Esposito, and others, however, give hope that their efforts to silence their opposition will fail.
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