On June 17, Georgetown University held the event “Evangelicals & Muslims: Perspectives on Mission & Partnership” at its Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The last of its four panel discussions wrestled with the question: “Can Muslims and Christians be Partners in Reconciliation and Conflict Transformation?”
The crowd, at least 100 strong, consisted largely, if not exclusively, of professors and students. The panelists were Muqtedar Khan, professor of international relations at the University of Delaware and director of its Islamic Studies program; Louay Safi, of Indiana University and Purdue University; Chris Seiple, president of the Institute of Global Engagement; and David Shenk, a consultant for Eastern Mennonite Missions.
Khan, who spoke first, refused to appear on a 2007 academic panel with an IDF veteran who had served in the West Bank, yet somehow maintains a veneer of moderation. A fairly charismatic speaker, he got off the ground quickly by claiming a moral equivalence between Pat Robertson and Osama bin Laden. “We must condemn the extremists in our midst,” he said, patting himself on the back for denouncing bin Laden. While Robertson has undoubtedly made controversial statements, comparing him with bin Laden, whose terrorist organization has murdered thousands of people in the United States and abroad, is appalling and absurd.
Khan labored to prove his ecumenical bona fides by asserting that evangelicals and Muslims are the two most marginalized groups in the United States. If one needs proof, he noted rather bizarrely, just look at the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose members represent neither group. Khan failed to note the obvious demographic error with his analogy: surveys indicate that evangelicals make up at least a quarter of the country’s population (or over 70 million people), while reliable figures placed the Muslim population at about 1.4 million in 2008. The audience nodded and murmured with approval at this statistical sleight-of-hand.
And, of course, what’s a panel discussion on religion without the gratuitous insertion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In Khan’s own words, “Muslims and Christians make up two-thirds of the world’s population. What is a major, if not the major, thing they have in common?” Why, their “partnership in pain” under Israeli occupation. Evangelical Christians, Khan added, must reject the pro-Israel majority of their brethren, who, through their support of Israel, are helping to inflict the “greatest oppression that Muslims suffer.” No mention was made of the pain of Palestinian Christians under their Muslim brethren, nor of the oppression suffered by Muslims at the hands of their co-religionists.
The other speakers spent so much time speaking in general banalities and quoting from the Bible and the Quran on brotherhood, justice, peace, and love that they sounded more like imams or priests giving sermons than academics. The talk became annoying when moral equivalence was drawn between Muslim and evangelical fundamentalists. For example, according to Seiple, Muslims today are the “Samaritans of the Bible to the majority of evangelicals – we have not treated them with love and respect.” This trope has long since grown tired.
Khan dropped his mask of moderation even more explicitly during the question and answer period. He initially claimed that one must “submit” and be humble in order for justice to prevail. Furthermore, justice is only something that God can provide; we humans are impotent. It wasn’t long, however, before he blatantly contradicted himself: “How can we ask [the Palestinians] to forgive the Jews for what they have done? You cannot. There must be justice first.” He argued strenuously that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has had a “profound impact on Muslim psychology” and that all Muslims, particularly in Palestine, are powerless. That claim set up this apologia for violence: “The capacity for compassion comes with power” – in other words (of course he would not say this outright), because Islam is allegedly powerless, violence in its name is at least somewhat understandable.
Khan ended on a melodramatic note by promising “never [to] write about Israel again,” after what happened to journalist Helen Thomas, for fear of losing his job. Again, there were murmurs of approval from the audience. Of course, Helen Thomas did not criticize the Israeli government or its policies. She said, quite bluntly, that Jews should go “get the hell out of Palestine” and go “home” to Poland and Germany. Anti-Semites in those countries in the first half of the last century essentially told Jews to “get the hell out” of Europe and go to Palestine. Is this the kind of person Khan sees as a comrade in arms? If so, let’s hope he keeps his promise.
Jared Sorhaindo is an MA candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University concentrating in Middle East Studies and international economics, and an intern for the Middle East Forum. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.