By Youshaa Patel
On Tuesday, Professor Habib Malik from the Lebanese American University gave the annual Earl A. Pope Guest Lecture, with the sprawling title, “What Native Christians in the Middle East Have Faced and Continue to Face: Why it Matters for Both the Caring and the Unconcerned.” Tantalized by his previous intellectual engagements with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, I expected to hear a scholarly account of Christian experiences in the contemporary Middle East. What I heard, instead, was anti-Muslim bigotry disguised as objective scholarship.
The unraveling of the Middle East is a great tragedy for all members of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is particularly heartbreaking for me because I lived in Damascus, Syria from 2009 – 2010 as a graduate student, shortly before the civil war broke out. I have friends that endured refugee status and were forced into exile. In Damascus, I studied Arabic with both Christians and Muslims.
The Christians and Muslims with whom I interacted endorsed mutual tolerance and respect for one another – not bitterness and hatred.
By contrast, Malik cherry-picked from Islamic history to advance his remarkably skewed narrative of Muslim intolerance. In the lecture, he cited only one “scholar” by name – the discredited Bat Yeor who is a known by historians of Islam as an anti- Muslim bigot. Most scholars I know would never even cite this individual. Malik cited Yeor as an authority to argue that the pre-modern Islamic legal classification of Jews and Christians living in Muslim territory as protected peoples (dhimmi) was a foil for inevitable Christian and Jewish extinction. Other reputable scholars argue, however, that this legal classification helps to explain why Jews and Christians survived among Muslims for so long.
More disturbing was Malik’s collapsing of ISIS and other extremist groups with Islam itself. He did this most explicitly by stating that such “sub-bestial” behavior was unique to Islam itself. I do not know where to even begin. While I do not endorse ISIS or its numerous spin-offs, genetically linking their “sub-bestial” behavior to Islam underscores the analytical frailty of his argument: extremists of all stripes hide behind the moral claims of religion to advance their selfish (political) interests. Put simply, they cherry-pick. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan or the Crusaders are representative of Christianity.
The Earl A. Pope lecture in World Christianity should honor genuine scholarship and advance mutual understanding between religions, a reflection of the Lafayette College Religious Studies departmental mission. Instead, Malik’s lecture intensifies a hostile campus climate to a beleaguered Muslim student minority and hardens our hearts to the plight of dispossessed Syrian refugees – those whom Jesus Christ would have taught are most deserving of our compassion.
Professor Youshaa Patel, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies