W.'S UNRELIABLE ADVISER ON ISLAM
Blind Faithby Franklin Foer
Post date 10.11.01 | Issue date 10.22.01
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Professor David Forte might seem an unorthodox choice for the role of presidential adviser on Islam. For one thing, he's not Muslim. For another, he doesn't speak Arabic. His academic specialty is U.S. constitutional law, and he readily admits that he "dabble[s]" in Islamic jurisprudence. "That's why I call myself a student and not an expert," he told me.
But thanks to the aggressive promotion of his work by two influential conservative think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, Forte's writings on Islam have found their way onto the reading lists of Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith and the National Security Council's Elliot Abrams. UN Ambassador John Negroponte has requested his oeuvre; State Department officials have quizzed him on his views. And when President Bush addressed Congress last month, he seemed to pluck whole phrases from Forte's writings. Or, as one official told The Washington Post: The president's speech was "Forte-ed."
In particular Bush has embraced Forte's argument that Al Qaeda are theological heretics. They practice, Forte contends, an esoteric strain of Islam that traces to a seventh-century sect. "[The terrorists] are not religious," Forte told the Post. "They are a new form of fascist tyranny." But Forte is a less than reliable source. The problem isn't just his weak background in modern Islamic politics; it's his ulterior ideological motive. Forte doesn't just want to redeem Islam from its critics. As a Catholic conservative who serves on a Vatican task force on strengthening family, he wants to redeem religious orthodoxy itself--or, at least, cleanse it of the extremist stain. "Nothing this evil could be religious," he is fond of saying. It's a bromide that jibes perfectly with Bush's own unabashed fondness for religiosity of all stripes. Unfortunately, it may be wrong.
Until last month Forte's primary claim to fame was his writing on Catholic legal theory. Along with a growing band of conservative scholars--Princeton's Robert P. George, Tulsa University's Russell Hitinger--Forte promoted Thomas Aquinas's theology of natural law. America, they argue, was founded by men who agreed with Aquinas on the primacy of transcendent divine law. But secular politicians have junked up the founders' system, adding gratuitous and wicked laws. "Faith is an outlaw in the public square," Forte lectured in 1996 at the Heritage Foundation. In the Cleveland State Law Review in 1990, he compared government regulation to the Pharisees, the rabbis who challenged Jesus. And when the laws of God conflict with the laws of man, there's no question which side Forte takes. He has proposed a doctrine called "justified non-compliance," which allows citizens to "refuse to abide by" laws they consider onerous or morally reprehensible.
Forte's interest in Islam began in law school with a B+ paper in a comparative jurisprudence class at Columbia, which he later published. As an academic and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he continued to write the occasional law review essay--on such subjects as the standing of Islamic law in American courts, the Orientalist Joseph Schacht, and attitudes toward theft in sharia (the body of Islamic laws). Only in the 1990s did his interest move beyond the theoretical. After assisting a pro bono immigration case on behalf of Pakistani asylum seekers, he began to write passionately about Islamic persecution of Christians.
Forte quickly found himself part of a growing movement, as former Reagan aides Michael Horowitz and Gary Bauer helped turn Christian persecution into one of the religious right's signature issues. But they soon faced a problem: Islamic regimes reacted to the criticism by calling the conservatives anti-Muslim bigots. It was Forte, according to Horowitz, who figured out how to beat the rap. Henceforth the conservative activists would cast themselves as Islamophiles, praising the religion at every turn and dismissing the Islamic persecutors as traitors to their faith. As Forte explained in his 1999 book on Islamic law, "Though radicals often create an effigy of the West as a 'devil,' their real animus is against traditional Islam."
It hasn't always been clear to which Muslim "radicals" Forte is referring . In the past his chief targets have been regimes like those of Pakistan and Sudan that oppress non-Muslims domestically. More recently, as Osama bin Laden has taken center stage, Forte has adapted the argument to apply to him. But the basic point--as articulated in a series of law review articles, op-eds, and congressional testimony--remains the same: The Islamic militants aren't true Muslims at all; they find their "inspiration" in a seventh-century sect of puritan thugs called the Kharijites. "[They] held that any Muslim who commits a sin was an apostate, an unbeliever who could never re-enter the fold of Islam and must be killed." For over 50 years, as Forte describes it, the Kharijites ferociously opposed both the developing Sunni and Shia traditions of Islam--going so far as to assassinate Ali, one of the competitors for Mohammed's mantle.
The historical analogy is deeply comforting. Today's extremists, in Forte's telling, are theologically marginal and far removed from the rest of Islam. They represent, as he put it in a column posted on the Heritage Foundation's website after the attacks, "[a] tradition that Islam early on rejected as opposed to the universal message of its Prophet." And those who say otherwise simply don't get religion. "We have a highly secularized elite in media and government and the academy. When they talk about religion it is often in a superficial and deprecating manner. When they talk about Southern Baptists, they talk about gay bashing. When they talk about Islam, they talk about jihad. They patronizingly assume that violence is an essential part of Islam."
But serious scholars of Islam dispute Forte's interpretation. When I sent his writings to Marius Deeb, a professor of modern Arab political thought at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, he told me, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about." When I approached Frank Vogel, Harvard's Islamic law specialist, he said, "Forte produces some useful synthetic essays." Then, after reading Forte's analysis of bin Laden, he was less generous: "His argument is a gross simplification." None of the other top Islam scholars I polled were willing to take their swipes on the record. But off the record they weren't any more charitable. A sampling of the derisive comments: "He's not very well informed" and "I'm afraid it's rubbish."
Indeed, it turns out there are significant problems with Forte's analysis. Consider the role of the Kharijites, whom Forte says serve as Al Qaeda's inspiration. In fact, bin Laden and his Egyptian theorist Ayman Zawahiri rarely, if ever, invoke the Kharijites. (Among contemporary Islamic extremists only the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé have held up the Kharijites as a model.) Al Qaeda's manifestos more frequently filch from the teachings of the thirteenth-century puritanical jurist Ibn Taymiyyah, who, as it happens, despised Kharijism.
Forte also ignores the influence of Wahhabism, one of modern Islam's central movements. Emerging in eighteenth-century Arabia, Wahhabism called for a new asceticism, violently opposing decorations in mosques and celebrations of the prophet's birthday. And it has at times sanctioned violence against "infidels," both outside the religion and within. For decades the Saudi royal family has aggressively promoted Wahhabism by, among other things, financing Wahhabi religious schools throughout the Muslim world. Bin Laden was born Wahhabi, and the Taliban--who graduated from some of those Saudi-funded Wahhabi schools--have undergone a period of what Olivier Roy, an Islamologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, calls "Wahhabisation." (Witness their destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha, in keeping with Wahhabi prohibitions against graven images.) You can even see traces of the sect's influence in hijacker Mohammed Atta's will, which requests Wahhabi burial rites. But you wouldn't pick up any of this from Forte, who never mentions Wahhabism in his analyses. As Deeb told me, "He misses the real story."
Perhaps that's because, unlike the Kharijites, Wahhabis aren't marginal. Within the United States, according to Hisham al-Kabbani, head of the Washington-based Islamic Supreme Counsel, almost 80 percent of mosques are presided over by Wahhabi Imams. The vast majority of them, of course, don't support bin Laden. But understanding Al Qaeda's Wahhabi roots exposes the simplicity of Forte's distinctions between good and bad, or real and fake, fundamentalist Islam.
But Forte isn't the only one with a deep desire to acquit religious orthodoxy of any bad deeds. The president wants to as well, which is why he has parroted Forte's arguments. Liberals, who often assume that evangelicals disdain other religions, have been surprised at Bush's Islamophilia since September 11. At nearly every turn the president utters homilies like "Islam is peace." He brags about his copy of the Koran, a gift from the Imam Muzammil H. Siddiqi. Speaking off the cuff at the Washington Islamic Center on September 17, he even posed as a Koranic exegete: "The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran itself..."
But this isn't surprising at all. Ecumenicism is a hallmark of Bush's brand of evangelicalism and of his political program. His faith-based initiative called for a popular religious front--"churches and mosques and synagogues ... that warm the cold to life"--against social decay. During the campaign, W.'s speeches trumpeted "the transforming power of faith," laying bare one of his first principles: Believers, no matter their denomination, are better people than nonbelievers.
That's what Forte believes as well. But it is an article of faith--not the basis for a serious and honest exploration of a religious tradition that Americans desperately need to better understand. Of course nobody wants Bush to declare war on Islam, or on the tens of millions who practice it and have no sympathy for Al Qaeda. But if the United States is to win a war on terrorism it needs to understand the enemy--which means acknowledging the extent to which religion influences terrorists and their supporters.
The Hudson Institute's Michael Horowitz, Forte's biggest booster, describes his significance this way: "A lot of people make the statement that being a believer makes you a better man. Most people don't believe it. But Forte helps you say it with conviction." But saying it with conviction doesn't make it any more true.
Franklin Foer is an associate editor at TNR.