Muhammad Ashmawy: Smoke and Mirrors on Contemporary Islam
In a speech at Stanford University Thursday night, former Egyptian High Court Chief Justice, Muhammad Said Ashmawy, outlined his vision for the appropriate relationship between Islam and democracy. The basis of his argument centered upon his claims that politics was never part of the original Islamic tradition, that Muslim leaders created autocratic political roles for themselves after the fact, and that contemporary Islamic scholarship erroneously supports the concept of ideological political rule with unquestioning devotion and obedience to a single leader.
That Ashmawy is controversial is a fact well known to many Muslims. That Ashmawy and his rhetoric have found appreciation in American academia is a less known fact, but one that should evoke concern from Muslims.
The reason for alarm is this: universities play an immense agenda setting role for the government. They are think tanks whose direction of discourse not only shapes the minds of the future, but gives credence and validity to policies of the present. And the more exclusive a university is, the more clout it carries in government, media and policy circles. It is therefore of grave concern that Ashmawy was given the pulpit at Stanford University, arguably one of the preeminent institutions of higher learning in the world.
While definite fault can be found with Ashmawy's assertions on religious grounds, it is his practical view of Islam and politics that pose the greatest threat to warping his western advocates' perception of politics in Islam and what Islam strives for in the contemporary political world.
His skewed and flimsy stance was summed up in his answer to a post-lecture question concerning the fact that despite the facade of democracy in many Muslim countries, peaceful, political Islamic movements are denied the opportunity to compete at the ballot box. Said Ashmawy, "I believe that democracy means circulating between parties. Once there is a party based on ideology, it will destroy democracy." He then took this line of thinking further, by citing Adolph Hitler's rise to power in Germany as an example of how an ideological movement, democratically elected, will ultimately destroy democracy and society as a whole.
By resorting to playing the Hitler card, Ashmawy showed his true colors. He, like many other so-called scholarly critics of Islam, fails to see the vast span of moderate middle ground that precedes such extreme forms of rule as the authoritarian example of Hitler. In fact, the Hitler card is nothing more than a diversionary tactic for those seeking to cover the inadequacies of their own positions by appealing to emotionally evocative examples.
In addition to doctrinal and rhetorical faults one might have with Ashmawy, there is also the problem of his prior involvement with the Egyptian Security Courts, over which he presided as Chief Justice from 1981 to 1993. Human rights groups have vehemently opposed these courts for their violations of basic civil rights and civil liberties. Ashmawy, when questioned on this involvement, dodged the issue by pointing to what he considered his fair judicial record and by attacking journalistic sources (no less than the internationally recognized Economist) critical of him as having fabricated reports and misquoted his statements.
That Stanford University would host such a person shows the direction of scholarly discourse on politics and Islam. Although several members of the audience Thursday night expressed their personal confusion with reference to Ashmawy's ideas, there was no confusion at the administrative level in inviting Ashmawy.
While it can be argued that all camps in a debate should be given free and fair opportunity to voice their opinions, it is curious that Stanford would chose to open its doors to someone with such a radical and almost dictatorial view of democracy. Who's next on their list of official invitees? Louis Farakhan? Shaykh Omar Abdul Rahman via jail cell teleconference? Most likely not. And it remains to be seen whether Stanford would be willing to host a more widely accepted Muslim scholar to give a more accurate context to the growing interest in Islam by the West.
Ali Asadullah is the Editor of iviews.com