A California nonprofit dedicated to “teaching about Islam & Muslims” at U.S. high schools and college campuses features a board of advisors that is stacked with some of the most controversial activist professors in the field of Middle Eastern studies today. The imprimatur of these scholars may signal a troubling shift toward the support of proselytizing efforts and the further unraveling of Middle East Studies in America.
The board of Islamic Networks Group (ING) is a veritable Who’s Who of Islamist apologists and activists. Leading the list is John Esposito, the founding director of the Saudi-funded Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He famously stated that the suicide-bombing Hamas organization engages in “honey, cheese-making, and home-based clothing manufacture.”
Joining Esposito on the ING board is Sherman Jackson of the University of Michigan, who was a trustee at the North American Islamic Trust and worked with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), both un-indicted co-conspirators in the U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation.
There’s also Ingrid Mattson, a convert to Islam, who is a professor at the Hartford Seminary and president of the un-indicted co-conspirator ISNA. While much of her work is controversial, she is famous for a CNN chatroom interview in 2001 in which she stated that the radical Saudi Wahhabi ideology is “a reform movement” that “really was analogous to the European Protestant reformation.”
Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who is not a scholar but sits on the ING board, publicly declared his own extremism at an ISNA convention. In 1991, he reportedly delivered a speech titled “Jihad is the Only Way” to the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which is an arm of the radical organization Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan.
While Maha El-Genaidi, the founder, president and CEO of ING, does not appear openly to embrace radicalism, she reportedly has worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), also an un-indicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case. El-Genaidi also participated in an event sponsored by the Muslim Students Association with Siraj Wahhaj, an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
ING’s reach is wide. Its web site lists more than a dozen affiliated organizations in North America. They reflect a broad network involved in Islamic outreach (da’wa), otherwise known as proselytizing.
The list of ING affiliates includes such Muslim outreach organizations as: The Islamic Speakers Bureau of Nebraska; the Islamic Resource Group in Minnesota; the Islamic Education and Resource Network in Michigan; the Islamic Center of Cincinnati; the Organization of Islamic Speakers Midwest Illinois; the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta; the Kentucky Islamic Resource Group; the Islamic Speakers Bureau of San Diego; and the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Vancouver.
Because ING charges nothing for its campus speeches, hosts aren’t deterred by financial needs. Thus, with a modest 2007 budget of $356,000, the latest figure available via public tax returns, ING made an astonishing 750 classroom visits in one year, a figure that doesn’t include visits to churches, senior centers, corporations, and forums for policemen and healthcare workers. According to a recent ING newsletter, the group reached 14,000 students and adults after public schools and universities responded to a large-scale ING direct mail campaign.
ING also disseminates its message through the printed word. Access to the ING online store is now denied for reasons unknown, but a few of the organization’s publications are available on the Internet. Among them is Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture by Jack Sheehan, a former communications professor at Southern Illinois University who was also a visiting professor at Esposito’s Center for Muslim Christian Understanding. Another title is Presenting Ramadan and Eid in Elementary School: Grades K-6 Kit for Parents and Teachers, designed to generate excitement about these Muslim holy days through art, music, and “lunar activities.”
ING also appears to have created a curriculum about Islam for grades 7 through 12. It also appears that the State of California, at least at one point, used ING curriculum. However, the ING links on the California Department of Education website are now dead.
There is nothing even vaguely radical on the ING website. The organization’s behavior appears to be consistent with its message of pluralism. One might only observe that the organization attempts to whitewash the radical strains of the religion (a common theme in the work of Esposito and Mattson).
Without challenging ING’s freedom to preach, two important observations should be made.
First, it is now clear that some Middle Eastern Studies professors have ceased being observers of Islam and are now engaging in its propagation. Countless analysts have noted that Middle Eastern Studies professors substitute scholarship with apologia for radicalism. Still others openly agitate against the United States or Israel. However, it is rare to see scholars openly lend their support to proselytizing efforts of this kind.
It is too early to know whether the scholars on the ING board represent an anomaly or a trend. The motivations of Mattson and Sherman – both converts to Islam – are somewhat understandable. Esposito, a non-Muslim, is more of a mystery.
On a more practical level, elementary school, high school, or college administrators mulling a free visit from El-Genaidi’s group should be forewarned about the academic engine that powers ING. ING’s leading thinkers have a history of cavorting with apologists for radicalism-and the radicals themselves.
Jonathan Schanzer, an adjunct scholar at Campus Watch, is deputy executive director for the Jewish Policy Center, and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave, Nov 2008).