Moosa and the Madrassas at Berekley University/ Stephen Schwartz

May 22, 2011
At the end of a week in which U.S. military forces in Pakistan carried out the execution of Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban declared that the death of "Sheikh Osama bin Laden will give a new impetus to the current jihad against the invaders in this critical phase of jihad," a stunning display of Islamist insensitivity and arrogance took place at the University of California, Berkeley. On Friday, May 6, 2011, Ebrahim Moosa, a South African Muslim and professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University in North Carolina, speaking at a UC Berkeley workshop on "Religious Norms in the Public Sphere," defended Deobandism, the madrassa-based radical ideology that inspires the Taliban.

The workshop was cosponsored by the Center on Institutions and Governance of UC Berkeley's Institute of International Studies; the Center for Islamic Studies at its Graduate Theological Union; the Kadish Center for Morality, Law & Public Affairs at Berkeley Law; the Partner University Fund, which is supported by the French government; and the Social Science Research Council.

A subdued audience of fewer than twenty people and speakers arrayed around a square set of long tables constituted the event, which was held at the Bancroft Hotel adjoining the UC Berkeley campus.

Moosa was one of the May 6 "speakers/performers" -- a perhaps unintentionally accurate description -- as were UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian and French Islamologist Olivier Roy.

Moosa is, indeed, quite a "performer"; he has gained a reputation as an Islamic moderate based on his 2005 study of the twelfth-century Muslim theologian Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali and his editing of the last book of the late scholar of Islam Fazlur Rahman, of the University of Chicago.

In his "keynote lecture," Moosa reveled in a defense of Deobandism and its main madrassa, Dar Ul-Uloom Deoband, located in India. The title of his presentation was innocuous: "Norms in the Madrassa-Sphere: Between Tradition, Scripture, and the Public Good." Nevertheless, after an introduction by GTU Islamic Studies director and assistant professor Munir Jiwa, Moosa made clear early in his presentation that his aim was to cleanse the "narrative" on madrassas, in which, he claimed, madrassas have been "treated in [the] media with dread as a threat to Western security."

Moosa gave no ground to those who would argue that many madrassas, especially in South Asia, are centers for radical Islamist indoctrination. He dismissed in a passing reference reports that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban chief for whose capture the U.S. government has offered a $10-million reward as an accomplice of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, was a student at Dar Ul-Uloom Deoband. According to Moosa, Mullah Omar's involvement with the madrassa "caused Deoband to be identified with the Taliban," as if the association was trivial or manufactured by media. In reality, the murderous extremists in Afghanistan were inspired by Deobandism, and Mullah Omar was not the sole alumnus of its madrassa system among their ranks.

According to journalist Ahmed Rashid in his 2001 book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, "at least eight Taliban cabinet ministers [...] were graduates of Dar Ul-Uloom Haqqania," a madrassa established in Pakistan in conformity with the model at Deoband in India, and "dozens more graduates served as Taliban governors in the provinces, military commanders, judges, and bureaucrats."

Treating the entire subject benevolently, Moosa declared that the Deobandi network had spread internationally through support from British and South African Muslims, as well as donations by Indian Muslim business leaders. He failed to mention that, as noted by Rashid, "funds from Saudi Arabia to madrassas and parties which were sympathetic to the Wahhabi creed" -- the most violent fundamentalist movement ever identified with Sunni Islam -- "as the Deobandis were, helped these madrassas turn out young militants."

Referring to the Deobandi history of aggression against spiritual Muslim Sufis, Moosa conceded that the madrassa system that spawned the Taliban was "severe" in its attitude. This is an understatement typical of those who try to absolve Islamist fundamentalists by describing them as "puritan" or "austere" and ignoring that their tendencies towards "Puritanism," "austerity," and even "reform" lead to the murder of dissenters. Moosa was equally benign in noting the emergence of the radical Tabligh-i-Jamaat da'wa (missionization) movement from the Deobandi environment, and in casually praising Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the world-famous Islamist hate-preacher headquartered in Qatar and banned from entry into Britain and the U.S.

It should be noted that Moosa is himself a graduate of Deobandi theological training, which he recalled lyrically between comments on recondite Islamic theological distinctions throughout the remainder of his presentation. According to his website biography, Moosa "earned his M.A. (1989) and Ph.D. (1995) from the University of Cape Town. Prior to that, he took the 'alimiyya [clerical] degree in Islamic and Arabic studies from Darul Ulum Nadwatul 'Ulama," a Deobandi campus at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Moosa was shocking -- or so one would expect in left-leaning Berkeley -- in his apologetic description of two controversies involving the Deobandi madrassas. In 1964, Muslim clerics in his native South Africa were upset when a Deobandi scholar held that Islamically prohibited interest, or riba, could be collected in Muslim business transactions in the country, because it was not a Muslim-majority territory. Moosa noted pleasantly that the apartheid state had allowed shariah-based banks and insurance companies to function without hindrance. The bien-pensant Berkeley audience, accustomed to the false charge that Israel imposes apartheid upon Arabs, was unfazed by Moosa's amiable approval of the tolerance for shariah under the government that invented the term "apartheid." Moosa's website biography also states that he "advised the first independent South African government after apartheid on Islamic affairs," yet he seemed amnesiac about the discrimination Muslims had suffered under South African apartheid.

The audience remained unruffled when Moosa then evoked a fatwa issued by the Deobandi clerics in India in the 2005 "Imrana rape case." Imrana, a resident of the Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, aged 28 and the mother of five children, was raped by her father-in-law, Ali Mohammad, 69. Her full name was never disclosed in the Indian press, but a council of five elders, or panchayat, in the village where she lived, Charthawal, ordered that Imrana separate from her husband, Nur Ilahi, because she was now the sexual partner of her father-in-law. That she was violated, and that her "adultery" or other alleged transgression was involuntary, was ignored. Imrana defied the elders and continued living with her husband. The Deobandi school issued a fatwa endorsing a mandatory divorce but denying that such an outcome would be Islamic. Imrana's husband supported her and said, "We neither sought advice nor counsel from Deoband. We have not raised the issue before clerics."

The "Imrana case" caused a scandal in India, and the father-in-law was found guilty of rape in 2007 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Moosa described the abominable action of the Deobandi clerics with equanimity, adding blandly that they "blamed the controversy on Western media and condemned those Muslims who criticized them." He contributed a mild rebuke, stipulating that in the treatment of Imrana, Islamic law "turned into a brutal practice." He then returned to, and concluded with, a stream-of-consciousness commentary about the Deobandi concept of Islamic spirituality.

Moosa is perhaps best-known by the U.S. public for his co-authorship of a document issued in 2010 aimed at dispelling concerns about radicalization of American Muslims, titled "Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans." That report was financed by grant no. 2007-IJ-CX-0008, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Justice Programs, and the U.S. Department of Justice, which also published it. Moosa's colleagues in that instance were David Schanzer, an associate professor at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy, and Charles Kurzman, an expert on Iran and sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their intent was to demonstrate that self-policing by the American Muslim community had prevented the spread of jihadism -- an obvious inaccuracy, but their ameliorative rhetoric gained the dubious report considerable attention and even credibility in American media.

Moosa has a blog titled "Dihliz: The Spaces Between," and he is a supporter of Zaytuna College, the flamboyantly promoted project for a purported "first accredited Islamic university" in the U.S. The Zaytuna enterprise is directed by Moosa's friends: Hamza Yusuf Hanson, the well-known radical Muslim preacher; Hanson's main disciple, Zaid Shakir; and the aforementioned Hatem Bazian, senior lecturer in UC Berkeley Near Eastern studies department and director of the "Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project" at the university's "Center for Race and Gender." With the guidance of such as Moosa, Hanson, and Bazian, it would seem that rather than becoming a Western-style university -- if it is ever realized as an institution -- Zaytuna would be a madrassa in the fundamentalist Deobandi tradition.

Ebrahim Moosa has received funding from the Carnegie Corporation to research madrassas, and he has announced the forthcoming publication of a new book on the topic, to be titled What Is a Madrassa? During his Berkeley lecture, it seemed that neither Moosa nor his audience had absorbed the recent news about the death of bin Laden or the lessons of a decade of bloodshed caused by Wahhabi and Deobandi fanaticism in the U.S., Western Europe, and the South Asian and other Muslim lands. For Moosa and those studying under him -- about whom he bragged of his mentorship and their adulation -- it was as if little in radical Islam was worthy of serious concern, much less disapproval. He made it all seem faraway and abstract. And a Berkeley audience that would supposedly pride itself on its antiracism and feminism sat passively through his shameful "performance."

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He is a UC Berkeley alumnus and was a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1989 to 1999. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.


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