At this moment of sequester and belt-tightening, the U.S. government has delivered a reading list on Islam.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has joined with two private foundations, Carnegie and Duke, to fund "Muslim Journeys," a project that aims to present "new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, practices, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world." Its main component is the "Muslim Journeys Bookshelf," a selection of 25 books and 3 films on Islam sent to nearly 1,000 libraries as well as a website and some other activities. Marvin Olasky, who brought this project to public attention, estimates the whole project cost about US$1 million.
As one of the taxpayers who unwittingly contributed to this project as well as the compiler of my own bibliography on Islam and the Middle East, I take interest in the 25 books NEH selected for glory, spreading them around the country.
Softness characterizes its list: the 25 books quietly ignore current headlines so as to accentuate the attractive side of Islamic civilization, especially its medieval expression, and gently promote the Islam religion. It's not so exuberant an exercise as the British 1976 World of Islam Festival, described at the time as "a unique cultural event that … was no less than an attempt to present one civilization—in all its depth and variety—to another." But then, how can one aspire to such grandeur with all that's happened in the intervening years?
NEH's list and mine do share minor commonalities: for example, one author (the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi) and one series (the Very Short Introductions series issued by Oxford University Press).
But our purposes could not be more different: whereas I help readers understand why Muslims fill 30 out of 32 slots on the most wanted terrorists list and how Islamism came to be the main vehicle of barbarism in the world today, the endowment's list shields the reader's eyes from all this unpleasantness. Where I provide background to the headlines, NEH ignores them and pretends all is well with Islam, as is the federal government's wont.
I seek to answer burning questions: Who was Muhammad? What is the historical impact of Islam? When is warfare jihad? Why did Islamism arise? How does tribal culture influence political life? Where can one locate signs of hope for Islam to moderate? In contrast, the NEH list offers a smattering of this and that – poetry, personal accounts, antiquities, architecture, religion and history, original texts, and a smidgeon of current events, preferably presented fictionally. For example, In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, tells about a boy growing up in Qaddafi's Libya).
I suggest Marshall G. S. Hodgson's 3-volume scholarly masterpiece, The Venture of Islam, while NEH proffers Jim Al-Khalili's derivative House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. I offer up books by sturdy anti-Islamist Muslims such as Khalid Durán's introduction to Islam or Bassam Tibi's Challenge of Fundamentalism. The endowment, of course – for what else does a government agency do? – promotes Islamists, including the Canadian phony moderate Ingrid Mattson and the Obama administration's favorite Eboo Patel.
My books are personal selections based on decades in the field; theirs is a mish-mash brokered by a committee of four standard-issue academics (Leila Golestaneh Austin, Giancarlo Casale, Frederick Denny, and Kambiz GhaneaBassiri) and one don't-rock-the-boat journalist (Deborah Amos).
The NEH bibliography reminds one of the Middle East Studies Association's annual meetings, which often avoid interesting or important topics in favor of such obscure feminist issues as "Problematizing 'Women's Place' in the Multiple Borderzones of Gender and Ethnic Politics in Turkey" and "The Turkish Women's Union and the Politics of Women's Rights in Turkey, 1929-1935."
As these titles suggest, today's scholars have a strange tendency to focus in on questions no one is asking, as do many of the NEH books. Anthony Shadid recounts in House of Stone: a Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East his efforts to restore an ancestral home in Lebanon; Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses: a Novel tells the story of a television journalist in Karachi.
As taxpayer and as specialist, I condemn the NEH list. Far from presenting "new and diverse perspectives," it offers the usual academic obfuscation mixed with Islamist triumphalism. It reminds us that of the many things governments should not do, one of them is to compile bibliographies.
May 23, 2013 addendum: Here is the complete list of books from the NEH list: