Walid Phares: His new book explores the rise of the academic jihadHistorians in the News
Middle East scholar Walid Phares in his recent book The War of Ideas: Jihad against Democracy outlines the ideological basis in which the jihadists use to perpetuate their anti Western agenda. Phares who was born and raised in Lebanon brings to the table his personal experience as a Middle Easterner as well as his academic career as professor of Middle East Studies and terrorism.
One of the key factors the author reveals here is the methodology whereby the hearts and minds of young students become engrossed in Jihadism which is sold to them in what the author defines as “spiritual yoga.” Moreover, to say that Jihad is “holy war” is too simplistic. The definition of jihad and its meaning has become one the most common misconceptions today as we battle the war of ideas in the war against the jihadists. These debates on whether jihad is a psychological battle or whether it has an actual military connotation have become the center of debate in many university departments specifically in Middle East departments post-September 11th.
The fact of the matter is that Jihad has always had a military connotation despite what many would like us to believe. As David Cook underscores in his study Understanding Jihad, “to maintain that jihad means ‘the effort to lead a good life’ is pathetic and laughable in any case. In all the literature concerning jihad – whether militant or internal jihad – the fundamental idea is to disconnect oneself from the world, to die to the world whether bodily (as in battle) or spiritually (as in internal jihad). The priorities of jihad in Islam here are exactly reversed from the historical and religious realities: the armed struggle - aggressive conquest – came first, and then additional meanings became attached to the term.”
As a result of the above, we have seen the spread of an academic jihad which is growing across North American universities. Consequently, students and donors are blinded by Saudi and Wahabi money which has been fueling the system since the 60’s in an effort to what they consider to be “a fair and honest depiction of the Middle East” – this couldn’t been further from the truth. Phares’ experience as a professor who taught about the Middle East and terrorism is astonishing when one considers what he had to do in order to survive in his department. As he writes, “I have observed with amazement American students stripped of their basic rights to be educated accurately about the main geopolitical and ideological threats to their homeland. Instead of using classroom time to profoundly analyze the rise of what would become al-Qaeda or the Khomeini regime’s long-range strategies, we professors had to ‘clean up’ the diseducating process that blurred the intellectual vision of a whole generation.”
Furthermore, academic freedom has been used as a shield and a "get-out-of-jail-free card" when speakers are dismissed as conservatism-revivalism. The modern notions of free speech and academic freedom stem from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Mill argued that free speech originates in society's want to discover the truth. By vetoing a right opinion, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to exchange an error for truth. But by banning a false opinion, Mill stated, we lose something almost as precious — a clearer perception of truth that is produced by its clash with error. If no foes are available to put your ideas to the test, Mill argues that one should invent arguments against your own beliefs.
Today, whatever goes on in a classroom is deemed protected by "academic freedom," whether it is academic or not. Only sexual harassment appears exempt from this blanket protection. Gradually, the entire campus has become an "academic freedom" zone, where protests and other activities now qualify as academic "speech." The freedom to critique is, predictably, directed mostly at the twin Satans, Israel and America, although efforts to curtail speech that academics find unpleasant and unacceptable have been long standing in the form of "speech codes" and restrictions on "hate speech." Clearly, academic freedom is a one-way street; only those having the correct opinions may claim it.
Finally, Phares’s book is an important contribution to continuing battle against the academic jihad which is infesting university classrooms. His book is an added value to Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America where Kramer chronicled the takeover of American Middle East Studies by a cohort of politicized scholars who blamed the Middle East’s problems on the West and dismissed the threat of Islamist terror.
Winning the war against Jihadism necessitates winning the war of ideas as well as the war on the ground, and Phares book serves as a useful guide to make that happen.
 Cook, David. Understanding Jihad, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005, P. 42.
 Phares, Walid. The War of Ideas Jihad against Democracy, New York: Palgrave, 2007, P. 161.
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