By Jennifer S. Bryson
Princeton University professor and political philosopher Robert P. George has recently become a target of controversy, accused by some of being anti-Muslim. The critics have cited only the report Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America by Wajahat Ali which draws attention to the role of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in making grants to some vehement (and, in my view, misguided) critics of Islam and of leading Muslim organizations. George serves as one of eleven members on the Board of the Bradley Foundation. Some have inferred from this that George himself must be hostile to Islam and to Muslims. Based on this, Islamophobia Today has even gone so far as to sponsor a petition opposing the recent appointment of George to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
However, on closer examination, this inference about George is significantly mistaken. His record shows public support for respectful, informed engagement of Muslims in our society today and building partnerships with Muslims to promote public welfare on issues of shared concern. Moreover, George has, in fact, repeatedly and consistently raised his voice in defense of Islam and the rights of Muslims, and he has courageously challenged other conservatives when they have unfairly attacked the Muslim faith or its adherents.
For example, in June of 2011, when then-presidential candidate Herman Cain said that, if elected, he would permit Muslims to serve in his administration only after exacting from them a “loyalty proof” higher than that which would be required of members of other faiths, George rebuked Cain, calling his comments “wrong, foolish, and unacceptable.” They are, George said, “disrespectful of Muslims, the vast majority of whom in our country are, as Cain himself seems to acknowledge, loyal, honorable citizens; and it is incompatible with a sound understanding of religious freedom (and with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution's no-religious-tests clause).
Repeatedly, George, drawing on the teachings of Catholicism, has reminded his fellow Catholics of the official teaching of Catholicism on Islam, promulgated at the Second Vatican Council in 1965
The Church has a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims link their own. Although not acknowledging Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet; his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the Day of Judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
George and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf have collaborated repeatedly, and along the way established a relationship of tremendous mutual respect and friendship. These two men of extraordinary faith and a caliber of intellect attained by few, have found in each other a peer. The two men have plainly been influenced by each other's writings, and they speak of each other in glowing terms. Twice they have conducted major public dialogues on the importance of Islamic-Christian understanding and cooperation, one at Princeton and one at Georgetown, as captured here on video. At George's invitation, Shaykh Hamza has been a featured speaker at Princeton University's annual interfaith Respect Life Sunday service. Also at George's invitation, Shaykh Hamza contributed to a Witherspoon Institute forum on the “Social Costs of Pornography” and a book by the same name.
Shaykh Hamza has written of George:
Robert George, to me, represents what is best in the conservative movement. He is a scholar who loves the Western tradition and is committed to a higher set of values than what is presented today as morality. He is also a wonderfully modest man, despite his remarkable intellect and knowledge, and represents real Catholic ethical commitment. He is genuinely dismayed by the attacks of certain segments of the conservative Christian right on Islam. As a devout Catholic, he understands how religion is threatened today by the profoundly secular mindset that has taken over. However, he also recognizes that just as the great faith of St. Augustine and St. Aquinas is today misrepresented in the press as a religion infested with pedophiles, so too, the great faith of our saints, imām al-Ghazali and Fakhar al-Din al-Razi, is being misrepresented as a religion rooted in terror that produces violent followers thirsting after the blood of infidels.
At Princeton University George has also helped to arrange for other Muslims, such as Abdullah Saeed, Suzy Ismail, and Ed Husain, to speak on campus. In his Princeton University courses on civil liberties George has invited Muslim clergy such as imām Hamad Chebli of the Islamic Center of Central Jersey to speak to students on the tenets of Islam. “Many non-Muslim students have misguided notions of what Islam actually teaches about issues such as religious freedom,” George has observed. “I want to make sure they hear the truth about Islam from persons who speak with authority from within the faith.” Earlier this year at the university George published a series of interviews with Princeton faculty, representing different traditions of faith in the campus newspaper under the title “Keeping Faith.” His first interview in the series was with the Palestinian-American Muslim scholar Dr. Amaney Jamal of Princeton's Department of Politics. George's respect for Islam and esteem for his Muslim colleague shines through.
In 2009 George supported establishment of a new Islam and Civil Society Project (of which I am the Director) at the Witherspoon Institute in order to seek greater understanding of Islam and find ways to partner with Muslims on issues of shared concern such as supporting marriage and religious freedom, and he has remained a tremendous supporter of this project since its founding. The Islam and Civil Society Project has run an annual seminar on Islam since then, with the upcoming 2012 seminar focused on, “The Qurʾān in the Modern World,” including speakers Dr. Abdullah Saeed, Dr. Mahan Mirza, and Asma Uddin. Articles I have published in my work while Director of this Islam and Civil Society Project are available here.
As a matter of full-disclosure, and as a point of pride, I should note that as George's colleague at the Witherspoon Institute I have had the pleasure of working with him in many important causes, including the defense of the rights of Muslims. We have spoken out together against anti-Islamic opposition, to construction of mosques in American cities and against the Florida Family Association's (FFA) boycott of sponsors of the television reality show “All American Muslim.” In a letter to the President of the FFA, we wrote that the vast majority of our Muslim fellow citizens “are good people and good Americans. They share our fundamental moral values and our commitments to democratic institutions and civil and religious liberty. They do not promote hatred of Christians and Jews and have no desire to establish an Islamic theocracy. They are as appalled as we are at the rhetoric and conduct of those of their religion who do promote hatred and who seek to undermine democratic freedoms.” We went on:
It is fundamentally unjust to tar all or most Muslims with the brush of extremism; and, as Christians and Americans, we must never countenance injustice. Moreover, effectively countering the threats posed by genuine extremists requires us to welcome, as friends and allies, Muslims who share our opposition to radicalism and violence, who value their American citizenship and American freedom just as we do, and who contribute constructively to their communities and the larger society. When we treat our Muslim fellow citizens justly, and when we welcome them as partners in our efforts on behalf of life, liberty, and human dignity, we are being true both to our Christian faith and to our American heritage
The New York Times calls George “our nation's most influential conservative Christian thinker.” Another profile of George calls him a, “Conservative Heavyweight.” To be sure, the public expression of these sentiments by a figure as important as Robert George in the American conservative movement is particularly important, and even risky to George himself, at a time when the American conservative movement is, sadly, riddled with activists espousing anti-Muslim perspectives. Indeed, as a result of expressing his support for Muslims and the rights of Muslims as fellow Americans, George has come in for his share of abuse from anti-Muslim extremists. (For example, one letter he and I received from an American in response to one of our joint articles about Muslims featured a stamp on the envelope, “Mecca delenda est,” Latin for “Mecca must be destroyed,” and the letter went on from there.) In spite of all this he has stood his ground.
Yet what about George's position on the Bradley Foundation board? Is it inconsistent with his advocacy of the rights of Muslims and his work for Christian-Muslim cooperation? The Bradley Board discussions are confidential and, says George, “what I have to say about Bradley grants and grantees I will say to them and my colleagues on the Bradley board.” Frankly I am glad that he is part of the Bradley Board. He can have more influence by participating inside than by protesting from outside, and having so prominent a defender of Muslim rights, and of Islam as a faith, in such a visible place of honor and influence in the conservative movement sends a clear message to other conservatives that they need not, and should not, view Islam with contempt or regard their Muslim fellow citizens with suspicion.
Someone like Robert George who enjoys enormous prestige and influence in the conservative movement could easily remain quiet in the face of anti-Muslim hostility. He has little to gain personally by speaking out, and more than a little to lose. Liberals don't like him because of his strong support for the pro-life cause and for traditional marriage. By publicly and forcefully speaking up for the rights of Muslims, he risks alienating the friends and supporters he does have, who are mainly on the right. Having had the pleasure and honor of working with him for several years, I have seen that he runs that risk because he truly believes that as a Christian he has a duty to defend the rights of those whom he never hesitates to call his “Muslim brothers and sisters”. His appointment to USCIRF brings to this Commission a man with deep understanding of and commitment to religious freedom, who approaches his work with a strong, principled posture of fairness and respect for all religious believers. And as his track record shows, “all” for George includes Muslims.