A Key to Shaping the Political Agenda: Part II The Role of Crescent University (1)
Posted Aug 2, 2002

The future of every community lies in the hands of its leaders.  This is true of America and of Muslims in America.  The leaders have the responsibility to determine what kind of leadership they should offer.

The future of every community lies in the hands of its leaders.  This is true of America and of Muslims in America.  The leaders have the responsibility to determine what kind of leadership they should offer.

The greatest task of Muslims in America is to develop intellectual leadership. The intellectual void in the Muslim world is the principal cause of extremism, because it breeds ignorance, alienation, economic and political stagnation, and the end product, which is terrorism.  Someday, I want to have a bumper sticker made that reads: “Islam is the Solution, but are Muslims?”

In the Book World section of the Sunday Washington Post (July 7, 2002), in an article entitled “Going Public,” Michael Berube (3) facilitates our task by distinguishing among three classes of intellectual elites, namely, the scholars, think-tankers, and popular pundits.

My career has been in the middle task, namely, think-tanks, which function primarily to set agendas, and I have collected the best books on the history and operations of the think-tank industry.  In fact, the first task that I set for my executive assistant, Valerie Turner, two years ago when I founded the Islamic Institute for Strategic Studies, was to prepare a 500-page directory and analysis of the think-tank and foundation complex in order to establish where we should forge links.  No Muslims that I have ever heard of have ever thought of making alliances with like-minded think-tanks or even doing the agenda-formation work of a think-tank as part of long-range strategy.

The third task, that of pundits, is the focus of all policy-oriented Muslim organizations, i.e. how to popularize Muslim interests and perspectives in the shaping of public opinion, current legislation, and immediate or current public policy.  In the past, I have been attacked because I contend that this obsession achieves no leverage over the agenda formation that drives future policy.  Trying to compete in tactical punditry by minority Muslims against the majority establishment has always been reactive and negative and without strategic depth and direction. 

This myopic mindset, in fact, explains why the combined gross domestic product of the two dozen Arab states is less than that of Spain, why the best Muslim intellectuals have had to flee their own countries in order to do the work of civilizational development, including building democracy, and why there is not a single university even approaching the calibre of Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard in the entire Muslim world.  The Islamic civilization collapsed because the leaders started thinking small, while those in the West started thinking big.  The emigrants from the Muslim world to America, with some notable exceptions, seem unable to escape the decadent world of their origins, which is why they deny that they are terrorists but leave the initiative to the extremists in filling the ideative or intellectual void in their midst.

The first of the three tasks treated in Michael Berube’s essay is the private pursuit by intellectuals of truth for its own sake and the development of intellectual paradigms of thought that necessarily and indirectly but not purposely shape policy agendas and public policy.  This is the world of what one might call the “private intellectuals,” as contrasted with what Berube calls the “public intellectuals.”  This, in my view, should be the primary task of Muslim intellectuals.  Without this, the pursuit by Muslims of the second two tasks, namely, agenda formation by think-tanks and day-to-day lobbying for legislation and for policy implementation by policy advisers and policy makers, is doomed to failure.

Berube bewails the trend, which he has been studying for some years, away from the era of private intellectuals when the “generalist men of letters” shaped culture by writing primarily or even exclusively for each other in a competition for truth.  This was replaced a couple of decades ago by a bifurcated era of pundits and policy wonks, when “polemic-minded eminences … furiously scribbled books and magazine pieces for a general readership,” and when their cousins, the “hyper-specialized academics” in well-financed centers of policy research, did the bidding of special interests with predetermined financial or political agendas in the new industry of think-tank lobbying. 

Berube quotes Stanley Fish’s l995 book, Professional Correctness, which refers to the public pundits as “cameo intellectuals … who are called upon by CNN or the Features section of the local paper for a quote on the topic du jour … and wind up looking every bit as fallible, partisan, and idiosyncratic as journalists.”  Perhaps these at least are better than those individuals who succumb to the academic institutionalization of public intellectualism in an academic bureaucracy, which has developed “academic programs and centers devoted o the care and feeding and propagation of public intellectuals.”  The problem, Berube says, is that the victims of such institutionalization “get more and more public and less and less intellectual,” so that one becomes hard pressed to distinguish between “public intellectuals” and “publicity intellectuals, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be any way left to make such a distinction.”

The disease of marketing and self-marketing the public intellectual, to which Muslims are not immune, has become part of free-market globalization, whereby, Berube opines somewhat tongue in cheek, “there is every reason to suspect that some publicity intellectuals function more or less as brand names, endorsing various lines of products that are actually manufactured by research assistants toiling away in offshore sweatshops.”

Confusion among the three intellectual tasks may explain why Richard Posner in his book, Public Intellectuals: A Story of Decline, put Ann Coulter and W.B. Yeats in the same category.  As you may remember, Ann Coulter was a senior editor of William F. Buckley’s National Review until she was fired last winter for going really too far by stating that the United States should attack all Muslims and force them to become Christians.  In her new book, Slander: Liberal Lies Against the American Right, she excoriates the liberals by comparing them to Muslims: “Even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do.  They don’t have the energy.  If they had that much energy, they’d have indoor plumbing by now.”

The national Muslim organizations focus their energy on combating this type of extremist statement.  Unfortunately, this accomplishes precisely nothing except to increase the victimization syndrome of Muslims so that they will give money to defend themselves but do nothing to change the environment in which such pundits thrive.

  Creating the Islamic environment of objective inquiry and scholarship that produced the worldwide Islamic civilization a millennium ago will be much more effective over the long-run in defending Muslims.  The reason is that such creativity will make their defense unnecessary, because they will be a constructive part of a pluralist world civilization led by a functionally Islamic America.  For decades, this has been the vision that I have followed in my life-long profession of forecasting the future of the world.

Right now, enlightened Muslims of America are launching a bold initiative to establish Crescent University, with a budget of $100,000,000 for the first five years, and a billion dollars endowment for the establishment of its first graduate schools in the year 2010.  One of the first issues that Crescent University will have to face is the role it should play in this triad of intellectual tasks. Should it play a role in all three, or only one or two, and which should it emphasize?  The essential decision that has to be made is whether we want to be creators and purveyors of knowledge, or captive to the forces that are causing the decline of Western civilization and leading to global chaos. 

1. * Prepared for the conference of the Islamic Society of North America on “Islam in America After 9/11.”
2. ??  Vice-Chairman of Crescent University and Chairman of the Center for Understanding Islam.
3.  Michael Bérubé teaches English at Penn State University and is the author of “The Employment of English: Teaching, Jobs and the Future of Literary Studies.”  To view the entire article, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26273-2002Jul4.html