Tonight, Dean Peter Awn spoke to the Columbia University alumni chapter in Seattle. I attended Columbia’s School of General Studies, for whom Awn has served as dean for 13 years. He is also a professor of religion specializing in Islam. His topic tonight was the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, which of course was right up my alley and why I attended.
Awn gave a terrific talk that focussed mainly on the history of the Shia-Sunni split and the cultural, political and religious differences between the two sects. Along the way though, he covered all the main stops on the Middle East tour including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear impasse, topics I blog about regularly.
I asked Awn about the nexus between religion and politics and how that fuels the Israeli-Arab conflict. He replied with some interesting comments which reflect closely my own feelings. He believes that the Israeli-Arab conflict is essentially political, rather than religious. Not that there isn’t a religious element to the conflict. But that political extremists on both sides exploit religion as an accelerant in the conflict.
Awn pointed out that Osama bin Laden isn’t particularly interested in the Israeli-Arab conflict nor even in toppling the west or establishing a Muslim caliphate. What he really wants to do is topple the Saudi regime, which is largely a political goal. He shamelessly exploits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while not caring a whit for the plight of the Palestinians. Similarly, Awn feels that Americans make a serious mistake when they claim that bin Laden wants to destroy the U.S. The 9/11 attacks were an attempt to get U.S. forces out of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
The real danger in political conflicts like the Israeli-Arab dispute is that religion will be injected into it and raise the level of hysteria. Political violence is bad enough. But adding religion and turning it into sacred violence infinitely raises the stakes.
So as troubling as Jack Teitel or Nidal Hassan are, Dean Awn views them and their religious fanaticism as symptoms of a conflict that is political. He does not view religion as the root cause nor should we.
In the “you shall know them by their enemies” department, you can be assured of Dean Awn’s bona fides knowing that the fake anti-jihad “expert,” “Hugh Fitzgerald” has attacked him in Frontpagemagazine, certainly the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval if there ever was one.