Duke University has hired an academic with a track record of making outrageous and misleading claims about Israel to head up an Islamic-studies center for which the North Carolina college received a $3 million dollar endowment.
Duke Today reported last week that Omid Safi will head the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), described as “the university’s hub of teaching, learning and research about Islam and Muslim communities.” Safi has a considerable media presence. He writes a column at Huffington Post entitled “What Would Muhammad Do?” and has contributed to the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and other major media outlets.
Safi, a Duke alumnus, claims to defend an anodyne version of Islam and to eschew extremism. However, there is nothing moderate about the moral equivalencies he invokes to criticize Israel. Take, for example, his “Zionist Atrocities at the Village of Deir Yassin . . . 65 Years ago and Today.” The article was published in Religion News Service (RNS) on April 9, 2013, and retracted shortly thereafter.
Safi asserts that the massacre of the Arab village during the midst of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence continues to exemplify Israel’s modus operandi. The article featured a black-and-white photograph of a prison yard littered with hundreds of human corpses. The people in that photograph are not Arab victims of Deir Yassin but Jewish victims of the Holocaust. A Jewishpress.com article noted: “It’s clear that the photo is there to magnify the impact of [Safi’s] words, and to serve as a historical record of what he describes.”
In other words, he intended to deceive.
As of April 19, 2013, Safi’s article is no longer available on the RNS website. An editor’s note informs readers: “This post has been disabled after a review for failing to meet the editorial standards of Religion News Service.” No elaboration is provided. The comments to the now-retracted article are still available. In one comment, Safi says, “A response to massacre and genocide that refused to take it seriously is moral cowardice.”
The context does not make clear whether Safi intends to define the Deir Yassin massacre alone or rather the more general Palestinian displacement as “genocide.” The word is misplaced in either case. Even if Israel is responsible for pushing Palestinians from their homes in order to seize their land, as the Arabs allege, this would make them guilty of ethnic cleansing, but not genocide. As for Deir Yassin, it was a wartime atrocity — which was acknowledged by the Israelis and condemned immediately — and no part of a systemic attempt to eliminate an entire race of people. Nor has there been any such effort since on the part of Israel.
Elsewhere, Safi is more subtle in his criticism of Israel, but no less misleading. In his “A Muslim Spiritual Progressive Perspective on Palestine/Israel (with a Dash of Obama),” Safi argues that Jews and Muslims would be able to coexist if only both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict chose to end the cycle of violence and embraced their shared heritage. He writes, “We have lived together in the past, and can live together again.” The article ends on what appears to be an edifying note: “May the path to Truth and Reconciliation begin with each of us, today.”