August 7, 2013
By Barbara Kay
As the topic for its popular annual debate last May, the Oxford University Union proposed that “This House believes Islam is a religion of peace.”
Considering the venue — Oxford is, like many Western universities, marinated in political correctness — it’s hardly surprising that the motion passed 286-186 (as described in Robert Fulford’s July 27 column).
Indeed, in the culturally self-flagellating world of academia, where offending Muslim sensibilities is anathema, but offending Christian sensibilities is virtually a moral obligation, a motion such as “This House believes that Christianity promotes war and racism” would likely pass quite handily as well.
“Is Islam a religion of peace?” will also be up for public discussion Aug. 10 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Subtitled “Catholic Witness in a Nation Divided,” this conference is organized by Ave Maria Communications, a Catholic marketing network. It’s reasonable to assume that this less politically correct venue will provide a sharp contrast with the Oxford experience.
The speakers list includes: Robert Spencer, director of the controversial web site Jihad Watch; Mustafa Akyol, Turkish journalist and author of Islam without extremes: a Muslim case for liberty; Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center; Shadid Lewis, Regional Director of the Muslim Debate Initiative USA; and Al Kresta, writer, missionary, CEO of Ave Maria Radio and host of the radio talk show “Kresta in the Afternoon.”
The conference speaker that particularly interests me, though, is a young man by the name of Andrew Bieszad, an Islamic Studies scholar with a specialty in Christian-Muslim relations. In fact I learned of the conference during a telephone interview with Bieszad after reading his book Lions of the Faith (which I am reviewing for a Catholic magazine).
Bieszad’s book is a compendium of brief narratives, chronicling the lives of Catholics martyred for their faith by Muslims. His interspersed prefaces to the litany of martyrdoms, organized into four eras from Islam’s birth to modern times, provide tutorials in such topics as the Crusades, the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, the Ottoman Empire, the knightly chivalric orders, the Islamic invasion of Europe and the Inquisition.
Bieszad came to my attention in 2011 when, in an open letter, he detailed his experiences as a student of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, once a Protestant seminary for missionaries bound for Muslim regions, but today, according to Bieszad, despite many “brilliant, highly-educated Muslim and non-Muslim professors who value scholarship,” an institution that promotes “Islamo-correctness.”
Fluent in Arabic and many other languages, Bieszad was considered a “unique addition” to the Masters program at Hartford Seminary because of what he describes as “my strong interest in and strong disagreement with Islamic teachings.”
And so he proved to be. Although there were other Christians in the program, notably in the class on “interfaith dialogue,” he claims to have been the only non-Muslim to say aloud, “I am Catholic and I do not believe in Islam.”
Bieszad reports that he paid a heavy price for his forthrightness, being, by his account, routinely subjected to insults and threats by Muslim students. He writes that one student told him, “according to Islam you do not deserve to live.” Bieszad claims that his detractors were not censured, either by professors or by other Christian students.
Conversion to Islam was encouraged, Bieszad writes; but Christian proselytism was forbidden. Christianity, Bieszad alleges, was taught in the context of homosexuality, class discrimination and women’s liberation from patriarchal oppression. But in classes on Islam, he says, the professor never spoke of any “contextual” Koranic interpretation, let alone from a feminist, socialist or gay perspective.
When Bieszad brought his concerns to the administration, he says, he was accused of being “intolerant” of Islam, and ordered to show a “better understanding of Islam” as a solution.
Bieszad will likely incorporate these personal experiences into his conference presentation. He may include, as well, provocative statements from his book, such as: “Islam is … the only [world] religion whose theology specifically denounces and calls for the destruction of Christianity as a whole and regardless of form.”
Bieszad wants to do a PhD, but Islamic Studies is a small world. So far, he says, no U.S. Islamic Studies program he’s applied to will have him. While seeking an academic berth, this courageous scholar, married and the father of two young children, is employed in a Connecticut grocery store.