I’ve always found it alarming that so many American politicians are quick to declare that particular groups are or are not Islamic. I’m referring to the sort of thing that reached dizzying proportions in late 2001, when such figures as George W. Bush and Charles Krauthammer and Madeleine (Not-At-) Albright went on television not only to declare that the terrorists responsible for that year’s attacks on New York and Washington were not true Muslims, but to tell the world the true meaning of the word “jihad,” and in Professor (Not-At-) Albright’s case to go on at length about the concept of “reopening the gate of ijtihad,” which they apparently regarded as a necessary step in the revival of true Islam. No one in the media in those days seemed inclined to ask who had appointed these people as imams and asked them to issue such monumental fatwas.
Anyway, Elizabeth Stoker Bruening seems to feel the same way I do about this kind of thing. Juan Cole is more sanguine, arguing that it should be possible for a reasonably well-informed outside observer to figure out where the “center of gravity” is in a religious tradition and to recognize that this group or that is very distant from that center. Professor Cole may be right, though I suspect he would agree with me that the Bushes and Krauthammers and (Not-At-) Albirights of the world would be well advised to be more circumspect in their commentary.