Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.
Congressional hearings are meant to shed light on certain complexities of issues considered by the legislature as it engages in drafting laws or conducting oversight and this is usually done by seeking the help of experts in various fields of knowledge relevant to the issues being considered.
One cannot overlook this idea while watching many Congressional hearings on Islam. A recent hearing of this kind was held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts. The hearing was meant to be a “debate on radical Islam and Terrorism,” and was supposed to provide “a debate over the language used when discussing Islamic terrorism.” But for the three hours that witnessed testimonies from seven witnesses, the hearing failed to address the definitions of the terms that constituted the subject of debate. There was no definition of “Islamic terrorism”, “jihad”, “Shari’a”, or any of the terms that were used by various speakers, often in contexts that made a mockery of the academic use of these terms.
The other disturbing observation of the hearing, which was supposed to shed light on the language and terms used in addressing “Islam and terrorism” was that the hearing included no true expert on Islam. The witnesses on the panel are all fine speakers and had experience in various issues. Each one of them provided some important information in their respective field. But none of them held the right credentials to address the topics of Islamic studies and none of them showed any aptitude or deep knowledge of these subjects. Chewing a few distorted Arabic words with partial knowledge of their etymological meaning does not make one a “subject matter expert” no matter how many times he asserts that he is. Likewise, merely being a Muslim does not make one an expert in Islam either. The composition of the panel provides an evidence that the Subcommittee staff who put it together did not do a satisfactory job.
When it came to the knowledge about Islamic theology,
jurisprudence, and political theory, the committee room and the people in it resembled an illustration of the allegorical cave in Plato’s Republic. All they knew came from shadows of paper puppets reflected on the wall of the cave, which was illuminated by an artificial light generated from the fire at the cave’s entrance.