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Culture and Controversy

Falsely quoted in a Saudi Arabian newspaper, Prof. Natana DeLong-Bas now strives to shed light on Wahhabism, an Islamic movement that is often misunderstood

By Bernard Herman
On January 23, 2007

Prof. Natana DeLong-Bas (NEJS) is a recent victim of a journalistic gaffe that could be either an honest mistake or outright slander. But at least she has a sense of humor about it. To punctuate her explanation of how she was misquoted in Asharq al-Alawsat, a Saudi Arabian newspaper, she throws her hands into the air and declares, "Sorry to disappoint you. I'm not a terrorist!"

DeLong-Bas is, however, a leading expert on Wahhabism, an ultraorthodox sect of Sunni Islam that is now the dominant movement in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan and some parts of Iraq. This faith is misunderstood by many in United7 States and Western Europe, DeLong-Bas says, because it is now associated with fundamentalism, sectarian violence and, like DeLong-Bas herself, the nefarious Osama bin Laden.

"Asharq al-Awset made it look as if I thought that Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11," she says. "Of course he did. He's the CEO of Al-Qaeda and the leader of their political agenda. All I claimed was that he didn't have anything to do with the logistics or the planning of the attacks themselves."

She says the Saudi Arabian reporter asked her whether she thought either of the two most popular conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks-that either the U.S. government or the Israeli people were behind them-were accurate. "I find that neither conspiracy theory is accurate, and I have not seen one shred of evidence supporting either," she says.

It is ironic that DeLong-Bas' own image has suffered the pitfalls of misunderstanding, since she has devoted much of her career to furthering the understanding of what Wahhabism really stands for.

Understanding and misunderstanding have been themes in DeLong-Bas' work and life. She is teaching a course this semester called "Contemporary Islamic Thought and Practice," but before her senior year at Middlebury College in Vermont, DeLong-Bas had never even heard of Islam. Her course covers the current theological and political trends among moderate and extremist Muslims and uses groups in the United States and Europe as case studies.

DeLong-Bas, who has taught at Brandeis since the spring of 2005, says the student body is distinguished here because of its "willingness and desire to debate and engage issues, political awareness and, for many, a personal concern with the subject matter I teach due to their personal ties to the region."

She also says that the administration is commendable for its commitment to diversity, "despite the controversy that sometimes accompanies this commitment." The controversy to which she refers is her own purported sympathies, as reported in Asharq al-Alawsat.

Born in Pennsylvania, DeLong-Bas spent much of her youth traveling around America because of her father's position as a Lutheran minister. "I was raised in a fairly conservative, fairly religious household," she says.

A French major at Middlebury, DeLong-Bas discovered the faith while taking a month-long course on Arabic language and literature in her final year. "Yeah, I was an American girl in college and had made it that far without ever having known of the religion" she confesses with self-deprecating incredulity. "And of course there was some religious component to the material in the class."

DeLong-Bas was so fascinated with the subject that she pursued a master's degree in Arabic language and literature and then a Ph.D. in history, concentrating on the Middle East and north Africa. She has researched at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and currently teaches at Boston College, which she says has "a very good reputation for its comparative religious studies."

Just after the Sept. 11 attacks, DeLong-Bas decided to focus her studies on Wahhabism, though she was nearly finished with her dissertation. "I realized that there was a need to understand the Wahhabi tradition," she says.

"Wahhabism was one of those terms that was used a lot, but misunderstood. ... It was largely written as an intellectual biography of this 18th century person, and I added a chapter at the end to try to understand this question of why one gets from the original legal and theological teachings of Wahhabi to today's interpretation of it by bin Laden," DeLong-Bas says.

Her countenance betrays a concern that the Wahhabi sect, which believes in a strict adherence to the Quran's text and commentary by the movement's founder, 18th century theologian Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, is misunderstood.

DeLong-Bas' most recent endeavor is also concerned with understanding, or, more specifically, elucidation. Because of her strong interest in varying interpretations of Wahhabi texts as something other than a religion of piety and decency, such as by members of Al-Qaeda, she is now going straight to the source: the national archives of Saudi Arabia.

"What we're doing is we're going through the manuscript collections and we're looking at documents specifically related to Islam, religion and Islamic law, from just before the Wahhabi movement," DeLong-Bas says. She hopes to better understand how the movement arose and developed, as well as its customs and culture.

"We're looking at Islamic law, practice, business contracts and whether women actually made use of the rights that they theoretically had. If you go and study with a certain sheikh [Islamic scholar] he'll authorize you to go and study that," she says. The directions of certain sheikhs to study only certain documents may be a major reason why some Wahhabis have followed a common, pious path, she says, and why the interpretations of others have led to involvement with terrorism.

"We're going to look at the texts and try to discern whether people have been studying the same thing in the Wahhabi for the last 200 years, or were things added into the tradition that changes how people interpret religion," DeLong-Bas says. "With the publisher, we're actually reproducing the documents, so that people who are not willing or not able to access the documents can do so from anywhere in the world and engage in their own research."

DeLong-Bas, a Christian, says natives of the Middle East often find her somewhat of an oddity. "I am a bit of an object of curiosity in Saudi Arabia. Many people are simply curious to meet 'the American researcher' who has studied the Saudi Islamic tradition in depth. There are typically more requests for meetings than I can fulfill, although I do my best to talk to anyone who requests a meeting." She wears a burka, a full body cloak, while traveling in the region out of respect for the culture and also as a sign that, even though she is not Muslim, she is a "respectable" woman of faith.

DeLong-Bas has even found that being a woman gives her advantages men might not have as scholars, since her status as a respectable woman allows her to speak with other women. She says this is particularly crucial in the Persian Gulf where the culture is very conservative.

There are other reasons for DeLong-Bas to dress in traditional Muslim clothing. "When I wear the burka, this tends to make the men with whom I meet more comfortable and maintains the focus on the conversation, rather than [on] my appearance," she says. "It additionally serves to open the door to talking about religious topics, creating an opportunity to discuss both similarities and differences between Islam and ---Christianity.

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