A Richmond professor never thought her scholarly journal would get much attention. Now everyone's calling. 

Sudden Spotlight

University of Richmond law professor Azizah AlHibri devoted three years to editing a special 600-page issue of The Journal of Law and Religion on Islamic topics. But she never expected anyone to pay attention outside of academic circles — until Sept. 11, when Muslim terrorists toppled the World Trade Towers.

Now al-Hibri finds herself discussing Islam with congressmen and senators. Her work has been cited in the New York Times. The special issue of the scholarly journal was released Friday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"We thought it is so perfect for the conversation that is taking place now in the nation," al-Hibri says. "We really need to bring it to the attention of the American people."

Al-Hibri spent her lunch hour talking with Style in her office at the University of Richmond's T.C. Williams School of Law, explaining what the special issue is about, what President Bush is doing behind the scenes, and why jihad is a word we should lose.

Style: I understand that the Islam issue is not meant for the layperson; it's not really a popular journal. Are there any articles in here that might help Americans better understand Islam, especially related to the September 11 events?

Al-Hibri: Yes, absolutely. Well, the September 11 events, I think … only indirectly could you learn about them [from the journal]. Because of course we had no way of anticipating them. But there is a major article, 60 pages long, by a Syrian author who basically describes violence as a mental disease, and calls for its treatment accordingly. And it's a very interesting civilizational, historical picture … of how various civilizations have dealt with this issue, and how we need to deal with it. And how Islam actually is against violence. And how Islam expresses very clearly, emphasizes very clearly, the sanctity of human life.

So I would suggest, for example, that if somebody gets our issue, they might want to skim certain parts if they look too academic. But they will get to parts they can understand.

What at the University of Richmond have you done [in connection with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks]? I'm sure that they've called upon your expertise to explain to students and faculty.

I have been called by a variety of university and community people to talk to them … It has been very demanding. Part of the demand is having to drive up to D.C. more often than I really want to. I met with the president, and I have meetings with senators and congressmen coming up. Some of them I have to miss, which I'm sorry I do. I would have, for example, been very interested to attend a meeting to which my organization [Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights] was invited, with Senator Lott. But of course I was teaching, so I couldn't do that. But there are other occasions when I can.

[At these meetings] are there common misconceptions, or do you find yourself having to explain basic things?

One major conception is that we worship a god called Allah, which is [only] the god of Islam. But Allah is the one true God — and is the God of Jews and Christians. … If they go to the Middle East and meet some Christians and ask them who do you pray to, the Christians would say, "Allah, of course. Who else?" [Laughs.]

So that's one thing. Also the concept of jihad is coming out. It's based on a very medieval interpretation which was developed in the days of conflict between the East and West in the days of the Crusades — when many European armies came to the Middle Eastern lands and destroyed things and took over things, all in the name of Christianity. So a "crusade" for us — from the point of view of somebody from the Middle East — sounds very much, stereotypically, like what the jihad sounds like for a American.

But we need to get over all of this. We need to clean up our language, basically.

What you brought up bears on President Bush's speech [when he used the word "crusade" in an address shortly after the attack].

But if you noticed, he never used it again. That's one thing that's great about the president. He's actually very smart, very quick, very responsive. A very good politician.

I don't know if some of you know, but I'll share this with you. Before he gave his [Sept. 20] address to the joint session, he held a one-hour-long prayer session with all denominations. He was very modest, didn't invite the press. He held hands with everybody and asked everybody to pray with him. There were Sikhs, there were Muslims, there were various types of Christians, there were Jews, everybody. Everyone was very impressed.

What do you have planned for the future? I imagine the demand for you as a speaker and an expert is very high.

I have a few meetings in Washington — no need to mention names, but you know, policymakers ... also journalist organizations. There's a lot of people who want to find out more.

I'm also now shepherding a new effort where I'm trying to put together an anthology of 9-11 from an Islamic perspective. ... I think that would be very important, but of course to do it seriously, it's not going to come out tomorrow.


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