By Natalie Crnosija
Editor-in-Chief of The Patriot, Derek Mordente, continued his criticism of Religious Studies Department Chair Professor William Chittick for Chittick’s acceptance of Iran’s Farabi International Award in the Patriot’s April 2008 (read:2009) issue.
Chittick was awarded for his 2001 publication, “The Heart of Islamic Philosophy,” an examination of the work of Afdal al-Din Kashani, the twelfth century Iranian philosopher. In the book, Chittick uses Kashani’s philosophy to elucidate the basics of Islam for the modern audience.
“I questioned his judgment accepting the award from such an outspoken anti-Semitic, anti-Western agenda-psychopath who presides over a government identified as a state sponsor of Terrorism,” read Mordente’s article, “Meet The (Stony Brook) Press,” which was a response to the Stony Brook Press’ defense of Chittick’s acceptance of the award. “All of this takes away from Professor Chittick’s credibility and belittles what he has done.”
Mordente added that he did not question Chittick’s scholarship but instead questioned his indirect support of the Iranian government and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-American politics.
Chittick, who has been teaching at SBU since 1983 and has authored and translated 25 books on Islamic thought, said he did not support Ahmadinejad or the Iranian government.
“I have never said anything in favor of the current Iranian government,” Chittick said. “Accepting the award was the first time I returned to Iran after the revolution.”
Chittick received his doctorate in Persian literature from the University of Tehran in 1974 and taught at various Iranian institutions until the 1979 Revolution.
“In a country like Iran, everything is centered in Tehran,” Chittick said. “All education is supported by government. It is not independent like in America. All money eventually comes from the government.”
When Chittick went to Iran to receive his award, he said there was a large sign in Farsi that read, “Death to America” hanging in the front hall of the hotel. He was greeted warmly by many people in the hotel but was perplexed by the sign.
“I asked them, ‘What kind of greeting is this?’” Chittick said. “They laughed and said, ‘No, we don’t mean you. We mean those American politicians.’ I think that represents the vast majority of Iranians and how they view America.”
Chittick added that American political bullying, not the American promise or people, is what has caused the anti-American sentiment in Iran. The majority of people do not support Ahmadinejad or his extremist views.
“I have never met an Iranian who agreed with Ahmadinejad’s politics, especially his anti-Semitism,” Chittick said.
Power in Iran largely lies with the Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khameini and the Guardian Council, a group of appointed theologian advisors, according to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. This makes Ahmadinejad more of a figurehead than a legitimate political force who can enact his threats against Israel or America.
Mordente argued that Ahmadinejad is still a representative of the Iranian government, which is controlled by Hoseini-Khameini.
Aditya Ramanathan, a senior editor for The Patriot, added that the distinction between Ahmadinejad, Hoseini-Khameini and the cabinet are irrelevant because of Hoseini-Khameini’s supreme position. Furthermore, Ramanathan said that the government’s influence over academic policies make Chittick’s award a political award.
“I used to live in Saudi Arabia,” Ramanathan said. “You don’t understand what academics are like in the Middle East. They are very tied to the government.”
The political implications of the Farabi Intrernational Award were dismissed by Shikaripur N. Sridhar, a colleague of Chittick and the founding Chair of the Asian and Asian American Studies department. Sridhar cited Chittick’s reputation as one of the foremost scholars of Sufism, a sect of Islam that developed in Iran and is focused on an individual’s relationship with God as explored through art, poetry, dance and music.
“The award may have been given by a politician but it is the award that should be looked at,” Sridhar said. “If he went to Iran on account of an academic thing, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Mordente and Ramanathan said that SBU professors tipped them off to Chittick’s award and informed them of the dangers such acceptance posed internationally. They refused to identify the professors who informed them of Chittick’s endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s government.
“I’ll give you an example,” Mordente said. “If you were doing research about hite Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the head of the KKK wanted to present you with an award regarding white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, would you accept it?”
Chittick, who described himself as largely apolitical and not partial to interviews, said that The Patriot’s repeated attacks on his credibility made it necessary for him to speak.
“The job of academia is to get out of ideology…to make known the riches and resources of the least known religion in the West, which is Islam,” Chittick said. “You might say, ‘What does twelfth century Iranian poetry have to do with anything?’ Ask not only what you can learn from it but what you can learn about yourself through it.”