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Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Professor David Forte might seem an unorthodox choice for the role of presidential adviser on Islam. For one thing, he's not Muslim. For another, he doesn't speak Arabic. His academic specialty is U.S. constitutional law, and he readily admits that he "dabble[s]" in Islamic jurisprudence. "That's why I call myself a student and not an expert," he told me.
But thanks to the aggressive promotion of his work by two influential conservative think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, Forte's writings on Islam have found their way onto the reading lists of Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith and the National Security Council's Elliot Abrams. U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte has requested his oeuvre; State Department officials have quizzed him on his views. And when President Bush addressed Congress last month, he seemed to pluck whole phrases from Forte's writings. Or, as one official told The Washington Post: The president's speech was "Forte-ed."
In particular Bush has embraced Forte's argument that Al Qaeda are theological heretics. They practice, Forte contends, an esoteric strain of Islam that traces to a seventh-century sect. "[The terrorists] are not religious," Forte told the Post. "They are a new form of fascist tyranny."
But Forte is a less than reliable source. The problem isn't just his weak background in modern Islamic politics; it's his ulterior ideological motive. Forte doesn't just want to redeem Islam from its critics. As a Catholic conservative who serves on a Vatican task force on strengthening family, he wants to redeem religious orthodoxy itself--or, at least, cleanse it of the extremist stain. "Nothing this evil could be religious," he is fond of saying. It's a bromide that jibes perfectly with Bush's own unabashed fondness for religiosity of all stripes. Unfortunately, it may be wrong.
Until last month Forte's primary claim to fame was his writing on Catholic legal theory. Along with a growing band of conservative scholars--Princeton's Robert P. George, Tulsa University's Russell Hitinger--Forte promoted Thomas Aquinas's theology of natural law. America, they argue, was founded by men who agreed with Aquinas on the primacy of transcendent divine law.
But secular politicians have junked up the founders' system, adding gratuitous and wicked laws. "Faith is an outlaw in the public square," Forte lectured in 1996 at the Heritage Foundation. In the Cleveland State Law Review in 1990, he compared government regulation to the Pharisees, the rabbis who challenged Jesus. And when the laws of God conflict with the laws of man, there's no question which side Forte takes. He has proposed a doctrine called "justified non-compliance," which allows citizens to "refuse to abide by" laws they consider onerous or morally reprehensible.
Only in the 1990s did his interest move beyond the theoretical. After assisting a pro bono immigration case on behalf of Pakistani asylum seekers, he began to write passionately about Islamic persecution of Christians. Forte quickly found himself part of a growing movement, as former Reagan aides Michael Horowitz and Gary Bauer helped turn Christian persecution into one of the religious right's signature issues.
But they soon faced a problem: Islamic regimes reacted to the criticism by calling the conservatives anti-Muslim bigots. It was Forte, according to Horowitz, who figured out how to beat the rap. Henceforth the conservative activists would cast themselves as Islamophiles, praising the religion at every turn and dismissing the Islamic persecutors as traitors to their faith. As Forte explained in his 1999 book on Islamic law, "Though radicals often create an effigy of the West as a 'devil,' their real animus is against traditional Islam."
It hasn't always been clear to which Muslim "radicals" Forte is referring . In the past his chief targets have been regimes like those of Pakistan and Sudan that oppress non-Muslims domestically. More recently, as Osama bin Laden has taken center stage, Forte has adapted the argument to apply to him. But the basic point--as articulated in a series of law review articles, op-eds, and congressional testimony--remains the same: The Islamic militants aren't true Muslims at all; they find their "inspiration" in a seventh-century sect of puritan thugs called the Kharijites. "[They] held that any Muslim who commits a sin was an apostate, an unbeliever who could never re-enter the fold of Islam and must be killed."