John O. Voll

Overview

  • Associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
  • Professor at Georgetown University
  • Defended professor and terrorist Sami Al-Arian
  • Rationalized the 9/11 attacks as an “effective response to overwhelming American power”

John O. Voll is a professor emeritus at — and a former associate director of — the Georgetown University-based Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU), an organization directed by Professor John Esposito.

After receiving an A.B. from Dartmouth College, Voll earned both an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and a Ph.D. in History & Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. He subsequently taught Middle Eastern and world history for thirty years at the University of New Hampshire before moving to Georgetown University.

In the late 1990s, Voll was one of many Western academics and journalists who viewed the nation of Sudan as an exciting experiment in Islamic governance. He wrote that Hassan al-Turabi, the founder and intellectual leader of Sudan’s politically powerful National Islamic Front (NIF) — which promoted a severe, fundamentalist brand of Islam and Sharia Law — “had an international reputation as an imaginative advocate of renewal and rethinking the foundations of Islamic law.” According to the International Crisis Group: “Turabi is perhaps best known for his attempt to turn Sudan into a centre of Islamic learning and leadership through the formation of the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), which invited notable figures from international Muslim and Islamist movements to Sudan, including Osama bin Laden, Yassir Arafat and Rached Ghannouchi.”

Voll contends that Islamic terrorism cannot be explained away as a product of “ignorance” or of “blind adherence” to the tenets of “an evil cult.” Rather, he says it is a hostile reaction to America’s military might. Just 17 days after the 9/11 attacks, for instance, Voll wrote that one of the reasons for the existence of terrorism was other nations’ “fear of the immense power of the United States.” “Around the world,” he elaborated, “people know that the United States can focus virtually unimaginable destructive power on any person or place. Among some, this fear becomes hate, and terrorism is seen as the only effective response to overwhelming American power. In this context, an American response to the terrible acts of September 11 that would show that we could destroy a country like Afghanistan would only confirm the convictions of those who hate the United States.”

When the University of South Florida (USF) in 2003 fired professor Sami Al-Arian after he was charged with aiding the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Voll — citing “McCarthyite popular pressures for [Al-Arian’s] dismissal” — condemned USF for “caving in to public pressure at the expense of academic integrity.”

In June 2015, Voll and John Esposito co-wrote a Huffington Post article titled, “In the Middle East, Islamists Are Not the Enemies of Democracy.”  “In the late 20th century,” said the piece, “much attention was given to the question of whether or not Islam and democracy are compatible. This was an old debate that had been presented in many different ways. However, by the second decade of the 21st century, the terms of the debate have an anachronistic feeling…. For the majority of Muslims in the world, the issue is settled. They see no real contradiction between Islam and democracy…. Recent elections in Turkey and Tunisia should be effective reminders that Islam and democracy are not incompatible.”

A specialist in modern Islamic history, Voll has authored, co-authored, or edited twelve books. Among the more notable volumes that he authored were Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (1982) and Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring (2015). He also served — along with such notables as John Esposito and Ali al-Mazrui — as an editorial board member of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, a publication of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs. Moreover, Voll has lectured numerous times at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and participated in many of its programs.

A past president of the Middle East Studies Association and the New England Historical Association, Voll has served on the Boards of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Sudan Studies Association, the World History Association, the New Hampshire Humanities Council, and the New Hampshire Council on World Affairs. He was also the program chair for the 1999 annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

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