Harvard scholar delivers first Elder Lecture

William Graham, dean of the Harvard University School of Divinity, discussed Western views of Islam during the inaugural James P. Elder Lecture Thursday, April 6 in Whitley Auditorium. Details and audio...

Graham’s scholarly specialization is in the early religious history of Islam, with special focus on the Quran and Hadith literatures. He said that despite advances in communications and globalization, the Western world continues to misinterpret Islamic culture. The West continues to believe religion and politics are inseparably linked in Islamic societies.

“We like to think of ourselves as having progressed from where we were and that we have put prejudices in the past,” Graham said. “But we are more prone than ever to make the same mistakes over and over again. Stridency, not sublety, has become watchword of our day.”

In response to a question from the audience, Graham said current sentiment in the United States regarding Islam is similar to the Red scare and McCarthyism of the early 1950s:

>>Listen to an audio recording of Graham’s comments…

Graham said both Christian and Muslim extremists use the myth of Islamic culture as a monolith to drive their messages. “We have a non-holy alliance of Christian and Muslim extremists,” Graham said.

Extremist Islamic movements, such as al Qaeda, have only emerged since the 1970s, Graham said. Their definitions of Islam are usually different from the Islam that has existed for centuries.

“When fundamentalist (Islamic) movements today refer to a return to true Islam, the really mean a return to their own version of Islam.”

Graham has served as director of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard.

During his visit to campus, Graham was interviewed by UNC-TV’s Bill Friday for the network’s program, North Carolina People. The interview will air on UNC-TV at 9 p.m., Friday, April 14 and at 5:30 p.m., Sunday, April 16.

The James P. Elder Lecture is Elon’s first endowed lecture series devoted to the exploration of critical scholarship and its impact in the public forum.

Elder graduated from Elon in 1960. He founded the Liberal Arts Forum as an undergraduate in 1958, and went on to serve on the history faculty at Elon from 1963 to 1973. As faculty advisor to the Liberal Arts Forum, he helped bring more than 150 distinguished lecturers from major universities to the Elon campus. He was instrumental in the creation of Elon’s study abroad program. Five times during his tenure, Elon students voted him as the college’s Outstanding Professor.

Elon trustee Noel Allen ’69 introduced the lecture series, and Robert Lane ’71, one of Elder’s students, introduced Graham.