It’s an example of good intentions gone awry.
On October 19, Karen Hughes spoke at the State Department’s annual iftaar, a dinner that, for observant Muslims, marks the breaking of each day’s fast during Ramadan. The undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs made some opening remarks, then began mentioning famous women from Islamic history. The State Department’s transcript of Ms. Hughes’ talk reads:
Recently I was told a story from the time of the prophet about a famous man who expressed a desire to seek knowledge. He was advised, this man, by another man to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day named Amara bin Al-Rahman. She was described as a boundless ocean of knowledge and she shared her knowledge with a number of famous men which kind of reminds me of our boss Dr. Condoleezza Rice when she shows up at a national security meeting and shares her boundless knowledge with all the men in the room. Amara was not an exception in Islamic history. There are many examples of extraordinary women, including jurists, poets and narrators of Hadith.
Unfortunately Undersecretary Hughes—or her speechwriter—also cut a bit close to plagiarizing the writing of a respected scholar of Islamic law.
Compare Hughes’ remarks at the State iftaar with “In Recognition of Women,” an essay by Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at UCLA School of Law, on Islam—the Modern Religion. Note the identical or near-identical passages, which I've boldfaced for emphasis:
When Imam Zuhri, a famous scholar of Sunna (Prophet Muhammad's traditions), indicated to Qasim ibn Muhammd (a scholar of the Qur'an), a desire to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day, Amara bin Al-Rahman. Imam Zuhri attended her assembly and later described her as "a boundless ocean of knowledge." In fact, Amra instructed a number of famed scholars, such as Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazama, and Yahya ibn Said.
Amra was not an anomaly in Islamic history, for it abounds with famous women narrators of jurisprudence, starting with Aisha, the Prophet's wife. A conservative count would reveal at least 2,500 extraordinary women jurists, narrators of Hadith, and poets throughout history.
From reading the State Department transcript, it does not appear that Professor El Fadl was credited in this talk. The professor’s office at UCLA says that he has had no contact with Ms. Hughes about using his writing, that his scholarship and writing are original to him, and that he is "outraged" at the undersecretary's use of his words.
My repeated requests to the State Department for comment have so far gone unanswered. Perhaps State is busy dealing with a bigger fire: Alberto Fernandez’s remarks about U.S. "arrogance and stupidity" in Iraq and his subsequent apology.
I respect what Undersecretary Hughes is trying to do around the world which, in a setting like the iftaar, frequently means emphasizing how multicultural and multiconfessional the U.S. people and their government are. Getting this message out is a Sisyphean task, which gratuitous mistakes like those at the State Department iftaar only make more difficult.
(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item, humorously headlined, "Condoleezza Rice likened to 7th Century female Muslim wise woman!")