In April 2003 at the latest, Shibli Zaman gave his personal website (shibli.zaman.net) not only a thorough face-lift, but he also renamed it the "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" (NESSIA, www.nessia.org).
Names are not something arbitrary or neutral. Names like these convey messages, make claims and raise expections. The name "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" certainly conveys a very different message than, e.g., "Islamic Propagation Center of Houston, Texas".
In what sense is NESSIA an "institute" and how can this institute be understood to represent America in the field of "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies"?
Institutes are usually officially registered, legal entities, incorporated either as profit or non-profit organizations, and operating in some kind of an academic, professional or governmental framework providing an accountability structure and quality control for what they do.
Legitimate questions to ask about every entity presenting itself under a name like "Whatever field of Studies Institute of America" would be at least the following: What? (purpose, mission statement), Who? (founding members, current board of directors, executive staff, further members if the institute offers some kind of membership to people who are not on staff, etc.), and How? (what methods will be used to pursue the stated purpose of the institute; what kind of accountability structure and quality control measures are implemented, what are the qualifications of the (paid or volunteer) staff forming the foundation to achieve the set goals, what is their certified expertise in the field of studies in which the institute will conduct research and issue publications about the results of its research; is the institute a registered charity (non-profit) or incorporated as a company, etc.).
Searching the website of the "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" for answers, I came up rather empty-handed. Following the link titled What is NESSIA?, one finds a page devoting more space to the presentation of an etymology of the acronym NESSIA than bothering to answer these obvious questions. There are a couple of remarks on the purpose of NESSIA, but nothing at all is found about who is behind NESSIA and what exactly is the status of this "institute".
The common usage of the term "institute" raises the expectation to get such questions clearly answered. Searching Google for the expression "Institute of America" on July 31, 2003, turned up some 139,000 references. The following are taken from just the first two pages of the search results obtained on that date:
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is North America's oldest and largest organization devoted to the world of archaeology. The Institute is a nonprofit group founded in 1879 and chartered by the United States Congress in 1906. (http://www.archaeological.org/)
Gemological Institute of America (GIA): Established in 1931, GIA is the world’s foremost nonprofit institute of gemological research and learning ... the Institute’s world-renowned scientists, researchers, gemologists, and educators have become recognized as the final authority on diamond grading and gem identification. (Source)
The Laser Institute of America is the professional membership society dedicated to fostering lasers, laser applications and safety worldwide. Serving the industrial, medical, research and government communities, LIA offers technical information and networking opportunities to laser users from around the globe. (Source)
The Culinary Institute of America is an independent, not-for-profit educational organization [Section 501 (c) (3)] ... (Source) The Culinary Institute of America is accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools ... (Source)
The American Institute for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters (AICPCU) and the Insurance Institute of America (IIA) are independent, nonprofit organizations offering educational programs and professional certification to people in all segments of the property and liability insurance business. (Source)
Braille Institute of America for the blind and visually-impaired ... is a private non-profit organization (Source).
The Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (BCIA) was formed in January 1981 to establish and maintain professional standards for the provision of biofeedback services and to certify those who meet these standards. (Source)
Home Inspection Institute of America: The primary purpose of the Institute is to educate and certify home inspectors so they may better educate homebuyers and homeowners. (Source)
There is no way that anyone could check up on all 139,000 links provided by Google, but it should be clear that most of these are either approved non-profit organizations whether being governmental institutions, subsidiaries of universities, independent educational institutions, private non-profit organizations, or, on the other hand, professional associations established to set standards and certify in their area of expertise. They usually provide a unique service to all of America, or otherwise it would be somewhat preposterous to usurp the title "Whatever Institute of America" if there were a dozen other organizations, associations or companies that provide about the same service. These institutions usually have a board of directors, and sometimes also an advisory board or a board of reference vouching for the quality of work done by the institute.
Though I have not immediately found another example, there may well be several people around who call their one-man show a "Whatever Institute of America", and there may not be anything illegal about doing so. There is, however, without doubt the general understanding and expectation that any entity with such a name is in some way accredited, certified or a recognized authority in its field.
The "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" started out on Shibli Zaman's personal homepage (shibli.zaman.net), and for over three months www.nessia.org has been identical to it. The only person signing for all articles published on this site is no surprise here "Shibli Zaman".
For all one can tell from the publically visible evidence, there is no "institute" in the common sense of the word, but the so called "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" is just a different name for the person of Shibli Zaman. The "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" seems to be a "Potemkin village".
Since Mr. Zaman loves to accuse me of ad hominem attacks when all I do is to raise a legitimate question or critique, let me state explicitly that I know well that oftentimes laymen or people outside the established scholarly community of their time have made significant discoveries and contributions to human knowledge, and their understanding may even have been far ahead of that held by the official scholarly community. Being considered an expert in a certain field does not make one's argument right (errare humanum est), nor does not having any official standing make one's argument wrong. Each argument has to be considered for its own merits.
Thus, the above questions are in no way belittling Zaman's personal knowledge. Nor does it say, because Zaman does not have a certain academic degree, or because he does not hold a position as professor at an accredited university, therefore the arguments in his articles are wrong and not to be believed. Such an argument would indeed be ad hominem (i.e. dismissing an argument because of a personal characteristic of the person making the argument). None of the arguments in Zaman's articles have been touched upon in the above deliberations. [Zaman's arguments are discussed in separate articles listed in the Shibli Zaman Rebuttals Section.]
It is, however, a matter of personal as well as scholarly integrity not to exaggerate one's own standing. Most people hearing or reading the name "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" would think it refers to an academic institute. The logical and appropriate question in regard to every academic institute is to ask for its accreditation and whether and where its publications are being peer-reviewed.
The above thoughts are a call to Mr. Zaman to either change the name "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" to something that matches reality, or raise the reality of NESSIA to the level that matches the claims inherent in the chosen name. Particularly if he decides to keep the current name, it is incumbent on him to explain very clearly what NESSIA is, and what it is not, in order to avoid the appearance of using a fraudulent name (in an ethical sense) even if it would not constitute fraud in a legal sense.
Interestingly and ironically, Zaman demands (on the very same website) to know the qualifications of others, although he does not provide any information about his own qualifications.
Currently, the impression is hard to avoid that the sole purpose for taking on the name "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" is to bestow more weight on Zaman's personal arguments in the public arena. If this is so, then this is nothing but the logical fallacy of appeal to authority, and in this case, an authority that has not even been established yet.
Jochen Katz, August 7, 2003
1. I had not visited Shibli Zaman's site for many months when on April 21
I received the following request: I would appreciate it if you would link
brother Shibli Zaman's article to your "do ants speak" contradiction page.
Alhamdulilah the truth never dies. The current look of the website and
the name "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" was already
in place on that day (located on shibli.zaman.net), although the new domain
name "nessia.org" was registered later. Thus, it was April 2003 at the latest,
but possibly even several months earlier.
2. Since not everyone may be familiar with the expression "Potemkin village"
let me give some definitions.
An impressive showy facade designed to mask undesirable facts. ...
Imagine a Hollywood set and you'd have a good idea of the original Potemkin
village. In 1787, when Catherine the Great visited the Ukraine and the Crimea,
Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin (1739-1791), a Russian army officer,
statesman, and her lover, decided to put up elaborate cardboard houses
apparently full of splendor in the villages Catherine was shown. While this
setup depicted an illusion of prosperity, the real condition of the village
was hidden behind this facade. A Potemkin village is, in other words,
whitewash taken to the Nth degree.
See also, its definition in The
American Heritage Dictionary, and for an example the current
ET - 2003 Potemkin Village Award.
2. Since not everyone may be familiar with the expression "Potemkin village" let me give some definitions.
An impressive showy facade designed to mask undesirable facts. ...
Imagine a Hollywood set and you'd have a good idea of the original Potemkin village. In 1787, when Catherine the Great visited the Ukraine and the Crimea, Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin (1739-1791), a Russian army officer, statesman, and her lover, decided to put up elaborate cardboard houses apparently full of splendor in the villages Catherine was shown. While this setup depicted an illusion of prosperity, the real condition of the village was hidden behind this facade. A Potemkin village is, in other words, whitewash taken to the Nth degree. (Wordsmith.org, A-Word-A-Day)
See also, its definition in The American Heritage Dictionary, and for an example the current ET - 2003 Potemkin Village Award.
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