I just finished an upcoming Reason column on critiques of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s a subject I’ve been interested in for some time; most recently, my interest was sparked by a post at the Infidels Blogger Alliance treating Slobodan Milosevic as a hero of anti-jihadi resistance (see my earlier post on the subject).
The issue is an extremely complicated one, because I don’t think any reasonable person can in good faith deny “the trouble with Islam today,” to use the phrase of Muslim reformist/critic Irshad Manji. There is a worldwide terrorist movement that espouses Islam (misinterpreted or not) as its ideology; and even beyond that movement, much of Muslim culture today is rife with religious intolerance, misogyny, and deep mistrust of freedom. I agree with Manji that reform in Islam is necessary, and that critics should not be intimidated by charges of “racism.” I also agree that “Islamism” as a totalitarian political ideology, recently denounced in this manifesto co-signed by Manji, Salman Rushdie, and ten other writers and journalists, is a real and present danger.
That said, there are several troubling tendencies in the critique of “Islamism” or “jihadism.”
* A tendency to treat all Muslim societies and cultures as the same. The attempt to depict Bosnian Muslims as bearers of the “Islamist” virus is the most egregious case in point. For some facts, see the recent article “Death of a Dictator” by Bill Kristol and Stephen Schwartz in The Weekly Standard. Kristol and Schwartz write that Bosnian Islam “represents a real asset for a Europe coming to grips with the Islamic challenge”:
In the middle of the uproar and shouts–and some brutal slayings–accompanying the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, the chief Muslim cleric of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, issued a Declaration to European Muslims. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accompanying the declaration, Ceric described the text as “a personal act . . . sending a message to the Western audience that we, Bosnian Muslims, did not agree with the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, on March 11, 2004, in Madrid, on July 7, 2005, in London.”
… In an introduction to the declaration, Ceric argues, “Muslims must realize that the general feeling about their faith in Europe today is unfavorable. European Muslims must take the issue of violence in the name of Islam very seriously, not because some people hate Islam and Muslims, but because the act of violence, the act of terror, the act of hatred in the name of Islam is wrong. . . .European Muslims must develop a program for anti-violence.” …
Bosnians like Ceric survived the time of Milosevic without sharing in the evil he represented. Such Bosnians can serve as intellectual and moral examples for moderate Muslims around the world.
* Along the same lines, sweeping generalizations that reduce any social or political problem anywhere a “Muslim problem” as long as there are Muslims involved. Take this description by Mark Steyn:
There are many trouble spots around the world, but as a general rule, it’s easy to make an educated guess at one of the participants: Muslims vs. Jews in “Palestine,” Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Muslims vs. Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims vs. Russians in the Caucasus, Muslims vs. backpacking tourists in Bali.
This account not only omits many non-Islamic trouble spots, from Korea to Colombia, but also implicitly presumes that Muslims are the guilty parties and Islam is the problem in every conflict listed. Yet the war in Chechnya, for instance, is primarily a Russian war of imperial aggression, and religion has never been a strong factor in that region (though Al Qaeda has gained a foothold there thanks to the war). And in Hindu-Muslim conflicts, Muslims have been victims as well as aggressors.
* The very error that the anti-Islamist manifesto signed by Manji, Rushdie, et al. warns against: going from critique of the religion to stigmatization of believers. See, for instance, these posts at JihadWatch.org, aserting that every self-identified Muslim, however law-abiding, integrated into mainstream society, or seemingly peaceful, is dangerous — because he is a potential jihadist or because his children may revert to the extremist version of Islam. Anti-Muslim prejudice lapses into overt racism in Oriana Fallaci’s 2002 screed, The Rage and the Pride, in which concerns with terrorism and the oppression of women morph all too easily into fear and loathing of smelly aliens who spread filth and disease. (While some of Fallaci’s fans have compared her to Christopher Hitchens as a staunch opponent of “Islamofascism,” Hitchens himself has slammed Fallaci’s book as “a sort of primer on how not to write about Islam.”)
* Arguments that Islam is so inherently intolerant, violent, oppressive, etc. that it is effectively beyond reform. A March 27 editorial in Investor’s Business Daily raises this issue by asking Islamic leaders who claim that Islam is a misunderstood “religion of peace” a series of questions:
Is it true that 26 chapters of the Quran deal with jihad, a fight able-bodied believers are obligated to join (Surah 2:216), and that the text orders Muslims to “instill terror into the hearts of the unbeliever” and to “smite above their necks” (8:12)?
Is the “test” of loyalty to Allah not good acts or faith in general, but martyrdom that results from fighting unbelievers (47:4) — the only assurance of salvation in Islam (4:74; 9:111)?
Are the sins of any Muslim who becomes a martyr forgiven by the very act of being slain while slaying the unbelievers (4:96)?
Does Islam advocate expansion by force? And is the final command of jihad, as revealed to Muhammad in the Quran, to conquer the world in the name of Islam (9:29)?
Is Islam the only religion that does not teach the Golden Rule (48:29)? Does the Quran instead teach violence and hatred against non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians (5:50)?
Partly inspired by the IBD editorial, I decided to delve into the Koran over the weekend (the full text, in three different translations, can be found here). I’m not, I hasten to say, an expert on the Koran or Islam; but neither are those who are procliming Islam to be a “death cult.” It is quite true that, partly due to the history of early Islam and the conflicts between Muhammad and his followers and neighboring tribes, the Koran contains many references to the righteousness of armed struggle — ostensibly only to resist the oppression and persecution of Muslims, but of course “oppression” and “persecution” are fairly subjective terms. There are also some passages which can be read as saying that only full domination of Islam is acceptable. A lot depends on the translation. For instance, here is Chapter 2, verse 190, in three versions:
YUSUFALI: Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
PICKTHAL: Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.
SHAKIR: And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
YUSUFALI: And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.
PICKTHAL: And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.
SHAKIR: And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.
Here’s verse 9:29, referenced by IBD:
YUSUFALI: Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
PICKTHAL: Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.
SHAKIR: Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.
(The “People of the Book” are Christians and Jews.)
This certainly can be read as a commandment to global domination (though many scholars of Islam would undoubtedly argue that it is a specific response to specific historical circumstances); but there are other passages (2:128 and 8:72, among others) which assert that those who flee or emigrate to preserve their faith, as well as those who “strive” in the cause of Allah will find favor with God. None of the verses referenced by IBD say that joining the jihad is the only way to find salvation is Islam. The text of 8:12 has God saying that he will “strike terror into the hearts of unbelievers.” 47:4 says:
So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. That (shall be so); and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have exacted what is due from them, but that He may try some of you by means of others; and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish.
Along with these violent passages, however, there are others stating that there must be no compulsion in religion (2:256) and that Jews and Christians as well as Muslims may be rewarded in the hereafter (2:262):
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the f Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.
Clearly the Koran can be (and is) interpreted and cherry-picked for conflicting and contradictory messages. Let’s not forget that the Bible is full of violent passages that encourage conquest. While Christianity does not preach armed struggle, John 8:44 has Jesus telling the Jews who reject his message , “You belong to your father the devil”; and in Corinthians II, 6:14-16, St. Paul writes:
14 Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?
Christianity and Judaism have dealt with and largely transcended their legacy of intolerance. For the sake of both Muslims and the rest of the world, Islam needs to do the same; and there is no scriptural reason that it can’t. (Jews, even ultra-Orthodox Jews, have no problem ignoring large portions of their scripture which mandate death as the penalty for everything from adultery to apostasy.)
As I’ve said, I’m no expert on Islam. But Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is; and I will take the word of Lewis, who warned about the danger of “Muslim rage” all the way back in 1990 (and is smeared as an anti-Muslim bigot by many Islamists) but who has continued to insist that Islam has many positive aspects and real potential for reform and democratization, over those of JihadWatch.org’s Hugh Fitzgerald, who sees fit to deride Lewis as a “dhimmi” (a nonbeliever who accepts his second-class status under Islam).
The “trouble with Islam today” must be honestly confronted; that means examining those elements of the Koran that exhort “struggle” against nonbelievers, and sending a clear message that a pro-terrorist interpretation of these passages is unacceptable in mainstream Islam. It is quite true that “political correctness” often stands in the way of such honest examination. But so does the militant condemnation of Islam itself. Such an atittude is, ultimately, a dead end that can lead only to holy war — and to apologias for Milosevic-style genocide.