Daily Archives: June 22, 2006

"Islamophobia" and Islamic radicalism

I have previously blogged about the question of when the critique of politicized radical Islam turns to anti-Muslim bigotry.

Now, I have two recent articles on the topic: my column in Reason, which covers some of the same ground as the blogposts, and a Boston Globe column on Oriana Falacci, recently profiled in The New Yorker.

Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there has been much debate about the threat that Islamic extremism poses to the West—and about when concern over such extremism turns to anti-Muslim bigotry.

Such labels as “bigotry” and “Islamophobia” are often indiscriminately slapped on all outspoken critics of fanatical Muslim radicalism. But the real thing does exist.

For an example, one can turn to a profile of Italian writer and journalist Oriana Fallaci by Margaret Talbot in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Fallaci, who rose to fame with her fearless reportage from danger zones and her gutsy interviews of famous and infamous public figures, has more recently drawn attention—and, in the eyes of many people, become infamous herself—with two polemics against the Islamic threat, The Rage and the Pride and The Force of Reason.

Fallaci, who is currently facing legal charges of defaming Islam in Italy, has many defenders who describe her as a passionate anti-Jihadist unfairly accused of racism. Yet her recent writings do have an unmistakable whiff of racism, indiscriminately lumping together radical Islamic terrorists and Somali vendors of fake designer bags who urinate on the street corners of Italy’s great cities. Journalist Christopher Hitchens, himself a strong polemicist against radical Islamic fundamentalism, has described The Rage and the Pride in The Atlantic magazine as “a sort of primer in how not to write about Islam.” He has noted that Fallaci’s diatribes have all the marks of other screeds about filthy, disease-ridden, sexually threatening aliens.

The New Yorker profile reinforces this impression. Talbot, whom some conservative bloggers have accused of smearing Fallaci either out of liberal soft-headedness or even out of envy toward Fallaci’s passion and moral conviction, actually treats her subject with a lot of respect. She is well aware, for instance, that Fallaci’s concern about the deep-seated problems in much of Islamic culture today, including in some immigrant Muslim communities in Europe (the treatment of women, the resistance to modernization, the religious intolerance, and anti-Semitism), is amply justified. But some of Fallaci’s own words as quoted by Talbot are quite damning.

About Muslim immigration, she tells Talbot: “The tolerance level was already surpassed fifteen or twenty years ago… when the Left let the Muslims disembark on our coasts by the thousands.” She rejects the idea that there can be a moderate Islam or moderate Muslims: “Of course there are exceptions. Also, considering the mathematical calculation of probabilities, some good Muslims must exist. I mean Muslims who appreciate freedom and democracy and secularism. But… good Muslims are few.” She claims, in a rather blatant distortion of history, that since its birth Islam has had a unique propensity among all religions to slaughter or enslave “all those who live differently.”

The planned building of a new mosque and Islamic center near Siena enrages Fallaci so much that she promises Talbot that, if she is alive at the time of its opening, she will blow it up: “I do not want to see this mosque—it’s very near my house in Tuscany. I do not want to see a twenty-four-metre minaret in the landscape of Giotto. When I cannot even wear a cross or carry a Bible in their country!”

These are ugly words, based on the bizarre assumption that the West must respond to religious intolerance in many Muslim countries with religious intolerance of our own.

Despite its manifest problems, Islamic culture today is not monolithic. There are regions, such as Bosnia, where the Muslim populations are modern and moderate; there are progressive and reformist forces within Islam. In the United States, where the social and economic structures are far more flexible and more conducive to the integration of immigrants than in most of Europe, Muslim radicalism has not been a serious problem. (In the United States, all Muslim protests against the publication of the infamous Danish Mohammed cartoons have been nonviolent.)

The problems posed for the West, from within and without, by radical Islamic fundamentalism need to be honestly addressed. But if this response turns to anti-Muslim bigotry—which on some “anti-jihadist” websites turns to defending Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide against Bosnian Muslims —it will leave us with little reason for hope. Fallaci’s passion ultimately leads to a dead-end.

I have to say that on this topic, I find myself saying something I never expected: I agree with James “I Root for Hurricanes” Wolcott, who takes issue with some pro-war bloggers’ defense of Fallaci. It gives me no joy to say this. I have always admired Fallaci for her very real bravery and the sheer power of her personality as a magnificent eccentric, an emancipated woman of a mold that predates modern feminism. But many of her comments in the New Yorker article — which I believe gives Fallaci’s achievements and courage their due — are rather vile,, not just about Muslims but gays and Mexicans; and there is no way of getting around that.

I also happen to agree with Wolcott on this story. A mentally ill man who happens to be of Muslim background and to have a Muslim name shoots a man in a movie theater (then puts down the gun and waits to surrender to the police), and some conservative bloggers jump to the conclusion that it was a terrorist act (or “A Jihad of One“). This despite the lack of the tiniest shred of evidence that the shooting was religiously or politically motivated, or in any way different from other violent acts by other troubled individuals. (The real issue in this particular incident, as a Baltimore Sun report indicates, may be the difficulty of forcing a person into psychiatric treatment unless they have been formally recognized as a threat to themselves or others — a threshold that may be impossible to met until the person actually does commit a violent act.) This is simply wrong, not to use a stronger word.

By the way, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch has replied to my columns and has also challenged me to a debate, in which I have no intention of engaging. I will, however, reply to two points.

On the subject of Fallaci’s failure to distinguish between Islamic terroists and ” Somali vendors of fake designer bags who urinate on the street corners of Italy’s great cities,” Spencer has this to say:

There are several problems with this. One is that the Somali vendors and other Muslims in the West have not made any serious attempt to root jihad terrorists out of their ranks. Another is that such people as Young’s Somali vendor do exist, and while they are not members of terrorist groups, they are manifesting disrespect for the country and culture to which they have come. Is Fallaci wrong to be indignant about that? Such disrespect, of course, stems from the same sources as jihadism: contempt for the infidel and for jahili society, the non-Islamic society of ignorance and impurity. Thus one feeds into the other.

Point one: If Spencer or Fallaci know of any instances of terrorists in the ranks of Somali street vendors, let’s have them.

Point two — public urination as a mini-jihad — doesn’t really merit an answer, but I’ll answer anyway. Apparently, in the world according to Spencer and Fallaci, peeing on street corners and in other public places is a behavior peculiar to Muslim immigrants. (Has either of them ever been to New York?) As it happens, I have travelled in Italy a lot and have seen a lot of the Somali street vendors. On two occasions, I have seen men urinating in the street. Neither of them was a Somali or a Muslim.

Spencer also challenges my assertion that “Christian doctrine for centuries mandated Christian rule by force,” and writes:

She should produce such a doctrine, but she can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

Oh yeah? Well, how about the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which codified the idea of heresy as a high crime? See, also, this article in First Things in which conservative Catholic Michael Novak discusses Thomas Aquinas’ view of heresy as a capital crime. (Aquinas recommends toleration for the religious practices of Muslims and Jews, but so does Islam with regard to Jews and Christians.) Novak quotes historian David Abulafia on the religious codes of the time:

Heresy, indeed, is presented as treason. Those who deny the articles of the Catholic faith implicitly deny the claims of rulers to derive their authority from God. They are enemies not merely of God and of the souls of individuals, but of the social fabric. Their questioning of religious truth involves a questioning of the monarch’s command over the law; as enemies of the law, they are its legitimate targets, and the position of primacy accorded to legislation against heretics is thus entirely proper.

Sounds a lot like “Christian rule by force” to me.

According to Spencer, I’m a “dhimmi,” a term traditionally used to denote Christians and Jews who lived under Islamic rule and enjoyed certain rights but were relgated to second-class status (and nowadays used by certain “anti-jihadists” to denote any non-Muslim they regard as too soft on Islam). Well, considering JihadWatch.com puts Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian of Islam who warned about the danger of Islamic radicalism all the way back in 1990, in the same category, I think I’m in good company.

Spencer wants to debate me, apparently, in order to demonstrate that he knows more about Islamic teachings and history than I do. And he probably does. However, I know bigotry when I see it, and Spencer’s argument about public urination as a manifestation of the Muslim peril seals the deal as far as I’m concerned. I notice that JihadWatch.com issued no invitation to a debate to Bernard Lewis when targeting him for their smear. For Spencer vs. Lewis, I would definitely tune in.

So I won’t be debating Spencer on his site, though I have to say I was highly amused by one of his commenters who suggested that my deplorable views on “Islamophobia” are due to the fact that (1) I’m a non-Jew (which would come as a big surprise to my Israeli relatives — and, by the way, isn’t this argument merely a reversal of the idea that Jewish commentators can’t be fair when writing about Islam or the Middle East?), and (2) I’m a woman, and a lot of women secretly yearn for male power, and hence I am probably drawn to the male dominance represented by Islam. (Which is so true.)

Meanwhile, for the scary reality of Islamic radicalism and intolerance, see this collection of excerpts from textbooks produced by our friends the Saudis. (Hat tip: Joe Gandelman.)

And here is an interesting article on the History News Network by Michael Furnish, assistant professor of Islamic history at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody, GA. Furnish castigates several politically correct myths about Islam, including the myth that Islam is an essentially and profoundly peaceful religion hijacked by terrorists. He notes that violent radicalism does have roots in Muslim theology; but he does not deny the existence of other, more peaceful strands in Islam. Writes Furnish:

Islam is where Christianity was before the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and then the Enlightenment led the West to divorce religion and state, thereby removing (mostly) the threat of religious-based warfare. As a fellow monotheist with Muslims, I pray that the moderate strands within Islam win out over the more fundamentalist ones, allowing that civilization to follow suit. And for we in the West to help with that, we need to open our eyes to the reality of the harsher aspects of Islam and Islamic history. Anything else is simple—and dangerous—self-deception.

Very true; but honesty about the harsher and darker aspects of Islam and Islamic history is not the same as tarring all of Islam with the same brush and denying that the moderate strands even exist.


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