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Islam, Islamism, and Moderation

What, exactly, is the difference?

by
David Solway

Bio

September 14, 2010 - 12:00 am

The distinction frequently drawn between Islam, which is said to be moderate and peaceable, and Islamism, which is understood as a perversion of the cardinal tenets of the faith, seems both academic and unhelpful. Dutch politician Geert Wilders has claimed that no distinction exists “between good Islam and bad Islam. There is Islam and that’s it.” Might he be right?

There must obviously be something inherent in Islam which allows for large numbers of believers to kill and maim without compunction while sacrificing their own lives in the process. We do not see Christian or Jewish “terrorists” ramming jetliners into skyscrapers and the Pentagon, taking many thousands of innocent lives. We do not see them regularly blowing themselves up in crowded marketplaces, killing unarmed soldiers on American soil, or setting off incendiary devices on passenger jets. Beheadings, acid attacks, stonings, honor killings, burnings, kidnappings, and shooting sprees are not a staple of common Western behavior. The difference is incommensurable and those, primarily on the left, who labor to fudge the distinction by claiming a Jewish or Christian equivalence with the religious savagery of the Islamic world are in bad faith, and are nothing less than apologists for Islamic terror. Admittedly, from time to time a Baruch Goldstein or a Timothy McVeigh goes on a slaughter rampage, but such events are striking precisely because they are anomalous, whereas Muslim violence around the globe is almost a daily occurrence and is prescribed in the pages of the Koran.

It is true, as many scholars have remarked, that the earlier, Meccan portion of the Koran (610-622 C.E.) attests to a degree of tolerance, but the later, Medinese writings (622-632 C.E.), with but few exceptions, show little mercy to the unbeliever. There we find most of the ordinances relating to holy war. Andrew Bostom, author of The Legacy of Jihad, a veritable Encyclopedia Islamica, draws our attention to a famous hadith (or saying of Mohammed), no. 0272 in the Kitab Al-Iman, which decrees, “the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Verily the faith would recede to Medina just as the serpent crawls back into its hole.” The ophidian haven, we note, is not Mecca but Medina.

Even a cursory reading of the Koran will reveal that, like most scriptures, it is rife with contradictions. Such discrepancies are generally resolved by the principle of naskh, the doctrine of “progressive revelation,” according to which later revelations may cancel out earlier ones, giving doctrinal (if not temporal) priority to the Medinese section of the Koran. The earlier surahs, or chapters, that speak of peace and harmony could thus be abrogated or annulled (mansukh) by those which come afterward. The Koran itself permits such revision. Surah 2:106 reads: “We do not abrogate a verse or let it be forgotten without substituting a better or similar one.” But this is an old story, and the problem has been studied as far back as the 9th century Arab philosopher al-Kindi who, as Arabist Robert Irwin writes in For Lust of Knowing, “pointed to areas where the Qu’ran appeared to contradict itself and queried the Muslim doctrine of abrogation.”

Occasionally, a particular surah will even self-abrogate. Consider the celebrated surah 5:32, often cited by Muslims to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam, which states that anyone who kills another human being “should be regarded as though he had killed all mankind.” There are several problems with this passage. To begin with, the phrasing is an almost exact replica of Eduyot 1:6 in the Hebrew Mishnah, circa 200 C.E. and collected in the Talmud, where it is written: “whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world.” Such passages seem to justify the conviction of many scholars, going back to Ernest Renan’s essay Mahomet and the Origins of Islamism, that much of the Koran is a pastiche of Biblical sources, Talmudic traditions, and the Apocrypha.

Yet just as troubling, this Koranic verse immediately introduces an exception — “except as punishment for murder or other wicked crimes” — leaving the definition of “wicked crimes” open to interpretation. (Such a “wicked crime” is specified in 2:90 as unbelief: “May Allah’s curse be upon infidels. To deny Allah’s own revelation … they have incurred Allah’s most inexorable wrath.”) Further — and this is the sticking point — the very next verse appears to revoke its predecessor: “Those that make war against Allah and His apostle and spread disorders in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off.” The notion of making war on Allah may obviously be interpreted in any number of different ways and indeed already has; spreading disorders is also open to interpretation and readily eventuates in the judicial killing of another human being. This is the theological rationale behind the current juridical atrocities in Iran, where people are executed as mohareb, “enemies of God.”

In asserting the peaceful nature of Islam against all the evidence to the contrary, many Muslims and their enablers will often bring up Surah 2:256, the famous “There is no compulsion in religion” dictum, which has been violated since time immemorial and is contradicted by innumerable other passages in the Koran. Surah 9:29, for example, is unambiguous: “Fight those of the People of the Book who do not truly believe in God and the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and his Messenger have forbidden, who do not obey the rule of justice, until they pay the tax and agree to submit.” Surah 9:5 enjoins the believer to “Fight and slay the Pagans wherever you may find them.” Surah 4:89 does not temporize with apostates: “If they desert you, seize them and put them to death wherever you find them.” The litany is interminable. It should be needless to say that to draw attention to such injunctions and their translation into practice cannot credibly be denounced as Islamophobic. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of The Values Network and author of Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, who happens to take a broadly sympathetic view of Islam, cuts to the chase when he avers that “there can be no greater insult to the religion than to behave inhumanely while claiming to live by a higher spiritual and moral code.”

As might be expected, criticism of the Koran or of many of its decrees will be countered by Islamic scholars who depose that the passages in question have not been properly contextualized or competently parsed on the level of grammar, vocabulary, and classical usage. This is precisely the tack adopted by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem in the Introduction to his new translation of the Koran. But as any practicing Muslim knows, Koranic verses are understood to be eternally valid and always applicable in any or all circumstances. Haleem is unfazed and patently derelict with the truth. The conclusion he arrives at is that the “prevalent message of the Qur’an is one of peace and tolerance.”

Bangladeshi author of Women in Islam and former Muslim Abul Kasem does not think so. “Is there such a thing as moderate Islam? For the existence of moderate Islam/Muslims, there must be a ‘moderate’ Qu’ran, since the life force of Islam is the Qu’ran.” But the Koran, he points out, advocates violence in passage after passage and cannot be safely moderated. “Introducing innovation in Islam is a serious crime … subject to Islamic punitive measure, which is death.” Discounting the actual practitioners of terror, the majority of Muslims, Kasem explains, amounting to about 90% of the ummah, or community of believers, are Muslims in name only and have little idea of the Koran, ancillary writings such as the ahadith or even shari’a. A smaller group consists of what he calls “pretend Muslims,” and a third, even smaller number, who shrink from becoming martyrs but are sympathetic to the cause of worldwide dominion, comprises those who embrace “philosophical terrorism.”

Thus for Kasem, “there is no such true thing as moderate Muslims.” The real enemy, he concludes, “is not the terrorists. Rather, it is Islam. As long as the world does not internalize and comprehend this truth, and as long as wrong, PC policies are pursued this war will continue and the defeat of the non-believers is guaranteed.” Which is Kasem’s way of saying that our shallow belief in the efficacy of “moderation” is what may eventually do us in. Leslie S. Lebl of the American Center for Democracy agrees: the basic problem is “an ideology fundamental to ‘traditional’ or ‘moderate’ Islam as much as to its ‘radical variant.’” In other words, the Koran is seamless and its prescriptions hold across the board. Moreover, moderation is also a perfect cover for immoderation as well as its fecund seedbed and its sustaining medium. For Kasem, as is the case too with former Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq, what we call “moderate Islam” is the water in which the sharks swim and seek their prey.

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It is only fair to acknowledge a number of important dissenting voices. Director of the Middle East Forum Daniel Pipes famously believes that “if radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution.” In The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji cites the principle of ijtihad, or democratic consultation and interpretive flexibility, as a crucial factor of Islamic life. David J. Rusin, director of Islamist Watch, cites a number of anti-jihad imams and “moderate” Muslim organizations, concluding that “the resurgent jihad is a conflict between an authoritarian interpretation of Islam and a more spiritual, secular interpretation.” Similarly, political commentator Barry Rubin, who argues that conservative Islam is at war with “revolutionary” Islam, considers that believing Muslims “can always find ways to ignore or reinterpret” their foundational texts. Rubin has recently interviewed Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and editor of The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular, who agrees with her interviewer that a “civil war” is ongoing between Islamists and “traditional Muslims.” Baran believes that “the ideology of Islamism is…the root cause of the violence” and affirms that “Islam is not just about the written text but the living tradition”

Salim Mansur, author of Islam’s Predicament, adds the rider that “For Arabs, Islam is custom sanctioned by religion as doctrine. This does not hold for non-Arab Muslims, and problems arise when non-Arab Muslims, such as Pakistanis or Malays, pretentiously strive to outperform Arabs as fake Arabs.” Mansur’s focusing on normative Islam as custom first and theology second (or first-and-a-half) surely applies to many practicing Muslims, and perhaps not only to Arab Muslims, as he believes. But given the parietal atmosphere of threat, coercion and almost daily bloodshed, as well as the political and psychological hegemony of the Koran, whose fissile core is always ready to be activated, one may suspect that the more aggressive version of Islam may ultimately prevail over its more nuanced and presumably benign competitor. Certainly, its eruptive potential cannot be dismissed or extenuated.

A house revolt by “moderate Muslims” (assuming Kasem is mistaken) would plainly be a move in the right direction and might do something to reduce the incidence of terrorist attacks. But terrorism and religious discord will likely stay with us, whether overtly, latently or intermittently, so long as Islam remains literal and unemended. The issue is whether re-interpretation is possible. Egyptian physician-scholar Tawfik Hamid insists that without an “alternate approach” to the Koran, moderation is a dead letter. Presently engaged in preparing a new and different reading of portions of the Koran, Hamid clearly believes that such a reformulation is possible and that behavior modification may consequently be achieved.

Of course, it is more than a question of bringing the “higher criticism,” based on historical and textual principles, to bear upon the Koran alone, for the entire auxiliary corpus, the ahadith and the sirah (life, or way, of Mohammed), would also need to be reassessed. As William Kilpatrick reminds us, “75% of the sira is about jihad. These are inconvenient facts for those who hope Islam can be reformed.” He refers as well to Moorthy Muthuswamy, author of Defeating Political Islam, whose statistical analysis of the Koran is equally shocking: over 60% of its content is of a militant and hortatory nature. This interconnected library of faith, with the Koran at the center and the sunnah (ahadith plus sirah) radiating outward from the source through the chain of transmitters (isnad) into posterity, would seem far too complex, interfused and labyrinthine to yield to significant renovation. We are dealing with a vast and integrated canon that also includes the various schools of classical Islamic jurisprudence, or madh’habs. Good luck to anyone with the stamina and temerity to separate out the “offending” constituents of so resistant an amalgam in all its theological, political and legal reticulations. The chances of success would seem to be approximately zero.

One must be especially wary of well-meaning and tender-minded Muslim apologists such as Hamid or his distant colleague Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, a professor in Leyden since having fled his native Cairo. They are not only tilting at windmills; they are also prone to oversimplification and misconstrual. In an interview with the Qantara.de website, for example, Abu Zaid argues that the calls to violence inscribed in the pages of the Koran were caused not by theological hatred but by the need to defend the nascent Muslim community from the enmity of their own tribes and families. In the context of indiscriminate warfare, slaughter and conquest, this seems, to put it gently, rather far-fetched.

The penchant to exaggeration or to advance a prettifying hermeneutic is difficult for reformist advocates to resist, if reform is their real intention. Nonie Darwish, author of Cruel and Usual Punishment and Now They Call Me Infidel, contends that “Muslims in America seem to teach, at least temporarily, religious principles that stand in stark contradiction with the core ideology of Islam. Such lies about what Islam is have worked in favor of Muslim expansion. The confusion and double talk in Islam works well in silencing others.” To take a recent example, a group of nine Muslim scholars representing the Muslim Public Affairs Council has released a video on YouTube meant to counter jihadist violence among radical Muslim youth. But the campaign is unconvincing. For one thing, the video is riddled with misconceptions and laundered interpretations of what is plainly set down in the larger Islamic text. For another, it is not reassuring that, according to The New York Times report, some of these scholars are “politically controversial” (the Times thinks this is a good thing!) and others are converts to Islam.

While such efforts, to the extent that they are genuine, are to be applauded, they tend nevertheless to resemble stopgap contrivances compromised by a mixed message. Injustice against Muslims is presented as a fact and, although it is affirmed that “Injustice cannot defeat injustice,” there is no mention of a major source of such injustice, the violence perpetrated by Muslims on their co-religionists. And then there are simple errors of historical fact. “The Prophet Mohammad,” says Imam Suhaib Webb, “when on the battlefield, saw that amongst the enemy there were innocent women and children killed, and he was openly angry. He is prohibiting us from killing the innocent. It is very clear.” Unfortunately, it is not “very clear” at all, as a study of the Koran and a knowledge of the early history of Islam makes even clearer.

A similar initiative launched by the MPJP (Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress), which endeavors to “promote conflict resolution” and to “invalidate extremism and bigotry,” seems to be engrossed by the spectre of “Islamophobia and the negative stereotypes of Muslims in the West.” This is a very bizarre preoccupation, considering that there is very little Islamophobia to be found in the West. Europe bends over backwards to accommodate its Muslim communities (especially in Holland and Scandinavia), the UK is bristling with mosques and chockablock with Muslim organizations (the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, the Cordoba Foundation, the satellite TV Islamic Channel, etc.), and the U.S. is immensely tolerant of its Muslim citizens and their manifold representatives, to the point of scrubbing allusions to Islam in the reporting of terrorist events. In fact, the 2008 FBI “Hate Crime Statistics” report shows that 61.1% of hate crime victims were Jews; only 7.7 % were Muslims. In the UK, anti-Jewish incidents nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009; Muslims appear to be doing just fine, thank you. This is the real trend. “Islamophobia” is nothing but a rhetorical weapon brandished by radical and subversive Islamic groups and their leftist fellow travelers to facilitate their incursion into Western life and politics.

The common denominator in all such cases, apart from an acrid whiff of disingenuousness, is that the Koran remains untouchable. More reasonably, Abu Zaid, in the above-mentioned interview, sees the Koran not as an eternal book but as the product of “formative influences,” which is palpably true. Indeed, it has now come to light that ancient parchment pages of the Koran, recovered during the restoration of the Great Mosque in Sana’a, Yemen, reveal fascinating differences from the three standard Koranic texts preserved in the Library of Tashkent, the Topkapi Museum and the British Library. This cache incontestably proves that the Koran was a historically evolving document, although the Imamic consensus will certainly resist acknowledging the value of the find. For to dwell upon the stratigraphic nature of the Koran amounts to heresy.

But when Abu Zaid proceeds to assert, without the slightest wisp of either evidence or ordinary perceptiveness, that “the Prophet’s invitation to the people to follow him in their faith is based upon the assumption of their freedom to choose,” he has left the real world far behind and wafted off to Cloud Cuckoo Land on the wings of a radiant fantasia that neither the Koran, the history of Islam, nor the current evolution of the faith can sustain. Abu Zaid obviously believes what he is saying, which makes him, however unwittingly, a convincing apologist for the barbarians at the gates. Naturally, this is what we in the West want to hear: it soothes our fears, panders to our sense of ourselves as an open-minded and tolerant society that is entirely warranted in accepting an alien discourse and supremacist theology in its midst, and justifies our obsequious reluctance to stand up in our own defense.

Andrew Bostom cites the great scholar of Islamic law, Joseph Schacht, to exactly this effect. “Because they cannot face the problem, because they lack historical understanding of the formation of Mohammedan religious law, because they cannot make up their minds … on what is legislation, the modernists cannot get away from a timid, halfhearted, and essentially self-contradictory position.” And as David Kupelian rightly observes in his recent How Evil Works, “As long as the West becomes continually weaker and more contemptible in its attempts to placate Islam, the conflict will just intensify … it is our weakness that is fueling the growth of Islamofacism.” But we Westerners are intent on aggressively defending our weakness. We persist in dreaming in Islamocolor.

This is why Geert Wilders, who believes the Koran is not only a holy book but a war manual and an ideological treatise on the level of Mein Kampf, is currently being prosecuted in a Dutch court. As he deposed at an Alliance of Patriots meeting in New York in October 2008, in a speech called America, the last man standing, “in its essence Islam is a political ideology … [it] is not compatible with freedom and democracy.” “Now you know why,” he continued, “Winston Churchill called Islam ‘the most retrograde force in the world’ and why he compared Mein Kampf to the Quran.” Wilders’ position is not to ban the Koran outright, as many have alleged, but to proceed consistently: either ban the Koran or remove Mein Kampf from the proscription list. Wilders appears to favor the latter option since, in the long run, at least in the West, censorship never works.

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I have no foolproof solutions to propose to our dilemma, only a faint hope and a strong recommendation.

The faint hope is that the soi-disant community of “moderate Muslims” will prove Pipes, Manji, Rusin, Mansur, Baran, and Rubin correct and Kasem, Muthuswamy, Hirsi Ali, Warraq, and Darwish wrong, and eventually come to the fore — although this may entail a process of generations, assuming it is at all feasible. (Acclaimed French essayist Pascal Bruckner is wryly skeptical; “the problem with the moderates,” he writes in The Tyranny of Guilt, “is that they are precisely … moderate.”) Further, as with the communicants of all religions, the tendency to privilege the customary elements of practice — Baran’s “living tradition” — over the sclerotic dictates of faith, or to regard the latter as merely providing, in Mansur’s phrase, doctrinal sanction for cultural habit and observance, may go some way to taming the more radical cohort. Is such a hope realistic or modal? The operative term here is “may” for there is no assurance that a more domestic attitude will prevail over doctrinal rigidity. As Howard Bloom suggests in The Lucifer Principle, “To allow a faith or ideology to be overthrown would be to abandon a massive neural fabric into which you’ve invested an entire life, a network that cannot be easily replaced, perhaps that cannot be replaced at all.”

Given the centrality of the Koran and the pivotal importance of the dogmatic literature, even the public condemnation by Muslims of Muslims, the attempt to exorcize internal demons — an effort which, it must be acknowledged, is not a mainstream phenomenon — may not materially alter the situation. Consider the plight of the pacifist Ahmadi sect which struggles to present Islam as a religion of peace, and has in consequence been ruthlessly persecuted by fellow Muslims. Two Ahmadi mosques were recently attacked in Lahore, with 94 dead and another 2,500 taken hostage. Over the years, the fate of the peaceable Baha’i Faith, with its roots in Shi’a Islam, has not been markedly different; Iran has just handed out 20-year prison sentences to seven Baha’i leaders. These communions obviously face a Sisyphean ascent.

The strong recommendation is that we begin to instruct ourselves, recognize that we are involved in a war for our very survival as a civilization, know who the enemy is, and be prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent our ultimate eclipse. We must learn our history for as Ralph Peters, author of Endless War, tells us, “those who do not know history will die of myth.” We must resist the plangent modalities of Islamospeak lulling us to sleep with tranquilizing platitudes about a “religion of peace,” vernal consolations, redemptive insights, and private exaltations. We should also remain vigilant against the promulgation of meretricious “facts.” A correspondent to the National Post, one Rizwan Jabbar, in a letter of August 7, 2010, justifies the Cordoba Center project near the site of Ground Zero by referring to “the ten million Muslim slaves who helped build the nation.” Jabbar presumably learned his history from his imam, a Saudi textbook, or perhaps from Howard Zinn. And many who should know better will swallow the flounder whole.

This includes Barack Obama, who has just come out in support of the Cordoba project. In his Ramadan message for this year, he declared that “here in the United States, Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America and that American Muslims have made extraordinary contributions to our country.” “Really?” comments Robert Spencer with scarcely disguised contempt. “Maybe Robert Gibbs will be so kind as to provide us with a list of the Muslim Founding Fathers, the Muslim heroes of the American Revolution, the names of the Muslims killed fighting in the Civil War (for the North, no doubt — you know, “racial equality”!), the Muslim Senators and Congressmen who served with distinction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — I’m sure the Obama administration will have no trouble coming up with all that, will they? And I trust it will also contain a list of those ‘extraordinary contributions’ that Muslims have made to our country. Aside from being the impetus for some extraordinary innovations in airport security, I can’t think of any.”

Despite the assumptions of the Jabbars and Obamas and the googolplex of the deluded, there is undeniably a war going on. Interestingly, Robert Lewis, editor of the Canadian journal Arts & Opinion, believes the war may already be won, thanks to “the world-transforming revolution in communications” and “the introduction of the Internet,” which injects the lifestyle temptations of the West into the once-inoculated Muslim mind. “Once exposed to the ways of the West,” he writes, “there’s no going back home.” But although “the effects of terrorism and suicide bombings cannot begin to compete with the Internet as a hegemonic tool,” Lewis admits that the Islamic peril has by no means diminished, since radical Islam may likely react out of desperation and adopt “the apocalyptic solution,” a reference to the Iranian bomb. Lewis is certainly right in warning about the threat posed by weapons-grade iranium (as it were), and he may also be correct about the long-term effect of the Internet on the Muslim sensibility, but the critical issue here is one of time. Both the explosive and the infusorial forms of Islam would need to be resolutely fought if we are to avoid detonation on the one hand and the gradual insemination of Islamic norms, practices and laws into the Western body social on the other.

Rather that wait on the hypothetical triumph of Western communications technology, which may or may not happen — and possibly not in time to escape undesired ends — vigorous, unsentimental, and politically uncorrect measures are absolutely indispensable. These would include the shutting down of terror-preaching mosques (as well as the cancellation of the Cordoba project), the deportation of extremist imams, a ramped-up prosecution of phony Islamic “charities,” the stringent oversight of Wahhabi-inspired madrassas with a view to eliminating them altogether, the delicensing of Islamic organizations allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, tightened immigration policies, the prohibiting of shari’a law and finance, the close monitoring of Middle East Studies departments in our universities whose real mandate is not to teach but to proselytize and indoctrinate in favor of Islam, and an all out campaign to dry up the sources of Islamic funding in all areas of public and professional life.

Failing the implementation of such measures, we are embarking on a long day’s journey into night. And let us make no mistake about this, the adversary is a formidable one. Islam, says Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power, is a “Religion of War.” One of the four ways in which “devout Mohammedans” assemble into crowds, apart from prayer, the Hajj and, theoretically, the Last Judgment, is “for Holy War against unbelievers … The Koran, the book of the prophet inspired by God, leaves no doubt of this.”

The “surge” worked in Iraq. The counter-surge of much Islamic popular feeling, exploding demographics, institutional infiltration, lawfare, forum shopping, inflammatory rhetoric, “stealth jihad” and relentless terrorist warfare may work equally well against the pusillanimous West. For this is more than a new Thirty Years War we are engaged in, but a religious and civilizational conflict that will extend into the indefinite future.

David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012.
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