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The New Republic’s Sharia Whitewash

TNR publishes a shamefully ignorant essay condemning those who "demonize" sharia, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri.

by
Andrew G. Bostom

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November 5, 2010 - 12:00 am

Analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, in a recent New Republic essay, condemned those who “demonized” Sharia — Islamic law — despite conceding that the application of what he refers to deferentially as Islam’s “Holy Law”:

… can be ugly, not least for women. Westerners, especially Europeans, are quite right to be outraged by the importation of Sharia practices to their shores. And Westerners should cast a very dim eye on any financial institution that sets up Sharia-compliant offices that could, if left unchecked, discreetly normalize anti-Semitic practices in big global institutions. … [E]ven some Muslim theologians have seen the strain of despotism in Islamic history as being related to the static and authoritarian nature of Islamic legal practice.

Notwithstanding these concessions, Gerecht ridiculed former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s contention during a widely publicized July 2010 American Enterprise Institute speech that the imposition of Islamic law poses an existential threat to freedoms uniquely conceived and practiced in the West. With a glib utterance (“This is hardly the place for a disquisition on Sharia, or how it’s evolved over the centuries”), Gerecht sidestepped his own manifestly inadequate understanding of Sharia and the living consequences of its historical application across space and time. He then lambasted Gingrich — whom Gerecht claimed to have “long admired” — as representing the misguided conservatives whose “blanket demonization of the Holy Lawmight:

… lead one to view Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite thinker in the world, and one who tried desperately and selflessly to keep his country from descending into internecine savagery, as a bigot and a terrorist engine. The same would be true for the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran’s Green Movement.

Gerecht’s romantic, unqualified assertions regarding the Shiite Ayatollahs Sistani and Montazeri illustrate a phenomenon described appositely 25 years ago by renowned Dutch Islamologist Johannes J.G. Jansen. Professor Jansen’s seminal analysis of the Egyptian Islamic milieu before and after Anwar Sadat’s October 1981 assassination — which included a carefully annotated translation of the jihadist manifesto The Neglected Duty — opens with this observation germane to Reuel Gerecht, and his ilk:

Western journalists or scholars picture Islam as a system that is open-minded, liberal, vague, and humanist as their own Western systems … Western writers who give accounts of Islam to a Western public often do not stress those elements in Islam that would be offensive or nonsense in the eyes of their Western readers. They rather see it as their duty to present Islam in as acceptable a light as possible to the West … In general, they take on the role of counsel for the defense.

The apologetic mindset Professor Jansen described is epitomized by Gerecht’s bowdlerized lionization of the two irredentist Ayatollahs. Via deliberate omission, or unacceptable ignorance, Gerecht negates the living legacy of Shi’ite Islamic doctrine and its authentic, oppressive application in the Shiite communities of Iran and Iraq, particularly since the advent of the Safavid theocratic state at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The great Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) — a renowned Islamophile — believed that Shi’ism manifested greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, compared to Sunni Islam. Goldziher observed:

On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi’i legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs … Of the severe rule in the Qur’an (9:28) that “unbelievers are unclean”, Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi’i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa [najis], ritual impurity.

Iran’s Safavid rulers, at the outset of the 16th century, formally established Shi’a Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shi’ite clerical elite continued for almost four centuries (although interrupted between 1722-1795 during a period of Afghan invasion and internecine struggle) through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar E.G. Browne:

The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics.

These Shi’ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews in particular, but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims.

The writings and career of Mohammad Baqer Majlisi elucidate the imposition of Shiite dhimmitude in Iran. Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shiite theocracy in Persia. Indeed, for a decade at the end of the 17th century al-Majlisi functioned as the de facto ruler of Iran — the Ayatollah Khomeini of his era. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi’a ethos among ordinary persons. His Persian treatise Lightning Bolts Against the Jews, despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi’ite theocracy. Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari’a — first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, or poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, i.e., to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi’ite impurity or “najis” regulations. According to Al-Majlisi:

And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths … It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Shari’a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices … and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them … It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure.

The dehumanizing character of these popularized “impurity” regulations fomented recurring Muslim violence against Iran’s non-Muslims — including pogroms, forced conversions, and expropriations — throughout the 17th, 18th,19th, and early 20th centuries.

The so-called “Khomeini revolution,” which deposed Mohammad Reza Shah, was in reality a mere return to oppressive Shiite theocratic rule, the predominant form of Iranian governance since 1502. Conditions for all non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly Bahais and Jews, rapidly deteriorated. Writings and speeches of the most influential religious ideologues of this restored Shi’ite theocracy — including Khomeini himself — make apparent their seamless connection to the oppressive doctrines of their forbears in the Safavid dynasty. Most notably, the conception of najis, or ritual uncleanliness, of the non-Muslim has been reaffirmed. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly: “Non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najis.” Khomeini elaborated his views on najis and non-Muslims as follows:

Eleven things are unclean: urine, excrement, sperm, blood, a dog, a pig, bones, a non-Muslim man and woman, wine, beer, perspiration of a camel that eats filth … The whole body of a non-Muslim is unclean, even his hair, his nails, and all the secretions of his body … A child below the age of puberty is unclean if his parents and grandparents are not Muslims; but if he has a Muslim for a forebear, then he is clean … The body, saliva, nasal secretions, and perspiration of a non-Muslim man or woman who converts to Islam automatically become pure. As for the garments, if they were in contact with the sweat of the body before conversion, they will remain unclean.

The same late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri championed by Gerecht was Khomeini’s close ally. Montazeri further indicated that a non-Muslim (kafir’s) impurity was “a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.” This “hatred” was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt, i.e., non-Islamic, thoughts. Montazeri’s Shiite Islamic Weltanschauung was articulated in his four volume treatise on the “Vilayat al-Faqih” (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists), a key rationale for the post-1979 Iranian Shiite theocracy. These views — openly antithetical to Western conceptions of individual liberty, religious freedom, and democracy — were aptly summarized by Montazeri’s student, Iranian Sociology Professor Mahmood Davari, in 2005:

According to Montazeri, Islamic rule differs from Western democracy in two matters. While the people in a democratic system are supposedly free to elect any person as their ruler, in a Shi’i society Muslims may not choose any other ruler except a just faqih. In a democratic society, people are free to legislate any law according to their collective wishes, whereas in an Islamic regime the legislation must be in accord with Islamic laws and ordinances. Therefore, according to Montazeri, Islamic rule is essentially different from democracy in the West.

The practical consequences of Montazari’s bigoted Shiite Islamic authoritarianism — which Gerecht ignores — have been highlighted by Iranian Studies Professor Jamsheed Choksy. In an NRO essay (“Religious Cleansing in Iran”) co-written with Nina Shea, Choksy noted:

Iran’s constitution requires that laws and regulations be based on Islamic criteria, which mandate inferior status for three non-Muslim faiths, while withholding all rights and protections from all other faiths. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian (specifically, Assyrian and Armenian) live in a modern version of dhimmi status — the … subjugated condition of “people of the Book” dating back to medieval times. While these three groups are allotted seats in the legislative assembly (a total of five out of 290 seats), they are barred from seeking high public office in any of the three branches of government. … Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran’s 71 million people. Forty years ago, under the Shah, a visitor would have seen a relatively tolerant society. Iran now appears to be in the final stages of religious cleansing. Pervasive discrimination, intimidation, and harassment have prompted non-Muslims to flee in disproportionately high numbers.

Choksy concluded his July 2009 essay with a reminder especially apposite for those who share Reuel Gerecht’s views:

Iran’s political dissidents are defended by the West. Its diverse non-Muslim minorities ask why they’ve been forgotten.

Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, pace his unwarranted lionization by Gerecht, remains an irredentist Shi’ite cleric who also believes in najis, and its ugly, dehumanizing restrictions on non-Muslim “infidels” due to their supposed physical and spiritual “impurity.” As I first noted in 2004, Sistani, at his personal website, expresses the traditional, if obscurantist Shiite views re-iterated by Khomeini that non-Muslims should be considered in the same category as: “Urine, feces, semen, dead bodies, blood, dogs, pigs, alcoholic liquors, and “the sweat of an animal who persistently eats [unclean things].”

Sistani further “wishes” for Sharia (Islamic law) to be implemented in Iraq. As a result, Sistani-supporting women in the Iraqi parliament are promoting his repressive agenda. From the Times of London report “Iraq’s women of power who tolerate wife-beating and promote polygamy”:

As a devout Shia Muslim and one of eighty-nine women sitting in the new parliament, she knows what her first priority there is: to implement Islamic law. When Dr. Ubaedey took her seat at last week’s assembly opening, she found herself among an increasingly powerful group of religious women politicians who are seeking to repeal old laws giving women some of the same rights as men and replace them with Sharia, Islam’s divine law.

And when Sistani posted this fatwa about gays on his website, he precipitated a surge in homophobic killings by state security services and Shi’ite religious militias:

Q: What is the judgment on sodomy and lesbianism?


A: Forbidden. Those involved in the act should be punished. In fact, sodomites should be killed in the worst manner possible.

Moreover, by insisting that Sistani is engaged in “selfless sacrifice” for “his country,” Gerecht is either oblivious to, or disingenuous about, Sistani’s continued Iranian, not Iraqi citizenship. According to John Agresto, former senior advisor to the Provisional Authority Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sistani remains an Iranian citizen (see Agresto’s Mugged by Reality, p.xxi): “Iranian by birth, Iranian by religious training –he still retains his Iranian citizenship, in preference to accepting Iraqi citizenship.”

Agresto’s first hand account of Sistani explodes Gerecht’s uninformed, romanticized portrayal, confirming that the Iraqi ayatollah is a bigoted obscurantist bent upon asserting Islamic law in all its Shiite, najis-inspired ugliness. The following comments pooled from Agresto’s eyewitness narrative are self-explanatory:

I do not believe that parties that demand that all public legislation be based on Islamic law as interpreted by Shia imams as liberal. I do not believe that a religious leader who refused even once to meet with Ambassador Bremer or any American, but would gladly meet with every anti-American antagonist and criminal, from Muqtada al-Sadr to Ahmed Chalabi is a “moderate.”

I do not believe that the same Sistani who condemned the Interim Iraqi Constitution because it protected the rights of the Kurds and secured property rights to Jews should be be thought of as being terribly tolerant. Indeed, the very first time I heard, in all my months there, an anti-Semitic diatribe was from the Grand Ayatollah. One word from Sistani might prevent the killing of journalists and Western civilians in Basra, stop the frightened exodus of Christians from all of Southern Iraq, and restrain the imposition of sectarian dogmatism now rolling over Iraqi’s schools and universities. There is no such word.

We insisted that the Ayatollah Sistani was surely a “moderate” and a friend to civil and religious liberty despite all the hard evidence to the contrary. Let me repeat my previous observations and predictions: the Ayatollah Sistani is an Islamist bent on establishing a theocracy not far removed from that found in Iran. He is an open anti-Semite and not too subtle anti-Christian. He threw his support behind democratic elections because they were the handy vehicles for imposing religious authority over all Iraqi. Nor is he the only one, or even the worst, only the most prominent.

Reuel Gerecht’s misguided analysis reflects his willfully deficient understanding of Islamic doctrine and history. Gerecht fails to comprehend — or acknowledge — irrefragable truths articulated by Professor Jansen regarding Islam’s doubly totalitarian Sharia. Jansen refers candidly to Islam’s Sharia-inspired institution of jihad as repellent to Westerners — “[t]he offensiveness of the utopian and revolutionary aspects of Islam” — an observation confirmed by the violent, ongoing historical manifestations of open-ended, aggressive jihadism, whose “political aspiration,” the imposition of Islamic law, is still celebrated by the Muslim masses:

Two characteristics of Islam are particularly offensive to the general Western reader: its totalitarian claim to universal validity and its theocratic demands … The smallest details of daily life are subject to the provisions of Islamic law, not excluding personal hygiene and metabolism. Muslims, it is well known, identify all prescripts of Islamic Law totally and vehemently with the Command of God.

To many, moreover, it is not immediately obvious that the rule of Islamic Law of the land implies the use of force in order to implement a religion, namely Islam, since no state can exist if it rejects the use of force to compel the observance of its laws. Once this is clear, questions about the status of lax Muslims, of non-Muslims, and of ex-Muslims who live in Muslim territory inevitably arise.

Since Muslims themselves are not at all embarrassed by the political aspirations of their religion they fail to see why others should be.

Professor Jansen’s assessment reiterates exactly what Reuel Gerecht’s Princeton University mentor Bernard Lewis affirmed. Gerecht characterized Professor Lewis as “the last and greatest of the orientalists” during a 90th birthday celebration tribute to his mentor in 2006. Lewis, albeit surely unknown by Gerecht, had earlier described Islam as a quintessential totalitarian system, with striking, disturbing similarities to Communism, in a 1954 essay entitled “Communism and Islam”:

I turn now from the accidental to the essential factors, to those deriving from the very nature of Islamic society, tradition, and thought. The first of these is the authoritarianism, perhaps we may even say the totalitarianism, of the Islamic political tradition … There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law … For the last thousand years, the political thinking of Islam has been dominated by such maxims as “tyranny is better than anarchy,” and “whose power is established, obedience to him is incumbent.”

[Islamic Religious and Communist Party leaders] profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and Earth … [in]contrast [to] the eternal questioning of Western man. … [T]he aggressive fanaticism of the believer is the same. The humorist who summed up the Communist creed as “There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet” was laying his finger on a real affinity … [t]he call to a Communist Jihad, a Holy War for the faith — a new faith, but against the self-same Western Christian enemy.

The pious, Islamically-correct dilettantism of Reuel Gerecht and those who share his views must be marginalized. Their unacceptable hectoring of brave conservative public intellectuals like Newt Gingrich, who enunciate sober, historically valid warnings, obfuscates the profound threat posed by Sharia-inspired Islamic totalitarianism.

Andrew Bostom (http://www.andrewbostom.org/blog/) is the author of The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (2005/2008) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (2008).
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