Fractures on the Right
It seems that conservatives have enormous difficulty getting along. Often we see them at odds with each other and dismissing the very groups trying to defend conservative ideas and assumptions. Some identify as neo-conservatives, others as paleo-conservatives, still others labor to distinguish themselves from libertarian conservatives. Fiscal conservatives set themselves apart from social and religious conservatives. Some are anti-Bush conservatives, some are RINOs. Many jumped on the Arab Spring bandwagon; others, far more prescient, warned of the disaster it portended. Some see major conservative figures like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Tommy Robinson, Ann Coulter, and Geert Wilders as stalwart defenders of Western values; others regard them as inflexible bigots and warmongers.
Recently, I hosted a dinner for a few conservative friends, well-known and influential people in the political community and doing much good work in promoting freedom, justice, national security, sane immigration policy, Zionism, the sovereignty of the individual, and resistance to tyrannical ideologies. And yet, as the evening progressed, basic divisions began to be exposed, especially with respect to the axial distinction between Islam and Islamism -- a necessary differentiation, according to my friends. The equation of Islam and Islamism, they argued, arose from ignorance. In fact, it conceded ground to the radicals and extremists, as one of my cherished friends put it in a subsequent letter to me, “by accepting the Islamists’ view that they are the sole representatives of Islam.”
Islamists, from my friend’s perspective, are barbarians, Bedouin outriders to the faith, marginal entities who “clothe themselves in the texts of Islam” instead of recognizing, as do their “moderate” brethren, that a renewed and “open reading” of the Koran is perennially possible and that the more offensive passages can be historicized and legitimately abrogated. Like any other religion, on this view, Islam is not “immune to the dialectics of history,” and can be reinterpreted and brought into a productive relation with the current era. All people of good will should therefore support these moderates and must be on guard not to alienate them through loose talk about the dangers of Islam.
For myself, though I would wish to eschew controversy among the ostensibly like-minded and cease throwing lead downrange, the dinner-party conversation struck me as evidence of how such divisions over the nature of Islam create a crippling discord amongst conservatives. The meliorists discriminate between a “good Islam” and a “bad Islam,” accusing those with whom they disagree of a perilous conflation of incompatibles. This “bad Islam,” apparently, is the product of a grievous misinterpretation of the primary documents and historical lore on the part of those who have “hijacked” the faith. It is not really Islam.
But the point is, as Anjem Choudary, head of the radical al-Muhajiroun (“the immigrants”) movement in Britain, assures us, the division between moderates and extremists is a “classification [that] does not exist in Islam.” Similarly, after the recent terrorist attack on a BP natural gas plant in Algeria, costing 81 lives, one of the perpetrators announced: “We’ve come in the name of Islam, to teach the Americans what Islam is.” And they have the liturgy and consecrations with them. As Robert Spencer comments, “mainstream media coverage has followed the usual patterns, downplaying or ignoring outright what the attackers said about what they were hoping to accomplish, since these statements lead to questions about Islam that they would prefer not be asked.”
Spencer properly grants that “Muslims exist who may not believe or act upon these teachings,” but, regrettably, such teachings are neither cancelled nor mitigated by revisionary fancies, saccharine acquittals and exemptions, or quixotic sallies into the realm of pseudo-scholarly annotation. Despite the dreamy and well-intentioned futility of glossing the unassimilable, these rules and precepts remain in force as textual ammunition for jihad. To suggest otherwise is to serve up the sort of political tapioca we expect from John Brennan of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, who cannot bring himself to see jihad as anything but a holy struggle for spiritual purity.
Former Islamic zealot Ibn Warraq in Why I Am Not a Muslim has also emphasized that fundamentalist Islam is Islam and rebuked Western intellectuals and apologists for fudging the difference, an act of conceptual amalgamation which he regards as nothing less than shameful. “Western scholars and Islamicists have totally failed in their duties as intellectuals,” he charges, “They have betrayed their calling by abandoning their critical faculties when it comes to Islam.” In his view, the term “Islamic fundamentalism” is a tautology and functions primarily as a “useful and face-saving device for those unable to confront the fact that Islam itself, and not just something we call ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ is incompatible with democracy.” To claim that the spate of Islamic-sponsored mayhem and upheaval has nothing to do with genuine Islam is not only counterfactual but wilfully astigmatic, if not perverse.
As historian Victor Davis Hanson illustrates in a recent and important editorial, “Our Old Grand Fantasies about Radical Islam,” the therapeutic approach to the problem of Islam is a macabre caprice. Jamie Glazov, author of the must-read United in Hate, has expressed his outrage in even more splenetic fashion, denouncing those on his Facebook site who trumpet ‘But it isn’t Islam, it’s just the ones who misinterpret it.” Labeling such propitiators as “enablers” of a “monstrosity,” Glazov is particularly incensed at the ongoing mutilation of young Muslim girls and condemns Western mollifiers as complicit in their fate.
Islam is founded and predicated on the Koran, the Sunnah, the diverse schools of jurisprudence, and the vast exegetical literature. Our meliorists, insisting on decoupling Islam from Islamism, contend that Western critical observers of the faith, who do not accept this distinction, are living in the same camp as the terrorists: the fundamentalists on the one hand, and the skeptics and detractors on the other, both assert that Islam is Islam with nothing aliquant left over. Thus, from the perspective of the conciliators, a Robert Spencer and a Yusuf al-Qaradawi are ideologically aligned.
Such an equivalence is plainly misleading. The Spencers and the Qaradawis may agree on the seamless and unified nature of authentic Islam, but they do not agree on the consequences, practical application or designated action motivated by their conviction. The jihadists enjoin the necessity of violence against, and/or infiltration of, the West, with a view to subverting and conquering it. Critics who fear the political and historical ascendancy of Islam, regarding it as a coherent and triumphalist adversary brandishing a core doctrine of perpetual war against the infidel, argue on the contrary that Islam must be combatted, both understood and withstood. To place, let us say, Geert Wilders and the Ayatollah Khomeini in the same ideological realm, as unbending hardliners and carnivorous hawks, is an act either of obliviousness or disingenuousness.
Another important distinction or acknowledgment needs to be made here. No responsible critic of Islam is saying that all who profess the faith are jihadists, fundamentalists, or corrupt and dangerous people. Many, at any rate in the West, wish for nothing better than to live at peace with their neighbors, to raise their families, and to prosper economically. They are the benign exemplars of their faith, practicing their cultural usages and ceremonies, suppressing everything in the Koran that would disturb their equanimity, living peaceably by omission, as it were.
The trouble is that, for all its noble verses, its persuasiveness, and its softer, more tolerant ayat, the Koran is nonetheless, in its concatenated summons to violence and its comprehensive textual climate, a manual of war. Its injunctions and dictates requiring slaughter, oppression and every manner of cruelty against the unbeliever and the apostate fill surah after surah, and establish the incendiary and bellicose quality of the text, especially the larger Medinian portion. There is nothing to be found in its pages like the Sermon on the Mount, nothing like the bewildered questioning of God’s will (The Book of Job), nothing like Abraham’s bantering with the Lord, nothing quite like the gorgeous effusions of the Song of Songs, so compellingly erotic. The Pauline concept of agape is foreign to the Koran. There is no distinction between Caesar and God, between the political and the religious. Allah is remote and unapproachable. His Prophet issues commands to kill, dismember, repress, coerce, tax and enslave -- commands that far outnumber his more humane utterances.
This is the book whose fissile core is always ready to be activated by its rigorous adherents, who feel they possess a divine mandate to confirm their depredations. Those whom we quaintly describe as “moderate Muslims” are either unaware of all that is in their holy book or claim that they have “reinterpreted” Islam as something other than it has, for the most part, historically revealed itself to be -- and as it is visibly and forcibly proclaiming itself at this very moment, whether in the form of sectarian bloodshed or projection of power and tumult abroad. One recalls the verdict levied by Winston Churchill in The River War. While admitting that “Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities,” he had no doubt that “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world,” since Islam is “a militant and proselytizing faith [threatening] the civilization of modern Europe.” Churchill wrote in 1899; as in so many other instances, his foresight was remarkable.
One of my dinner-party interlocutors, noting my misgivings, accused me of wishing to “ban Islam.” This is a most unfortunate canard. For one thing, how does one go about banning a religion wholesale -- unless, of course, one lives and holds power in an Islamic country? For another, no person in his right mind would ever entertain such a prospect. My argument was simply that nothing will change for the better and for any significant length of time unless the Koran is subjected to the Higher Criticism and the same kind of stratigraphic analysis -- by Muslims -- that the Bible underwent in the 19th century -- by Westerners. That is why there is no danger of the two Testaments being used as weapons in an unfinished war against the rest of the world. The Jewish and Christian scriptures don’t impose the obligation to slaughter non-adherents. They are not teeming with decrees to murder, rape and maim and they are no longer universally believed to have been written by the finger of God -- stratigraphic analysis has put paid to that notion.
If the Koran cannot be redacted -- never mind “reinterpreted” since the prophet’s edicts are not subject to reconstrual but are clear and undeniable and inescapable -- then we will remain in a condition of war with triumphalist Islam. And this will go on for the foreseeable future. Ceding psychological territory to Islam is as foolish as the Israeli left’s giving up physical territory to Fatah and Hamas. The Koran, let us not forget, is revered as eternal and unchangeable, conceived by Allah and dictated through the angel Gabriel. Its ubiquitous harshness and unyielding nature cannot be gainsaid. To pretend that it is something else, a book of love, a psalter of peace and joy, a treatise that can be handily “reinterpreted,” a volume that can be neglected entirely or in part, ensures only further violence when it is taken out of the armory and used against us.
Certainly, there have been periods of relative quiescence -- e.g., in Cordoba, in Baghdad, during the Ottoman empire -- until violence, bloodshed, pogroms, torture, repression and expulsions erupted once again. And this always with Koranic warrant. That is why nothing will change in the foreseeable future, so long as the Koran is accepted as the immutable word of Allah. Jihadists will always arise to claim they have warrant and justification to wage war against the kafir, and especially the Jew. Reformist imam Tahir al Qadri’s claim that Islam is basically irenic, democratic, favorable to minorities, against discrimination, progressive and “free of every kind of extremism and terrorism” is abject and provable flimflam. True, thousands of Pakistanis are supporting him in the streets of Islamabad -- let us hope they are successful in their attempt to reform Pakistani society, however partially. But we recall that Pakistan was once a quasi-secular, democratic state before it rapidly devolved, much like Khomeini’s Iran, into a theocratically-inspired dictatorship. Such reversion is endemic to the nature of Islam, so long as its sacred scriptures are not emended, their more ambiguous or excessive passages either expurgated or canonically reassessed. And such doctrinal amendment does not seem imminent.
Additionally, there has developed within Islam a profoundly romanticized version of the character of Mohammed which entrenches and reinforces the status of the Koran. The glorification of Mohammed as the ideal man, the stellar prophet, the mouthpiece of Allah, the intrinsically lovable reformer is indispensable to the believer, wherever he may fall on the spectrum of avowal. (See, for example, Tarek Fatah’s fascinating book Chasing A Mirage for such unfounded adulation.) Revering the Koran and venerating Mohammed, who cannot be criticized or insulted on pain of death, go hand in hand. (Try naming a teddy bear after Mohammed!) Looked at historically, Mohammed may have been a great prophet but he was also a Bedouin raider. Nevertheless, the fiction of his flawless nature and his unique superiority to all other human beings remains, and must remain, unchallenged within Islam.
Christians have criticized Jesus and Paul. Jews have criticized David and Moses, and even God. This does not mean that Jesus, Paul, David, Moses and God have necessarily been rejected, but that they have been to some extent humanized. Good and courageous Muslims who struggle against theocratic oppression and dogmatic axioms of conduct and belief should certainly be supported, but so long as they do not address the Koran and the ancillary texts and treat them as Western scholars have treated the Bible, their efforts cannot succeed in the long run. The terrorists and fundamentalists will always bring their condign scriptures back and use them to corroborate their goal of restoring the Caliphate and to pursue wars of conquest -- precisely, as we’ve seen, what cannot be done with the Testaments, despite a relatively small number of controversial or objectionable passages.
What, then, is an Islamist? An Islamist is someone who takes the Koran seriously. Or, what amounts to the same thing, an Islamist is someone who takes Islam seriously. There is precious little room within the Koran for a moderate application of it, for a kind of sanctioned zoning process. Change must come from outside, from a concerted, persistent and comprehensive scholastic critique undertaken by the accredited sages, teachers and ulema of the faith. Further -- and this is a pivotal consideration -- even a strict or literal adherence to the tenets of the Judeo-Christian scriptures no longer issues in acts of warlike savagery.
To return to the discussion with which I began. Those whom I’ve called “meliorists,” even among conservatives, have adopted the classic liberal position. Stressing that they wish to build a wedge between moderates and Islamists, they argue that to move against an execrable practice or hateful ideology, especially if that practice or ideology belongs to a perceived “victim group” such as Muslims, is to make it worse. To decry the exhortation to Jew-murder in Islam, to prohibit the building of mosques in ordinary neighbourhoods when surveys indicate that the majority of mosques serve as jihadist recruitment centers, to denounce Muslim practices such as the burqa, genital mutilation, and honour killings, is somehow to drive Muslims into the arms of the Islamists, as if a clear statement of opposition encourages people to do the thing opposed, though there is no evidence that such is the case. And indeed, it is not the uncompromising critics of Islam who are supposedly herding moderate Muslims into the compounds of the jihadists, but firebrand speakers and fanatic imams, as Bruce Bawer most recently points out in an article on campus jihad, surreptitiously plying their trade to radicalize second- and third-generation Muslims.
We know that many conservatives started out as convinced leftists, but with maturity and reflection moved to the right and espoused sound conservative principles. David Horowitz comes immediately to mind. (See Radical Son.) Others, like Bernard Henri-Levy, remain enmeshed in what they consider to be a humane and sober leftism, claiming not so much that they have changed but that the left has changed. (See Left in Dark Times.) The latter appear to embrace certain conservative ideologems and gestures, but are actually rooted in a system of thought and belief qualified by sentimental assuagement and a refusal to face abrasive and astringent realities. Conservatives who think and act like Progressives are undermining their own presumptive agenda.
Recognizing the menace of a resurgent Islam, they still shrink from saying molan labe to their enemies but are determined to apply wiredrawn distinctions and placatory gradations to the belligerent forces intent upon their destruction. Perhaps it is this theoretical atavism that accounts, at least in part, for the fractures that currently disable the conservative ethos and threaten its defeat.
Ironically, those conservatives who stand against the hostility and encroachment of Islam experience in their commitment the dilemma of John of Patmos who, as Elaine Pagels explains in Revelations: Vision, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation, fought on two fronts at once, namely, against an absolutist Roman regime, and against those of his co-religionists who sought to accommodate and negotiate with it. These scholars and critics recognize that, irrespective of its more complaisant and sporadic moments, Islam differs from other religions insofar as it is essentially a political and imperial juggernaut that strives for world domination. Like John, they will require all the courage of their convictions, their clarity of vision, and their ability to resist the vicissitudes and disapproval that their principled stance may bring them, not only from their categorical enemies but also from their supposed allies.