Who Speaks for Islam?

During these long winter nights, my son and I are reading aloud Greenmantle, John Buchan’s World War I thriller. Early in the novel Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office puts our hero, the dashing Richard Hannay, into the picture about a German plot to enlist a nascent Islamic uprising to the side of the Kaiser. “The ordinary man,” Sir Walter mused, believes that Islam is succumbing to “Krupp guns,” to modernity. “Yet—I don’t know.  I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number.” Hannay agrees: “It looks as if Islam had a bigger hand in the thing than we thought. . . . Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.”


It was passages like that, no doubt, which caused the BBC to cancel a dramatization of Greenmantle in the aftermath of the London Tube and bus bombings in 2005. That event demonstrated pretty vividly, as had 9/11 before it, that Hannay was right. And yet we weren’t supposed to say so.

It wasn’t Islam, we were told, but rather a twisted perversion of Islam. The religion itself, as President Bush publicly insisted within days of 9/11, was a religion of peace. It would be tedious to multiply examples of this trope. They are as common as dirt. So I’ll just mention what is perhaps my favorite example. It’s from Jacqui Smith, the former British home secretary.  Henceforth, she told ministers in 2008, terrorist acts that happened to be committed by Muslims were to be described as “anti-Islamic activity.” Why? Because the “extremists” involved “were behaving contrary to their faith, rather than acting in the name of Islam.”

Taken in isolation, that statement is not absurd.  I mean, it is conceivable that a crazed Muslim (or Christian, or Jew, or Buddhist) should go on a murderous rampage, massacre some number of people, say that it was in the name of their religion, but that the claim should turn out to be false. That is possible. But here’s the question: does it speak to the reality of our situation with respect to Islam?

We were told that the 9/11 terrorists, though Muslim, did not speak for Islam. OK, maybe they didn’t.  But how about the London subway bombers? They claimed to be murdering people in the name of Allah or Mohammed. But maybe they were wrong. Maybe they read the wrong parts of the Koran or Hadith, or interpreted those eyebrow-raising passages too literally or something. Maybe.


Yet here’s my puzzlement. Let’s agree, for the sake of the discussion, that the 9/11 bombers did not speak for Islam. Ditto the London murders. Indeed, let’s say that neither the Boston marathon bombers nor the people who murdered a total of 16 people in Paris last week (the 12 at Charlie Hebdo and four at the kosher market), let’s say that they did not speak for Islam either. Like Major Hasan, who murdered 13 people at Ft Hood in 2009 while shouting “Allahu Akbar,” they were just “lone extremists” who carry out murder and mayhem while shouting “Allahu Akbar.” But that has nothing to do with Islam. OK. Got it.

But here’s my question: Who does speak for Islam? We are assured that it’s not the group that now calls itself Islamic State, but which, following Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, I am considering calling Daesh, a name they apparently dislike. Anyway, we know that they don’t speak for Islam because our political leaders and our media have told us so. It’s the same with Boko Haram, the Nigerian Muslim group.  This morning, quoting the Australian journalist Andrew Bolt, I noted that they had kidnapped and sold into sex slavery 300 Nigerian school girls. That was before I saw the story that Boko Haram had just invaded another town killing as many as 2000. Boko Haram appears to believe that they represent Islamic teaching, but no: our leaders have assured us that that is not the case. Ditto about Syria: this summer an adulteress or two were stoned to death, but that, of course, was the work not of Islam but of “extremists,” if not quite “lone extremists.”


So who, according to the establishment gospel, does speak for Islam? The Ayatollah Khomeni was the spiritual leader of Iran, a great Shia Muslim country. Did he speak for Islam?  He didn’t like a novel by Salman Rushdie and told his followers to kill him for insulting Islam. Did the ayatollah speak for Islam?

Two days ago, Raif Badawi, a 30-year-old Saudi blogger, was given 50 lashes by the Saudi authorities for the crime of “insulting Islam.” It was the first installment of 1000 lashes, scheduled to be administered with 50 lashes a session for 20 weeks. No one expects him to last that long, for the order specifies that he is to be “lashed very severely” and be denied medical care.

Saudi Arabia is a great Sunni Muslim nation, our “friend” and “ally.” Do they speak for Islam?

If you’re sitting at home in Long Island or Tampa or San Francisco, then the people who speak for Islam are the college professors and politicians and media folk. Their Islam is a quiet and possibly attractive thing, a view of the world in which “jihad” means primarily an interior struggle for excellence and closeness to God.

Unfortunately, the mullahs in Iran and Iraq and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere mean something quite different by “jihad.” Ask Salman Rushdie. Ask Raif Badawi, if he is still able to talk. I’d advise you to ask Daniel Pearl or Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor (of Charlie Hebdo, until Wednesday), or the 3000 victims of 9/11, but, well, they aren’t talking anymore.

So here’s the question, and I ask it in solemn seriousness: who speaks for Islam? The well-meaning Western liberal who has some agreeable Muslim friends and colleagues? Or the representatives of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who arrested 28 people in September for holding a Christian prayer service in a private home? Which is the real Islam?


Maybe both. But are you willing to recognize the former pleasant-sounding version while saying the version you don’t like is illegitimate, a falling away from “real” Islam?

Who speaks for Islam? It’s a deep question, I believe. A lot turns on the answer.



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