Elsewhere at Pajamas Media, my friend Ron Radosh has posted a long and thoughtful “Message to Conservatives” on the question “Is Islam Really our Enemy?”
Now, you don’t nail up an open-letter, 39-Articles question like that — savor the force of the word “really” — unless you intend to pose what Latinists call a “num” question, i.e., a question that expects the answer “no.” “Is Johnny really such a bad person/paragon of virtue/excellent tennis player/etc.” Answer: “No, he isn’t.”
So it was only to be expected that Ron argues that the problem for the West is not Islam, not really. He also argues — and here we get the “message” part of his title — that conservatives, or at least some conservatives, don’t understand that. They, mistaken souls, think that Islam is the enemy. Ron’s post is an effort to show them the error of their ways.
By “them” I include myself, since I — along with Andrew McCarthy, David Horowitz, and a few others — are put forward as exemplary offenders, folks who go about “demonizing Islam” and hence impede genuine understanding of the problem and hence progress at battling terrorism.
I won’t try to compete with Ron in length. But since I believe there is some rhetorical slippage in Ron’s argument — he begins by saying one sort of thing, illustrates it with quite a different sort of thing, then concludes with a third sort of thing — I thought I should respond.
The first movement in Ron’s argument is that conservatives like me believe that Islam itself is the problem. There is an important sense in which this is true. See, for example, the piece I wrote called “Islam vs. the West: What you Need to Know.” In that column I cite, with approval, a piece by Andy McCarthy warning that “Islam is not merely a religious doctrine, but a comprehensive socio-economic and political system” whose tenets are fundamentally, essentially, inextricably at odds with Western, liberal, democratic, secular society. In another column, I elaborate on this point:
“It is part of the genius of the West — part of what distinguishes the West from the rest — that it has, almost from the beginning, tempered the binding claims of religion by acknowledging the legitimacy of secular institutions. This acknowledgment is not only a political decision, it is an existential dispensation, clearing a space for freedom and the claims of individual liberty. Islam, in principle and as a matter of historical fact, refuses to acknowledge any separate place for civil society or the exercise of individual liberty. Its byword is not ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ but rather submission of everything to the will of Allah. ‘Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction,’ [the philosopher Roger] Scruton observes, ‘Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state.’ If you want to know what that looks like in practice, contemplate the behavior of the Taliban, the Iranian Mullahs, or the followers of al Qaeda and its offshoots.”
Bottom line: Ron is correct that I believe Islam, not just “radical Islam,” is the problem. It’s a position, incidentally, that has a long and distinguished pedigree. For example, in his book Judgments on History and Historians, Jacob Burckhardt, observed that
“All religions are exclusive, but Islam is quite notably so, and immediately it developed into a state which seemed to be all of a piece with the religion. The Koran is its spiritual and secular book of law. Its statutes embrace all areas of life…and remain set and rigid; the very narrow Arab mind imposes this nature on many nationalities and thus remolds them for all time (a profound, extensive spiritual bondage!) This is the power of Islam in itself. At the same time, the form of the world empire as well as of the states gradually detaching themselves from it cannot be anything but a despotic monarchy. The very reason and excuse for existence, the holy war, and the possible world conquest, do not brook any other form.
The strongest proof of real, extremely despotic power in Islam is the fact that it has been able to invalidate, in such large measure, the entire history (customs, religion, previous way of looking at things, earlier imagination) of the peoples converted to it.”
Would Ron dispute this? It seems so. He is not alone. But the curious twist in his “message” concerns not Islam itself but Muslims. Note this move: Folks like me believe that Islam is the problem. But, Ron says,
“Unlike those in the conservative movement who believe Islam is the enemy, I argue that there are real moderate Muslims, who need to be encouraged and supported in waging the fight within Islam against the uses of the Quran for radical purposes. These Muslims exist. We must support them, . . . to view all Muslims as per se extremists is to give up this fight in advance, . . .”
What just happened? Ron began by saying that people (like me) who think Islam is the enemy are wrong. After all, there exist “real moderate Muslims” whom we should support, etc.
Well, yes. But what a come down! Who denies that there are plenty of “moderate” Muslims who themselves dispute that core tenet of Islam, to wit, that everything should submit to the will of Allah? Who says “all Muslims,” let alone “all Muslims per se” are “extremists”? I don’t. Neither does Andy McCarthy: “Our allies,” Andy writes in the piece I link to above, “are the Muslims who embrace our freedom culture — those for whom sharia is a matter of private belief, not public mission. Our enemies are those who want sharia to supplant American law and Western culture. When we call out the latter, and marginalize them, we may finally energize the former.”
I’m not sure Ron would approve of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, but Wilders pithily epitomized the point at issue when he observed that while “there might be moderate Muslims, . . . there is no moderate Islam.” I quote that here and continue with Wilders’s elaboration:
“Islam will never change, because it is built on two rocks that are forever, two fundamental beliefs that will never change, and will never go away. First, there is Quran, Allah’s personal word, uncreated, forever, with orders that need to be fulfilled regardless of place or time. And second, there is al-insal al-kamil, the perfect man, Muhammad the role model, whose deeds are to be imitated by all Muslims. And since Muhammad was a warlord and a conqueror we know what to expect.”
We may, I believe, hope that Wilders is wrong about the future. His assurance that “Islam will never change” may be too pessimistic: “never” is a very long time. But he is correct in his characterization of what Islam has been and what it is now, today.
I want to pause to note one further trope in Ron’s argument. Right after saying that “to view all Muslims as per se extremists is to give up this fight in advance,” he adds that it is also “to push real moderates into the hands of the extremists.” I was sorry to see Ron adopting this gambit. At least from September 12, 2001, we’ve had a brigade of people warning that we mustn’t be too strenuous in our battle against terrorism because we risk inflaming “the Arab street,” radicalizing moderates, etc., etc. That argument is a hoary item in the rhetorical tool box of appeasement and political calculation. The specter of those who “view all Muslims as per se extremists” is a phantasm, the wispiest of straw men, and hanging the warning about “pushing moderates into the hands of the extremists” around its neck is simply to compound the confusion.
What about Ron’s conclusion? Ron is deeply impressed — dazzled, you might say — by a column John Guardiano wrote at FrumForum.com called “Drop ‘the war with Islam’ talk.” That bit about “demonizing Islam” I quoted above comes from Guardiano, who argues that, in fact, Islam is a many-faceted phenomenon and that it behooves us Westerners to recognize that. There are, he says, plenty of Muslims who are both moderate and religiously devout and that the problem with people like me, Andy McCarthy, et al., is that our understanding of Islam “seems entirely textually based and devoid of any historical context.” In other words, we quote alarmist passages from the Koran but neglect the facts of “really existing Islam.”
As to the first point, I’d say it all depends on what you mean by “devout.” Here’s one question I’d like to have answered: “Do you, Mr. Moderate-but-observant Muslim, seek to institute Sharia everywhere?” If the answer is, “Nah, all that Sharia stuff is an outworn legacy of an Islam I’ve repudiated. I’m not interested in regarding women as chattel, stoning adulteresses, cutting of the hands of thieves, killing those who apostasize from Islam, institutionalizing religious intolerance in any society I live in, or regarding Jews as subhuman. In fact, I abominate all that.” If that is the answer — the real answer, not the lying one Muslims are enjoined to give when they are outnumbered in a given society — then I say, Three cheers! Welcome aboard. Feel free to build a mosque down the street from my church. But the question is, can you be a devout Muslim and say that? Can you?
To Guardiano’s second point about my, Andy’s, and other critics’ understanding of Islam being “textually based” and “devoid of historical context,” I should have thought that the nearly 3000 people murdered at Ground Zero provided a large measure of “context.” But if he deems that insufficient, perhaps a meditation on the place of Muslims in events like the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl, the Ft Hood massacre, et very much cetera would provide whatever else was needed in the way of “historical context.”
Ron’s “message” to me, Andy, et al., is motivated partly by a matter of principle — he wants us to be fair to Muslims and the religion they espouse — and partly by prudence: he wants to be sure that we don’t make matters worse by “demonizing Islam” and thereby upsetting the natives. He quotes with approval Guardiano’s caution about “consigning America to a state of permanent war with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.”
I am writing from the wilds of Maine without access to my library, but let me paraphrase what Mark Steyn had to say at the end of his book America Alone. In our battle against proselytizing Islam, we have three options: 1) we capitulate and “turn Turk,” as the phrase once put it; 2) we engage in an all-out battle between Islam and the West; 3) Islam undergoes a reformation and enlightenment, retaining its name but eschewing its political substance. I think Ron would agree that Number 1 is unacceptable. He and I would agree that Number 2 is horrific. Which leaves us with Number 3. So the real question is this: what’s the best way to avoid #2 and achieve #3: accommodation or resistance? I think the latter. Ron, I am surprised to discover, seems to favor the former.
[UPDATE: I’d like to acknowledge that the quotation from Jacob Burckhardt that I quote above was brought to my attention by Andrew Bostom, who has written extensively on the subject of this column. Check out his blog here: http://www.andrewbostom.org/blog/ ]