Ibn Warraq: “It’s no good pretending that somehow the real Islam is tolerant, the real Islam is feminist, and so on”
Here, from a lengthy and fascinating discussion featuring Paul Berman, Judith Miller, Fred Siegel, Lee Smith, Ibn Warraq, is my friend Ibn Warraq’s take on a question that has been much discussed here and elsewhere, and is often obscured and confused: the distinction between Islam and “Islamism,” and that between the teachings of Islam and Muslims as individuals. “Modernity and the Muslims: A transcript of a discussion at St. Francis College,” at City Journal, July 15 (thanks to John):
QUESTIONER: You talk about the difference between Islam and Islamism. Mr. Smith, you said that you don’t want to deal with it. We have the Islamic Conference, which Ibn Warraq mentioned, and 56 nations are promoting the so-called Cairo Declaration of 1992, which is basically an Islamic replacement for the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So is the Islamic version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Islam or Islamism? What’s the difference?
IBN WARRAQ: I often think that this is a way of skirting the question. I prefer to bring in the nuances of history. I like to make a distinction that I actually owe to Bernard Lewis; oddly enough, Lewis, to my knowledge, has never made use of it. It’s a very useful distinction that he made between Islam One, Two, and Three. Islam One is what’s in the Koran, what the Prophet Mohammed did and enjoyed. Islam Two is the sharia and the theological construct that we call Islam, as developed by the theologians over the centuries. Islam Three is Islamic civilization, which is what Muslims actually did do as opposed to what they should have done, what actually happened in Islamic history. Often Islam Three–that is, Islamic civilization–was far more tolerant than what Islam One and Two demanded. For example, until very recently, Islamic society (Islam Three) was far more tolerant about homosexuality than the West was, whereas Islam One and Islam Two more firmly condemned it. There are several ambiguous passages in the Koran, but certainly Islam Two, the sharia, condemns homosexuality.
Islamic history has never been a relentless series of theocratic governments; it has varied from century to century, ruler to ruler. Sometimes it has been very intolerant, and sometimes it has been very tolerant. Just look at some of the poets who were given free rein–for example, al-Mahawi, an Iraqi who was certainly an agnostic and very probably an atheist, but he was very critical. He was left alone; no one bothered him, so this is witness to the period of tolerance. This is, for me, the best way to approach the situation. For example, some of the terrorists are taking literally what is in the Koran. There are all sorts of intolerant passages in the Koran about killing infidels and not taking Jews and Christians as friends. It’s undeniably there, and you can’t get away from it. Chapter four in the Koran: you can’t get away from the fact that it gives men the power to beat women. It’s no good pretending that somehow the real Islam is tolerant, the real Islam is feminist, and so on. There is a great deal of confusion because people do not want to tarnish with the same brush a billion believers. We don’t want to be too crude in our defamation. We don’t want to call all Muslims terrorists, so the best way is this distinction between Islam One, Two, Three.