This is the state of the free press today: if you write a book that dares to suggest that Islam and the theology and ideology of jihad might have something to do with today’s terrorism (which, of course, the terrorists themselves insist), the New York Times and the lemmings that follow in its wake will ignore you, unless they are planning a feature on “Islamophobia.” So will National Review, at least for now.
Why will they ignore you? Because even to have a public debate with you will be to grant legitimacy to your perspective, and make them have to answer it. Since it is true, they can’t answer it, so instead they resort to attempting to delegitimize it by treating it as if it were beneath notice and unworthy of discussion.
This is an extraordinarily irresponsible stance for the New Duranty Times to take. Why? Because it cuts the ground out from under the moderate Muslims they profess to be supporting. By forbidding discussion of the violence in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s career, they prevent the moderate Muslims they support from coming to grips with the enormous challenge that the global jihadists have presented to them. The jihadists make recruits daily by referring to Qur’an and Hadith; but the moderates have no convincing response that will keep Muslims from becoming radicalized. And no one is pressing them to try to formulate such a response, because both left and right are pretending that the problem does not emanate from Islam’s core texts.
So the entire moderate Muslim project today is a fruitless exercise in deception of others or self-deception, and the responsibility can be laid at the feet of every media type who has bought the line about “Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists.”
But we will never know why the Times is doing this — because they will not discuss it. Instead, the Times is energetically boosting the Bright Young Muslim Thing Reza Aslan, whose shallow and distorted depiction of Islamic teachings I discussed here.
“The Jihad Is a Civil War, the West Only a Bystander,” from the New Duranty Times, with thanks to all who sent this in:
For many in the West, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center turned a page in world history. They signaled the onset of a monumental struggle between fundamentalist Islam and modern, secular democracy, what the Harvard scholar Samuel P. Huntington has called a “clash of civilizations.”
Not so, Reza Aslan argues in “No god but God.” “What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West,” he writes. “The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.”…
He’s right that there is an internal conflict, and that the West is unwary.
Mr. Aslan is, in a certain sense, a fundamentalist. The Christian sense of the word is meaningless in Islam, of course, because Muslims believe that the Koran was dictated by God and, therefore, that its words are literally true. But like the puritanical Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia, whom he reviles, Mr. Aslan looks to the first Muslim community in Medina, established by Muhammad 1,400 years ago, as a model for reform today. His Medina, though, is a communal, egalitarian society dedicated to pluralism and tolerance. The problem with Islam, Mr. Aslan argues, is the clerical establishment that gained control over the interpretation of the Koran and the hadith: the anecdotes describing the words and deeds of Muhammad, passed on by his followers and their descendants. Less than two centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632, there were some 700,000 hadith circulating throughout the Muslim world, “the great majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs and practices by connecting them with the Prophet.” The stoning of adulterous women, to take a notorious example, originated not in the Koran, but in the virulent misogyny of Umar, one of Muhammad’s first converts and later the ruler of the caliphate, who simply claimed that this form of punishment had accidentally been left out of the Koran. Although women in the Medina community were given the right to inherit the property of their husbands and to keep their dowries as their own personal property, later scholars decided that the Koran, when instructing believers “not to pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded,” had women and children in mind.
One of Mr. Aslan’s most important chapters deals with the centuries-long struggle between traditionalists and rationalists over the proper interpretation of the Koran. The outcome weighs heavy on the world today. The rationalists saw the Koran as both the word of God and a historical document whose meanings change through time. For the traditionalists, the Koran is fixed and eternal. Therefore, “what was appropriate for Muhammad’s community in the seventh century C.E. must be appropriate for all Muslim communities to come, regardless of the circumstances.”
The traditionalists won. The power to interpret the Koran came under the control of religious scholars, collectively known as the ulama, who ended the era of consensus and free reasoning that, up to the 10th century, had defined Koranic inquiry.
If this sounds like a remote quarrel, it is not. Mr. Aslan says it is now being played out again throughout the Muslim world. This, he argues, is the real jihad, not holy war against the West, but the internal struggle for Islam’s soul, with reformers pitted against reactionaries in Tehran, Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta, as well as in Muslim communities in the West. “Like the reformations of the past, this will be a terrifying event,” he writes. “However, out of the ashes of cataclysm, a new chapter in the story of Islam will emerge.”
This has a heroic ring to it, but Mr. Aslan acknowledges that the outcome is in doubt. He places his hopes in the like-minded liberals who, he suggests, constitute Islam’s silent majority. “The fact is that the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world readily accept the fundamental principals of democracy,” he writes. Like the reformers in Iran, they are committed to “genuine Islamic values like pluralism, freedom, justice, human rights, and above all, democracy.”
This may be, but Mr. Aslan, in his polemical conclusion, tends to assert rather than present evidence. His impassioned plea for an Islamic form of democracy, although moving, sounds sophistical. Religion and the state, in his view, cannot be separate. The very concept is alien to Islam. “At its most basic level, the Islamic state is a state run by Muslims for Muslims, in which the determination of values, the norms of behavior, and the formation of laws are influenced by Islamic morality,” he writes. Yet somehow pluralism, human rights, equality of the sexes and religious tolerance would prevail, because, ultimately, these values already exist in Islam.
As Mr. Aslan acknowledges, Iran’s halting steps toward a synthesis of Islam and democracy have been discouraging. The example of the Taliban casts a very dark shadow over the idea of an Islamic state. But the tide of history, Mr. Aslan insists, is moving in the right direction, sweeping Islam back, after 1,400 years, toward Medina.
Well, I have to give Mr. Aslan credit for novelty. Violence? Misogyny? Yes, he says, it’s all there in Islam, but it’s because the “traditionalists” got an early stranglehold on the interpretation of the Qur’an, and fabricated Hadith in support of their views. I don’t doubt that there is a huge number of Muslims that accept democratic ideals, but the idea that these ideals are “genuinely Islamic” has a hollow ring to it. If the fiendish “traditionalists” really wrested control of the Qur’an and Sunnah from those who believed in the “true Islam” early in Muslim history, what happened to the latter group? It would seem that if the Qur’an really taught all these things (democracy, pluralism, equality for women, tolerance of non-Muslims), the “traditionalists” would not have been able to stamp them out altogether without forbidding people to read the Qur’an. But the Qur’an has been widely read throughout Islamic history — indeed, lionized and memorized and held up as the Muslim’s primary guide — and yet there has never been, anywhere in the Islamic world, a tolerant, pluralistic democracy that respected non-Muslims as equals and upheld equality of rights for women. (Don’t talk to me about Turkey, which established a democracy in the context of a war with Islam.)
Also, Aslan’s evident belief that Muhammad’s community in Medina was “a communal, egalitarian society dedicated to pluralism and tolerance” is laughably ahistorical. The Qur’an fourth sura (enjoining wife-beating, 4:34) and its ninth (enjoining perpetual warfare against Jews and Christians and their subjugation as inferiors under Islamic rule, 9:29) are both Medinan suras. It was while living in Medina that Muhammad massacred the Jewish Qurayza tribe, ordered the assassination of many of his opponents, and performed other acts of cruelty and barbarism. Does Reza Aslan not know all this? I know Pinch Sulzberger doesn’t, but does young Reza just not know anything about Muhammad, or does he hope we don’t know?
If he were a genuine Muslim reformer, he would speak honestly about the contents of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s career, and not pretend they are something they manifestly are not.
But this is the sort of thing that gets you into the New York Times these days. For a corrective, watch for my forthcoming book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, which I sent off to the publisher (Regnery) Monday night. It is scheduled to be out August 1. Watch for updates on it here: it will not be reviewed in the New York Times.