“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” an interview conducted by Jamie Glazov of FrontPage:
Frontpage Interviews guest today is Robert Spencer, a pre-eminent scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law. The director of Jihad Watch, he is the author of five books, seven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the Worlds Fastest Growing Faith. He is the author of the new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades).
FP: Robert Spencer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Spencer: Thank you, Jamie. FrontPage is one of the few media outlets, liberal or conservative, that is willing to allow honest discussion and exploration of the roots of Islamic terrorism, and I am honored to be a part of that.
FP: Thank you Mr. Spencer. So tell us, what is the politically correct guide to Islam?
Spencer: Unfortunately, there are many such books. Among the most notable, and egregious in their whitewashing of Islam’s theology, history, and present-day reality, is Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong and The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? by John Esposito. One that is more like my latest book in format is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam by Yahiya Emerick. A popular new PC guide to Islam is No god but God : The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan.
FP: What is your inspiration to speak the unspoken truths about Islam?
Spencer: I speak out simply because few others are doing so. The general refusal to face the realities of what we are really up against in what is popularly known as the war on terror is crippling our ability to mount a fully effective response to the challenge of the global jihad. Political correctness and well-meaning naÃ¯vetÃ© are playing into the hands of the jihadists and making for some egregious policy miscalculations. Several rather high-profile conservatives, for example, have told me that by focusing attention on the elements of Islam that give rise to violence and fanaticism, I am alienating moderate Muslims who might otherwise be our allies in the struggle against Islamic terror. So in effect they would prefer to pretend that Islam is a peaceful religion at its core in the hopes that this fiction will win us some friends in the Islamic world.
This kind of thinking is flawed in many ways. In the first place, pretending that anything false is true is not ultimately going to get us anywhere. And if we refuse to allow honest exploration of what it is about Islam that is making so many Muslims violent today, we are not really helping sincere moderate Muslims: in fact, we”re cutting the ground out from under them by denying that there is anything about their religion that they need to face and combat if they wish to establish a lasting framework for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.
FP: If Islam is truly a religion of peace and tolerance than why is it so dangerous to say what you want about it? You have received death threats over the years for instance. Can you talk a bit about this?
Spencer: Yes, these threats are in effect saying, “Say that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, or we”ll kill you!” I have received death threats, but I am not going to stop telling the truth because of them. If everyone who tells truths that others don’t want people to know gives in to violent intimidation, what kind of world would it be?
FP: It is interesting you say this because the numerous death threats I have received entail the same irrational paradigm. Let me explain:
While it is a given that many Muslims are on our side against extremism, that we must ally ourselves with them (i.e. Free Muslims Coalition, Sheikh Palazzi etc.), and that Muslims have the power to collectively reform and change their religion into one of tolerance and peace (and that we must promote this effort), I have at times shed light on the elements of the Islamic religion that, as you show, legitimize and promote violence. Because of this, I have often encountered email correspondence of the following nature:
[a] A Muslim emails me and tells me to never say again that Islam ever advocates violence because this is not true.
[b] I answer in an email that I am not saying such a thing off the top of my head but simply just gathering conclusions from reading the Qur’an (i.e. the Verse of the Sword, Sura 9:5, 9:29 etc.) — a source from which Osama and al-Zarqawi receive their inspiration.
[c] Then the Muslim writes back saying that he will kill me.
The logic here is very twisted. How does the individual who threatens me rationalize his step c with step a? If his effort is to convince me of the inaccuracy of my own findings, he is not doing a very successful or convincing job, to say the least. What is the psychology here?
Spencer: This is a strange contradiction from a non-Muslim perspective, but not from that of a Muslim who believes in traditional Islamic legal directives calling for the deaths of unbelievers who are at war with Islam. From the perspective of such a man, Islam is indeed a religion of peace: the peace that will prevail over the world when Sharia is the supreme law of every land. To bring this about, he believes he is commanded by God to wage war — not undifferentiated mayhem, but war for specified purposes, under specific circumstances and for particular ends. When you invoke the Qur’an and other Islamic sources to make that point that elements of the Islamic religion legitimize and promote violence, you are doing so as an infidel. Even if what you say is correct, you are approaching it all as an infidel and are thus insulting Islam. And this insult must be avenged. It isn’t that you are inaccurate, it is that you are critical. You are mistaking what they see as justice for undifferentiated violence.
FP: Throughout my life in academia, myriad volumes have passed before me that contained criticisms of Christianity, within which there were various mocking and ridiculing portrayals of its tenets and values etc. Your book doesn’t mock anything, but just quotes Islamic sources and lets them speak for themselves. I think that it would be essential to have this book as a must-read in the curriculum for every introductory course for first-year students in the Arts in university. Why is it that it is a given that this would never happen? For instance, in many courses where the topic of 9/11 is raised, all kinds of readings are given out that blame the U.S. for being the victim in this terrorist attack. Why wouldn’t they at least offer this book as an alternative explanation?
It is a given, of course, that this book would never make it on any curricula readings in academia, even in courses on Islam which profess to give all sides of the picture. Why?
Spencer: Because the academic establishment — the Middle East Studies Association — is not interested in really giving all sides of the picture. Since the 1970s it has been dominated by Edward Said’s view that any critical look at Islam or the Muslim world by Westerners was ipso facto racist and imperialist. This idea has coalesced nicely, of course, with the multiculturalist dogma that the Judeo-Christian West is responsible for all the evils in the world, and that those outside of and set against Western civilization can only be victims, never perpetrators.
I have seen this play out in so many ways. I have information about universities where professors were so determined to present a rosy picture of Islam that they refused specific requests to add even Bernard Lewis to the curriculum, on the grounds that he was not at all times uncritically positive about the Islamic world and its achievements. Although these professors were not Muslims themselves, they felt driven by multiculturalism and the Left’s hatred of the U.S. to present a vision of Islam so apologetic in nature that, had a similar presentation been made about Christianity, the ACLU would have been avid to take the case.
Also, it is not unheard-of for outright Islamic apologists to occupy academic positions in American universities, and to present Islamic proselytizing material in academic settings. This is in part a manifestation of the general American ignorance of Islam.
Universities hire Muslim professors in order to teach about Islam and the Middle East, and the other professors know so little about the subject that they cannot perform adequate peer review — even if their world view would allow them to do so in the first place. The academic establishment has become so politicized that many professors of Middle East Studies are presenting as fact highly tendentious and apologetically motivated assertions about Islamic teachings and history, and their peers either don’t know or don’t care, or both.
One result of all this was epitomized by an incident at a university where I spoke not long ago. I was standing in the office of the professor who invited me when another professor on the faculty of the same university called him to express her indignation that someone who believed that Islam taught violence was being allowed to speak on campus. Now, given the fact that Osama bin Laden, Omar Bakri, Abu Bakar Bashir, Al-Zarqawi, and countless others insist almost daily that Islam teaches violence, it would seem to me to be simply prudent to investigate whether or not it really does, and if it does, what sincere Muslim reformers can do about that fact. And it would seem to me that a university would be the natural setting to perform such investigations. But instead, this professor approached the prospect of my speaking there with the fury of a religious zealot confronting a heretic. And indeed, I was threatening one of her most cherished dogmas, one that has little or no basis in fact, and so I had to be silenced — since the points I make cannot be adequately refuted. This was one small manifestation of the fact that the universities have become centers of indoctrination into a particular political and philosophical perspective. They are no longer genuine institutions of higher learning.
Another example is the egregious Omid Safi of Colgate University, who devotes a large portion of his course on “Islam and Modernity” to studying the trumped-up and politicized phenomenon of “Islamophobia” — as manifested by the writings of such world-class scholars as Bat Ye”or, Samuel Huntington, and Ibn Warraq, as well as those of the Muslim convert Stephen Schwartz and others — including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. My own name appears on the list. Safi labels his little enemies list as being made up of “unrepentant Orientalists, outright Islamophobes, Neo-conservatives, Western Triumphalists, right-wing Christian Evangelicals, etc.” I have taken issue at my website, jihadwatch.org, with Safi’s propagandistically stacking the deck for his students with such labels, particularly when they are applied to such scholars as Bat Ye”or and Huntington, and for demeaning such scholars (which of course is what he intended to do) by lumping them together with political activists and journalists whose work is far more superficial. Instead of letting these students approach the works of these people, as varied as they are, with an open mind, and weigh them against the work of those whom Safi likes, Safi is doing their thinking for them. He is not a professor; he’s a pamphleteer, a preacher, a propagandizer. Predictably enough, he haughtily refused an offer from me (and one from Daniel Pipes also) to come to Colgate and debate him about “Islamophobia” and related matters. Of course, his very unwillingness to take such challenges indicates that the outcome of such contests would not be in doubt. But because his views mesh with those of the MESA establishment, he and countless others like him are allowed to get away with this shallow propagandizing in an academic setting, and with an academic veneer.
FP: You show the life of Mohammed, revealing that he was a military man (i.e. the famous Battle of Badr). Why is it that so many Muslims I speak with deny to me that their Prophet ever had anything to do with violence or with military battle when their own religious texts demonstrate that he so clearly did? Do these Muslims not know anything about their own religion? I find this doubtful since the ones with whom I have had these odd conversations are very devout and are immersed in their religious literature.
Spencer: They deny this because they are used to dealing with Westerners who know nothing about Islam, and they assume that you will not be able to support your assertion with references from Islamic texts, but will have to invoke some secondary source that they can then dismiss as “Islamophobic” and ill-informed. I have run into this kind of thing countless times, which is why in my new book, as well as in all my other books, I carefully document every assertion I make about Islam with abundant references from the Qur’an and other Islamic texts.
Now, why would they try to mislead you instead of being honest? Because they want you to think well of Islam. If you were to become a Muslim, then you could understand Muhammad’s actions in light of the Islamic worldview and the jihad imperative in general. But before that, it is best that you do not know such things. This kind of behavior is sanctioned somewhat indirectly by the Qur’an (16:106), when it says that those who deny their faith will go straight to hell, except those who deny the faith “under compulsion.” The great and still widely read Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir explains that “this is an exception in the case of one who utters statements of disbelief and verbally agrees with the Mushrikin [unbelievers] because he is forced to do so by the beatings and abuse to which he is subjected, but his heart refuses to accept what he is saying, and he is, in reality, at peace with his faith in Allah and His Messenger.” Historically this has been generally understood as allowing for deception only when the Muslim is in fear of death or suffering physical tortures, but contemporary Salafis have considered the worldwide war against Muslims, as they see it, as allowing for deception of unbelievers whenever it is deemed necessary to defend the faith. This works also from Muhammad’s dictum that lying is permissible in war (Sahih Muslim, book 32, no. 6303).
FP: Whenever we hear about the Crusades, we picture these violent intolerant Christians that waged war on Muslims who just wanted peace. Your book shows that this is a complete falsehood. Tell us about the Crusades and why this politically correct notion is the one that has prevailed about them.
Spencer: The Crusades were a small-scale defensive action designed to secure the safety of the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims. The Crusaders committed abuses that cannot be excused, but their excesses pale before 450 years of aggressive jihad warfare that went on before any Crusade was called. Today, however, the Crusades have become one of the cardinal sins of the Western world. They are Exhibit A for the case that the current strife between the Muslim world and Western, post-Christian civilization is ultimately the responsibility of the West, which has provoked, exploited, and brutalized Muslims ever since the first Frankish warriors entered Jerusalem. Bill Clinton affirmed this not long after 9/11, recounting the Crusaders” sack of Jerusalem in 1099 in lurid terms as if it were something unique in history — when actually armies often behaved this way in those days, including Islamic jihad armies. This is not to excuse the Crusaders” behavior, but only to say that it does not bear the weight that is put on it today. The Crusaders” sack of Jerusalem, according to journalist Amin Maalouf in The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, was the “starting point of a millennial hostility between Islam and the West.”
Maalouf doesn’t seem to consider whether “millennial hostility” may have begun with the Prophet Muhammad’s veiled threat, issued over 450 years before the Crusaders entered Jerusalem, to neighboring non-Muslim leaders to “embrace Islam and you will be safe.” Nor does he discuss the possibility that Muslims may have stoked that “millennial hostility” by seizing Christian lands centuries before the Crusades “” lands that amounted to nothing less than two-thirds of what had formerly been the Christian world.
Professorial Islamic apologist John Esposito is a bit more expansive “” he blames the Crusades (“so-called holy wars”) in general for disrupting a pluralistic civilization: “Five centuries of peaceful coexistence elapsed before political events and an imperial-papal power play led to centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust.”
Esposito’s “five centuries of peaceful coexistence” were exemplified, he says, by the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 638: “churches and the Christian population were left unmolested.” But he doesn’t mention Sophronius” Christmas sermon for 634, when he complained of the Muslims” “savage, barbarous, and bloody sword” and of how difficult that sword had made life for the Christians.
Here again, the multiculturalist hatred of the West, all its works, and all its pomps, has fed and continues to feed these myths.
FP: Let’s touch on totalitarian Puritanism.
Modernity and democracy cannot prevail in any society where women do not have individual rights, equality and the right of sexual self-determination. If a woman wants to be promiscuous it simply doesn’t matter what you or I think about it. You can say it is immoral and wrong but the bottom line is that, if a free society is to prevail, it is none of our business and the state or religious authorities etc. cannot interfere to punish the woman. If they do, we cannot have true democracy and modernity in a society.
In many of my conversations with Muslims, we begin a discussion where they say that Islam is compatible with democracy and freedom, but when I begin to touch on this area and refuse to stop talking about it, the individuals with whom I speak always end up getting very angry and appear as though they are on the edge of violence, insisting that this is not the “Islamic way.”
Well then, it means our definitions and notions of what a free society is are very different, now doesn’t it? The bottom line, again, is that you can moralize all you want about how immoral and wrong the actions of a promiscuous woman are. But the fact is that, in our notion of freedom, it is her business and if, hypothetically, her behaviour is morally wrong, then she can deal with it with her own God on her own Judgment Day after her death; it is not our business to punish her for her activity or to set up a society in such a way that her sexual self-determination is suffocated. If we do, we do not have a free society. We will have a society that, inevitably, will have dissidents sitting in jail, because all freedoms are connected to one another. (i.e. if a woman’s sexual self-determination is illegal then what happens to a novelist who dares to write about an adventurous woman who seeks love outside of state regulation? etc.)
Comment from you sir?
Spencer: This is a crucial point. As Dinesh D”Souza has pointed out, virtue cannot be genuine without the freedom not to be virtuous. If that freedom does not exist, then the result is not virtue; it is just coercion. This is why the Muslim criticisms of Western immorality ring hollow, because they would replace Western libertinism not with genuine virtue, but with enforced conformity and fear.
This is a fundamental difference between the Judeo-Christian values of Western civilization, out of which developed modern post-Christian notions of freedom, and Islamic civilization. I am no fan of modern society”s relativism and worship of the atomized individual, cut off from any responsibilities to family or nation — responsibilities that the human race has taken as axiomatic across all cultures throughout history. But I do not believe that the only alternative is coercion and intimidation. I think that the Judeo-Christian tradition has the resources within itself to meet the challenges of both Islamic violence and soulless materialism without returning Western society to a situation in which virtue is ensured by force. In any case, if it turns out not to be able to summon those resources in the near future, it will not survive.
FP: What hope is there for Islam?
Spencer: There is hope for a retreat from literalism within Islam, but it will be an uphill battle. It can only come when moderate Muslims acknowledge the sources and magnitude of the problem they face. So far few have done that.
FP: Robert Spencer, thank you for joining us today sir.
Spencer: Jamie, thank you again for your kindness in asking these probing questions and considering these views. The window of free speech about Islam and terrorism is closing; half-truths and wishful thinking dominate the public discourse. But not at FrontPage. I appreciate the opportunity you have provided to tell the truth.