Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald discusses Amir Taheri’s strange obfuscation of Islamic theology and history:
In a piece here yesterday, Robert Spencer made some devastating observations about some assertions Amir Taheri made in a New York Post article. I don’t think Amir Taheri will have an answer. One wonders about Taheri.
Amir Taheri is another representative not only of the moderate Muslim, but of one who is practically a “Muslim-for-identification-purposes-only” Muslim. A gentleman of the old Iranian school, where classmates have such last names as Hoveyda and Tabatabai, and everyone names his children Cyrus and Darius, or possibly Kaveh, but never Mohammed, Taheri gets many things right. He is a truth-teller, up to a point, of the kind we are all so familiar with — Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya come to mind. They despise Edward Said, and despise the vulgarity of Arab political life and its despots. But they just can’t bring themselves to the point of adequately describing, truthfully describing, Islam. They have their own “dream palace” — which is of a benign Islam, compounded of those memories of elderly pious relatives (a grandmother will do), and the smells of the Iftar dinner, and the quiet piety of Muslims they had known growing up, and of course, of collective memories of some fabulously wonderful mythical Golden Age.
This is the stuff of coffee-table books, a hodgepodge of mostly Ottoman visual memories, Sinanesque mosques, and Iznik tiles, and turbans on wise old scholars at the House of Philosophers (one Muslim, one Christian, one Jew). They are not about to let little things like the real history of the treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, that led to many Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists to convert, not through the immediacy of forcible conversion but through the slow stillicide of the many legal, financial, political, and social disabilities of dhimmitude. They converted to escape the humiliation, degradation, and permanent physical insecurity (for failure to pay the Jizyah or to obey all the rules laid down could cause an entire community of non-Muslims to suffer) that was their lot as dhimmis under Muslim rule.
Taheri has written about Muhammad; but his version of the Prophet of Islam simply does not accord with that of Tor Andrae, of Maxine Rodinson, of Sir William Muir, of Arthur Jeffery. They, of course, are all non-Muslims. But his version does not accord, either, with the most authoritative Muslim versions of the Sira, either. What led Taheri to write in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that Muhammad took criticism gracefully, and had a good sense of humor about it all, when Muhammad’s attitude was actually much more akin to that of Stalin, in those late night sessions in the Kremlin with his terrified cronies, ordering the assassination of this or that enemy of the state?
Taheri is one of the three Islamic “experts” counted on by My Weekly Standard, the other two being that admirer of the Shi’a (as being so very different from the bad old Wahhabi-Salafists) Reuel Gerecht, and Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz has made a career out of his conversion to Islam, which has apparently made him an automatic expert on the history of Islam, on the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, on practically everything. Yet his Islam is of the “my-own-private-Islam” variety, and he locates the source of all problems in the followers of Abd-el Wahab, so that for the thousand years before that, apparently Infidels had no problem with Muslims or wise, tolerant, peaceful Islam.
What makes Taheri do it? He knows perfectly well what Islam is like. Can’t stand to tell others? Afraid to tell others? Just can’t bring himself to face up to it?
What is it?
We all want to know.
After all, he is one of the good guys. And unlike some of the other “good guys,” the ones you can count on for most, if not all, of the truth — for example, Fouad Ajami — Taheri does not avoid the subject of Islam. And sometimes he makes sense, or quasi-sense.
Taheri’s latest article is disgraceful. To pretend, in particular, that Khomeini was a half-literate, when he was a learned theologian rather than someone to be described as a half-wit, is like those who reduce the behavior of the Germans to that “crazy little man Adolf Hitler” whom “no one” could take seriously. But millions did, and for reasons that need to be examined and remembered. In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this “semi-literate” Qom-trained ayatollah cunningly manipulated the Western world (especially the French, who gave him refuge at Neauphle-le-chateau), and also managed to fool all those acolytes of Mossadegh who thought that they would use him to help bring down the Shah’s regime, when it was he who used them and then discarded them, and then pursued and persecuted and sometimes murdered them — all for the sake of that Islamic doctrine that he knew, inside and out.
Taheri may believe that the history of Islam in Persia is all the roses and nightingales of Gulistan. If so, he could start with the chronicle of Arakel of Tabriz and read about the forced conversion, overnight, of the Armenians and Jews of Tabriz, ordered by Shah Abbas. Or he could read Mary Boyce on the grim history of the Zoroastrians once Muslims seized control of Iran — a story brought right up to the present, for Mary Boyce lived with Zoroastrians in Iran in recent decades, and reported on the way they were treated by the Muslims who made their lives so difficult and unpleasant. And if Taheri wanted to find out about the treatment of Jews, not at the hands of the members of the most advanced and westernized Iranian elite in Tehran, but by Muslims in the villages of Iran, he could turn to the study of Lawrence Loeb, who like Mary Boyce lived among those he wrote about, in the 1970s.
It is unpleasant for the “cultural Muslims” to be forced to investigate Islamic history, for it suggests that their own remaining filial piety or defensiveness is itself based on ignorance that is sometimes willful. The disgraceful part is that Taheri must know better but is in one of those “I just can’t face it” moods. This is a phenomenon that visitors to Jihad Watch have noticed — thanks to a few steady Muslim posters who vacillate between admission of certain unpleasant facts and then denial of such facts. It’s an astonishing thing for Infidels. We just don’t quite know what to make of it.
And that goes for Taheri, as he attempts to attribute to the modern world aspects of Islam that are as old as Islam, and to blame for their existence some sect (“Wahhabis” or “Salafis” will do). Would that it were merely a problem of “Wahhabis.” Would that Ayatollah Khomeini had not been a learned theologian and a masterful politician, but instead, as Taheri would have us believe, merely a half-literate dimwit who somehow managed to overthrow the ruler of a country of 50-60 million, and also to outsmart the very clever Iranian secular and leftist opposition to that same ruler. Kto kogo, the Soviets used to say: “Who (will get) whom”? It was Khomeini who got all of those who had thought they would be resurrecting the policies of Mossadegh, and got something quite otherwise.
One suspects that Taheri knows better, but would prefer not to discuss, not to reveal, not to tell the truth about Islam. Because if he were to do so, then Infidels would wonder: is he still a Muslim, or isn’t he? And if after all that he were to tell us about Islam, and then he were to refuse to declare himself an ex-Muslim, Infidels would wonder — how can he tell us these truths about Islam, and still call himself a Muslim? What kind of person can do that?
And what can Taheri do? Can he explain, openly, those considerations — those smells in the kitchen, that pious grandmother or uncle, the quiet of visiting some celebrated mosque, that all that makes him a “cultural Muslim”? Can he explain how it can be that the Islam he knew was indeed “tolerant,” but that the Islam “he knew” was that of a particular time and place, under the two-man Pahlavi dynasty, that was particularly unconcerned with the Infidels, and indeed perfectly willing to treat them as decently as was possible. This happened, of course, in Tehran and not in the villages, where Islam, unsoftened by the polices of a quasi-enlightened despot, still prevailed.
Taheri, therefore, is limited in what he can offer us: a sanitized view of Islam, with a skewed chronology and grossly inadequate descriptions of the problem.
Taheri, if he reads Robert Spencer’s criticism, will have to admit the justice of it – to himself if not to others. But what can he do? Like so many others — Fouad Ajami, or the smiling Fareed Zakaria — he also has to think of his career. A declared ex-Muslim does not become, as he should, more valuable to Infidels, but rather less so. This is because he is not listened to, as he should be, with the same respect as defectors from the Soviet Union were listened to during the Cold War. Perhaps that is because so many remain impressed by the word “religion” and distrust those who give up the religion they are born into, as if that itself rendered their opinions on Islam illegitimate.
But Ibn Warraq, Ali Sina, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azam Kamguian, and others are in fact those who, without having to concoct a false history for Islam, do tell the truths that need to be learned by Infidels, not least in Washington.
Taheri is not exactly a Pollyanna or a Dr. Feelgood. But unwary Infidels will, if they accept what he writes, still come away with the essential message that it is those who are “perverting” a “noble religion” (perhaps Taheri would leave it at “religion”) and whose roots are shallow in Islam, and who furthermore are the uneducated, are all we have to worry about.
In other words, we are told to believe that things are not as bad as they may appear, because Muslims do not take seriously this Dar al-Islam/Dar al-Harb distinction, and do not see the world as essentially divided between Believer and Infidel. Oh, there are people who don’t — Aziz Nafisi. Fouad Ajami. Kanan Makiya. Amir Taheri. Irshad Manji. Rend al-Rahim. Sheikh Palazzi. Very nice people, charming people, far more interesting to talk to than almost any run-of-the-mill Infidel you are likely to meet. But so what? They are not Islam. The “Muslim-for-identification-purposes-only” Muslim is to be seen as the exception, not the rule.
Not the least of the Administration’s folly in Iraq was to believe that those Westernized Shi’a who had spent from twenty or thirty to, in Chaalbi’s case, forty-five years abroad (he left in 1958 after the coup that overturned the young king and “strongman” Nuri es-Said) were representative of Iraq. They weren’t. Al-Hakim is representative; al-Jaafari is representative. Moqtada al-Sadr is representative. Dulaimi is representative. Those semi-Western men and women are not.
No more fooling around. If you can’t say something completely truthful, because you somehow justify these untruths to yourself as a way to avoid some clash of civilizations, then don’t say anything at all. Stick to other things. For example, write about the malevolent regime in Iran, and what its acquisition of a nuclear bomb would do to the likelihood of its ever being overthrown.
Don’t mislead Infidels, even if it is not done for Tariq-Ramadanish reasons, but with the best of intentions. Hell is paved…etc.