In “Marxism’s Successor” in FrontPage, Theodore Dalrymple discusses my new book The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.
For the second time in living memory, we find ourselves obliged by historical circumstances to examine doctrinal philosophies that, from the abstract intellectual point of view, are not worth examining. They belong, rather, to the history of human folly and credulity: which is itself, of course, an inexhaustibly interesting and important subject.
The first doctrinal philosophy, now more or less defunct except in certain corners of the academy, was Marxism; the second is Islamism. Which of us would have guessed thirty years ago that an inflamed and inflammatory Islamic doctrine would soon replace Marxism as the greatest challenger to liberal democracy? Not many, I venture to suggest; but it almost seems that, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, the vacuum left by the collapse of one totalitarian doctrine is soon filled by another. I suspect that the demise of the Soviet Union was a necessary precondition of the rise of Islamism as we now see it.
Diseases of acute onset are apt to be cured quickly: if, that is, they do not kill first. And in historical terms, our preoccupation with the threat of Islamism is very acute. There is hope, therefore, that Islamism will pass from the world stage as quickly as it arrived on it. In the meantime, however, it can cause a great deal of havoc, and will not disappear spontaneously, without opposition, much of which must be conducted on the intellectual plane.
Personally, I believe that all forms of Islam are very vulnerable in the modern world to rational criticism, which is why the Islamists are so ferocious in trying to suppress such criticism. They have instinctively understood that Islam itself, while strong, is exceedingly brittle, as communism once was. They understand that, at the present time in human history, it is all or nothing. They are thus more clear-sighted than moderate Moslems.
The relation of Islamism to Islam is, of course, a contested matter. Some point to the peaceful nature of most Moslems, who simply go about their daily lives in a normal fashion. But Robert Spencer (who lives in hiding, an indication of how dangerous he is considered by Islamists) is uncompromising in his view. The problem with Islam is deeply rooted in its doctrines, its history and ultimately its founder, Mohammed himself. For him, Islam is like the germ of tuberculosis: it can lie dormant for a very long time, only to emerge in a drastic form when resistance is low (the metaphor is mine, not his).
It is important to understand that this book is not a biography of Mohammed. It doesn’t matter to Spencer even if there never was such a person. What he is examining is the orthodox belief about Mohammed, as derived from the Koran itself and from the hadith, the stories about him that are accepted by Moslems as authentic. Since Mohammed is believed to be a near-paragon of human virtue, a divinely-inspired example to be followed wherever possible, it is sociologically important to understand what qualities he is believed to have had, whether or not he actually had them.
To those of us who do not believe that Mohammed was divinely-inspired, the picture is not a pretty one. Of course, Spencer concentrates on the most discreditable aspects Mohammed’s “˜biography,” demonstrating that, from our modern point of view, he connived at armed robbery, mass murder and the abduction of women. Of course, autres temps, autres moeurs: he was behaving in a way that one would expect of his time and place, and it may be that, on the whole, he sometimes behaved better than his peers. But that is not the point: it is nothing short of a moral, intellectual and indeed political disaster if his conduct is taken as a model for all time. Needless to say, Mohammed must have had many qualities out of the ordinary, some of them positive, as any earth-shaking leader must have: but a supposed paragon must be judged not by his best, but by his worst, qualities.
Among his less attractive qualities was a tendency to receive supposedly divine guidance that suited his political interests of the moment. He was, indeed, a political genius of the first water: he understood what motivated men, and he developed a system of belief and practice, of social pressure and ideological terror, that meant that islamisation once established was irreversible, at least until the present day. Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine was that a country, once communist, could not become non-communist; how puny, historically, was the communist achievement beside that of Islam!
Spencer does not deal in this book with the attractive qualities of Islamic civilisation, or rather civilisations. A recent exhibition of Ottoman art in London, for example, demonstrated just how exquisite, at least at its summit, the Ottoman civilisation was, and how in the decorative arts at least it was Western Europe’s superior for entire centuries. But in my view Spencer is right not to drag in such a red herring: many and various have been the exquisite civilisations of the world, but the quality of a civilisation does not establish the truth of the doctrines current in it, nor the suitability of those doctrines for living in the modern world.
The author doesn’t deal quite adequately, however, with the question of the famous Islamic tolerance, which in my view is both a myth and an historical reality, and which is frequently brought into any discussion about Islam and Islamism.
The reality is that for several centuries Islamic polities were a good deal more religiously-tolerant than those of Christendom. For example, many Jews expelled from Spain fled to North Africa, where they helped to repel invasions by Charles V, and in Istanbul it is only now that Ladino, a form of mediaeval Spanish written in Hebrew script, is dying out — half a millennium after the original expulsion from Spain. This is surely very significant. The Islamic record with regard to Jews is much better, until very recently, than that of the west.
But it is very far from exemplary. Jews (and Christians) were always second-class citizens, and always vulnerable to changes of the ruler’s heart, or to the wrathful prejudice of the people by whom they were surrounded. Human nature being what it is, friendships could develop across confessional boundaries; but not merely were these friendships doctrinally unsanctioned in Islam, they were doctrinally frowned upon. At no time has Islam seen non-Moslems as the juridical equals of Moslems, and indeed is incapable of doing so without de-naturing itself completely, for inequality is written into the very fabric of its doctrine and, just as importantly, its law. Spencer is quite clear about this, and the conclusions that must follow from it.
Judged by the abysmal standards of fifteenth century Europe, then, Islam looks quite tolerant; but judged from the modern, post-Enlightenment perspective, it looks primitive and grossly intolerant. As for its attitude toward polytheists and atheists, it is and has always been doctrinally abominable. In other words, Islam has nothing whatever to say to the modern world, and as yet has no doctrinal means of dealing constructively with the inevitable diversity of human religion and philosophy, beyond the violent imposition of uniformity or second-class citizenship.
Spencer is scathing of western intellectuals” failure to examine Islam and its founder in the same light as they would examine any other religious doctrine of comparable importance. The task of politicians, on the other hand, is more delicate than he suggests; they do not move in a world of abstractions but of concrete realities, and truth is only one of the things they must try to conserve. The responsibility of intellectuals is thus in some ways greater than that of politicians.
Spencer asks whether Moslems of moderate temperament can find some way of reconciling their faith with the exigencies of the modern world. The problem is that this reconciliation cannot be a mere modus vivendi; it has to be intellectually coherent and satisfying to last. Personally, I am not optimistic in this regard. Islamism is a last gasp, not a renaissance, of the religion; but, as anyone who has watched a person die will attest, last gasps can last a surprisingly long time.