[UPDATE May 14: Greetings, “Spengler” readers! You’ll find my response to “Spengler’s” latest here. Cordially, Robert “Ortega y Gasset” Spencer]
After characterizing Karen Armstrong and me as two sides of the same coin, the Asia Times columnist who goes by the name of “Spengler” has commented briefly on my reply here and Hugh Fitzgerald’s post here. I do not intend to get into a long back-and-forth with this fellow, but I think it is worth pointing out that his two brief posts manifest a profound confusion about the conflict we face and what we must do about it — a confusion that many share.
And because many share it, I am replying. Every time I do this, people comment, “Don’t waste your time, because so-and-so is an idiot,” or “too prejudiced to see the truth,” or whatever. Of course, Spengler is on a different level from that of many to whom I have replied — certainly I have replied to many idiots and blindly prejudiced people, but Spengler is not in that group. In any case, such objections still miss the point. Allow me to remind you yet again that I am not trying to convince the critics, whoever they are, of anything, or accord them undue importance. This is, as always, about ideas, not personalities. It is, as always, an exercise designed to help equip people who may find themselves confronted by the same arguments.
First, in a forum at Asia Times (thanks to MB), Spengler says:
I regret Robert Spencer’s annoyance at my criticism, but I have to stick by my point: you learn a lot more about Islam by reading Adonis, who criticizes Islam from the inside, than you do from Spencer (or Fallaci, Bat Ye”or, and a dozen other writers) who attack it from the outside. There are a billion and half Muslims, of whom some hundreds of millions support violence against unbelievers. The Koran is not a self-help book, nor it is it a political manifesto; it is an existential stance with respect to the world. Adonis” poetry as well as his criticism helps us to get inside the mind of Arabs. The sort of thing that Spencer does, despite his estimable intentions, is just not adequate to the task at hand. I hate to be harsh towards anyone, and I have a very high regard for Spencer, but we are in a crisis, and need to use the best tools available to deal with it. Muslims are not comic-book villains. They are human beings in profound anguish, many of whom turn desperate and destructive. I am not saying this can be solved with therapy! One has to meet violent force with superior violent force, period. But in order to defeat your enemy, you first have to get inside his mind, and that requires empathy. Ticking off the bad guy”s bad points doesn’t do the job.
If you just read that once, you might miss the many, many ways in which it is wrongheaded, foolish, and ultimately incoherent. So let’s look at it more closely.
I regret Robert Spencer’s annoyance at my criticism, but I have to stick by my point: you learn a lot more about Islam by reading Adonis, who criticizes Islam from the inside, than you do from Spencer (or Fallaci, Bat Ye”or, and a dozen other writers) who attack it from the outside.
Spengler honors me by placing me in the company of Oriana and Bat Ye’or, but his point is ridiculous. Evidently he believes that you can’t speak about something unless you’re inside it, so therefore a non-Muslim can have nothing worthwhile to say about Islamic supremacism and the jihad ideology. Transpose that to any other totalitarian, expansionist ideology: you can’t speak about Nazism unless you’re a Nazi, or at least a German, so shut up, Churchill. You can’t speak about Communism unless you live in a Communist society, so who are you, Mr. Reagan, to call for the tearing-down of this wall?
This is beyond absurd, and it is so for other reasons as well. Chief among them is the fact that many Muslims and people who were raised Muslim or in Islamic societies say the same things I’m saying about jihad and Islamic supremacism. If Spengler doesn’t want to listen to me, or Fallaci, or Bat Ye’or, what does he make of the fact that he can hear substantially the same things from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Ibn Warraq, or Nonie Darwish, or Wafa Sultan, or Tashbih Sayyed, or Ali Sina, or so many others?
Of course, it is a peculiar intellectual dillentantism to have to hear any truth from some people, but not from others. What should matter is not the speaker, but the truth of the message. As Tawfik Hamid reminded CAIR op Ahmed Bedier on the Beck show, the truth is the truth, no matter who says it.
What’s more, even Adonis, whom Spengler champions, disagrees with him on this point. As Hugh has pointed out, Adonis welcomes non-Muslims speaking of the elements of Islam that are giving rise to violence and terrorism today. He has said: “Those who criticize the Muslims — the non-believers, the infidels, as they call them — are the ones who perceive in Islam the vitality that could adapt it to life. These infidels serve Islam better than the believers.” (Emphasis added.)
So Spengler sets up Adonis in opposition to me, Fallaci, and Bat Ye’or, while Adonis himself stands with us.
And Spengler’s confusion only gets worse:
There are a billion and half Muslims, of whom some hundreds of millions support violence against unbelievers.
Is this supposed to be reassuring? Only a few hundred million people want to convert, subjugate, or kill us, folks! Go back to sleep!
The Koran is not a self-help book, nor it is it a political manifesto; it is an existential stance with respect to the world.
This is just meaningless puffery. An “existential stance with respect to the world”? What? It has been awhile since I read Kierkegaard, or Sartre, but pardon me if I point out the nudity of this particular emperor. “An existential stance with respect to the world,” as opposed to a “self-help book” or a “political manifesto”? Is Spengler not aware that many Muslims read the Qur’an precisely as a “self-help book” and a political manifesto? Certainly it is more than both, but it is not less than both in the eyes of millions of those who believe it is a perfect and eternal book that has existed forever with the one true God.
Adonis” poetry as well as his criticism helps us to get inside the mind of Arabs. The sort of thing that Spencer does, despite his estimable intentions, is just not adequate to the task at hand. I hate to be harsh towards anyone, and I have a very high regard for Spencer…
I don’t know why some writers feel compelled to say things like this, while contradicting them in practically the same breath. This reminds me of another deep thinker, Dinesh D’Souza, who affirms that he likes me, he really likes me, while calling me a Torah-thumping, fit-throwing hatemonger. Perhaps they feel compelled to soften the edge of their criticism, so they don’t appear “angry” — which is a mortal sin in the public forum these days. But it all rings hollow.
…but we are in a crisis, and need to use the best tools available to deal with it. Muslims are not comic-book villains. They are human beings in profound anguish, many of whom turn desperate and destructive. I am not saying this can be solved with therapy! One has to meet violent force with superior violent force, period. But in order to defeat your enemy, you first have to get inside his mind, and that requires empathy. Ticking off the bad guy”s bad points doesn’t do the job.
The idea that I characterize Muslims as comic-book villains is absurd. I have spoken many, many times about the plight of peaceful Muslims and their vulnerability to jihadist recruitment, and since this site began in 2003 it has been a standing offer here: “Any Muslim who renounces violent jihad and dhimmitude is welcome to join in our anti-jihadist efforts.”
The facts I have published about the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism are readily verifiable from Islamic sources. Let Spengler refute what I have actually said about those teachings, and we may be getting somewhere. Otherwise, to claim that speaking about the actual contents of the teaching of the Islamic sects and schools on warfare against non-Muslims is making Muslims into “comic-book villains” is — here again — just puffery. I have pointed out ad inifinitum that many, indeed most, Muslims do not actively follow these teachings, for a wide variety of reasons, many of which I have explored in depth in books and articles. But those teachings remain, and jihadists are exploiting them to make new recruits among peaceful Muslims. These are facts. Disprove them if you can, Spengler. But so far you’re the one who is dealing in comic-book caricatures.
And as for the rest, it is the apex of incoherence. Muslims “are human beings in profound anguish, many of whom turn desperate and destructive.” Oh, the poor dears. How anguished Atta must have been to have flown that plane into the World Trade Center! If only he had gotten a little luv! But perhaps realizing the softness and silliness of this, Spengler follows it with “I am not saying this can be solved with therapy! One has to meet violent force with superior violent force, period.”
All right, then, what does he mean? “But in order to defeat your enemy, you first have to get inside his mind, and that requires empathy. Ticking off the bad guy”s bad points doesn’t do the job.” So apparently you have to understand your enemy — his motives, his goals, his likely operating procedures. Funny, that’s just what I always say we must do, and that’s why I explore the jihad ideology in detail in Onward Muslim Soldiers, and that’s why I wrote my biography of Muhammad. But Spengler is apparently saying you can only do this from the inside, and that it shouldn’t just involve “ticking off the bad guy”s bad points.” So I should tick off the bad guy’s good points, and this will help us defeat him? Or does Spengler mean that — again — we need to understand the bad guy’s motives and goals? Then let him show where I have mischaracterized them.
I do not believe that anyone can make Islam out to be whatever what they want, but that the sophmoric method of pasting quotations into one’s copy-book is insufficient. I despite Karen Armstrong with a passion, and rather like Robert Spencer, but this is not personal: it is about the right and wrong way to go about a dangerous and sensitive and critical task. What he does is well intended, but it simply isn’t good enough.
I’m quite certain it isn’t. But Spengler’s scrambled and confused alternative is no alternative at all.
Muslims do not check off a list of precepts, good or ill; they are Muslims for existential reasons. I made the same point at greater length here:
Islam is a religion, that is, a spiritual act, not a set of doctrines that one agrees to or not. One has to get inside spiritual experience of the religion to understand the motives of its adherents. Among the leading living theologians only Benedict XVI has touched on the issues, albeit with great caution. Among the leading 20th century theologians only Franz Rosenzweig offered a thorough treatment of Islam’s problems. There are resources available for analysis of Islam, and they are ignored at our great peril.
I’m all for not ignoring them. Perhaps this great thinker will deign to give us a list of what he thinks are good resources in this line. (Here, meanwhile, is a list of some that I think are good resources — scroll down past my own books.) But it’s interesting to note that Franz Rosenzweig was not a Muslim, and thus Spengler contradicts his own earlier insistence that this important work of examining the elements of Islam that incite to violence can only be done from the inside. This man’s confusion is more than immense; he is swimming in it.
And as for all the verbiage about Islam being a “spiritual act” as opposed to a “set of doctrines,” I have remarked many times about there being a spectrum of belief, knowledge, and fervor among Muslims, as among any ideological group. Here is just one example. In making this point in the context of criticizing my work, Spengler demonstrates that he is not familiar with that work at all — which doesn’t stop him from taking pot shots.
Of course, Spengler is not the first to go off half-cocked and ascribe to me things that I do not say, or to speak about things he doesn’t know anything about, or to entangle himself in self-contradictions. And he won’t be the last.