On April 3, at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s West Coast Retreat in Palos Verdes, California, I debated Muslim reformer Zuhdi Jasser on the prospects for reform in Islam. Andrew McCarthy, author of Willful Blindness, was moderating. Here is Nidra Poller’s analysis of the debate: “Islam : The Good The True The Beautiful,” from Red County, May 14:
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser is handsome, youthful, smooth, urbane, soft-spoken, the very image of the civilized man. A perfect mixture of the M.D. and the naval officer, he comes across as sincere and convincing. This makes it all the more puzzling to observe that, in this debate with Robert Spencer, he reacted as if guided by the harsh Islamic doctrine he claims can be sidestepped in the short term and ultimately reformed. Dr. Jasser’s hostility was couched in polite terms and expressed without snarls. His irrationality was hidden behind reasonable words. He was genuinely sincere and authentically deceiving all in the same breath. He used outworn arguments, false comparisons flawed reasoning and, when all else failed, adopted a supercilious attitude to weaken his adversary.
Moderator Andrew McCarthy framed the debate with candor: we have been able to count on a helping hand from “moderate Muslims” in our combat against terrorism. Can we therefore claim there is such a thing as moderate Islam? If not, what can we do about it? We don’t want to alienate patriotic Muslims who came to our country because they don’t want to live under shariah, but”¦
Dr. Jasser opened the debate with a cascade of questionable analyses: If there is no moderate Islam how did Muslims turn out to be moderate? By accident? True, Islamic theologians haven’t modernized, but there is a moderate Islam.
Pleading for a rigorous historical approach, Zuhdi Jasser asks: if Islam taught hatred and violence, would the world exist as it does today? He argues that radical Islam is a 20th century phenomenon, claims theology was ossified under the Ottoman Empire after 6 or 700 years of moderation, and concludes that we have to find a way to get liberalism into Islam. Otherwise how can he raise his children as Muslim?
Robert Spencer’s response went to the crux of the matter: Islam cannot be defined by you or me, it is defined by scripture and theology. Reform must tackle the Koran. And, yes, the world we live in is the one in which Islam taught violence.
Zuhdi Jasser’s comeback was quite stunning. “Listening to Robert reminds me of when I was chief resident at the naval hospital”¦doctors with great board scores who couldn’t tell when a patient was sick [sic] or ill.” It gets worse. Not only is Robert a sort of stubborn bookworm, he’s not even a Muslim. You study a religion by the people who practice it, says the former chief resident, not by doctrine. He concludes this round with the Al Andalus whopper– 13th century Spain, a golden age for Judaism, Maimonides and all that. Not, of course, he hastens to add, golden compared to our modern democracies. “I wouldn’t want to live in 13th Century Spain but, compared to Europe”¦”
I”m skeptical about the doctors too smart to treat a patient. And I can’t believe that Jasser doesn’t know that Maimonides fled Ishmaelite persecution. (Spencer would later correct him on that point without making a dent in the doctor’s carapace.) Dr. Andrew Bostom documents the history of virtually uninterrupted Islamic persecution of Jews from the earliest times to the present in his Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism. L”Exil au Maghreb, by Paul Fenton and David Littman, covers “only” the persecution of Jews in the Maghreb from the 12th to the 20th century, in 800 blood-curdling pages of original documents. After reading those volumes I no longer believe that life was worse for Jews in Europe than in Muslim lands.
The myth of the “golden age of al Andalus” is a sorry excuse for historical perspective, but disqualifying Spencer because he is not Muslim reaches into an ancestral past when infidels were not allowed to read the Koran. In a further attempt to separate doctrine from the living faith, Jasser exposes his ignorance of Judaism and Christianity, asking how often do you personally refer to you priest or rabbi, to your religion’s legal system? He accuses us of “discarding Muslim intellectuals” for not challenging their imams. Later he would claim that shariah is God’s law for Muslims just as Talmudic law is for Jews.
Spencer gives two contemporary examples of Islamic doctrine applied to the letter with a fatal outcome. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, executed for heresy in Sudan in 1985 for proposing a reversal of the rule of abrogation that would make the “gentler” koranic verses prevail over the warrior ones. Suleiman Bashir, a West Bank professor who dared to suggest that the Koran was the product of a historical process, was thrown out the window by his students.
Sidestepping these serious challenges to his case, Jasser blames such ills on “fascist” governments of Muslim countries, nourished by petrodollars, who allow radical Islam to flourish as an excuse for imposing strict security measures, while the theological monopoly of al Azhar strangles religious reform. Dr. Jasser is pleased to see that things are changing though he readily admits that the Arab springtime might well lead to a wintry disappointment under the heel of Muslim Brotherhood tyranny. But the way to solve the problems of these states is through spirituality, through God, through Islam.
I wonder if the old “fascist” governments and the eventual Muslim Brotherhood dictatorships might have something to do with Islam. Not in the eyes of the good doctor. It’s all about culture. Tribalism, as Irshad Manji would say. Old customs that linger for some unknown reason, despite the beautiful truths that the masses of Muslims wisely draw from the well of Islam, untroubled by the dark currents unfairly exaggerated by Robert Spencer.
Mr. Spencer, who is not easily undone, stands firm on the validity of doctrine as a basis for judgments on the realities of Islam. Terrorists presenting themselves as the true Islam, based on doctrine, convince and radicalize young Muslims. In periods when Islam was less aggressive than it is today, Spencer says, it was not due to a change in doctrine but to changes in circumstances.
Would the heart of Dr. Jasser’s argument stand up to rigorous medical examination? Essentially he maintains that you have to appreciate Islam through the flesh and blood existence of Muslims, preferably devout Muslims like himself who harbor no ill-feelings toward infidels, aren’t crazy about imams, and learned how to be good and worship God before they even heard about the doctrine. Again accusing Robert Spencer of blindly swallowing theoretical knowledge, he extrapolates from his faith experience and ascribes the same configuration to Jews and Christians: It’s not about doctrine, it’s about spirituality, the unmediated personal relationship to God.
Whatever way you package it, doesn’t it come out the same? If we judge Islam by the behavior of Muslims in our countries in our times, it throws us right back to the doctrine. How many people would be struggling to get it all straight, if it hadn’t been for 9/11? If, by Muslims, we do not mean Dr. Jasser and others of his stature and milieu, we find such a close connection between doctrine and everyday life that we are forced to try to understand the doctrine, forced to ask ourselves why it can’t be reformed, why it keeps on producing such terrible societies and such implacable enemies.
Thirty years ago, we saw little evidence of radicalization of Muslims in Europe and the United States. Today it is rampant and growing. If culture is the determining factor, why hasn’t our democratic culture produced de facto reforms? Why do we get beheadings, honor killings, so-called lone wolf jihad attacks”¦ the list is endless. Massive Muslim immigration to Europe has produced the best laboratory for testing the ideas developed in the Spencer-Jasser debate. But of course there was nary a word about it. Muslims like Dr. Jasser are plentiful in Europe and most particularly in France.  Have they had the slightest influence on Islamic doctrine? Where is the European Islam we were promised? On the contrary, law-abiding free-thinking Muslims are persecuted by their fellows. Their children are radicalized. Mosques are co-opted by firebrand imams. Women are prodded from hijab to niqab. Violent anti-Semitism flourishes. Can we be damned for trying to understand how a third generation French Muslim youth can be inspired to go to Wazaristan and train for jihad? Why is the culture of his grandparents” homeland stronger than that into which he was born?
Dr. Jasser made a wink-wink appeal for funding for his organization [American Islamic Forum for Democracy], as he had done at the Peter King hearings. To illustrate its good works, he offered a sample lesson in separation of mosque and state. He teaches these youths that if shariah is imposed by the state, it is no longer God’s law, it is man’s law. This will guarantee, he assures us, that they will never again talk about imposing shariah in the United States. Really?
In a final desperate plea that includes more barbs for Robert Spencer, Dr. Jasser asks how we will solve this problem if we demonize Islam and “the prophet” Mohamed. “To say the prophet was a pedophile is not going to work among Muslims for reform.” Tossing in another erroneous comparison with Judaism, he claims that Islam respects all the prophets. In fact Islam expropriates, plagiarizes, misrepresents and Islamizes Christian and Jewish Biblical figures.
Spencer responds, unruffled, it is not demonizing Mohamed to say what he actually said and did. These teachings lead to concrete measures. Khomeini lowered the legal age of marriage for girls to 9, following the prophet’s example. In Afghanistan most girls above 2nd grade are already married.
“Imagine trying to reform Judaism,” says Jasser, “by saying Abraham had periods when he was a radical barbarian and wantonly beheaded people.” Why in the world would I want to imagine that Abraham””who is not a prophet but a founding father””wantonly beheaded people? What explains this cascade of faulty reasoning, erroneous examples, and repeated evasions?
Apostates, at the risk of their lives, speak out and judge Islam with uncompromising severity, while “reformers” like Dr. Jasser, who have virtually no influence on Islam, dump their problem into our laps. These “homegrown moderates” who want to be devout Muslims while doing no harm to their fellow man can’t reconcile the doctrine, the history, the collectivity, the ideology, the politics, and the ongoing jihad of normal everyday Islam with their own gentle, refined personalities.
So they tell us we are wrong to judge Islam by its scripture, by its history, by its past and current misdeeds, by its fanatical masses, by its benighted nations. We should judge Islam by people like themselves. They are the essence, the rest is circumstantial. Trying to squirm out of the dilemma of apostasy or hypocrisy, they pressure us to ignore what we have so painfully learned and expose ourselves to dangers that we are learning to combat. They act as human shields for Islamic jihad.
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser””in this debate at least””seems to be practicing “soft dhimmitude.” His arguments are based on superiority of Muslims over infidels, misrepresentation of Christianity and Judaism, denial of responsibility for the ills of Muslim societies coupled with undue praise for their accomplishments, suppression of the long history of Islamic persecution, institutionalized irrationality, prohibition of blasphemy”¦
I do not need to demonize Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, only to ask him to be self-critical instead of heaping criticism on scholars like Robert Spencer who have taken up the burden of combating jihad by studying its deepest sources. There is no evidence that Dr. Jasser or anyone else can reform Islam but if the impossible should one day become possible it will be a result of facing and telling the truth, not prettying it up.
A popular French singer who converted to Islam some twenty years ago, and took the name Akhenaton””talk about historical perspective!– asks how we think his children feel when they hear bad things about Islam day in day out in the media”¦when Islam is associated with terrorism, how do we think they feel?
How does he think we feel when it is true?
ABOUT NIDRA POLLER:
Nidra Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972. Her articles appear in the Wall St. Journal Europe, Middle East Quarterly, New English Review, American Thinker and dozens of other outlets. A work of fiction, “Karimi Hotel & autres nouvelles d’Africa,” will be published in June by l’Harmattan.