Haroon Moghul, “a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law,” as well as “a doctoral candidate at Columbia University,” is more intelligent than the usual crude character assassins and victimhood mongers who fill the ranks of those who spread the myth of “Islamophobia,” and in this piece he strives mightily to invest the concept of “Islamophobia” with some genuine substance and intellectual heft. Since, however, “Islamophobia” is essentially a propaganda tool designed to shut down discussion and thought rather than foster either one, and Moghul himself has only a glancing interest in truth and honest dealing, he fails, and fails rather spectacularly.
“What’s Islamophobia, and Do I Have It?,” by Haroon Moghul in Religion Dispatches, December 31:
A closed mind is a terrible thing to behold. But it’s a far worse thing to have to engage. And yet we must.
I suspect that Moghul wrote those three sentences without a trace of irony, and yet they’re positively saturated with it. After he has several times assailed my supposed ignorance (without offering any examples, of course) on Twitter, I invited Moghul more than once to set me straight about Islam on my ABN show in January. ABN scrupulously gives debaters equal time, so he would have ample opportunity to show me up by demonstrating my “ignorance” to the world. He could thereby have severely lessened my baneful “Islamophobic” influence, which he and others regularly bemoan. But he repeatedly declined, revealing that he actually has no interest in genuine engagement with those whose minds he considers closed. That leads inevitably to the question of just how open his own is. Clearly not very.
This Saturday, the woman who murdered a complete stranger by shoving him into the path of an arriving subway train was arrested. Her name? Erica Menendez. Her target? Hindus and Muslims. Why? Because of 2001.
More than eleven years after the terrorist attacks, and the alleged murderer not only could not distinguish between a Muslim and a Hindu, but held both collectively responsible for the actions of a few–there are 2.5 billion Muslims and Hindus in the world. This is clear, cut-and-dried bigotry, of the typically ignorant kind.
You’d think recent events only further prove Islamophobia’s dangerousness. But on the night of Erica’s arrest, the usual cohort of anti-Muslim voices persisted in their denial of Islamophobia, considering it a “neologism” used by the left to silence their fair criticisms of Islam. Reality, as always, begs to disagree.
Moghul is not as stupid or sinister as Wajahat Ali, but he attempts the same Orwellian twist that Ali attempted in Salon yesterday, albeit less crudely: to take this insane woman’s ascribing her murder to anger over 9/11 and portray as a result of “Islamophobia,” as if no one could conceivably be still upset about the murder of 3,000 people by Islamic jihadists “more than eleven years after the terrorist attacks,” and therefore if this woman says she is still upset about 9/11, it must not be that she is really still upset over 9/11, but because “bigots” and “hatemongers” have gotten her all stirred up.
Certainly her attacking some innocent man because of 9/11 is irrational and evil — but never mind that she is clearly insane, having previously attacked people who it was extremely unlikely that she was mistaking for Muslim. But her insanity is highly inconvenient for the attempts to portray her murder as a result of “Islamophobia,” and so the “Islamophobia” mongers don’t bring it up.
Moghul is here trying to portray Erica Menendez as holding Muslims “collectively responsible for the actions of a few,” which he and his ilk frequently complain is what “Islamophobes” supposedly do: blame all Muslims for the actions of a few “extremists.” There may be some nuts somewhere who do that, but actually people like Haroon Moghul and Wajahat Ali (and a host of others in their camp) are the ones who constantly proclaim this, not counter-jihadists. Moghul and co. want you to believe that that is what counter-jihad analysts are doing when we note that jihadists use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence and supremacism. Actually, in doing that we are recognizing that there is a problem within Islamic doctrine, which Muslims could conceivably reform or reject outright, however unlikely it may be that large numbers will do either. We are not blaming all Muslims for 9/11 or any other act of jihad. But if they can convince you that we are, they will make people think that we are making irresponsible false claims, and thereby discourage people from joining our ranks. And that is the goal.
Islamophobia is anything but rational, fair, or grounded. Like climate change denial, it masks real threats and makes it harder for us to deal with them. America deserves a better conversation on Islam. One that has the room to acknowledge real threats and challenges, but also enables us to make smarter choices, and deal with Muslims as we are: Human beings.
Here again, the irony is thick. Moghul is hard at work trying to mask a real threat, that of jihad violence and Islamic supremacism, and in doing so he claims that those who recognize that threat are masking a real threat. And like Ali, albeit again less crudely stated, he claims that he doesn’t object to a “conversation on Islam” that “has the room to acknowledge real threats and challenges,” but this is actually a false and empty claim. Hamas-linked CAIR has done this as well — claimed that they are all for responsible analysis of jihad terrorism, but these Islamophobes, well, they’re just beyond the pale. What shows the emptiness of this claim is that neither Moghul nor Ali or CAIR have ever named a critic of jihad terror of which they approve; any and all they defame as “Islamophobes” and try to rule out of the bounds of acceptable discourse.
One of the chief ways they do this is by claiming, as Moghul does here, that by exposing the teachings of Islam and the actions of jihadists we are somehow “dehumanizing” Muslims, and if only, if only we would just treat them like “human beings.” Here again, the irony is thick: I showed Moghul enough respect to give him an opportunity to discredit me on international satellite television, by stopping my mouth with his irrefutable demonstrations of my errors and falsehoods. He did not accord me the courtesy of accepting, but instead — like all Islamic supremacists whom I have invited to discussion or challenged to debate — pretended that what I say is so egregiously and obviously false that to bother to show its falsehood would be beneath them, and that I am so evil as to be unworthy of rational discussion or debate. So who exactly is dehumanizing whom here?
Also, if they ever did come up with a list of acceptable critics of jihad terror, I suspect that it would be filled with jihad apologists, not actual opponents of jihad and Islamic supremacism at all. In any case, they haven’t done so yet.
I’m not claiming to present a complete cartography. But what I have should help us navigate a far too familiar terrain. After all, why do we have to put up with absurdly ahistorical arguments, such as Pamela Geller’s claim that “jihad” killed 270 million people–fanciful, hyperbolic, and almost endearingly fictitious? Not only is Islamophobia ridiculous, it has violent consequences.
Moghul reports this as if Pamela Geller originated it, which would be like saying that I wrote the article “What’s Islamophobia, and Do I Have It?” because I am posting it here. Such carelessness ill befits someone who styles himself a scholar and an intellectual, and reveals that there is more than a hint of propaganda to what Moghul is trying to do here. A few seconds of googling would have revealed to Moghul that the source of this figure is not Pamela Geller, but the Islam analyst Bill Warner, and that Warner got his numbers from scholars such as Thomas Sowell and Koenraad Elst.
If Moghul really wanted to offer an evidence-based refutation of this number, he would have cited Warner and taken up each of the totals presented in the original article. Instead, he links to his own article on this, which claims that there simply couldn’t have been 270 million casualties of jihad because of world population figures. It’s possible that he’s right, but his analysis fails because he doesn’t deal with any of the material adduced in Warner’s piece to support his calculations. Moghul doesn’t even appear to know, or doesn’t want us to know, that Warner’s piece exists. Either way, it hardly inspires confidence in his claim to represent the reasoned, rational alternative to irrational “Islamophobia.”
I. It’s (Always) the 1950’s
Islamophobes often argue they’re just criticizing Islam. But simply by prefacing an argument with “I have black friends,” or concluding with it, doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. We have to look deeper to see if “Islamophobia” applies; I’ll use the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women (for many reasons), to that end.
I found Moghul’s “I have black friends” remark to be still more irony: his fellow Islamic supremacists Qasim Rashid and Salam al-Marayati, among others, have pointedly asked me if I have any Muslim friends. They mean to imply that I must not know any Muslims personally, because if I did, I surely wouldn’t say what I say about Islam — as if my “misunderstandings” of Islam would melt away and the very content of the Qur’an and Sunnah would change if I only spent some time with a kindly Muslim. In reality, I know several kindly Muslims personally, but that does not, alas, change the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and so I have never adduced them as evidence of anything and refused to play the game Rashid and al-Marayati wanted me to play, or to fall into the trap they had prepared. And now here Moghul comes, saying that having Muslim friends wouldn’t do any good, anyway, if one is an incorrigible “Islamophobe.” These guys should get their stories straight.
Through France’s treatment of a Muslim woman’s sartorial choices, we can better understand the transition from mere opinionated disagreement to legally sanctioned discrimination. Because while the former may be unreasonable or unwarranted, the latter is the kind of bigotry I’m most concerned by.
In France, Muslims in public schools are forbidden to wear the hijab–overtly religious symbols are seen as threatening of a uniform French identity that is, by the way, more of a project of flattening France into homogeneity than reflecting France’s demographic reality. Meanwhile all women are forbidden to cover their faces in public spaces. This is so that Islam does not appear in public France.
Moghul doesn’t mention that all religious symbols — Christian, Jewish, and others as well as Muslim — are banned in public in France. There are no crucifixes on classroom walls, for example; the law is against public expression of religion, not against Islam. But that wouldn’t fit his narrative about Islam being singled out for particular persecution. Nor does he mention that Turkey, which has been a secular republic for eighty years until the Erdogan regime has begun dismantling Kemalist secularism, has also banned the hijab; does Moghul think the secular Turks were “racist” and “Islamophobic”? He certainly thinks the French are:
The state does this to “reclaim” public space for secularity; in France, though, secularism is not neutrality. The culturally secular majority champions a statist secularism the effect of which is to restrict the visibility of a religiously defined minority. This is not racism per se, but I hope you can see the problematic overlap: most French Muslims come from France’s former colonies.
Leftists try to pretend that every dissent from their dogmas is about race, and of course it is a staple of Islamic supremacist discourse in the U.S. and Europe that resistance to the jihad and Islamic supremacism is essentially racist — despite the fact that Islam is not a race, and Muslims are not all of one race. Hence Wajahat Ali’s clumsy title to his hit piece yesterday: “Death by brown skin” — in which he tried to convince his hapless readers that the murder of a “brown” Indian man by a deranged “brown” Hispanic was somehow “racist.” Likewise, does Haroon Moghul think that white Frenchwomen who convert to Islam are exempt from the veil ban?
And the colonial mindset continues to pertain. Islamophobia privileges the point of view of the allegedly objective outsider, who believes he knows Muslims better than they themselves do. Whether because of race, or because it’s transcended race; whether because of religion, or because it has transcended religion; in all these scenarios, the West always knows best.
Indeed, the West may know best because the West can change. Islam, on the other hand, is frozen, stuck in what Dipesh Chakrabarty called the “waiting room of history.” This is not, by the way, an exclusively French dynamic–the simple and inaccurate binary of a dynamic West and a static Islam, mired in the seventh century or a “medieval mindset” is stunningly common. And equally inaccurate.
Conclusions: The Islamophobe likes to speak on behalf of Muslims, and appoints himself judge, jury, and even executioner. This may be because while the Islamophobe believes he represents a dynamic civilization, the Islam he speaks for is assumed to represent a static and unchanging force.
So in Moghul’s view, the French have banned the veil because they think they know better what’s good for Muslims than Muslims themselves, reflecting an unconscionable colonialist paternalism. Could the French have done it because they value secularism as part of their national identity and want to preserve it? No, that couldn’t be it. When the Saudis ban all religious expression other than Islam in the Kingdom, and bar non-Muslims from Mecca altogether, does this manifest a paternalistic assumption that they know better for non-Muslims what is good for them than the non-Muslims do themselves? No, I doubt Moghul would accept that; I expect that he would say that the Saudis are just asserting their national identity, as is their right. But the French apparently have no such right.
Note also that nasty swipe at the end: “The Islamophobe likes to speak on behalf of Muslims, and appoints himself judge, jury, and even executioner.” “Executioner,” you see, because foes of the jihad and Islamic supremacism don’t really want to preserve free societies that protect the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and equality of rights for all; secretly, they just want to kill all the Muslims, doncha know? It’s a vicious libel that evades being actionable only by libeling the whole group in general — “the Islamophobe” — rather than anyone in particular. The smear does its work.
II. Don’t Ask, Tell
Addressing a panel at the 2011 American Academy of Religion Conference, Hussein Agrama illuminated the contradiction in the French government’s restrictions on hijab and the niqab, or face-veil. France banned both on the argument that they were either the sartorial embodiment of a politically Islamic identity, the tip of an Islamist iceberg so to speak, or evidence of a gender unequal religious tradition.
Thus the French government assumed all women veil for the same reasons. But in her book, The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott surveys French Muslim women–what a novel idea–and finds that few of these assumptions hold. Of course, the emancipation of the Muslim woman cannot be stopped by anything as irrelevant as the Muslim woman’s opinions; to be liberated from objectification, she’s objectified.
Consider the tension Agrama points out. If the veil is a choice (as most French Muslim women say it is) and not a religious obligation, then the French government can restrict it: French Muslims shouldn’t object to not being allowed to practice a choice. But, Agrama went on, if the veil is a religious obligation, it must have been imposed coercively and must be banned by the secular state.
Could it be that none of this applies at all, and the French just want to preserve their national character? Moghul doesn’t consider that possibility. Nor does he bother to discuss the possibility that the French law was influenced by the crimes committed by men wearing Muslim women’s clothes and covering their faces, and the jihadis who eluded capture in the same way. Are Western societies allowed to protect themselves from that?
Moghul ignores all this in his rush to steamroll the reader to the conclusion that Muslim women want to wear it, and therefore the French are being colonialist and paternalistic to ban it. But also unmentioned are the women who are threatened and even killed for not wearing the veil. Is Moghul as exercised about Saudi Arabia and Iran and other Sharia states mandating veiling of women as he is about France mandating their non-veiling? Do the women who are forced to veil have any rights? Can one speak up for their right not to cover their heads without being accused of “Islamophobia”?
Islamophobes tend to prefer the latter.
They assume that Muslims must do whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to. Not only have Muslims stopped using their brains, their nervous organs have atrophied from unemployment. Thus if a Muslim woman covers her head, it must be because she was forced to. The rationalists of the West, the free peoples of Middle Earth, must step in to liberate her.
“They assume that Muslims must do whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to.” There are some imams who might take issue with Moghul’s implication that Muslims need not do “whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to,” but the fact that innumerable Muslims do not do “whatever the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad tells them to” is indisputable. I have discussed its implications numerous times, in books, in talks, in articles, and at this site. The claim that counter-jihadists think all Muslims are a monolithic horde who all think the same things and are working for the same goals is another straw man that one hears much more often from critics of “Islamophobia” than from critics of jihad and Islamic supremacism. To wit:
III. If Islam Were a Race, Would Islamophobia Be Racist?
The right question to ask is why Muslims need liberation. Why can’t they (we) liberate ourselves? There is a racist logic within Islamophobia, which presents from time to time in the way Muslims are described and treated. As a single, indivisible whole. And, of course, a miserable one at that. The formula? “All Muslims are x,” where x is bad.
If I had a dime for every time Islamic supremacists and Leftists have claimed that I say “all Muslims are x,” I’d be a very, very rich man, but if I had a dime for every time I actually have said “all Muslims are x,” I wouldn’t have a single one. Moghul’s taste for straw men and false claims about his foes is shared by many, many of his allies, and it again shows that the party that is unwilling to conduct a reasoned debate is not that of the accused “Islamophobes,” but of those who present themselves as their intellectual and moral superiors.
This also means that all Muslims are on the hook for what some Muslims do, and must constantly distance themselves from other Muslims–as if the whole must bear responsibility for the acts and faults of individuals. How does that make any sense, except in a racialized and dehumanizing way?
Another straw man. No Muslims are “on the hook for what some Muslims do.” But there is a problem, isn’t there, Moghul? There are, after all, it happens virtually every day, somewhere in the world, that some Muslims harm and kill people and justifying their actions with reference to Islamic texts and teachings. How are we to deal with this? Do those Muslims who operate mosques and Muslim schools in the West (and elsewhere) not have any responsibility at all to try to ensure that their pupils don’t become jihad terrorists? Certainly non-Muslim states have felt a great responsibility to prevent jihad terror, and have thus showered money on Pakistan and other Muslim countries in a vain attempt to stop it, while spending yet more money on hearts-and-minds initiatives such as building schools in Afghanistan, etc. Whether or not these programs are wise, is it entirely up to non-Muslims to try to stop jihad terror, with its 20,000+ attacks since 9/11?
There is no program teaching against the “extremist” version of Islam in any mosque anywhere, despite the fact that converts to Islam seem peculiarly susceptible to this understanding of Islam (cf. John Walker Lindh, Adam Gadahn, Richard Reid, and on and on) and the universally held assumption that the vast majority of Muslims reject and abhor this version of Islam. Why isn’t there? And why is Haroon Moghul obfuscating this issue, instead expatiating on how unjust it is for him to be “on the hook” for what some other Muslims do?
I’m not arguing that Islamophobia is racist, or that Islamophobes are racists, because that’s not quite what’s happening. For one thing, Islamophobes embrace ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and racists wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t) do the same. But consider the similarities: the Islamophobe must assume Muslims suffer some sort of pre-Islamic inferiority, sufficient to explain how some (largely non-white) people–actually, a lot of people–not only fell for Islam in the first place, but then stayed down. How long do enforced ideologies last? Nazism: twelve years. Communism: some decades. Islam: Fourteen centuries and counting.
Those are some dumb people.
On second thought, maybe Haroon Moghul is as stupid as Wajahat Ali, or maybe he just thinks his readers are. A belief system that mandates death for those who leave it, even if that penalty is not uniformly enforced, and degradation and subjugation for those who reject it, along with the command that one must take up arms in its defense if it is attacked, is going to be remarkably impervious to mass defections.
Of course, Moghul might claim that Islam actually has no death penalty for apostasy, or doctrine of the dhimma for the “People of the Book,” or even of defensive jihad, but the record shows otherwise: click on those links to see not “Islamophobes,” but Muslim authorities, saying as much. Whatever else may be attractive or compelling about Islam so as to keep Muslims believing in it, these factors are clearly affirmed at least by some Muslims, and indicate that the question before us is not whether or not Muslims are “some dumb people,” as Moghul’s straw man has it, but whether other factors might be keeping them in the fold.
But regardless of whether certain mental defects incline a person to Islam or whether after adopting Islam parts of your brain shut down–think zombie virus from The Walking Dead‘s first season—the output’s the same. If a Qur’anic verse seems to sanction violence, Muslims have no choice but to act on it. There is just one problem with this way of interpreting all of Islam.
Only a puny minority of Muslims acts in a violent manner, while the huge majority does not, though both are reading the same book. If Muslims don’t act in similar ways, the problem isn’t the Islamophobe’s interpretation of Islam, it’s anything else–perhaps the Muslims are practicing taqiyya! Or, perhaps, the Muslims don’t understand their religion.
Or maybe they just can’t be bothered. As I have pointed out ad infinitum, there is a spectrum of belief, knowledge and fervor among Muslims, as there is among any ideological group, religious or non-religious. Some take Islamic teaching very seriously, some don’t, with every variation in between. Some are very knowledgeable about that teaching. Some aren’t. Moghul, of course, is saying that peaceful Muslims have a different interpretation of the Qur’an from that of the violent ones. That may well be, although the violent interpretations are far more mainstream than he lets on; in any case, the existence of the peaceful interpretations doesn’t cancel out the existence of the violent ones, just as Hamas-linked CAIR’s ad campaign that tries to sell the idea that jihad is helping your sixth grader with her homework and playing hopscotch with her when she’s done doesn’t do anything to address the inconvenient fact that a significant number of Muslims believe it involves warfare against and subjugation of infidels. The people who need to be convinced — the Muslims who believe in violent jihad — aren’t being addressed.
Islamophobes resolve the challenges posed by reality by dismissing it. Hence, they’ll say things like “most Muslims don’t understand Islam.” This was the rebuttal Ayaan Hirsi Ali used against Zeba Khan during their Intelligence Squared debate on Islam. In her opening statement, Khan argued that her parents stressed tolerance as an Islamic value; Hirsi Ali responded that while that was very nice, it wasn’t Islam.
Islam has one interpretation: theirs. Which happens to be–by chance, of course–the same interpretation extremists offer. Leave aside for a moment the conclusions and consider the methods by which Islamophobes get there. Were Islamophobes Muslim, they would be the Muslims they warn us about.
Islam can only be understood on their terms, they say. And their terms are violent and intemperate. Their strict literalism, inability to grasp context, gross and frequent generalizations, and mind-blowing ahistoricism make them into radicals, only on the opposite side of a chasm into which both have thrown decency, history, common sense, and reality. In place of analysis, they offer us a Xerox machine.
They reproduce themselves and call it Islam.
Moghul doesn’t bother to inform his readers that Hirsi Ali, like Zeba Khan, had Muslim parents, or that she grew up in a Muslim country, where she learned Islam. She didn’t learn it from “extremists,” unless one believes that the “extremists” controlled Somali schools and mosques in the 1980s, two decades before the “extremist” Islamic Courts Union took over the southern part of the country.
Even if they did, this claim that the “Islamophobes” endorse the view of Islam of the “extremists” and ignore “moderate” versions dismisses without discussion the deep traditional roots that offensive jihad for the subjugation of infidels has in Islam. “Islam can only be understood on their terms, they say”? Really? Who says that? I say that Islam can only be understood as Muslims understand it, and that, unfortunately, does not work out well for the “moderates”: those who hold to the “extremist” view are actually quite mainstream. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a pioneering historian and philosopher, was not an “extremist” by anyone’s account, and yet he wrote that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In Islam, he added, the person in charge of religious affairs is concerned with “power politics,” because Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations.”
In modern times, Majid Khadduri, an Iraqi scholar of Islamic law, wrote this in his 1955 book War and Peace in the Law of Islam: “The Islamic state, whose principal function was to put God’s law into practice, sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world….The jihad was therefore employed as an instrument for both the universalization of religion and the establishment of an imperial world state.” Was Khadduri, a scholar of international renown, an “Islamophobe” who was cravenly endorsing the “extremist” view of Islam in order to dehumanize Muslims? Come on.
IV. Haven’t We Seen This Movie Before?
In Hirsi Ali’s conception, no sooner does a Muslim open up the Qur’an than the book starts to smack him around like the fast food in those Tums commercials. Muslims can only do exegesis–we can only read meaning “out of a text.” We cannot practice eisegesis, which is reading “into” a text. Maybe that’s Hirsi Ali’s particular life challenge, but that’s not how the world works.
All of us engage in exegesis and eisegesis; Hans-Georg Gadamer explains how through the simple sentence. You can’t say what a sentence means, he said, unless you know what all the words in the sentence mean, but you can only define these words by the context provided by the sentence as a whole. (At least, I think that’s Gadamer; I beg my advisor’s forgiveness if it is not.)
We read into the text while the author’s writing reaches out at us–it’s like what happens if you take Tums before you eat. (Food is fun again.) The point is, Muslims aren’t “forced” into a reading. The best evidence of this is the most obvious, although to admit it would be to fatally break Islamophobia’s pathetic back: Radical Muslims impose implausible meanings on Muslim scripture.
Radicals twist texts to justify despicable ends. Usually they can do this because, like Islamophobes, they have only a cursory familiarity with Islam.
It takes a high level of chutzpah to claim that the ones who are imposing implausible meanings onto the Qur’an are the ones who take texts like “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” at face value rather than those who interpret them in some way that mitigates their brute violence. Nonetheless, I wish Moghul all success in imposing meanings that he thinks are more “plausible” onto Muslim scripture, if those meanings involve allowing non-Muslims to live in peace; however, it would be refreshing if he were more interested in working to fatally break Islamic supremacism’s pathetic back, rather than “Islamophobia”‘s — that is, if he directed his efforts to convincing “radical Muslims” that they’re wrong about Islam rather than trying to defame and destroy the non-Muslims who are working to resist those “radicals.”
Within a few decades of Muhammad’s death (in 632 A.D.), Islam’s first extremists emerged: the “˜Khawarij,” or secessionists. They went to war with Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Shi’a Imam and fourth Sunni Caliph, and eventually assassinated him. An extremism so self-righteousness [sic] that it did not stop to wonder what kind of
“understanding” of Islam would bring it to war with the Prophet’s flesh and blood.
Before his assassination, Ali and some Khawarij had a debate over his rule as Caliph. The latter demanded that Ali govern as the Qur’an demandedIn [sic] response to this, Ali famously opened up the Muslim holy book in response to their demand and asked, “What does it say?” What he was saying, some fourteen centuries ago, is that we read meaning into and out of texts at the same time
This incident demonstrates that the crudeness of Islamic extremism is infidelity to seventh-century (i.e., original) Islam, a profound and ridiculous inversion of how Islam’s earliest and most authoritative interpreters understood the faith. I’m seriously unnerved by the convergences between Islamophobia and the Khawarij, both of whom assume texts have singular, fixed meanings (which may be the reason why both have found scholarship not just unhelpful but irrelevant).
Actually this story doesn’t do anything to show that the interpretations of the Qur’an that jihadists and Islamic supremacists live by are wrong. The claim that “Islamophobes” assume that “texts have singular, fixed meanings” is just another straw man. In my Blogging the Qur’an series, for example, I regularly discussed the Qur’anic interpretations of Western-oriented “moderates” such as Mohammed Asad (nee Leopold Weiss), which frequently differed from more hardline traditional interpretations.
But here again, none of the leading critics of jihad and Islamic supremacism really claim that all Muslims think the same way or read the Qur’an the same way in the first place. This is a false claim no matter how many times Moghul and his allies repeat it. The question is what are the Muslims who claim to reject “extremist” interpretations doing to make their “moderate” views prevail. Then when we look at the “moderate” Muslim establishment in the U.S., we see Muslim Brotherhood ties, open cheerleading for the murderers of Hamas, and the like. It does not, to say the least, inspire confidence.
For Islamophobes, Muslims don’t have agency, but the Qur’an does. (This might be why some Islamophobes have proposed banning the Qur’an.) If this discussion is hard to follow because the material is foreign, consider what would happen if we applied Islamophobia’s logic to Western affairs. Imagine how we’d react to the proposition that reading the Bible explains George W.’s war against Iraq?
This would be strange, to say the least, but we could say the same for subway ads that quote Muslim scripture beside scenes of terrible violence, as if all we need to understand the one is the other. One sure sign of an Islamophobe is this: you need only remove a few words here and there and their argument pertains with equal vehemence to the West, or Christianity, or Europe.
If “George W.” had said that the Bible explained his war in Iraq, we would be remiss if we not only refused to look in the Bible to try to understand what George W. was up to, but vilified those who did look in it as haters of George W. But that is the situation we are in today: Islamic jihadists explain and justify their actions with reference to the Qur’an, but those of us who look in the Qur’an and Islamic teaching to try to understand them, and who call for reform and reevaluation of the teachings they use to justify their actions, are vilified and demonized as “Islamophobes.” It is tempting to think that those who do this really want the jihadis to succeed, just as someone who vilified the Bible reader who was trying to understand George W. might just want no one to interfere with George’s Bible-based warmaking.
“All Muslims are x,” they say, “because some Muslims do x.” Surely the stuff Western civilization was built off of.
I challenge Haroon Moghul to offer up a genuine quote from me in which I say anything like this. He won’t, because he can’t, because there aren’t any. Over the last few days, in Twitter wars following Erica Menendez’s act of murder, many Islamic supremacists and Leftists claimed that I did so when I wrote: “If Muslims would stop doing evil in name of Islam and jihad, no one would respond with evil to them.”
Ah, see? Gotcha! Blaming all Muslims for the deeds of a few! Collective responsibility! Some even weirdly claimed that I was justifying the murder, conveniently ignoring that I had termed it “evil.” But as I explained here, what I was saying in Twitter’s cramped space was that any negative view of Islam that actually exists is the result of jihadists’ actions and the lies and obfuscations, rather than an honest grappling with the problems posed by Islam’s violent teachings, of people like Haroon Moghul — not because of “Islamophobes.” Islamic jihadists are murdering people in churches, murdering Shi’ites, murdering Sunnis, murdering Buddhists, murdering Hindus, murdering Jews, and the problem is that “Islamophobes” say “all Muslims do x,” which no responsible counter-jihadist really ever says in the first place? This is a monumental moral myopia.
V. One Of Us Is Rubber And The Other Is Glue
Many Islamophobes desperately want to be engaged, because such engagement promises credibility. But before the debate begins, they dismiss the terms around which it might be structured, and evince little interest in the questions any such debate would require us to ponder:
What is a religion?
Can a religion explain human behavior?
What is history?
What sources count in a respectable history?
How do we weigh different sources against each other?
How can you debate the applicability of history to the present with people who are usually only superficially aware of history, and then really only superficially aware of history in a superficial sense? History is not simply the ability to memorize dates and events; it is an attempt to understand human affairs through theories, methods, and sources that people can have sophisticated conversations over.
Historians don’t make these things up to exclude non-specialists, although sadly sometimes that’s the effect, but present them so that we can have conversations between people who disagree–a conversation, after all, requires common ground. You cannot productively engage someone whose mind is already made up.
Yeah, Haroon Moghul’s mind isn’t made up. Oh, no.
In any case, he is probably referring to me here, as he has repeatedly refused to debate me, as I explained above. In this, however, he could not legitimately be referring to me, for at no time did I ever “dismiss the terms around which it might be structured” or “evince little interest in the questions any such debate would require us to ponder”: never did we discuss the possibility of even having a discussion about his list of questions above. In any case, his arrogant dismissal here of the “Islamophobes” as too stupid for him to debate might play to his own audience, but it remains unproven as long as it is untested. He can lecture us about the nature of historiography and sniff about how unfortunate it is that “non-specialists” are excluded, but as long as he continues to refuse to engage the legitimate concerns of counter-jihadists and dismisses us all as hateful, ignorant rubes, his haughty pose remains just that: a pose. He has claimed that he operates in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere that would only make us dizzy and light-headed should we try to ascend to his level, but until he actually bests one of us or writes a genuinely thoughtful piece criticizing our views rather than the long-winded propagandizing and attitudinizing that he’s offering in this one, his claim is nothing more than yet another example of vacuous Islamic supremacist chest-beating. Reza Aslan, call your office, you’ve got some stiff competition here.
Or you could, and it’d be like talking to Mideast Beast: The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Anti-Christ, Joel Richardson’s rather self-explanatory title. Islamophobia, as we will see, has its own histories, its own specialists, and its own echo chamber. Because of course it cannot exist in a world of peer review….
I get the “peer-review” thing all the time. The problem is, it’s yet another argument from authority, like the one Moghul just offered about himself, and the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is a highly politicized organization that has effective control of virtually all of the Middle East Studies departments in American universities. Those departments are thus uniformly hostile to Islamocritical points of view, and enforce a dreary intellectual conformism that gives employ to all manner of mediocrities: if you hold the right opinions, you get a job, no matter how vacuous or propagandistic your work may be. In such an environment, peer review means absolutely nothing.
My work and that of others rises or falls on its own merits. If what I say is false, then it should be disregarded, but the lack of peer review doesn’t establish anything more than the fact that my views are not fashionable with the current academic establishment. I stand by my work and will defend all the assertions I have made — but Haroon Moghul and his friends won’t dare to let their disparagement of my work be held up to scrutiny and tested. You can draw your own conclusions about what they really think of the strength of their positions, and of mine.
Moghul then goes on to criticize a book I haven’t read, and this response to his long-winded piece is long-winded enough itself already, so I will skip down to this:
During the Ground Zero mosque debacle [heh], much of this kind of thinking was revealed. I’ll pick just one example–Newt Gingrich, who suggested during the controversy that there should not be a mosque near Ground Zero unless and until there was a church in Mecca. There’s so much to work with there that I’ve broken it down into three points–that’s as much as you’d want, I think.
First, Gingrich believes that American Muslims, because they are Muslim, are Saudis, and hence we can tell the Saudi government what to do, because of course the Saudi government, which is an absolute monarchy that does not answer to its citizens, would firstly listen to people who are not its citizens and also live on the other side of the planet and secondly had a say in the lower Manhattan mosque project.
“First, Gingrich believes that American Muslims, because they are Muslim, are Saudis…” My jaw dropped. After just eviscerating a book for logical fallacies and historical inaccuracies, Moghul actually presents this as something Gingrich was assuming? Couldn’t it be that Gingrich was merely saying that the U.S. should use its willingness to allow a mosque at Ground Zero to pressure the Saudis into relaxing their prohibitions on religious freedom? Naaah — that would be reasonable, and Moghul above all doesn’t want you to think that his designated “Islamophobes” are ever reasonable.
Second, Gingrich associates America with a church, as opposed to say democracy; he wants a symbol of Christianity–read, America–in Mecca. But this picture is all wrong. American culture dominates the world, while the Muslim world struggles to produce anything. Indeed, a visitor to Mecca is undoubtedly struck by the degree of its Americanization–there are Burger Kings, KFC, a Starbucks, a Victoria’s Secret, a Sbarro’s, and even a Paris Hilton store.
Is that so? I’ll never know, because as a non-Muslim, I’m not allowed into Mecca. But Moghul for some reason neglects to mention that intriguing little factoid.
Third, Gingrich believes Mecca is responsible for Ground Zero.
Again, it is jaw-dropping that Moghul really thinks that these assumptions are actually contained in Gingrich’s statement. His statement was about religious freedom in an Islamic state. That’s all. Whatever Haroon Moghul is smoking to see all these other things in there must be some very good stuff, but I hope he lays off it while working on his doctoral dissertation.
Other Islamophobes have suggested nuking Mecca in response to terrorist attacks; Gingrich’s reasoning mirrors theirs. Islam is, in this worldview, a kind of global conspiracy headquartered in Mecca, which is not even the capital of a country, but is incidentally located in a country that many Muslims openly detest.
Actually, while there are nutjobs and hotheads and fire eaters among the “nuke Mecca” crowd, there are also some who contend that it would be a transforming moment akin to the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, which led to the development of rabbinic Judaism. They hope that it would lead to a thoroughgoing reevaluation of the mainstream interpretations of Islamic texts, and a mitigation of Islam’s martial aspect. In other words, Moghul is again setting up a straw man, as their reasoning has nothing to do with some fantasy that Islam is a “kind of global conspiracy headquartered in Mecca.” I am not defending nuking Mecca, or arguing against it, for that matter; I’m just pointing out that Moghul’s fundamental arrogance gets in the way of his ability to offer a cogent critique of those he is claiming to criticize: he not only hates the “Islamophobes,” but he holds them in contempt. He thinks they are not only evil, but stupid. It is a dangerous thing to do to one’s enemy, as it inevitably causes one to underestimate that enemy. The jihadis may be evil, but they are not stupid; and I do not make the mistake of thinking they are.
Anyway, toward the end of his endless piece, Moghul gets around to relating, in highly tendentious terms, a conversation he and I had on Twitter, although he doesn’t give my name.
VIII. Having Cake v. Eating Cake
If you have made it this far, then you can guess what comes next and last, because it is worst of all: the actual engagement with the Islamophobe. I offer you snippets from a conversation with a noted voice of the Islamophobic fringe, who I had the opportunity to engage–albeit on Twitter–some weeks ago. The topic was of course Islamophobia.
After a long and meandering conversation, in which anything any reasonable person could say was twisted and repurposed (quite a feat in Twitter’s narrow spaces), we got to the issue of Islamophobia. (For which reason you can read this article.) I offered recent Eastern European affairs as an answer to the question, “Is there any such thing as Islamophobia in the real world?”
Specifically, this means Bosnia, where tens of thousands of Muslim women were raped and well over one hundred thousand killed, in an attempt at ethnically cleansing that country to make way for a “Greater Serbia” (there were atrocities committed by all sides, but disproportionately it was a war in which Muslims were the victims and radical Serb nationalists the aggressors).
My interlocutor suggested that the Bosnian genocide might have been a response to the election of Alija Ali Izetbegovic as Bosnia’s President. My interlocutor confused “religious” for “Islamist,” and suggested Izetbegovic’s religiosity had “spooked” the Serbs into committing genocide. And I was like, yeah, totally, I see what you mean, because when I’m scared, I turn on the lights, phone a friend, or commit genocide.
Not really. You can see the actual tweets here. Moghul severely misrepresents the conversation, essentially claiming that I was justifying genocide by saying that it was a response to Izetbegovic’s Muslim faith. In fact, the tweet in which I said that Izetbegovic “spooked” the Serbs had nothing to do with genocide at all, as you can see, but with Moghul’s claim that “radical Serbs repeated same simplistic critiques and applied to all Bosnians–taqiyya, creeping Shari’ah, etc.” For contrary to Moghul’s claims here, as you will see below, Izetbegovic was an open Islamic supremacist who wanted to establish a Sharia state in the Balkans and made no secret of it, even while presenting himself to the West as a “moderate.” Taqiyya and creeping Sharia indeed.
I see in this brazen misrepresentation why Moghul didn’t link the exchange in his article, or name me, which would have made it much easier to find.
It is true that Izetbegovic was influenced by Islam; but, for him, Islam was no different than Catholicism was for many Poles, who reached out to a religious leader (the Pope) to advance a political agenda of liberation. Izetbegovic went to jail for his religiously-inflected activism, which isn’t surprising considering Yugoslavia was a Communist state at the time.
And what was so inflammatory, that might have provoked genocide? Izetbegovic argued that a healthy model for a Muslim society would be one in which religion was part of government. His example was not Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, but the rogue state we call the United Kingdom. Surely the stuff nightmares are made of.
The United Kingdom? Really? In his Islamic Declaration, Izetbegovic wrote this — does this sound like the land of Blair and Brown and Queen Bess to you? “The exhaustive definition of the Islamic Order is: the unity of religion and law, education and force, ideals and interests, spiritual society and State–the Muslim does not exist at all as an independent individual…It is not in fact possible for there to be any peace or coexistence between ‘the Islamic Religion’ and non-Islamic social and political institutions.”
Should this have provoked genocide (leaving aside the question of whether or not it actually did)? Of course not, and Moghul’s suggestion that I was justifying genocide is monstrous. It’s so common in Islamic supremacists: the lowest gutter tactics, while claiming the moral high ground. Even after all these years, I still shake my head.
Anyway, Moghul concludes by claiming: “I am not so dense as to argue that Muslims have always behaved innocently, and that is not the conclusion I want you to walk away with.” He offers a lone example: Iran’s crackdown on dissidents in 2009. Fair enough. Then it’s back to his main point: “There is such a thing as anti-Muslim bigotry. Islamophobia is our word for that bigotry, and must be seen and rejected for what it is: ignorance, deliberate or unintentional, used in the past to justify genocide, and used today to bully, circumscribe, panic, or oppress.”
Ignorance — yet it must not be engaged with. No education for the “Islamophobes.” Used to “bully,” and yet lying brazenly about the Islamophobes is apparently not bullying, and is just fine. “Americans deserve better,” he says. Indeed.
Moghul finally claims:
Islamophobia claims to tell the truth about Islam, free of bigotry and political correctness, but it does no such thing. Its only real legacy is one of bad foreign policy choices, too many incidents of domestic discord, all kinds of missed opportunities, a growing trust deficit here and abroad, and probably many burned bridges. We don’t know how many, because we’ve no way to count.
Our “foreign policy choices” are “Islamophobic”? You’ve got General Allen abjectly groveling to the “noble people of Afghanistan,” guards at Guantanamo handling the Qur’an with gloves in acknowledgment of their status as dirty kuffar, American Generals trying to convince American citizens not to do things that will offend Muslims, and our “foreign policy choices” are “Islamophobic”? Pull my other leg. And a “trust deficit”? Remember that the “trust deficit” in Pakistan was caused by the U.S. killing of bin Laden, whom Pakistani officials had sheltered for years, while funneling U.S. anti-terror money to the jihadis they were supposed to be fighting. And they don’t trust us because of “Islamophobia”?
Haroon Moghul is an intelligent man, but his overweening arrogance and fiendish dishonesty mitigate any value in his writing. It’s a pity. He could have really struck a blow against any actual “Islamophobia,” i.e., the things that really make people dislike Islam: the bombings, the beheadings, the murders by Allahu-akbaring hordes. Instead, he is enabling them, by doing all he can to destroy their opposition.