The problem I had over years of friendship had to do with certain personal attributes which I value highly, namely, consistency and the ability to recognize facts. My friends were good men who believed in Western democratic values, in selective immigration policies based on the possession of needed skills that would contribute to both society and the economy, in the necessity for Muslim (and all) immigrants to assimilate into the heritage culture, and in customary methods of education and a traditional curriculum; they rejected the utter folly of multiculturalism as it is practiced in Canada. At the same time they were staunch adherents of Islam as they understood it and swore by the distinction between Islam and Islamism, between genuine Muslims and radical Islamists, a distinction characterized, they claimed, by an unbridgeable divide.
I enjoyed a positive and warm relation with two of these men in particular. Both are published authors. Both are much in the limelight, reviewed and interviewed in many different places, for defending the liberal society they find superior to any other. And both are under a fatwa issued by their less tolerant brethren. And yet one of these valiant combatants considers Mohammed to be the perfect man whom Muslims should strive to emulate, is not well versed in the complex history of the Middle East, and entertains a corrosive skepticism about Israel. The other, while regarding his jihadist co-religionists as barbarians, yet argues that the atrocities associated with the development and diffusion of Islam should be historically contextualized, that the doctrinal heart of Islam is untarnished by events, and that the faith has not been properly interpreted by those who, he feels, wantonly abuse it. He believes that Islam blossomed under Mohammed as a spiritual quest, ignoring completely the historical fact that the Prophet was also a conquering warlord who engaged in raids for booty and committed bloody and indiscriminate acts of slaughter.
My two ex-friends reminded me of Irshad Manji who, in The Trouble with Islam Today, anatomizes everything that is wrong with her religion but makes a passionate case for its reform, including the revival of the faculty of ijtihad (independent thinking and counsel). It is hard to take her argument seriously. After 1400 years of nearly unchecked imperial conquest, with a holy book brimming with commandments to kill, mutilate, tax and enslave those it denominates as “infidels,” with hardline clerics in control of dogma today, and with terrorist regimes intent on bringing the West to its knees, can one credibly argue that Islam is even remotely susceptible to wide-scale, peaceful renovation? Moreover, reform would entail the gutting of myriad canonical texts, including the Koran, the Hadith and the five schools of Sunni and Shia jurisprudence, leaving nothing but a rump scriptural archive. Plainly, under the aegis of “reform,” Islam would cease to exist.
My own trouble with Islam, and the reason for calling it quits with my former friends, involved precisely what I understand as the immutable or essentialist nature of Islam. This nature prevails despite the historical nuances, the times when the faith was less oppressive than at other times (e.g., the Abbasid dynasty of early ninth century Baghdad), and the existence of comparatively enlightened movements like the eighth-and-ninth century Mu’tazalites, who fought for the primacy of reason, man’s free will, and the moral responsibility of the individual. The Mu’tazalites, be it noted, were decisively crushed in the tenth century by the fundamentalist Ash’arite sect, after which, as the latter’s leading theologian al-Ghazali wrote in his perennially influential The Incoherence of the Philosophers, “the gate of ijtihad is closed.” And it has been closed ever since. Additionally, we should keep in mind that although the Mu’tazalites believed that the Koran was a divinely created text, contingent upon the circumstances of its revelation, and not, as the Ash’arites claimed, co-existent with Allah and therefore fixed eternally, it nevertheless could not be transformed into something it was not.
My Muslim friends struck me as contemporary if somewhat more theologically and philosophically flexible Mu’tazalites, advocating for the rule of reason and the supremacy of democratic institutions and culture over their tribal competitors, and yet unable or unwilling to see that the faith they professed was constitutionally inimical to the liberal ethos they championed—and indeed in a state of perpetual conflict with it. There have existed, admittedly, occasional historical interregna, like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey, but these were, and are proving to be, labile and relatively short-lived. The Ash’arite complexion of the faith remains inherent and effectively permanent, irrespective of its historical fluctuations. As was remarked by a blogger who attended a recent lecture featuring meliorist Daniel Pipes at a synagogue in Toronto, “no amount of verbal equilibristic could change the fact that Islam was established as a political ideology with expansionist goals and remains the same even today.” The distinction between Islam and Islamism is basically a sop to the Western conscience and a conceptual means that allows us to evade hard truths and to avoid painful action. It is the product of fear and laziness, with a large admixture of electoral and fiscal self-interest.
This is where the bastard notion of “moderate Islam” comes into the equation. Obviously, there are millions upon millions of peaceable and reasonable Muslims who are loyal and productive citizens of the Western nations to which they have given their allegiance. No sane person would contend otherwise. But such, regrettably, is not the issue we are discussing. The sticking point is that “moderate Islam” provides the ecological or hyporheic zone essential to the flourishing of Islamic jihad and the viability of Sharia law. Without that vast circumambient population of “moderates,” many of whom may even be nonobservant, the “radicals” would have nowhere to breed, to thrive and to justify the assertion of their will. There is no Islam without a substantial body of believers, however nominal—the moderates—and there is no “Islamism” without a host on which it can parasitize. In reality, host and parasite become one. In an article I wrote three years back for PJ Media, I quoted Leslie S. Lebl of the American Center for Democracy, who argued that the basic problem is “an ideology fundamental to ‘traditional’ or ‘moderate’ Islam as much as to its ‘radical variant.’” Lebl was clearly on target. “Moderation,” I continued, parsing his message, “is also a perfect cover for immoderation as well as its fecund seedbed and its sustaining medium…what we call ‘moderate Islam’ is the water in which the sharks swim and seek their prey.”
Furthermore, what is meant by “moderate” may well provide less comfort than one would hope. According to Reuters, AP, the New York Times and The Economist, former Iranian president and mass murderer Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is both a moderate and a reformer. Hillary Clinton extolled Syrian president and mass murderer Bashir Assad as a “reformer.” The labels do not inspire confidence. We like to think of the ummah as comprising chiefly “moderate” individuals and families who disagree with suicide bombings and beheadings and whatever else may lurk in the terror armamentarium, and yet they may harbor views we would be hard put to categorize as “moderate.” A recent Pew survey of global Muslim attitudes yielded worrisome results, with distinct majorities in many Islamic countries favoring the imposition of Sharia law and other illiberal tenets associated with the practice of the faith.
And the West is not exempt from Sharia creep and stealth jihad. Many analysts have commented on the large proportion of Muslim immigrants in Britain, the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Europe in general who, in the words of Australian economist and Director of the Institute for Private Enterprise (IPE) Des Moore, are “either sympathetic to violent action by extremists or prepared to play a role in it” (email correspondence). They may not qualify as a majority but they are inching upwards. True, American Muslims appear less given to supporting the extremists among them. Yet there are various enclaves, like Dearborn, Michigan, where Islamic law and sentiment are strongly entrenched, and according to a scholarly survey conducted by David Yerushalmi and Mordechai Kedar for The Middle East Quarterly, approximately 80% of American mosques feature texts advocating diverse forms of violence “in the pursuit of a Shari’a-based political order or advocat[ing] violent jihad as a duty that should be of paramount importance to a Muslim.”
Of course, the Press and Western political leaders are mired in a deep state of denial. There exist, as mentioned above, clearly ideological reasons for being so, as well as issues involving electoral politics and, in many cases, financial incentives. In the wake of the grisly beheading of a British soldier on a London street, which Islamic cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed called “a courageous and heroic act,” Prime Minister David Cameron ignominiously referred to the act as “a betrayal of Islam.” Blame must not be attributed where it is due. Similarly, Muslim rioters are routinely described as “youths,” “Asians,” or “the unemployed.” Thus our fellow travelers do everything in their power to launder Islamic savagery and barbaric practices as a violation and corruption of core Islamic principles, conceiving of Islam as, at root, irenic and moderate.
But moderate Islam is by no means the panacea that, for example, Daniel Pipes considers it to be in his avowal that “radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution.” Would it were so. Unfortunately, Islam is Islam. Second-generation “moderates” often manifest as lone wolf terrorists or as members of various jihadist organizations to wreak terrible harm—we have seen this happen again and again. But no less disquieting, moderates are the unwitting confederates of the extremists. They may abhor violence and lobby for democratic values and usages, for which they should be praised, yet their liberal orientation does not change the stubborn fact that their existence is logically and materially necessary if those we call “Islamists” are to prosper in advancing their anti-West agenda.
How to resolve this dilemma is perhaps the major question of our time, but I suspect it will abide with us indefinitely. One cannot expect more than a billion Muslims to take a page out of the probably mythical book of the Khazars and convert en masse. Neither is it feasible nor advisable nor morally acceptable to apply force or repressive legislation, even were it theoretically possible. That Muslim armies did precisely this among their subject peoples is no paradigm for the modern West. The truth is that Islam is here to stay and the specter of conflict and misunderstanding will not magically disappear. It is inevitable. Ultimately, the question must be left to the individual, not the collective. Discussion and debate may sometimes work, but the decisive factor will always be personal experience. Such has been the case with brave apostates like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Walid Shoebat, Bosch Fawstin, Ibn Warraq and Nonie Darwish, who should be respected and admired and welcomed among us. They are consistent and are capable of recognizing facts.
And because others are not, I have broken with my Muslim friends.
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