Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the Freedom Center, was recently interviewed by Fronda, a leading website in Poland. The English-language version of the Polish interview, originally titled “Raymond Ibrahim: Prostration before Islam,” follows:
1. Who is Raymond Ibrahim? A scholar, a writer, an activist? What is his mission and the main goal?
Raymond Ibrahim: I am a little of all that and more. Due to my background, academic and personal, I have had a long interest in the Middle East and Islam, especially the historic and contemporary interaction between Islam and Christianity. After the strikes of September 11, 2001, I took an interest in the current events of the region vis-à-vis the West, and what immediately struck me was how, on the one hand, the conflict was almost identical to the historic conflict, one of continuity—at least that is how many Muslims were portraying it.
But on the other hand, in the West, the narrative was very different and based on a “new paradigm,” one that saw Islam and Muslims as perpetual victims of all sorts of outside and material pressures, mostly from the West. Thus the analyses that were being disseminated through media and academia were to my mind immensely flawed and, while making perfect sense to people in the West—for they were articulated through Western, secular, materialistic paradigms—had little to do with reality as I saw and understood it.
That was one of the reasons I left academia and began writing for more popular audiences, to try to offer a corrective to these flawed narratives. My first book, The Al Qaeda Reader (2007), was meant to do precisely this—to compare the words of al-Qaeda as delivered to the West and as delivered to fellow Muslims, and to show how when speaking to the West, al-Qaeda and other Islamists used Western arguments, claiming any number of grievances, political and otherwise, as being the source of their jihad. Obviously such arguments, widely disseminated by Western mainstream media, made perfect sense to the West.
But al-Qaeda’s Arabic writings that I discovered when I was working at the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and which I translated for the book, made completely different arguments, basically saying that, irrespective of all grievances, Muslims must hate and wage jihad on all non-Muslim “infidels” until they come under Islamic authority, according to the worldview of Sharia, or Islamic law.
So in a way, you can say my mission since then has been to open Western eyes to the truths and reality of Islam—at least the reality of how it is understood and practiced by many Muslims—for Western eyes have been closed shut in recent times.
2. You have a dual background. You were born and raised in the U.S. by parents who were born and raised in a Coptic community in Egypt. Are you the ‘clash of civilizations’ personified? What kind of advantages and disadvantages does such an identity and upbringing lead do?
Raymond Ibrahim: That’s an interesting way of putting it. Along with obvious benefits—being bilingual (Arabic and English), for example—yes, I do believe my background gives me more subtle advantages. Growing up cognizant of both worlds and cultures has, I believe, imparted a higher degree of objectivity to my thinking. Most people’s worldviews are colored by whichever culture they are immersed in—hence exactly why so many Western people tend to project their own values on the Islamic world, convinced that any violence and intolerance that comes from that region must be a product of some sort of socio-political or economic “grievance”—some sort of material, not religious, factor. While I understand, appreciate and participate in Western values and norms, because of my “dual” background, I also cannot project such values and norms on non-Western peoples (and vice-versa, of course).
This has caused my worldview to be, I believe, more neutral and objective, less colored by cultural values and references. Conversely, I have, so far, not encountered any notable disadvantages from such a background—other than perhaps being overly objective and not always able to participate in the common.
3. In addition to numerous articles in a variety of media, you are also the author of two books. The last one, Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians argues that martyrdom is not a thing from the past. It is not a book with a happy ending, is it?
I prefer to think of it as a dire wake up call to the West. The topic of Muslim persecution of Christians is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In Crucified Again, I look at the history of this phenomenon, the Islamic scriptures that support it, and the modern era. And what I find and document is unwavering continuity. According to Islamic teaching, Christians and other non-Muslims are “infidels,” and as such, they are seen as at best third class subjects in Islamic states. They cannot build or renovate churches, display crosses or Bibles; they have to pay tribute with humility, according to Koran 9:29; they cannot speak well of Christianity or criticize Islam. They are even required to give up their seats to a Muslim if he demands it, according to strict Islamic teaching (and as found in the “Conditions of Omar,” an important text that discusses how Christian minorities are to be treated under Islam).
Now if you look at history—as recorded by early Arabic/Islamic historians—you will see that that is exactly how Christians were treated under Islam for centuries; that is exactly how nations like Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and all of north Africa, went from being Christian majority to Muslim majority over the centuries: most Christians opted to convert to Islam rather than constantly suffer from third-class status as well as sporadic persecution.
And today, what we are seeing is simply the ongoing continuation of history, as Christians continue to be persecuted, continue to dwindle in numbers in lands that were Christian centuries before Western Europe embraced the faith. Yet, according to Western analysts, etc., all of this is some sort of “misunderstanding” or because Muslims are angry about Israel—anything and everything but codified religious intolerance, even though the latter is so well documented, doctrinally, historically, and in current events.
4. There are many initiatives aimed at bringing the ‘spirit of dialogue’ between the religions. In the Catholic Church we even celebrate a Day of Islam. What is your opinion on this kind of inter-faith outreach? Will it be successful in decreasing the persecution of Christians or helping individuals like Asia Bibi?
Raymond Ibrahim: No, it will exacerbate Christian persecution. From my perspective, the more the West and/or Christianity kowtow to Islam—and that is what modern day “interfaith outreach” often amounts to—the more aggressive that religion becomes.
Here, again, is another example of Westerners projecting their norms onto others, namely, Muslims. In the Western paradigm, itself an offshoot of Christianity, showing tolerance and forgiveness will supposedly cause some sort of reciprocation from the one being forgiven and tolerated—since everything is always supposedly a “misunderstanding.” Yet in Islam, might has always made right, and “tolerance” has always been seen as sign of equivocation or weakness—a lack of conviction. If Christians praise Islam, so many Muslims conclude, that is because they feel it is the truth—not because they are trying to find commonalities, a paradigm that is foreign to classical Islam, which sees the world in terms of right (Islam) and wrong (non-Islam).
Again, history sheds some light on this. In the medieval era, there were Christians like Francis of Assisi who tried to have dialogue with Muslims—but in order to get to the truth, including by asking hard questions about Islam often in the context of Christian teaching. Such dialogue is of course admirable because it is sincere. But trying to have dialogue in order to find and parade some minor “commonalities”—while overlooking and ignoring the fundamental differences, which are much more immense and the true sources of conflict—is simply a game of wasting time.
5. In your writings regarding the Muslim persecutions of Christians, two themes are constantly recurring. Firstly, you claim that it constitutes “an elephant in the room” and secondly you believe that liberal academia and media are biased “whitewashing Islam and blaming the West” for Islamic attacks against non-Muslims. Can you explain the reasons for such arguments?
It’s the “elephant in the room” because few things show such remarkable continuity between the past and the present—while still being thoroughly ignored and treated as an aberration by academia, media, and government—as Muslim persecution of Christians. If you look at the true history recorded by both Muslims and Christians during the Medieval era—one Muslim historian tells of how one caliph destroyed 30,000 churches—you will see that the persecution and subjugation of Christians is an ironclad fact of history.
Today, not only do we see Christians persecuted from one end of the Islamic world to the other, but we see the same exact patterns of persecution that Christians experienced centuries ago, including hostility for and restrictions on churches, hostility for the crucifix and other Christian symbols and icons, restrictions on Christian worship and freedom. (I discuss this in more depth here and here.) As for academia and media, they reject modern day persecution of Christians for a plethora of reasons—not least because they tend to be ideologically anti-Christian—but primarily because it contradicts their entire narrative, specifically the notion that, far from being persecuted, Christians themselves are the most intolerant groups, and that Muslims are “misunderstood others” who have been oppressed by the West.
These themes are today so predominant in the West that few can believe they are almost entirely fabricated—but so they are, according to both history and current events, both of which are naturally suppressed or distorted by academia and media in the interest of keeping their ideologically-charged narrative alive.
6. In her book, Tenth Parallel, Eliza Griswold writes that religion becomes means of political emancipation, especially between the equator and the tenth parallel, where Christianity and Islam meet. So perhaps it is not about spirituality but power?
Raymond Ibrahim: Again, one need only turn to history, followed by doctrine, to see that mainstream Islam has always been about power. Its founder and prophet, Muhammad, was a warlord, who went on caravan raids and incited his followers to attack and plunder other tribes that rejected his “prophecy,” seizing their property and women and children—and all in the context of “God told me so.” After his death, his followers did the same, giving people three choices: be part of their “team” by converting, or else keep their religious beliefs, but pay tribute and live as third class subjects, or else die. In this context, and over the course of several centuries of jihadi conquest, the Islamic world was forged.
All this is well justified by the Koran and Islamic Sharia. Compare and contrast this with Christianity’s founder, Jesus Christ: far from a warlord, he preached mercy, peace, and spirituality. And that’s one of the problems: Westerners are so well acquainted with Christianity that they tend to project its approach to Islam—naively thinking that all religions must be the same, primarily spiritual, not concerned with the temporal. But Islam is immensely concerned with the temporal—with power.
7. You have written about conceptual failures dominating the Western discourse on Islam. What are the main fallacies and why are they dangerous?
Raymond Ibrahim: Along with the aforementioned fallacy of projecting Christian/Western worldviews onto a distinctly different religion/civilization like Islam, secular Westerners almost always try to understand Islam through secular and materialistic paradigms—the only paradigms they themselves are familiar with. Thus the mainstream interpretation in the West is that “radical Islam” is a byproduct of various sorts of material discontent (economic, political, social) and has little to do with the religion itself.
Westerners apparently think this way because the secular, Western experience has been such that people respond with violence primarily when they feel they are politically, economically, or socially oppressed. While true that many non-Western peoples fit into this paradigm, the fact is, the ideologies of Islam have the intrinsic capacity to prompt Muslims to violence and intolerance vis-à-vis the “other,” irrespective of grievances.
Conceptually, then, it must be first understood that many of the problematic ideologies associated with radical Islam trace directly back to Sharia, Islamic law. Jihad as offensive warfare to subjugate “infidels” (non-Muslims); mandated social discrimination against non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim nations (the regulations governing ahl al-dhimma); the obligation to hate non-Muslims—even if a Muslim is married to one—all of these are clearly defined aspects that have historically been part of Islam’s worldview and not “open to interpretation.”
For example, the obligation to wage expansionist jihad is as “open to interpretation” as the obligation to perform the Five Pillars of Islam, including praying and fasting. The same textual sources and methods of jurisprudence that have made it clear that prayer and fasting are obligatory, have also made it clear that jihad is also obligatory; the only difference is that, whereas prayer and fasting is an “individual” duty, jihad is understood to be a “communal” duty (a fard kifaya). All these intricacies must be understood before Westerners can understand Islam on its own terms.
8. One of the most popular views as to the reasons of Islamic terrorism is that it is based on political and economic grievances. The recipe to achieve the peaceful world would be then to remove the factors contributing to poverty or oppression and this way disarm the ‘relative deprivation’ bomb. Do you think it is feasible?
Raymond Ibrahim: Again, as mentioned, political and economic grievances may be a reality; yet it is a distinct fact that, wherever Islam is—including in immensely rich nations like the Gulf nations—violence and intolerance of non-Muslims exist. For example, Christian persecution around the world today is being committed at the hands of Muslims of all races, languages, cultures, and socio-political circumstances: Muslims from among America’s allies (Saudi Arabia) and its enemies (Iran); Muslims from economically rich nations (Qatar) and from poor nations (Somalia and Yemen); Muslims from “Islamic republic” nations (Afghanistan) and from “moderate” nations (Malaysia and Indonesia); Muslims from nations rescued by America (Kuwait) and Muslims claiming “grievances” against America. Moreover, much of the underdeveloped world is suffering from economic, political, and social problems—and yet it is the Islamic world where terrorism in the name of God (Allah) is rampant. One does not hear of, say, disenfranchised Cuban dissidents crashing explosive-laden vehicles into government buildings—while screaming Jesus is great. Yet sceams of Allah is great in the context of terror attacks are ubiquitous.
9. You have devoted one of your publications to the concept of taqiyya. Can you explain what taqiyya is and why is it important to know it in the West?
Raymond Ibrahim: Although Muslims are exhorted to be truthful, taqiyya is an Islamic doctrine that permits them to deceive non-Muslims, who by nature are deemed enemies. Some Western scholars and apologists for Islam insist that taqiyya is a very arcane teaching developed by Shi’a and to be used only when their lives are in danger. In reality, however, taqiyya—as well as its sister teaching, tawriya—is used by mainstream Islam (Sunnism) and gives Muslims great freedom to deceive infidels if the deception can be rationalized as a way to help empower Islam over non-Muslims.
Normative Islamic teaching is so that, almost anything can be rationalized as permissible—for example “martyrdom operations” (even though suicide is banned by Islam)—as long as they can be perceived as helping empower Islam. Islamic prophet Muhammad himself permitted deceit, including to one’s wife. One of the few Arabic language books devoted to the subject, At-Taqiyya fi’l-Islam (Dissimulation in Islam) makes it clear that taqiyya is hardly limited to Shi‘a dissimulating in fear of persecution. Written by Sami Mukaram, a former Islamic studies professor at the American University of Beirut and author of some twenty-five books on Islam, the opening sentences of the book clearly demonstrate the ubiquity and broad applicability of taqiyya: “Taqiyya is of fundamental importance in Islam. Practically every Islamic sect agrees to it and practices it … We can go so far as to say that the practice of taqiyya is mainstream in Islam, and that those few sects not practicing it diverge from the mainstream … Taqiyya is very prevalent in Islamic politics, especially in the modern era.”
10. Do you have any words of advice to countries like Poland where the influence of Islam is still relatively weak but increasing due to immigration and certain radicalization of indigenous Muslim groups (e.g. Polish Tatars stopped their traditional prayers for Poland which used to be their custom)?
Raymond Ibrahim: My advice is to take heed of what I call “Islam’s Rule of Numbers,” which is basically the unwavering, statistical fact that, the more Muslims grow in numbers (and thus strength), the more aggressive they become. In the U.S., for example, where Muslims are less than 1% of the population, acts of Islamic intolerance are relatively uncommon. Islamic assertiveness is limited to political activism dedicated to portraying Islam as a “religion of peace,” the painting of any and all critics as “Islamophobes,” and sporadic, but clandestine, acts of terror.
In some Western European nations, where Muslims make for much larger minorities—for example, the UK and France—open violence and religious intolerance is common. But because they are still a vulnerable minority, Islamic violence is always placed in the context of “grievances,” a word that, as we have seen, pacifies Westerners.
Where Muslim numbers reach 35-50% of a population, the full-blown jihad is often declared, as in Nigeria, which although is half Christian half Muslim is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. In short, Islamic aggressiveness is very much a product of Islamic strength in numbers. I discussed this at length here.
11. Inevitably one stumbles upon the ‘so what?’ question. Nobody persecutes Christians in France and churches are not burnt in Germany. It is doubtful that Europe will be washed away with the waves of Islam. To the contrary, it looks like Europe wants to leave religions behind. Would you not say so?
Raymond Ibrahim: Much of this view is based on selfishness, of the modern West’s egoistic and highly individualistic worldview. What such people are really saying is that, by and large, if nothing changes and people remain indifferent, they themselves and their generation will go through life fine without much worry from the Islamic question. But this position also shows absolute indifference to future generations and the world they will inherit. In short, yes, most Europeans today may not personally suffer from Islam. But they are opening the floodgates wide to the potential suffering of their descendants.
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