Ibn Warraq is the pseudonym of someone evidently born and brought up a Muslim but who as an adult finds that rationality means more to him than Islam. The pseudonym is all that stands between him and a death sentence for his critical writings. “Why I Am Not a Muslim” is the giveaway title of one of his books, and “Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy” is the giveaway title of another. And now he comes out with yet another book, The Islam in Islamic Terrorism, and very magisterial it is too. “A propensity to violence is embedded in the core principles of Islam,” he writes, demonstrating how this propensity repeats down the centuries and across borders. Every time and everywhere the violence is a phenomenon of the faith, not a reaction to poverty or to some wickedness supposedly imposed by outsiders and unbelievers such as, for instance, Western colonialism. Terrorists, says President Trump, are “sick and demented,” while Mrs. May calls them “cowards.” Such opinions stem from Western ways of judging conduct, and are irrelevant in this context. Jihadis are committing mass-murder and self-sacrifice in the belief that Islam demands this of them. Ibn Warraq’s courage in saying so is as admirable as his learning.
At just the same time, by coincidence, Christopher de Bellaigue happens to have come out with a virtually opposite view in his new book The Islamic Enlightenment, also a giveaway title. With one foot in journalism and one foot in universities, he singles out an elite of Ottoman Turks, Persians, and Egyptians who in the past were Westernizing modernizers in one field or another. He makes out a heroic story of reform whose whole point is that Islam is open to opportunity and has no propensity to violence. It is rather bad luck that the book has been overtaken by events so cruelly.
Intellectually, we’ve been here before. Some used to tell the harsh truth about Communism, others were sentimental about it, finding an aspect to praise. The rival approaches to Islam are just the same, and the stakes are just as high.