The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), by Robert Spencer (Regnery, 233 pp., $19.95)
It is often said that in order to keep polite company polite, we must refrain from speaking of religion and politics. Yet, the two are not equals in the hierarchy of politesse. Political debate may be unwelcome in many settings, but no one clears the room by observing that the great totalitarian evils of the 20th century, Communism and fascism, were directly responsible for incalculable carnage.
Not so when it comes to religion–or, at least, one particular religion. The past three decades have borne witness to a rising, global tide of terrorist atrocities, wrought by Muslims who proclaim without apology–indeed, with animating pride–that their actions are compelled by Islam. Nonetheless, the quickest ticket to oblivion on PC’s pariah express is to suggest that the root cause of Islamic terrorism might be, well, Islam.
That the possibility is utterable at all today owes exclusively to the sheer audacity of Muslim legions, who have rioted globally, on cue, based on what even their exhausted defenders must now concede are trifles (newspaper cartoons and a tall tale of Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay leap to mind). But the largest obstacle to any examination of creed–larger even than a growing alphabet soup of Muslim interest groups–has been the same Western elites who are the prime targets of jihadist ire. In the most notable instance, President Bush absolved Islam of any culpability even as fires raged at the remains of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. And, although attacks before and after that date have been numerous and widespread, it has become nearly as much an oratorical staple as “My fellow Americans” for U.S. politicians to begin any discussion of our signal national security challenge with the observation that Islam is a “religion of peace”–a religion that has surely been perverted, “hijacked,” and otherwise misconstrued by terrorists.
No more, insists Robert Spencer, the intrepid author and analyst behind the Jihad Watch website. Spencer’s theory is as logical as it is controversial: when the single common thread that runs through virtually all of the international terrorism of the modern era is that its perpetrators are Muslims, and when the jihadists themselves tell us that their religion is the force that drives them, we should seriously consider the probability that Islam is a causative agent, even the principal causative agent, of their terrorist actions. This he undertakes to do in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)..
One might once have assumed it inarguable that an ideological battle cannot be fought with complete inattention to ideology. But that has been the case with the war on terror, and Spencer’s mission is to rectify that with a simple, user-friendly volume that walks the reader through elementary facts about Islam–its tenets, its scriptures, and its history, including most prominently the Koran and the life and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed. It is a tutorial shorn of wishful thinking.
While Spencer does not declare that anyone adhering to Islam is a terrorist waiting to happen, he clearly believes it is a perilous belief system. Make no mistake: This is a disturbing account. And most disturbing is that the truly arresting passages are not the author’s contentions and deductions. They are the actual words of Islamic scripture and the accounts of several revered events in Islamic tradition.
The story by which Islam achieves hegemony over much the world and the loyalty of millions of worshippers, very nearly extending its dominion throughout Europe, is a story of military conquest. Mohammed, deemed the final Messenger of Allah–superseding the prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a group in which Muslims include Jesus–was a warrior, in addition to wearing the hats of poet, philosopher, and economist, among others.
The Koran, Spencer argues, does not teach tolerance and peace. At best, he explains, there are isolated sections which urge Muslims to leave unbelievers alone in their errant ways, and which counsel that forced conversion is forbidden. But these must be considered in context with other verses, such as those directing that Mohammed “make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them,” and that the faithful “slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them,” and so on.
What are we to make of the seeming contradiction? Obviously, self-professed moderate Muslims point often to the benign passages, while terrorists echo the belligerent ones. Who is right? Spencer vigorously contends that the militants have the better of the argument. The Koran, which is not arranged chronologically but according to the length of its chapters (or “suras”), is theologically divided between Mohammed’s Meccan and Medinan periods. The former, from the early part of the Prophet’s ministry when he was calling inhabitants of Mecca to Islam, are the soothing, poetic verses. The latter, written in Medina after Mohammed was ousted from Mecca, are the more bellicose. The Medinan scriptures come later in time and, sensibly, overrule their predecessors.
This is bracing in at least two ways. First, even if there were a logical counterargument to this (and let us pray that someone comes up with a compelling one soon), it underscores the seeming impossibility of proving wrong those who commit atrocities in the name of Islam. When they claim justification in their religion for merciless attacks and other brutalities (such as beheadings), they are not imagining it out of thin air–it’s right there in black-and-white. The reformers may try gamely to minimize or reinterpret, but they cannot make the words go away.
Second, those words are taken to be the words of God Himself. The Koran is not like the books of the Old and New Testaments. It is not thought to be “inspired,” to be related through intermediaries whose assumed human gloss opens up possibilities of reinterpretation or correction. Muslims believe the Koran contains the unvarnished teachings of Allah, dictated directly to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel. This renders all the more challenging (to put it mildly) the burden of discrediting terrorist operatives who claim to be doing precisely what they have been divinely instructed to do–and doing it in the service of jihad, the “striving” which, Spencer explains, is a bedrock obligation of all Muslims.
Islam, Spencer elaborates, aims at nothing less than total domination–first, unrivalled supremacy in any territory that is (or was at any time) under its sway, and, ultimately, spreading throughout the world–whether by persuasion or by sheer force. The bleak choices presented to non-believers in the Muslim lands are to accept Islam (and its attendant social system, which is particularly oppressive of women); to live the grim life of dhimmitude by submitting to the authority of the Islamic state (permitted to practice other religions under tight regulations and only if the jizya, or poll-tax on non-Muslims, is paid); or to die. The bleak future for non-believers in the rest of the world is a state of war until they are subdued, as–beginning in the seventh century–were the Byzantine Empire, Persia and the Christian strongholds of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
Consistent with the “Politically Incorrect” model, Spencer spends much of his time deconstructing “PC Myths.” These involve not only the sugar-coated conventional wisdom about Muslim doctrine but also what he sees as the cognate project to revise Islamic history.
The “Golden Age” of Islam, for example, is, according to the author, a gross exaggeration. He does not deny that there were grand achievements under caliphates that ruled various places from the tenth through the fourteenth centuries, and Muslims themselves, he acknowledges, were responsible for important advances in mathematics and, to a lesser extent, medicine. Nonetheless, Spencer counters that many of the epoch’s achievements either occurred despite Islam (particularly in the areas of literature, art, and music) or are better understood as the accomplishments (especially in science and architecture) of better educated peoples whom Muslims conquered.
Islamic culture, for Spencer, thwarted great possibilities. Muslim philosophers were singularly responsible for preserving and explicating the work of Aristotle–but over time, these philosophers were read primarily in the West, because waves of anti-intellectualism and a conceit that rote study of the Koran was sufficient education overtook the Islamic world. Medical advance was stymied because of traditions that forbade or discouraged dissections and artistic representations of the human body. Spencer does credit Islam with causing the Renaissance and the discovery of the New World–but only indirectly. The conquest of Constantinople caused Europeans (like Columbus) to seek new trade routes to the East and hastened the flight of Greek intellectuals to Western Europe.
A final “Myth” Spencer endeavors to explode is the legacy of the Crusades. While not gainsaying Christian excesses and brutality, the story, he asserts, is far from one-sided. It is just that, consistent with today’s victimology leitmotif, only one side gets told anymore.
The comprehensive narrative, Spencer insists, stretches back for 450 years before the supposed eleventh century start of the Crusades–back to the conquest of Jerusalem in 638. “The sword spread Islam” and ultimately repressed the formerly predominant non-Muslim populations that are tiny minorities in what are now Islamic countries. The Crusades, Spencer relates, were largely defensive struggles to protect threatened Christians. He does not dispute that the political agenda of recapturing what had been eastern Christendom loomed large, but he does contend that the legends of forced conversions, insatiable looting, and mindless atrocities are largely overblown.
This is not a book for the faint of heart. Nonetheless, it is well done and extremely important. Much of current American policy hinges on the notions that there is a vibrant moderate Islam and that it must simply be possessed of the intellectual firepower necessary to put the lie to the militants. These are the premises behind the ambitious projects to democratize the Middle East, to establish a Palestinian state that will peacefully coexist with its Israeli neighbor, and to win the vast majority of the world’s billion-plus Muslims over to our side in the War on Terror.
They are, however, premises that are more the product of assumption than critical thought. In this highly accessible, well-researched, quick-paced read, Robert Spencer dares to bring that critical thought to the equation. The result is not a promising landscape, but it’s a landscape we must understand. You really can’t fight an ideological battle without grappling with the ideology.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.