Politics & Policy

The Closing of the Conservative Mind, Part III

There are such things as traditional Muslims.

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a four-part series. The first can be read here and the second here.

My critics on the Right have also faulted me for proposing that conservatives ally with traditional Muslims in order to defeat the de facto alliance between the American Left and the Islamic radicals. Peter Berkowitz, for one, refuses to believe that there is such a thing. “The disputes between right and left in America are not over rival conceptions of the political good but rather over competing ideas of what policies best serve individual freedom and equality under law.” Therefore, “To claim that…the cultural left presents a threat to America as grave as that posed by radical Islam is seriously wrong and foolishly divisive.” What’s needed instead is “the rediscovery of our common ground.” Victor Davis Hanson is on the same page. “We find more in common with each other than with conservative Muslims in gender-segregated Saudi Arabia or religiously-intolerant Iran. Head-to-toe burqas and honor killings for most of us are more offensive than rap music or Brokeback Mountain.”

#ad#Notice how Hanson compares the excesses of the cultural Left with those of radical Islam, while the real issue is whether traditional Muslims all believe in gender segregation, burkas, honor killings, and religious intolerance. Does Hanson know that burkas are extremely rare in most Muslim countries? (In most places they use the short headscarf, and in some Muslim countries the heads of women are uncovered.) That even in Iran there are women who serve in parliament, own businesses, and drive cars? That honor killings are a tribal, not an Islamic, practice (they occur infrequently, if ever, in Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, they are more common in the Muslim and non-Muslim regions of Africa, they used to occur even in Italy a few decades ago, and even now they occur in the Balkans)? That there is strong empirical evidence that traditional Muslims believe in religious toleration?

We find a similar abyss of ignorance in the writings of Scott Johnson of Powerline. Johnson professes skepticism at my statement that polygamy is “quite rare in the Muslim world.” This by itself shows the extent of Johnson’s familiarity with life in Muslim countries. My statement is about as obvious as saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “quite rare in America.” Anyone who knows anything about America recognizes that the vast majority of Americans are not Jehovah’s Witnesses. Similarly, anyone with the slightest direct knowledge of the Muslim world can see that the vast majority of Muslims in every single Muslim country have one wife.

In an attempt to elude the obvious, Johnson goes into pseudo-scholarly mode. “Reliable data on the incidence of polygamy are not readily available.” In fact, my Google search produced a wealth of studies on polygamy in various Muslim countries. The scholarship on gender relations in the Muslim world is vast. But Johnson writes, “It is at least worth noting in this context…that Bin Laden is the issue of a polygamous marriage and is himself a polygamist. Bin Laden’s father took numerous wives who collectively bestowed some fifty children on him.” Why Johnson thinks these facts are so significant is beyond me. And even while reporting these facts Johnson misses their relevance. Bin Laden’s father, who is reported to have had 20 or more wives, was not following Islam (which permits no more than four) but rather the custom of tribal African chiefs who take as many wives as they want and can afford.

Societal Problems

Stanley Kurtz invokes polygamy as evidence that Islam is incompatible with the institutions of modernity. He cites an 1878 Supreme Court opinion which found that polygamy embodies a “patriarchal principle” that is illiberal and undemocratic. In Islam polygamy is voluntary: it requires the free consent of all parties. I agree that polygamy runs entirely counter to the Western tradition, but since in its Islamic form it involves consenting adults, I’m not sure why it’s inherently illiberal. Kurtz also says Muslims are more likely than any other people in the world to marry their close relatives. Even if this is true on the average, there are huge differences between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims, between Muslims in the Middle East and Muslims in Asia. (In India the practice of marrying close relatives is very infrequent and I note that the Muslim jurist Ghazzali is only one of the classical Muslim authorities to condemn it.)

In any case, what does this have to do with modernity. I’m not for polygamy and marrying your first cousin, but it seems to me too hasty to conclude that some of the world’s most common marriage practices (kin marriage is hardly unique to Islam, and even today polygamy is widespread in large parts of Africa) disqualifies whole peoples from the right and ability to participate in the institutions of modernity like capitalism and democracy. Is there any real evidence that a society that allows kin marriage or more than one wife cannot have a system of free speech, free markets, or free elections?

None of this is to deny that there are problems with Islamic societies. Kurtz is right to raise the issue, and I discuss those problems very candidly in The Enemy at Home. Even traditional Muslims are willing to condone state punishment for blasphemy. Traditional Muslims generally agree that one should be free to convert into Islam, but one should not be free to convert out. Traditional Muslims support far more state involvement in religion than even evangelical Christians in America would condone. My point is not that American conservatives and traditional Muslims are completely on the same page, but that, despite these differences, there are large areas of common ground. We should build on these, not because the traditional Muslims are “one of us,” but because they are in a position to help us defeat our deadliest enemies. This would not be the first time Americans have allied with groups not entirely to our liking in order to vanquish adversaries who posed a greater threat at the time. Remember World War II?

Courting the Left

Hanson and Berkowitz are pursuing a different strategy, namely, the failed strategy of the past five years. In this view, whatever their domestic differences, conservatives and liberals are basically on the same side, and the Muslims are on the other side. Conservatives should therefore appeal to liberals by exposing the illiberalism of Islam and especially of the radical Muslims. The expectation is that the liberals will somehow wake up and realize that bin Laden and Khomeini don’t really like Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank, and will join the conservatives in a unified American campaign to defeat the foreign foe. The only problem is that to date this right-wing strategy has failed to win over the liberals, who seem to have little interest in whatever “common ground” Peter Berkowitz has staked out.

To the contrary, as anyone can see, the Left is working overtime to defeat Bush in Iraq, and seems totally indifferent to the fact that Iraq may end up in the hands of the radical Muslims. Leading leftists seem to care more about running Bush and the conservatives out of Washington than they do about running the insurgents and Islamic radicals out of Baghdad. About this grim reality Berkowitz has nothing to say. Instead he maunders on about shared ideas of “individual freedom and equality under law” as if the war on terror were some Straussian parlor game.

At one point Berkowitz accuses me of holding that “the cultural left presents a threat to America as grave as that posed by radical Islam.” What? The Left is as dangerous to America as al Qaeda, the radical mullahs in Iran, the jihadist insurgents in Iraq, and the worldwide network of radical Islam? Nowhere do I say this, and I challenge Berkowitz to substantiate his allegation. My point is that the cultural Left, through its well-documented policies and its values projected abroad, is greatly strengthening the position of radical Islam. The two groups, I write, work in a kind of scissors motion, each prong operating separately, but moving toward the common end of defeating Bush’s war in Iraq. Yet Berkowitz accuses me of equating the danger posed by the Left and the Islamic radicals, as if I’m weighing one against the other.

Generally Radical Muslims

Robert Spencer cannot bear the idea of an alliance with traditional Muslims to defeat radical Muslims because he refuses to believe that there are such people as traditional Muslims. (At one point on a radio show Spencer challenged me to name a single traditional Muslim.) Spencer seems to agree with Khomeini and bin Laden that the radical Muslims are the real Muslims — the ones who are actually following what the Koran and the Islamic tradition say. Consequently for Spencer the only acceptable Muslims are the ones who have renounced Islam. Spencer and other conservatives have produced a whole corpus of books with titles like Sword of the Prophet, Islam Unveiled, and The Myth of Islamic Tolerance, books that appeal to readers who are understandably angry about 9/11 and who want to believe that, because we were attacked by radical Muslims, Muslims in general are to blame. The basic idea here is that Islam itself is the problem, that we are fighting in effect a religious war — or at least a war against a religion — and no quarter can be given until the enemy is completely destroyed.

But is Spencer’s interpretation correct? The strategy employed in these books is to focus on one set of quotations from the Koran advocating violence, while ignoring or dismissing another set of quotations advocating peace. Further, Spencer and others trace an unbroken line between Islamic invasions and conquest in the Middle Ages, and the terrorist upsurge of the past few decades. This is history for dummies, in which entire centuries are blithely skipped over, and Islamic empires are treated as uniquely irredentist and discriminatory, while in reality they operated no differently from the Roman empire or the empires of the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the British, seizing territory where they could and imposing their own laws and customs on the local inhabitants.

The Lewis Option

A real antidote to this one-sided right-wing polemic against Islam is to read the collected works of Bernard Lewis, who actually understands the Muslim world and speaks the local languages and whose work shows a judiciousness and balance that I don’t find in Spencer. Lewis even contends that, historically speaking, Islamic societies were more tolerant than Christian ones, putting up with Jews and other religious minorities to a degree that no Christian kingdom of the time did, and permitting divergent forms of Islam while European countries were going to war over fine points of theological doctrine.

Contrary to what many conservatives think, Islam is not the problem. Islam has been around for 1,300 years, and while it has certainly confronted the West in the past, the problem of Islamic radicalism and terrorism is new. Yes, Stanley Kurtz is right that Islam has historically produced violent sects like the Kharijites and the Assassins, but these were small groups whose impact was confined to small regions and small time spans within the vast orbit of Islam. In other words, they were hardly typical. Radical Islam in fact represents a drastic break with Islamic tradition. For example, Lewis points out that never before Khomeini have mullahs and clergymen ruled a Muslim state. So how can one reasonably blame the Koran or Muhammad for doctrines that have been advanced for the first time within the course of the past few decades?

Let’s also remember that there are a billion Muslims on the planet. The largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. The second largest is Bangladesh. There are almost as many Muslims in India as in the entire Middle East. These countries are all free and democratic, as is Turkey and now Iraq. So a majority of the world’s Muslims already live in free and self-governing countries, and yet conservatives like Kurtz and Spencer are engaged in theoretical speculations about whether Islam is compatible with the institutions of modernity like freedom and democracy. Granted Islamic democracy may be less individualistic than American democracy, as Kurtz frets. But his criticism would also apply to Japanese democracy and Indian democracy and even European democracy.

Here is Spencer’s mode of reasoning. “Even if most Muslims today do live under democracies, to assume that this means Islam is compatible with democracy is like saying that most Russians loved Stalin’s reign of terror, since they lived under his regime for so long.” But this is patently absurd. Stalin’s regime was a totalitarian one in which people were forced to do what he told them. The Muslims are living voluntarily in democratic countries, voting, running for elections, stepping down when they lose, and so on. Spencer’s animus against Islam is so deep that he seems blind to the fact that traditional Muslims embrace both the idea and the practice of democracy. It confounds his whole worldview, so he has to reject the idea and invent a totalitarian scenario in order to avoid having to change his mind in response to evidence.

As for the claim that the world’s Muslims endorse violence against those who are not Muslims, this is a purely made-up accusation that cannot be supported by any convincing evidence. I am not talking about finding radical clerics and passing off their ravings as representative of a thousand million Muslims. I am talking about real evidence that shows what the ordinary and typical Muslim actually believes. The World Values Survey and other studies have carefully examined the views of Muslims over many ears, and they provide a portrait dramatically at odds with that of the right-wing Islamophobes. What these surveys show is that support for democracy is as high in the Muslim world as it is in the United States. Recently the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies released the most extensive survey of Muslim opinion ever conducted, and it showed heavy support among traditional Muslims for freedom of speech, voting, and the right to practice one’s religion. It also revealed that what Muslims dislike most about America is what they perceive as its permissiveness and promiscuity. Just as the Indian fellow has been saying in his book.

<em>The Enemy at Home</em>, by Dinesh D’Souza



Dinesh D'Souza — Dinesh D’Souza is a writer, scholar, and public intellectual. He is the author of America: Imagine A World Without Her, in which he explores the landscape of a world in ...

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