I boxed a couple of brief rounds with Robert Spencer over at Pajamas Media last month. Robert is the author of a raft of books on the general theme that Islam is a bad religion — not merely bad in some current misinterpretation, but bad root and branch, its badness planted right there in the Islamic scriptures. Spencer himself is a devout Christian, and the Pajamas Media exchanges started when I posted a review of his latest book Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t.
#ad#I don’t really have anything more to say about Robert and his book. If he has more to say, no doubt he will say it on his website jihadwatch. He seemed like a pretty good egg in our behind-the-scenes e-mail exchanges, and our disagreements are cordial. Rather, I want to look at Islamophobia** in general, and ruminate on the odd fact that I don’t much like it.
It’s odd that I don’t like Islamophobia because I would answer a prompt yes to all the following questions.
‐ As religions go, and taking historical and geographical variations into account, has Islam been, on average, the most intolerant and obscurantist of the big world faiths?
‐ Whatever may have been the case in the past, and however things may develop in the future, is it true that Islam today is bringing forth an exceptionally large crop of homicidal fanatics willing to perform deeds of staggering cruelty, inhumanity, and stupidity in the name of their religion?
‐ Would it be wise of Western countries, in the present state of affairs, to “fence off” Islam — that is, to deny entry to foreign Muslims, to expel — regretfully, politely, and humanely, but firmly — resident foreign Muslims, and to restrict the activities of Muslim citizens (preventing them, for example, from proselytizing in our jails, or working in defense establishments)?
‐ Has Islamic civilization, wherever it has settled, been, by comparison with Western civilization, culturally very arid? (Thanks to Bill Buckley, in a private conversation on this topic, for the mot juste there.)
So what’s my beef with the Islamophobes? Reading through that list, don’t I myself deserve an honorary life membership in Islamophobes International? Why, when I read books like Robert Spencer’s, do I feel my irritation — my Islamophobophobia — rising?
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A part of it is my dislike of narrow-minded ideological boosterism, of which there is a lot in the Islamophobe business. Many of the noisiest Islamophobes are committed Christians of one kind or another, usually of the angry kind — the same people, I suspect, who e-mail in to tell me that I am a “nihilist” with no morals.
This isn’t the case with all Islamophobes. Bat Ye’or is Jewish; Ibn Warraq seems to be an agnostic; and a quick trawl of public opinion in India would, I am sure, turn up several million angry Hindu Islamophobes. (I don’t imagine Buddhists are too happy about what the Taliban did to those statues of theirs, either.)
So the irritating (to an outsider) boosterist factor — committed religious types determined to show that their own revelation is true! true! and good! good! while the other person’s is lies! lies! and bad! bad! — are only a part of the issue I have with Islamophobia…
(Though before leaving that topic, I’d like to record a whiff of something defensive I think I detect in Western Islamophobes. There is, I think, a vague fear that the antics of the jihadists may be discrediting all religion. In a Western world that is, many religious people feel, yielding to creeping secularization, religion is on the defensive. The jihadis are religious, and they’re nuts: one more data point for the people who want to tell you that all religions are nuts. There’s much more to be said about that, but it’s a digression here.)
It is none the less true that Islam, whatever its failings, is an ancient and respectable religion that comforts and sustains hundreds of millions of souls, and has provided one of the organizing principles for numerous substantial civilizations. Possibly those civilizations weren’t to your taste. They probably wouldn’t have been to mine, either. If you have ever thought seriously and imaginatively about what life is like in a state of barbarism, though, you will acknowledge that even not-to-your-taste civilizations are a vast improvement on the other thing.
It is likewise true, even on the worst figures (which can be found in Mark Steyn’s book, on page 76 for example), that the great majority of present-day Muslims don’t approve of terrorism, and would like to live lives of peace, prosperity, and security.
As to my third bullet point — I’m working through them — it is surely clear now that our troubles with immigrant Muslims are a mere aspect of our larger troubles with the great floods of Third World immigrants we have allowed to come into our countries this past forty years. This was a horrible and insane blunder, as wise men pointed out very early in the process. “Diversity” is a bust. The Diversity Theorem…
The Diversity Theorem: Groups of people from anywhere in the world, mixed together in any numbers and proportions whatsoever, will eventually settle down as a harmonious society, appreciating — nay, celebrating! — their differences… which will of course soon disappear entirely.
…is quite plainly false. At this point in world history, you have to be an idiot to believe it. I leave for discussion another time the melancholy fact that huge swathes of the American ruling class do believe it, or pretend to.
Would I exclude foreign Muslims from settlement in the U.S.A.? Yes, I would; but this is not actually saying much, as I would stop all mass immigration if I could. Islam needs particular attention because of the sheer quantity of lunacy it has thrown up in the present generation; but it is not the only counterexample to the Diversity Theorem, only the most pressing one.
As to the cultural aridity of Islamic civilizations: well, yes. This is not an exceptionalism belonging to Islam, though. The exceptionalism belongs to us, to the West. We are dynamic and creative; we are fired by curiosity to inquire into the natural order; we are driven by imagination to set off and explore remote places; our culture progresses through developmental stages, each building on the last: Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical… Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment… Romanesque, Gothic, Perpendicular… Classical, Romantic, Modern… City-state, empire, feudalism, monarchy, constitutionalism…
We are the exception: civilization-wise, stasis and aridity are the rule, not just in Islam, but everywhere. Halfway through his monumental History of China (1882), Demetrius Boulger broke off from the long catalog of border wars and palace plots to offer this illuminating apology to his readers:
It might be more instructive to trace the growth of thought among the masses, or to indicate the progress of civil and political freedom; yet not only do the materials not exist for such a task, but those we possess all tend to show that there has been no growth to describe, no progress to be indicated during these comparatively recent centuries. It is the peculiar and distinguishing characteristic of Chinese history that the people and their institutions have remained practically unchanged … from a very early period. Even the introduction of a foreign element has not tended to disturb the established order of things. The supreme ruler preserves the same attributes and discharges the same functions; the governing classes are chosen in the same manner; the people are bound in the same state of servitude, and enjoy the same practical liberty; all is now as it was. Neither under the Tangs nor the Sungs, undeer the Yuans or the Mings [i.e. from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries — these are the names of Chinese dynasties] was there any change in national character or in political institutions to be noted or chronicled. … This condition of things may be disappointing to those who pride themselves in tracing the origin of constitutions and the growth of civil rights, and who would have a history of China the history of the Chinese people … the fact is undoubted that there is no history of the Chinese people, apart from that of their country, to be recorded. The national institutions and character were formed, and had attained in all essentials to their present state, more than 2,000 years ago.
Boulger was wrong, too: far from being the “peculiar and distinguishing characteristic of Chinese history,” this stasis, this aridity, can be seen in all civilizations, except our own. It is the normal state of affairs. The ancient Egyptians and Persians, the Maurya and Gupta dynasties of India; the Japanese; the Mesoamerican civilizations, the old Mesopotamian empires — there was not a lick of progress in any of them across their entire existences, compared with what happened in any hundred years of European civilization. (Tennyson’s soldier didn’t even ask for a hundred: “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”)
Where there is no civilization, the stasis is even more pronounced. Artifact styles from preliterate cultures often show no significant change across millennia. You want stasis and aridity? You want reactionary obscurantism and absence of curiosity, of imagination? The world’s been full of it, everywhere… except in that one boggy corner of northwest Eurasia, among the fidgety descendants of that hunting band who crossed the Bosphorus into the Balkans two thousand generations ago.
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I’m therefore inclined to cut Islam some slack. It’s a religion, bringing the consolations of faith to multitudes. Most of its believers are decent people, who pay no attention to the fiercer verses of scripture.
(I think intellectuals always overestimate the interest ordinary people have in texts, including religious texts. How many non-intellectual Christians could name the books of the Bible — or even just of the New Testament — in order? I never could. Similarly with doctrine, which most believers shrug off if it proves seriously inconvenient to them. All through the middle and later 20th century the Roman Catholic authorities were preaching against the sin of artificial contraception. As they did so, actual Catholics were taking to artificial contraception in droves, while continuing to attend Mass with their consciences very little disturbed.)
I’ll even admit to seeing some appeal in Islam. I think this came through in my review of Robert Spencer’s book.
An ordinary human being, or at least, an ordinary human male, ought to want some militancy in his religion. I noted in my review that if Robert’s subtitle is a true statement — i.e. that Christianity is a religion of peace, while Islam isn’t — then the result of a real clash between the two faiths would be a foregone conclusion! Surely it is plain from history that if Christianity had no militant component — no inbuilt justifications for homicide — it would not have made it through the Middle Ages.
There is both a male and a female principle in any religion, but usually one or other principle is to some degree more prominent. Judaism is, in (I think) obvious ways, a more “masculine” religion than Christianity or Buddhism; the Old Testament more “masculine” than the New; and within Christianity, Protestantism is more “masculine” than Catholicism. Islam strikes an outside observer as the most “masculine” of all the big faiths.
I have recently been reading Paul Scott’s series of novels about the last years of British India. It’s hard not to notice that the British rulers of India, especially the military men, rather favored Muslims over Hindus. You get the same impression from Kipling’s stories, and from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books. There was a perception that Hinduism was a bit snivelly, pacifistic, commercial, and lower-middle-class.
This is very unfair to Hinduism, whose most sacred text, after all, is a battlefield conversation, and whose military castes could, at the height of their vigor, have given any samurai or ghazi a run for his money. (And that’s not even to mention the fightingest Hindus of all.)
The perception was plainly there, though. It was much fortified in later years by Gandhi, with his doctrine of non-violence, his spindly frame, his fussiness about diet and sex, his high-pitched voice and his clerkish glasses. (Gandhi’s War Medal — for organizing a battlefield ambulance corps in the Boer War — was conveniently forgotten.) Hindus were wimpy; Islam was a fighting faith, a manly faith.
I think what worked against Hinduism here was the caste system. Sure, there were fighting Hindus, but they were a caste, a well-defined fragment of the population. The other castes prayed, ruled, made money, or cleaned out the head, but they weren’t expected to bother much about fighting.
In Islam, by contrast, every man, however he makes his living, is a soldier of the faith. This resonated with British military men. To this day, if you show up at a recruiting station to join the British army, the NCO will tell you: “Yes, you may get trained for something useful. You may become a cook, a driver, an engineer. There are great opportunities. But first we’ll make a soldier out of you.” In an Anglo-Saxon army, everyone — from the guy in the landing-craft to the rearmost of the REMFs — is a fighting man, who knows how to use a weapon and keep it clean. Islam’s a lot like that. I think that was the appeal to India’s British rulers.
A fighting faith is of course a proud faith, and nothing pumps poison into the bloodstream like pride brought low. Inside every Muslim today there is a voice whispering: “Our faith is so pure and true, our civilizations lasted so long and ruled so many, our God was so potent: yet here we are in the modern world, backward and poor except where accidents of nature have blessed us, our rulers corrupt, our culture mocked or ignored, our people squabbling among themselves, or fleeing the homelands to work as taxi drivers and menials in the great glittering cities of the infidels, those homelands themselves part-stolen by the wretched Jews. It’s all wrong, wrong, wrong! Grrrrr!!!”
That’s the Islam we’re up against. I don’t myself believe we can do much to reform it. Muslims have to do that for themselves. Any helping hand we reach out will be spat upon. While they sort out their problems, though, I do think we should keep Islam at arm’s length, for our own safety. Keep ’em out; fence ’em off; send Muslim visitors home; keep a wary eye on Muslim citizens. Leave them the consolations of their faith, though; stop trying to convince me that there is no good at all in that faith; and, if you’re the praying type, pray that the good will prevail at last.
**Note on the word “Islamophobia”: Roger Kimball tells me this is the wrong word. A phobia (says Roger) is an irrational fear of something. Fear of Islam is perfectly rational! I leave you to discuss this among yourselves.