Islam Op-Ed Polemical Rebuttals

The Myth of The Myth of Mod­er­ate Islam”

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Patrick Sookhdeo’s arti­cle (July 30, 2005) in Lon­don’s The Spec­ta­tor, The Myth of a Mod­er­ate Islam” reflects a dan­ger­ous trend in the war on ter­ror. Under the guise of inform­ing West­ern­ers about Islam, he is in fact spread­ing the very same dis­in­for­ma­tion that anti-Islam­ic polemics have been based upon for over 1,000 years. This plays direct­ly into the hands of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi and oth­ers, for it encour­ages the clash of civ­i­liza­tions” they so appalling­ly desire. It is indeed of the utmost impor­tance that we learn more about Islam and fight the scourge of extrem­ism with all the tools pos­si­ble. But Sookhdeo and those like him cor­rupt this process, seek­ing to advance their own agen­da by turn­ing the war on ter­ror into an ide­o­log­i­cal war against Islam.

Mus­lim Violence

Sookhdeo’s bias is evi­dent from the out­set. He argues that ter­ror­ists tru­ly rep­re­sent Islam, writ­ing : If they say they do it in the name of Islam, we must believe them. Is it not the height of illib­er­al­ism and arro­gance to deny them the right to define them­selves?” The remain­der of the essay, how­ev­er, is an exten­sive effort to deny oth­er Mus­lims the right to define them­selves by reject­ing extrem­ist inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam. In fact, less than 5% of Mus­lims could be clas­si­fied as fun­da­men­tal­ist in out­look, and of that 5%, less than 0.01% have shown any ten­den­cy toward enact­ing ter­ror­ism or reli­gious vio­lence”. It is thus the height of illib­er­al­ism” to define as ter­ror­ists over 1.3 bil­lion Mus­lims who have noth­ing to do with reli­gious vio­lence” because of the mis­deeds of a fringe minor­i­ty of 0.005%. At most, one in every 200,000 Mus­lims can be accused of ter­ror­ism. That is to say there are a max­i­mum of about 65,000 ter­ror­ists world­wide — rough­ly the same fig­ure as the num­ber of mur­der­ers on the loose in the U.S. alone, with over 20,000 homi­cides a year and a pop­u­la­tion of only 300 million.

Sookhdeo claims that Mus­lims must with hon­esty rec­og­nize the vio­lence that has exist­ed in their his­to­ry.” How­ev­er, giv­en that the major­i­ty of books that record the trans­gres­sions of Mus­lims have been writ­ten by Mus­lims, it is dif­fi­cult to argue that Mus­lims have cho­sen en masse to ignore the atroc­i­ties of their past. Of course, there are Mus­lims who deny many parts of this past, just as there are British peo­ple who still deny the atroc­i­ties of colo­nial­ism ; Amer­i­cans who deny the mas­sacre of the Native Amer­i­cans ; and Ger­mans who deny the Holo­caust of 6 mil­lion Jews. But the fact remains that Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion has giv­en rise to many more atroc­i­ties than has Islam­ic civ­i­liza­tion, even rel­a­tive to its greater pop­u­la­tion and longer age.

Chris­t­ian Violence

Nowhere in Islam­ic his­to­ry can one find a doc­trine sim­i­lar to Saint Augustine’s cog­nite intrare (“lead them in” — i.e. force them to con­vert”). In fact the Qur’an says the exact oppo­site : There is no com­pul­sion in reli­gion” (2:256). Augustine’s fright­en­ing idea that all must be com­pelled to con­form” to the true Chris­t­ian faith” has unleashed cen­turies of unpar­al­leled bloodshed.

Indeed, Chris­tians have suf­fered more under the rule of Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion than under pre-Chris­t­ian Roman rule or any oth­er rule in his­to­ry. Mil­lions were tor­tured and slaugh­tered in the name of Chris­tian­i­ty dur­ing the peri­ods of the Ari­an, Donatist and Albi­gen­sian here­sies, to say noth­ing of the var­i­ous Inqui­si­tions, or the Cru­sades, when the Euro­pean armies were say­ing, as they slaugh­tered both Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim Arabs : Kill them all, God will know his own.” Need­less to say, these trans­gres­sions — and indeed all the trans­gres­sions of Chris­tians through­out the ages — have absolute­ly noth­ing to do with Jesus Christ and or even the New Tes­ta­ment as such. Indeed, no Mus­lim by def­i­n­i­tion would ever or will ever blame this on Jesus Christ (the Word made Flesh, for Chris­tians and Mus­lims). So how is it that Sookhdeo blames Mus­lim trans­gres­sions (even though far less than Chris­t­ian” ones) on the Qur’an (the Word made Book, for Muslims)?

By no means was such indis­crim­i­nate vio­lence lim­it­ed to Europe’s Dark Ages” or to one peri­od of Chris­t­ian his­to­ry. The Ref­or­ma­tion and Counter Ref­or­ma­tion took inter- Chris­t­ian slaugh­ter to new extremes ; two thirds of the Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tion of Europe being slaugh­tered dur­ing this time. Then there were (among many oth­ers wars, pogroms, rev­o­lu­tions and geno­cides) the Napoleon­ic Wars (17921815); the African slave trade that claimed the lives of 10 mil­lion ; and the Colo­nial Con­quests. Esti­mates for the num­ber of Native Amer­i­cans slaugh­tered by the Euro­peans in North, Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca run as high as 20 mil­lion with­in three gen­er­a­tions. Despite the rav­ages of Europe’s vio­lent past, in the 20th cen­tu­ry, West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion took war­fare to new extremes. A con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate puts the total num­ber of bru­tal deaths in the 20 th cen­tu­ry at more than 250 mil­lion. Of these, Mus­lims are respon­si­ble for less than 10 mil­lion deaths. Chris­tians, or those com­ing from Chris­t­ian back­grounds account for more than 200 mil­lion of these ! The great­est death totals come from World War I (about 20 mil­lion, at least 90% of which were inflict­ed by Chris­tians”) and World War II (90 mil­lion, at least 50% of which were inflict­ed by Chris­tians,” the major­i­ty of the rest occur­ring in the Far East). Giv­en this grim his­to­ry, it appears that we Euro­peans must all come to grips with the fact that Islam­ic civ­i­liza­tion has actu­al­ly been incom­pa­ra­bly less bru­tal than Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion. Did the Holo­caust of over 6 mil­lion Jews occur out of the back­ground of a Mus­lim Civilization ?

In the 20th cen­tu­ry alone, West­ern and/​or Chris­t­ian pow­ers have been respon­si­ble for at least twen­ty times more deaths than have Mus­lim pow­ers. In this most bru­tal of cen­turies, we cre­at­ed incom­pa­ra­bly more civil­ian casu­al­ties than have Mus­lims in the whole of Islam­ic his­to­ry. This con­tin­ues even in our day — wit­ness the slaugh­ter of 900,000 Rwan­dans in 1994 in a pop­u­la­tion that was over 90% Chris­t­ian ; or the geno­cide of over 300,000 Mus­lims and sys­tem­at­ic rape of over 100,000 Mus­lim women by Chris­t­ian Serbs in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. The hor­ri­ble truth is that, numer­i­cal­ly and sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, Chris­t­ian Civ­i­liza­tion is the blood­i­est and most vio­lent of all civ­i­liza­tions in all of his­to­ry, and is respon­si­ble for hun­dreds of mil­lions of deaths. The pro­duc­tion and use of nuclear weapons alone should be enough to make the West stand in shame before the rest of the world. Amer­i­ca cre­at­ed nuclear weapons. Amer­i­ca is the only coun­try ever to have used nuclear weapons, and West­ern coun­tries strive to main­tain a monop­oly over them. As the record stands, we have no moral grounds for object­ing to the acqui­si­tion of such weapons until we prove will­ing to for­feit them entirely.

It should also be men­tioned that although Islam has the con­cept of legit­i­mate war in self-defense (as does Chris­tian­i­ty, and even Bud­dhism), nowhere in Islam­ic cul­ture (or in oth­er cul­tures that sur­vive today) is there latent the ide­al­iza­tion, and per­haps idol­iza­tion, of vio­lence that exists in West­ern Cul­ture. West­ern­ers think of them­selves as peace­ful, but in fact the gen­tle­ness and sub­lim­i­ty of the New Tes­ta­ment, and the peace-lov­ing nature of the prin­ci­ples of democ­ra­cy, are scarce­ly reflect­ed in West­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture. Rather, the entire incli­na­tion of pop­u­lar cul­ture — Hol­ly­wood movies, West­ern tele­vi­sion, video games, pop­u­lar music and sports enter­tain­ment — is to glo­ri­fy and incul­cate vio­lence. Accord­ing­ly, the rel­a­tive rates of mur­der (espe­cial­ly ran­dom and ser­i­al mur­der) are high­er in the West­ern World (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the U.S., but even in Europe, tak­en as a whole) than they are in the Islam­ic world in coun­ties that are not suf­fer­ing civ­il wars, and this is true despite the much greater wealth of the West. So has Sookhdeo ever read the fol­low­ing words?:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judge­ment ye judge, ye shall be judged : and with what mea­sure ye mete, it shall be mea­sured to you again. And why behold­est thou the mote in thy brother’s eye, but con­sid­er­est not the beam that is in thine own eye ? Or how wilt thou say to thy broth­er, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye ; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye ? Thou hyp­ocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye ; and then shalt thou see clear­ly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1 – 5)

The Qur’an and the Use of Force

Like most anti-Islam­ic polemics, the rest of Sookhdeo’s arti­cle is a mix of fact and fic­tion. For exam­ple, he argues that many of the Qur’anic vers­es that advo­cate peace were abro­gat­ed by lat­er vers­es. It is true that many Mus­lim schol­ars claim lat­er vers­es abro­gate ear­li­er vers­es, but the extent of abro­ga­tion is great­ly debat­ed. Some schol­ars say that only five vers­es have ever been abro­gat­ed. Some say that over 150 have been abro­gat­ed. Sookhdeo’s claim that wher­ev­er con­tra­dic­tions are found, the lat­er-dat­ed text abro­gates the ear­li­er one” is thus a gross sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. To claim that all of the peace­ful vers­es are ear­li­er rev­e­la­tions that have been abro­gat­ed by lat­er mil­i­tant vers­es is sim­ply false. For exam­ple, vers­es revealed in the last two years of Muhammad’s mis­sion enjoin Mus­lims to not seek vengeance against those who had dri­ven them from their homes :

Let not the hatred of the peo­ple — because they hin­dered you from the Sacred Mosque — incite you to trans­gress. Help one anoth­er in good­ness and rev­er­ence, and do not help one anoth­er in sin and aggression”(Qur’an 5:2).

O ye who believe, be upright for God wit­ness­es injus­tice ; and let not hatred of a peo­ple cause you to be unjust. Be just — that is clos­er to piety” (Qur’an 5:8).

One can hard­ly imag­ine a more emphat­ic mes­sage of jus­tice, for­give­ness and reconciliation.

More­over, many high­ly qual­i­fied Mus­lim schol­ars have cit­ed the ear­li­er vers­es advo­cat­ing peace to dis­suade young Mus­lims from answer­ing the call of the extrem­ists. Would Sookhdeo pre­fer that these young Mus­lims lis­ten to those who explain these vers­es away by apply­ing his trun­cat­ed ver­sion of abrogation ?

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly enough, like extrem­ist inter­preters of Islam, Sookhdeo mis­rep­re­sents Qur’anic vers­es by cit­ing them out of con­text. He claims that Qu’ranic vers­es 8:59 – 60 con­done ter­ror­ism. Verse 8:60 does indeed con­done fight­ing one’s ene­mies, but it is fol­lowed by verse 8:61 : And if they incline unto peace then incline unto it” — anoth­er lat­er rev­e­la­tion. In this con­text, verse 8:60 is advo­cat­ing that one not take the course of pas­sivism when threat­ened by an ene­my, but 8:61 then lim­its the appli­ca­tion. This hard­ly con­sti­tutes ter­ror­ism. Per­haps if Sookhdeo knew Ara­bic prop­er­ly, he would have the capac­i­ty to read the Qur’an more clear­ly. But he does not. This makes it dif­fi­cult to accept him as an author­i­ty on Islam­ic teach­ings, what­ev­er may be his post or title.

Sookhdeo goes on to claim that one can pick between Qur’anic vers­es that sup­port vio­lence and those that sup­port peace. This is true, but one would be hard pressed to demon­strate that the Qur’an con­dones vio­lence more than the Old Tes­ta­ment (say, for exam­ple, the Book of Leviti­cus or the Book of Joshua). And if we say that the Qur’an con­dones vio­lence, what are we to think of the pas­sages of the Bible that direct­ly com­mand slaugh­ter and geno­cide ? In Num­bers 31:17 Moses says (of the Mid­i­an­ite cap­tives, whose men­folk the Israelites have already slaugh­tered): Now there­fore kill every male among the lit­tle ones, and every woman who has known a man inti­mate­ly.” I Samuel 15:1 – 9 tells the sto­ry of the Prophet Samuel com­mand­ing King Saul to erad­i­cate the Amalekites as fol­lows : Slay both men and women, infant and suck­ling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Such extremes were for­bid­den by the Prophet Muham­mad who ordered his com­mu­ni­ty : Fight in the way of God against those who dis­be­lieve in God ! Do not act bru­tal­ly ! Do not exceed the prop­er bounds ! Do not muti­late ! Do not kill chil­dren and her­mits ! And like­wise, Attack in the Name of God, but do not revert to treach­ery ; do not kill a child ; nei­ther kill a woman ; do not wish to con­front the enemy.”

To claim that the war­fare advo­cat­ed in some Qur’anic vers­es is a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for wan­ton acts of vio­lence fails to acknowl­edge that clas­si­cal inter­pre­ta­tions have always lim­it­ed the scope of such vers­es. For exam­ple, a verse that is often mis­in­ter­pret­ed in the mod­ern era is 2:191 – 92 :

Slay the poly­the­ists wher­ev­er you find them, and cap­ture them and block­ade them, and watch for them at every look­out. But if they repent and estab­lish the prayer and give alms, then let them go their way.

On the one hand, extrem­ists employ this verse to sanc­tion shed­ding inno­cent blood. On the oth­er hand, it is employed by non-Mus­lim polemi­cists to por­tray the Qur’an as a bel­li­cose dec­la­ra­tion of per­pet­u­al war­fare. But accord­ing to the clas­si­cal Islam­ic tra­di­tion, this verse can­not be tak­en as a carte blanche to fight non-Mus­lims. It can only be applied to the spe­cif­ic poly­the­ists who opposed the ear­ly Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty and threat­ened the very sur­vival of Islam. As one author­i­ta­tive jurispru­dent Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-‘Arabi of the 11th — 12th cen­tu­ry CE writes :

This verse is gen­er­al regard­ing the poly­the­ists, but is restrict­ed by the Prophet’s pro­hi­bi­tion of the killing of women, chil­dren, reli­gious adher­ents, and non-com­bat­ants. But under­stood also are those who do not fight you nor are prepar­ing to fight you or harm you. The verse actu­al­ly means, Slay the poly­the­ists who are attempt­ing to slay you.”

Such inter­pre­ta­tions could be cit­ed ad infini­tum. They clear­ly demon­strate that Sookhdeo’s equa­tion of rad­i­cal Mus­lims” with medieval jurists” who claim that Islam is war” is not only unfound­ed, but an utter dis­tor­tion. Either Sookhdeo is not qual­i­fied to ana­lyze the clas­si­cal Islam­ic tra­di­tion and com­pare it to mod­ern devi­a­tions, or he is inten­tion­al­ly dis­tort­ing Islam­ic teach­ings. Either way, he proves him­self to be com­plete­ly unreliable.

Dubi­ous Scholarship

Sookhdeo’s dubi­ous schol­ar­ship is on dis­play through­out this arti­cle, par­tic­u­lar­ly when he uses the hack­neyed dis­tinc­tion between Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the abode of war) to argue that Mus­lims accept noth­ing but war or tri­umph. These are impor­tant clas­si­cal terms, but Mus­lim schol­ars also wrote of many oth­er abodes between them. Some clas­si­fi­ca­tions include three abodes, some five, and some sev­en. In the mod­ern era, Europe and Amer­i­ca have been regard­ed by the vast major­i­ty of Mus­lim schol­ars as the Dar al-Sulh, or the abode of treaty.” This means that a Mus­lim can engage with this world on many lev­els and should abide by the laws of the land if he or she choos­es to live there or to vis­it. Using this dis­tinc­tion, Mus­lim schol­ars have even declared that Mus­lims can serve in the U.S. Army, even when com­bat­ing oth­er Mus­lim coun­tries. Only those who seek con­flict con­tin­ue to mis­in­form the pub­lic by lim­it­ing the world to Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb.

Islam­ic Scholarship

Sookhdeo’s mis­com­pre­hen­sion is also revealed when he dis­cuss­es the recent con­fer­ence of Islam­ic schol­ars in Jor­dan, which issued a final dec­la­ra­tion that opposed the prac­tice of call­ing oth­er Mus­lims non-believ­ers and clar­i­fied the qual­i­fi­ca­tions for issu­ing fat­was. He argues that this has negat­ed a very help­ful fat­wa which had been issued in March by the Span­ish Islam­ic schol­ars declar­ing Osama bin Laden an apos­tate.” How­ev­er, a war of words where­in Mus­lims begin call­ing oth­er Mus­lims unbe­liev­ers is pre­cise­ly what Al-Qai­da and oth­er extrem­ists desire. This way they can brand as apos­tate and kill every­one who dis­agrees with them. Let us not for­get how two days before 911, Al-Qai­da assas­si­nat­ed Ahmed Shah Mas­soud. This was no mere coin­ci­dence ; it was a strate­gic imper­a­tive. By remov­ing the most charis­mat­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tive of tra­di­tion­al Islam in Afghanistan, Al-Qai­da removed the great­est obsta­cle to their dis­tor­tions of Islam, a cred­i­ble leader who would expose the spu­ri­ous nature of their claim to rep­re­sent Islam.

In order to avoid peo­ple being killed over even pet­ty faults or sins, clas­si­cal Islam­ic law does not allow one to ex-com­mu­ni­cate” anoth­er Mus­lim for sin­ning nor to declare him or her to be a non-believ­er. By reaf­firm­ing this and remov­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of tak­fir (call­ing some­one an apos­tate) in our age, King Abdul­lah’s con­fer­ence has made the world a safer place. This is true not just for tra­di­tion­al, mod­er­ate” Mus­lims — the only ones in fact who can effec­tive­ly iso­late the extrem­ists and thus pro­tect non-Mus­lims — but also for oth­ers, such as Jews and Chris­tians whom the Qur’an (and the great­est clas­si­cal schol­ars of Islam, such as the famous al-Ghaz­a­li) regards as fel­low believ­ers.” Sookhdeo desires to keep this door” open so that Mus­lims he does not like can be ex-com­mu­ni­cat­ed.” He wants to keep this sword” — in effect — unsheathed, com­plete­ly for­get­ting that all they that take the sword shall per­ish with the sword (Matthew 26:52).

Sookhdeo fur­ther dis­plays a com­plete lack of under­stand­ing of Islam­ic law when he asks : Could not the King recon­vene his con­fer­ence and ask them to issue a fat­wa ban­ning vio­lence against non-Mus­lims also?” In fact this is exact­ly what did hap­pen by the schol­ars declar­ing that the fat­was issued in sup­port of wan­ton vio­lence are ille­git­i­mate. For every­one who com­mits an act of ter­ror­ism in the name of Islam attempts to first jus­ti­fy that act through the issuance — and mis­use — of a fat­wa, and no one com­mits ter­ror­ist acts with­out being con­vinced that ter­ror­ism is justified.

The con­fer­ence reaf­firmed that all fat­was must nec­es­sar­i­ly be bound by a triple sys­tem of inter­nal checks and bal­ances”: all those issu­ing fat­was must have cer­tain, strin­gent per­son­al and edu­ca­tion­al cre­den­tials ; they must all fol­low the method­ol­o­gy of the eight Mad­hahib or tra­dion­al schools of Islam­ic jurispru­dence ; and no fat­wa may go out­side the bounds of what the tra­di­tion­al Mad­hahib allow — pre­cise­ly what the extrem­ist fat­wa s attempt to do. The con­fer­ence assem­bled over 180 major schol­ars from 45 coun­tries, and gar­nered 17 major fat­was from the great­est Islam­ic Author­i­ties in the world (includ­ing the Sheikh Al-Azhar, Aya­tol­lah Sis­tani, and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qar­dawi) to declare this. The con­fer­ence thus not only de-legit­imized the extrem­ists de jure, but, to quote Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek (July 18,2005), con­sti­tut­ed a frontal attack on Al-Qaida’s the­o­log­i­cal meth­ods.” This is sure­ly a vital tool in the war against extrem­ism, and so the King and his con­fer­ence are very much to be commended.

Erad­i­cat­ing Extremism

Iso­lat­ing and erad­i­cat­ing extrem­ists does not, how­ev­er, appear to be Sookhdeo’s agen­da. Rather he wish­es to mis­rep­re­sent the Qur’an, his­to­ry, and con­tem­po­rary Mus­lims in order to sub­stan­ti­ate his own claim that ter­ror­ism and extrem­ism are inher­ent to Islam. Fol­low­ing this approach is exact­ly how we will lose the war on ter­ror­ism. The true war is the war of ideas.

The lynch-pin in the argu­ments of Bin Laden, Zar­qawi and oth­ers is that they think they rep­re­sent Islam. Tra­di­tion­al Mus­lim schol­ars from around the world have con­firmed that such deviant ide­olo­gies and actions vio­late the very prin­ci­ples of Islam. By work­ing with such schol­ars we can help them to con­sol­i­date the tra­di­tion­al mid­dle ground of Islam and fur­ther expose the extrem­ists for being just that. This is the most effi­cient, most peace­ful and most effec­tive weapon in the war against extrem­ist inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam. If we do not use it, we will have sur­ren­dered the high­er ground in the war of ideas. By respond­ing with extrem­ism of anoth­er kind, Sookhdeo and those like him allow the extrem­ists to deter­mine the gen­er­al inter-reli­gious ambiance and thus the course of events. Rather than pro­vid­ing a real­is­tic pre­sen­ta­tion of the chal­lenges we face and their pos­si­ble peace­ful solu­tions, they take advan­tage of the sit­u­a­tion to advance their own hid­den polem­i­cal agen­da and prej­u­dices. In doing so they work not only against Mus­lims and Islam, but against the whole of human­i­ty, Chris­tians includ­ed (or per­haps espe­cial­ly). Onward Chris­t­ian sol­diers, Rev­erend Sookhdeo ? The Myth of "The Myth of Moderate Islam" 27

Vin­cen­zo Oliveti is the author of Terror’s Source : The Ide­ol­o­gy of Wahabi-Salafism and its Con­se­quences. This arti­cle first appeared in ISLAMICA Mag­a­zine.


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  1. Nice arti­cle, Most of the peo­ple are con­fused between the two i] reli­gion and ii] com­mu­ni­ty. Com­mu­ni­ty need to be judged by Laws of reli­gion and not vice ver­sa. No any reli­gion com­mand to sin.

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