By Adem Carroll
As director of the provocative Jihad Watch website, as well as author of Islam Unveiled and Onward Muslim Soldiers, Robert Spencer seems to see himself as a commander in a struggle. His enemy is not a specific group of Muslims with particular aims and aspirations but instead a monolithic and unchanging Islam. On scores of radio and TV shows, he fulminates against the religion as a self-appointed expert, despite a lack of serious credentials or even, apparently, interest in the richness of his subject matter. In his intolerance and literalism, Spencer is remarkably like those extremists he condemns.
Regnery, a conservative publisher, has seen fit to publish another Robert Spencer book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)1. Perhaps some readers will consider this spiteful and rather vile book a camp classic, a hoot. But we Muslims will not. These assaults hurt, not because they hit home, but because they are so wildly off the mark. Spencer's reckless, scattershot approach harries the Muslim American community and leaves very little ground for moderates and humanists, as I will explain. Of course such hateful assaults predate 9/11, but now they inspire quite a troop of know-nothing reactionaries who cheer each new fusillade. Do I need to add that this does nothing to make us safer as a nation?
The politics of fear has its own military-industrial entertainment component. A growing cottage industry of self-appointed experts and researchers spews hate from its sinister tall smokestacks. Rather than prejudge their political motivation, it may be sufficient to note a few characteristics of the rhetoric they produce.
While working with a Muslim American organization (though differing with it in some respects), I saw how often statements of Muslim leaders are taken out of context to appear alarming. Mr. Spencer is no stranger to this baiting game, as he tries to depict religious preference as something more sinister, like the threat of world domination—the domino theory of evangelical Islam.
First, perhaps for its entertainment as well as its propaganda value, Robert Spencer shows a manly and consistent disregard for cultural, historical, and textual context. No need for "sissified" academic nuance. Therefore, how interesting that he has constructed his book like a textbook (perhaps to rival the far superior "for Dummies" franchise) with such text-box features throughout as: "Jesus vs. Muhammed," which cherry-picks bits of scripture and compares them out of context in order to show the superiority of the Christian message; "A Book You're Not Supposed to Read," which scatters an annotated bibliography of Muslim and anti-Muslim radical views throughout the pages; and "Just Like Today," which purports to prove the consistent and unchanging threat of Islam, e.g. Girls Die for the Burqa; Child Marriages; Wife Beating; Paradise Still Lures Young Men, etc.
We read one unfounded (or ungrounded) assertion after another, on every subject. "It is not easy to find Muslim leaders who have genuinely renounced violent jihad." The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) "has Saudi oil money... They essentially have infinite funds." Muslims are still expected to have three or four wives. The nonsense is on every page! The mind reels!
I should note that there are serious intellectual and identity issues in the Muslim community world-wide. The level of education is often not very good and traditional scholarship is lacking, permitting the popularity of unbalanced and reactionary interpretations. But there have always been diverse interpretations, despite the claims of this or that school of thought. Spencer will have none of this: "America's foe in the War on Terror is not a bunch of hijackers of Islam, but people who are working from core Islamic teachings." He urges us to recognize that the Clash of Civilizations is real and inevitable, and must be fought to the death.
Either for us or against us. There are indeed some Muslims who think this way. Yes, there are jihadis, and there are neocrusaders. Their language is inherently divisive and full of name-calling. So is their thinking. President Bush (and Thomas Friedman), for example, have now adopted the term "Islamo-fascism" from extremist-hunters Steve Emerson and Steven Schwartz. This is not a good sign.
Militant Islam is not the same as fundamentalist Islam; Islamist ideologies differ in many important respects; religiosity has no necessary link to extremism. Spencer obscures these differences. He even claims that moderates do not exist in Islam that they are simply less informed about their religion because they do not speak Arabic! Good people must be bad Muslims!
To differ with Mr. Spencer; most terrorists are not Muslim; Islam itself does not nurture cruelty and fanaticism. Particular interpretations may arise that do promote conflict. Jihad is a complex notion and not to be used simply to denote violent revolutionary action. Contrary to Mr. Spencer's assertion, the Crusades were not simply a "defensive war" as neoconservatives may see the War on Terror. And the Muslim adaptation of Greek arts and sciences was not simply theft nor is it proof of cultural inferiority.
What can one say? Is all this really necessary to "recover pride in Western Civilization?" Similarly, is it necessary to follow Hizb ut-Tahrir's dreams of a new Caliphate spanning continents in order to recover Muslim self-respect? Is fanaticism of any kind really necessary?
Certainly not, but it is apparently attractive to enough people to make the rest of us uneasy. And Spencer makes me uneasy. But can I find something redeeming? Could this uneasiness prompt new questioning of received wisdom? Perhaps some on the left have too easily ignored the pervasiveness of tribalism, negativity, and anti-Semitism throughout the contemporary Muslim world. Perhaps they should be reminded that we Muslims are not all lovable victims.
But Spencer is not interested in complexity and questioning. He provides no basis for respectful dialogue, and offers only rationalizations for escalating conflict, the "crusade we must fight today." No, it is no laughing matter.
Adem Carroll is a New York based writer and radio host.End Note
1. Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2005).
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