ost Americans have a benignly positive attitude toward religion, one that holds faith to be a good thing for the commonweal, regardless of sectarian particulars. Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom of Worship" painting captures this nicely, while Eisenhower's remark "I believe every American should have a religious faith, and I don't care what it is" does so a little more clumsily. That tolerant, pro-religion view has served America well over time, but one cannot help wondering if our civic piety, allied with political correctness, is blinding us to some hard questions about Islam questions upon which the survival of our civilization depends.
I don't know many non-Muslims who believe President Bush's politically necessary but theologically nonsensical proclamation that, "Islam means peace." But there are many more who take comfort in the belief that the threat to America comes not from Islam itself, but from an extremist form of the religion espoused by terrorists and their small but vocal band of supporters. That's certainly the line taken by the mainstream media, who seem so afraid of sparking American bigotry against Muslim citizens that they have largely resisted critical analysis of Islamic writings, practice, and history.
What if they are wrong? What if the threat is not extremist Islam, but Islam itself? That's the view set out by author Robert Spencer in his new book, Islam Unveiled, a relatively short, plainspoken analysis of the Islamic faith and the challenge it poses to pluralist democracy. Warns Spencer, "The culture of tolerance threatens to render the West incapable of drawing reasonable distinctions. The general reluctance to criticize any non-Christian religion and the almost universal public ignorance about Islam make for a lethal mix."
This is a deeply unsettling little volume, because it offers scant hope that the West can live at peace with Islam unless the religion changes radically, and even less hope that that is possible. Still, the questions Islam Unveiled poses and the answers it provides are hard to dismiss, and given the urgency of the times, necessary to ask. As Spencer writes, "This is not in order to incite thugs to attack Muslims on the street, but to look squarely at what the West is up against."
If Spencer is right, the West faces a primitive, violent, and fiercely chauvinistic religion whose followers, to the extent that they are pious adherents to its teachings, cannot be reasoned with, only resisted. Islam is at its core inimical to democracy and human rights as we in the West understand them. To expect Muslims to drop their belligerence toward the West, which has existed since Islam's founding in the 7th century, is to expect them to jettison core values of their faith something for which there is no precedent in Islamic history.
The Koran, writes Spencer, is more central to the Islamic faith than the Bible is to Christianity. Muslims believe it was revealed directly from God to the Prophet Muhammad. A pious Muslim may consult an imam or spiritual leader for guidance, but he will also read the Koran himself. He will find there many divine instructions to make constant war on the infidel, who is only to be given the choice of conversion, slave-like subjugation (in historian Bat Yeor's word, dhimmitude) or death. And throughout Islamic history, that's exactly how Muslim societies have behaved toward non-Muslims, who are by the very fact of their unbelief not considered innocents in the eternal, divinely mandated conflict.
Undeniably, Christians have in the past committed many despicable acts in the name of God, but they did so in violation of scriptural teaching, not in fulfillment of it, as in Islam. Though the Bible testifies to violence committed at the command of God, and they the few if any Christians or Jews today believe that this is how God expects man to live today. "Islam, by contrast, generally rejects the idea of a historical progression in revelation, and allows little latitude for allegorical interpretation of the martial verses in the Qu'ran," Spencer writes. "A book [that claims] literal perfection tends to resist any interpretation that diminishes the literal truthfulness of any of its statements."
This literalism has profound consequences for the way Muslims live. Unlike in Christianity, there is no scriptural mandate for separation of church and state in Islam, making secular democracy an alien and hostile concept. Women have few rights over and against their husbands, who may legally beat them, and men in general. (Spencer, quoting from Islamic sources, demonstrates that Muhammad, considered the ideal man for all time, treated women cruelly by contemporary Western standards.) Enslaving infidels and raping infidel women are justified under Koranic law (and still occur in some Muslim lands). Grotesque punishments for crimes beheadings and the like are not medieval holdovers, writes Spencer; "On the contrary, they will forever be part of authentic Islam as long as the Qur'an is revered as the perfect Word of Allah."
Spencer does not believe that Islam can be tamed. While Muslims in the West live in peace, prosperity and religious liberty, Christians and other non-Muslims are persecuted, sometimes unto death, throughout the Muslim world today. Turkey is the only Muslim country that could be called democratic, and that's a stretch; its example shows that secularist values can only be imposed on Islamic societies by force, and will therefore remain tenuous. Because Islam demands death for heretics, moderate Muslims will always risk their lives by offering more liberal interpretations of their faith.
And most crucially, in his view, Islam cannot be other than a religion of violence. "Of course, most Muslims will never be terrorists. The problem is that for all its schisms, sects, and multiplicity of voices, Islam's violent elements are rooted in its central texts," Spencer writes. His final verdict on Islam is sobering, particularly when one considers the rapidly increasing Islamic presence in Europe, the cradle of Western civilization: "It would be too pessimistic to say that there are no peaceful strains of Islam, but it would be imprudent to ignore the fact that deeply imbedded in the central documents of the religion is an all-encompassing vision of a theocratic state that is fundamentally different from and opposed to the post-Enlightenment Christian values of the West."
To be sure, Spencer's despairing view is not shared by many scholars, even one as reliably critical of radical Islam as Daniel Pipes. In his recent Militant Islam Reaches America, Pipes emphatically denies that radical Islam is the same thing as traditional Islam. He insists that drawing the distinction and encouraging moderates within Islamic societies is an imperative for the West, though he offers scant evidence for this conclusion. And he admits that Muslim moderates are "weak, divided, intimidated and generally ineffectual. Indeed, the prospects for Muslim revitalization have rarely looked dimmer than at this moment... ." One gets the feeling that Pipes would rather light a candle for the unlikely hope of a peaceful revolution within Islam, not because the alternative one-sixth of humanity, many of whom are already living among us, as implacable enemy of the West is unrealistic, but because it is unthinkable.
"Nowadays, nothing seems less tolerated than what people call pessimism and which is often in fact just realism," says Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Is Islam Unveiled pessimism, or realism? We can only know for sure if we have a serious public discussion of the issues Spencer raises in this important (but unsatisfyingly brief) book issues that stand to be ignored by the media, for fear of trading in anti-Muslim bigotry. If Islam Unveiled, which is published by Encounter Books, Peter Collier's imprint, becomes the bestseller it deserves to be, it will be through talk radio and word of mouth by Americans who believe that post-9/11, America cannot afford the moral disarmament of indulging in multicultural platitudes.
Spencer may be wrong I doubt it, but I'd like to hear a convincing refutation of his arguments but he is asking questions that few others have the courage to. And until we hear from this supposed vast silent majority of peace-loving Muslims, the answers Spencer gives go a long way to explain the hatred, violence, backwardness, and fanaticism endemic to the Islamic world.