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Islam: the Score By: Michael M. Stenton
Chronicles Magazine | Wednesday, December 04, 2002


The Sword of the Prophet: Islam: History, Theology, Impact on the World
by Srdja Trifkovic
Boston: Regina Orthodox Press; 332 pp., $19.95

Neither Christians nor Jews can claim that their religion has always been innocuous. What Srdja Trifkovic argues in The Sword of the Prophet, however, is that the raw stuff from which Islam is made is particularly dangerous and unpromising, that the bellicose tradition is worse than admitted by the influential Islamic Studies lobby, that the present threat from Islam is alarming, and that the future demands the vigilance of non-Muslims. In doing so, he challenges the opinion that all religions are somehow equally valid (or invalid). All theocracy, equipped with a scriptural license for violence, is dangerous, and Islam is--and has been, almost continuously--more theocratic than rival religions. The men and women born into this religion may deserve our sympathy, but they are not aided by a blanket respect for Islam. The assumption that there is no such thing as false religion is not a concession that Muslims would make.

Trifkovic will be accused of missing the essential point, which is that Muslim majorities do not want what the violent minorities want, that peaceful integration has a track record and a future, and that our immediate requirement is to divest ourselves of Christian prejudice. This is, at best, evasive. Christian prejudice is little more than a trace element among Westerners. The record of peaceful coexistence is too short, and it is outweighed by the record of human catastrophe where Islam and other religions have come together. Moreover, it is in the nature of religion that it is the minorities who take it seriously, and it is in the nature of serious people that they can be effective in leading ordinary people. Still, many Westerners will dismiss Trif- kovic's account of Islam simply because they refuse to take religion seriously.

Today, religion offers identity in a world whose leading powers have turned against nationality. Preaching, the example of personal sacrifice, and the threat of violence--by Muslims against Muslims--can impose new disciplines. Muslim communities, even when they are quiet, remain vulnerable to well-funded proselytizing that draws on sacred ideals. The myth--and, indeed, the history-- of religious expansion and conquest achieved as a militant response to persecution is unalterably fixed in the standard narrative of Islam.

Islam is a religion born in battle and formed by war. Its adherents nourish their faith and their imagination with this story and derive a sense of manifest destiny from it. The faithful have no notion of the damage Islamic conquest did to Christian civilization, which, thanks in part to the impact of Islam, became Latin, not Greek, at the center. The destruction of the Byzantine Empire was a catastrophic loss that deprived many young nations of their patrimony and potential. By contrast, the pro-Islamic account of Islamic expansion--the advance of toleration at the expense of a Christian world that was probably unwilling to resist--is an amusing exercise in Islamo-Whiggery. An explosive mixture of poverty, lust for plunder, and religious excitement drove Islamic expansion--and that combination is by no means extinct. This force tore into the vital organs of three civilizations. Islamic arrangements followed a very secular logic: Islam was legally supreme because the Arab elite needed social advantages and a special solidarity, and it was tolerant because the conquering elite could not have retained power without toleration. Jerusalem was worth a Mass. Both the tolerance and the intolerance of the Islamic recipe served the goals of power and expansion.

Perhaps Islamic civilization flourished best when Islam was a minority religion and slaves were cultured, cheap, and diverse. After centuries of vigor, Islamic civilization declined. Many Western commentators argue that the religion poisoned its own civilization, even though this leaves open the question of why it was compatible with high culture and wealth-making at first. There could, theoretically, have been a different kind of Islamic polity than the ones that became moribund, but they all did become moribund. The Ottoman Empire grabbed a great deal of territory and power but, subsequently, decayed so deeply that the Christian nations whom it oppressed developed an overpowering urge to rid themselves of Islamic civilization as well as of Ottoman political tutelage.

Islam has played a role in legitimating the imperialism of Islamic states and their resistance to the imperialism of the West. Even where resistance has failed, Islam has still offered shape and identity to anti-imperialism. The cry of jihad is common; the real thing, however, is not. Anticolonialism after 1945 gave every appearance of owing more to secular nationalism than to religion, although their uneasy combination was inevitable. The British were perhaps being unduly cautious when they refused to intervene in 1924 to protect Mecca and Medina from Saudi war bands seizing the holy places in the name of Wahabi puritanism. To a secular-minded great power, the newly extended Saudi Arabian kingdom must have seemed an event of local importance. But the Wahabi ulema, and the al Saud, had been a danger to the peace and safety of the entire region since 1801, when they sacked the Shiite city of Kerbala and desecrated its shrine. No other Islamic regime has been as menacing and ambitious. However, not until after 1945, when the American oil companies paid for fabulous opportunities with huge royalties and favorable publicity, did the Saudis have good connections and serious financial resources to support them; and not until Presidents Kennedy and Nasser decided that they were, on balance, against each other did America really get behind the Saudis.

The West ended up surrendering to OPEC in 1973--a surrender partly engineered by American diplomacy--and so provided Saudi Arabia with immense sums to invest in Wahabi proselytism and Islamic prestige. America was backing Islam, in its most unattractive variant, because it was convenient when the strategic problem seemed to be communism. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran made this support seem even more urgent, and the real jihad in Afghanistan led to military and organizational backing by the United States. Washington's patronage of Wahabi fanaticism tells us a great deal not just about Western raison d'etat but about the docility of the mainstream press and TV in modern society. Europe paid for OPEC oil with a political discretion--at times a servility--that ultimately meant funding Saudi Arabia's palaces, airports, fountains, conspicuous consumption, and very costly weapons.

It might be argued that the problem of Islamic radicalism does not stem from Islam itself but merely reflects the nature of great powers and the opportunism of fanatics. But Islam has outgrown its origins and cannot be answered if we are too polite or frightened to see ideology in religion. Considering the attack on the Soviet Union, the challenge to the United States, and the continuing attacks on Russia, China, and India, we must conclude that Islamic jihad poses a significant threat to the world. Islam is much closer to world dominance than ever before. The Muslim world is experiencing a resurgence of Islamic proselytism, at a time when it is still in a vulnerable and suggestible state: After generations of marginality, Islamic agitation has become the central story in many countries. The work of Islamic charities is very important: The mosques in the West do not build themselves. What has been done in Algeria and Egypt, as well as in America and England, will now be difficult to undo.

Among the world's great powers, there are no Christian states anymore and no instinctively secular states except China. The Western powers are confused about religion and toleration; they are trapped by formulas and traditions they cannot manipulate with the confidence of true belief. But any state with Muslim citizens must assert the right to intervene in religion, to be a filter against theocratic fanaticism and to be the sponsor of moderation. The Chinese may go too far in this respect, but they do understand the terrific price of religious warfare, and they are rightly vigilant.

The problem of Islam in the West raises questions that we mostly contrive to leave undecided: whether, for example, our public and educational values are strictly secular; what to think and do about blasphemy; whether the pulpit can be censored; and what is the legitimate power of foreign money. The presence of Islam forces us to resolve these conflicts. We are perfectly capable of harassing Muslims at the level of crude policing while being overly tolerant of religious fanaticism. There is no Western consensus--and there is certainly no wise magistracy--for settling disputes that politicians will flee and governments will refuse to adjudicate.

Western Christians and secularists form two sects subservient to the dominant post-Christian religion. Intermittent belief in an enigmatic deity is an optional part of this faith, which includes some obligatory respect for selected aspects of Christianity, expressed by upbeat assessments of democracy, truth, beauty, openness, and the hatred of cruelty. This post-Christianity's antitraditional origins, its unfinished status, its intuitions, and its evangelical hunger for new problems make it, in principle, a radical religion. It has even penetrated Christian denominations with its infectious humanism. And its proselytizers would not readily concede that they could fail with "ordinary Muslims," given half a chance. The liberal, post-Christian cry has already gone up: Islamophobia is the new McCarthyism. The last thing that the modern-minded latitudinarian wishes to do is to pick a fight with that which he believes should be tamed and embraced.

Post-Christianity and Islam share roughly the same theological view of Christ. The attraction of Islam for ideological post-Christians is that its existence implies, more strongly than any argument, that traditional Christianity is unnecessary even if you wish to be monotheistic, pious, and mindful of a judgment day. The very existence of a plausible religious rival to the universality of the Church supplies a subversive argument of enduring force, which, though very old, is still being absorbed into the bloodstream of the West as Western parochialism and particularism are dismantled.

The post-Christian faith cherishes the notion of a friendly symbiosis with Islamic communities. But this desire for accommodation, and the difficulties that go with it, will lead to moral confusion absent an educated awareness of Islam's bag of tricks. In particular, it should be clearly understood that Islam does not have the same distinction between religion and society as does the West (if, indeed, it has one at all), so the offer to tolerate Islam will be understood by some Muslims as going beyond what Westerners conventionally regard as "tolerating" religion. While it is still not controversial to say so, we must insist that sharia cannot be available in Western societies as a body of law applicable to Muslim citizens, let alone non-Muslims.

The most striking claim in The Sword of the Prophet is that the American elite's extreme version of post-Christian religion is bent more aggressively against historic Christianity than any other religion in the West and could even enter into a partnership with Islam. A cultural process of this sort may already be at work. To laugh at the idea is to forget our recent history: a U.S.-directed jihad in Afghanistan; the covert U.S. alliance with Islamic revolutionaries in Bosnia; and U.S. support for the Taliban until 1998. The motives for these interventions have been ostensibly secular, but there was something excessive and intense behind them. Even if the motives of Islamic revolutionaries are not exclusively religious, can we say that the moral instinct of Washington globalists is exclusively secular? It is legitimate to wonder whether some premonition of a new religiosity affected the don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts rectitude of the crusaders who dragged NATO to war in Kosovo.

One final point: Those Muslims who are outraged that the violent West should accuse the Islamic Other of intrinsic violence have a point. The Islamic world has reason to be worried by the West's post-Cold War lurch toward high-tech crusades. Once a fatwa-opinion is issued in Washington, the media effervesce with moral fervor and military relish, the satellites and academics adjust their orbits and careers, and the bombs start to fall. This is the modern West riding the high horse of its supremacy. It is precisely because crusading globalism is likely to become more violent and better armed than ever, spurred by the attack on New York, that it is urgent to think defensively about Islam.

Of course, our alternative is to act more modestly in the world. But we are told that this would be immoral, that crime must be punished anytime and anywhere, so that no tyrant may sleep soundly in his bed for fear of the advancing banners of the New World Order, in which smart bombs and smart lawyers ring in the Reign of Justice. The new gospel destroys the old law: Let the nations tremble before the New Truth and its missiles! Global fundamentalism, lightly salted with American self-interest, is capable of being both sinister and religious.

Some may say, "But this is not Christianity!" It is more true to say so than it is to say, in the parallel case, "But this is not Islam!" But we are dealing not with Christianity but with what Christian civilization has become. The pacesetters in the West have expressed their post-Christian religion by casting off wisdom and any sense of geographic limits in their renewed willingness to make the world a better place at gunpoint. Islamic revolutionaries have done the same. The refusal to be prudent in dealing with a dangerous religion has condemned Western soldiers to wage strange wars far from their homelands and has all but forced us to tolerate global ambitions, whether we want them or not.

This is the modern jihad, the Western jihad, which has formed and swollen since 1989, and it has its own growing corps of political janissaries, military-industrial ghazis, and fundamentalist jurisconsults. If President Bush cannot achieve the goals he has set, the gaudy globalists will reappear--during his presidency or afterward--as the men and women with solutions. The recommendation of Srdja Trifkovic's book--a severe view of Islamic militancy and of Islam's political agenda--does not give Westerners any license to subscribe to the myth of their own perpetual innocence.


Michael M. Stenton, a Cambridge historian, is a member of the board of advisors of The Rockford Institute's Center for International Affairs.


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