Academics don’t write books with titles like The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (And the Crusades) without expecting some harsh criticism, and Robert Spencer has heard it all.
“The major death threat came from Adam Gadahn of al-Qaeda,” he says. In a September 2006 video Gadahn invited Spencer and various other “Zionist crusader missionaries of hate and counter-Islam consultants” to “abandon their unbelief and repent and enter into the light of Islam and turn their swords against the enemies of God.”
That is, in the gang mentality of fundamentalist Islam, an offer you can’t refuse. “The problem is, inviting me to join up is a veiled threat in itself,” Spencer explains. “According to traditional Islamic law, the invitation to Islam, if refused, becomes a mandate to wage war against the one who refuses.”
He turned down the generous offer and instead suggested that Gadahn accept the Bill of Rights, but Spencer is now no stranger to FBI patrols outside his home.
Since 2001 America’s leading Catholic scholar of Islam has written a series of studies that have, despite almost total media silence, sold in enormous quantities. These titles include Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics (with Daniel Ali) and Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West. Both The Truth About Muhammad and the Politically Incorrect Guide reached the New York Times bestsellers list. He has also amassed an enormous following on the website Jihad Watch (www.jihadwatch.org), a monitor of global Islamist activity that receives a million visitors a month.
Being a leading expert on Islamist violence, Spencer is understandably cautious about discussing his personal life or background in print. What is known is that he hails from a partly Greek Orthodox background and began his study of the Koran in 1980 while finishing his MA in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He was studying Patristic Christology but was in “spiritual search mode” when he stumbled upon the Muslim holy book.
“I got to be friends with Palestinians and Saudi Arabians, who strongly encouraged me to read the Koran from a proselytising direction,” he recalls. “My interest had to do with my own family. I had heard stories of my grandparents in the Ottoman Empire, but I didn’t read it with any negative preconceptions. In fact, I was quite positive about the whole thing.”
But reading the Koran for the first time was certainly an eye-opener. “I was surprised to see that there was indeed religiously sanctioned violence in it, as well as some others things which I found disturbing. But it was all intriguing, because I was entranced by the shorter, poetic chapters. I thought it very striking that this beauty could co-exist with clear mandates for warfare and violence against unbelievers.”
During the 1980s and 1990s Spencer was a low-key expert on the Koran, during a period when Europe and America slept through Islamism’s adolescence. He watched as attacks on American targets escalated, from the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993 to the attacks on the USS Cole and the embassies in Africa. “None of that surprised me,” he says. “I thought it was the playing out of something that was clearly intrinsic to Islam.
“I never intended to do this work publicly,” he points out; still, while most specialists dream that their chosen subject takes centre stage. Spencer was put in an uncomfortable position when, one Tuesday morning, the West’s interest in the “religion of peace” rocketed.
“I was invited to write this first book – Islam Unveiled – after 9/11. I agreed, then I was surprised by how well it did, that there was this great thirst for this perspective. People realise they are being lied to in the mainstream.”
Spencer’s popularity would not be possible without that other great fixture of our age: the internet.
“The percentage of internet sales for my books are significantly higher than most,” he says, “many bookstores don’t sell them and people are afraid to talk about it, but there’s this whole underground on the internet that I would liken to that in the Soviet Union. Whenever there’s a straightjacket that stifles freedom of thought, people are going to react. The internet has shifted public opinion because it’s given the opportunity for the truth to be known.”
Jihad Watch, launched in 2003, has allowed him to answer his critics, and especially charges of “Islamophobia”, a label he dismisses. “It’s a fictional, trumped-up political term, there to deflect attention away from the violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. Victim status equals privileged status in the West. People know they can be free from criticism and ordinary scrutiny.
“The best way to counter genuine hatred of Muslims would be for the Islamic community to end their support for the ideology of violence.”
His greatest critics come from that element of the Left supportive of Islam against “the West”, a marriage seen by renegade liberals and socialists as the most ill-conceived alliance since a distinctly non-Aryan Japan sided with Nazi Germany.
To Spencer it makes perfect sense. “There is a deep ideological affinity between the Left and the jihadists. Whenever the hard Left gained power they instituted a reign of terror in order to create what they envisage as a just society, brought about by force. Islamic law works in much the same way: utopia created by force.”
Other critics suggest that by presenting jihad as the authentic voice of Islam, Spencer undermines the religion’s more moderate strains. One opponent even suggested he was a “one-man recruiting agent for al-Qaeda”.
“I have never said that anyone’s view of Islam is correct, but what I do say is that the jihadists constantly portray themselves as the true voice of Islam, and the moderates have never mounted an adequate comeback,” he argues. “There is no true Islam, there is no pope of Islam, but the eight classical schools of Islam all teach warfare against unbelievers. We deceive ourselves if we think [violence] is just something that’s manufactured by the Wahhabis and not present in Islam in general. They teach it but they certainly didn’t invent it.” A chief recruiting ground is secular Europe, where the decline of Christianity has created a dangerous vacuum. “No doubt about it, young men feel rootless, they feel that life doesn’t have any purpose. Against the West, which they have come to despise, [jihad] is attractive. It offers adamantine certainties.”
Spencer subscribes to the growing view – expressed in books such as While Europe Slept, Eurabia and Mark Steyn’s America Alone – that the contrasting birth rates between Muslim immigrants and secular Europeans will lead to catastrophe.
“There will be civil war in Europe,” he says. “The European citizenry, for the most part, are not ready to accept Islamic law and there will be armed conflicts. Across Europe there seems to be one opinion among the elite and one among the people; the mainstream political parties are going to have to start representing this, otherwise they’re going to be shunted aside by the neo-fascists.”
In the running of Jihad Watch Spencer is actively helped by a Jew and an atheist, an example of the sort of cooperation that he feels is needed now. “Secular Europe is already over, but I’m happy to stand with secularists against the Islamicisation of Europe and of America,” he says.
“Above all, we shouldn’t fight among ourselves, but against global jihad. If we’re consumed with each other then we don’t stand a chance.
“Fascism lasted 25 years, Communism for 75; Islam is 1,400 years old, the imperative to make war against unbelievers is 1,400 years old and they believe they are fighting a 1,400-year-old struggle. And jihad will destroy us if we don’t do anything about it.”
Robert Spencer’s new book, Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, will be issued in August by Regnery Publishing (www.regnery.com).