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Islam, Obama and Democracy By: David Solway
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 04, 2009


 A good deal of intelligence can be invested in
ignorance when
the need for illusion is deep.

                                                      Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back

 

In an interview with the Paris newspaper Le Monde on June 2, 2009, as a prelude to his heralded June 4 Cairo address, President Obama focused on the lesser conflict in which we are embroiled, deploring, in Le Monde’s translation,  un véritable conflit actuellement entre ceux qui soutiennent que l'islam est irréconciliable avec la vie moderne et ceux qui pensent qu'au contraire l'islam a toujours su évoluer en même temps que le progrès (“a real conflict between those who claim that Islam is irreconcilable with modern life and those who think on the contrary that Islam has always evolved alongside progress”).

 

Obama had it backwards. The far greater conflict is not between two different schools of Western thought, disabling as this may be, but the war to the finish between an ascendant Islam and the Western democracies. Yet Obama also had it partially, if unintentionally, right, for the lesser conflict consorts with the greater one. There can be no doubt that the Islamic adversary is being materially aided in its long-term agenda by the persistent misinterpretation of both its aims and its nature.

 

Obama’s Cairo address, although it was rather more balanced than might have been anticipated, made this clear. While stressing, correctly, that America “is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” he articulated his intention “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” Apart from the fact that this is not the responsibility of an American President, the trouble is that such “negative stereotypes” are demonstrably more justifiable and compelling than Obama, like so many others, is willing to admit. Obama’s declaration that Islam evinces “principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” is, of course, rudely belied by the facts and by innumerable passages in the Koran and the Ahadith. His modus operandi was one that is becoming increasingly common among those who wish to evade the issue, namely, cherry-picking Koranic passages supporting their arguments to the exclusion of those that would demolish them.

 

Whether as a result of naivety, misinformation or outright cynicism, the pundits, journalists, Islamophiles and so-called “peace makers” among us have entirely misconceived the “profile” of what we are up against. Even commentators and scholars considerably more knowledgeable than Obama have done their disingenuous utmost to downplay the threat we are facing. They do this not by relying on soaring rhetorical flights, which is the President’s stock in trade, or by the din of loaded terms—Obama used the word “partner” and its variants ten times during his address. They proceed, no less effectively, by purveying subtler discriminations, for example, by positing a distinction between what has come to be known as “political Islam” and its presumed antidote “cultural Islam,” which is construed as favorable to the democratic tradition.

 

This distinction seems to be an idle one. For Islam, unlike the other major religious dispensations, is also an overarching sociopolitical order that prescribes through theological edict the daily conduct of its adherents down to the smallest civic and “political” detail—in the famous phrase, Islam dim wa dawla, or Islam is a religion and a state. As influential Sunni theologian and founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami revivalist movement, Maulana Maudoodi, wrote in his landmark Islamic Law and Constitution, the Islamic state “seeks to mold every aspect of life…no one can consider any field of activity as personal or private.” Whither, then, democracy?  

 

Islamic apologists will nonetheless argue that there does indeed exist an Islamic democracy, anchored to the concept of shurah (consultation, counsel) as elaborated in the Koran. In surah 3:159, Mohammed is enjoined to be lenient with believers and to “take counsel with them in the conduct of affairs”; and surah 42:38 praises those “who conduct their affairs by mutual consent.” But fundamentalist Muslim thinkers, taking their cue from Sayyid Qutb, the leading intellectual of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, have, on the contrary, stressed that shurah implies consultation of the ruler with members of his entourage or religious elite within the framework of the Koran and has no point of contact with the institution of majority rule, which is its negation.

 

The concept is a rather murky one as it does not indicate the specific nature of the issues under consultation nor the mechanism with which to resolve the problem of impasse or deadlock. The fact is, there is nothing in the Koran about the ballot, universal suffrage or proportional representation, which does not differentiate it markedly from the other monotheistic Scriptures and would be immaterial to our discussion were the Koran not accepted as a holistic canon. Neither Christianity nor Judaism, with the exception of numerically minor sectarian groupings, exacts such total adherence from its communicants. Neither of these world religions deliberately promotes the use of violence to spread its message or achieve universal domination.

 

From the standpoints of accommodation to other Confessions, of the separation of Church and State and of hospitality to serious internal reform, Islam, for all its perceived majesty, must be found grievously deficient. Islamic theologians have rarely if ever applied the principles of the “higher criticism” and philological analysis to the Koran, which is regarded not as a historical document compiled stratigraphically over time and replete with errors and discrepancies but as an eternal and uncreated text reflecting its heavenly original. Dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel, the Koran is a temenos, or sacred space; any rash encroachment on its hallowed ground is read as trespass or defilement. The Mu’tazilite belief in the temporal createdness of the Koran was deemed heretical and extinguished more than a millennium ago.

 

Today, only in Tunisia does the curriculum in religious studies focus on the concept of progressive reconsideration of sacred texts, but even here the more disturbing passages in the Koran are not subjected to query, abrogation or hermeneutical exegesis. Unlike the Old and New Testaments as received by the majority of Jews and Christians, the Koran is read literally by all believing and surely most practising Muslims. The many surahs and ayaat (messages, verses) enjoining violence against the unbeliever have been neither mitigated nor annulled and it remains the sacred duty of all Muslim communicants, whether “moderate” or “extremist,” to accept them at face value.

 

Indeed, former Muslim and Al-Azhar Cairo university professor “Mark Gabriel” suggests in Islam and Terrorism that extremism is not a deviation from the faith or a matter of approximate percentages but pukka Islam itself. To pretend that the faith has been pirated by a few bad characters—Obama’s “small but potent minority of Muslins”—is both jejune and counterfactual. However offensive it may be in our chlorinated age to acknowledge what should be self-evident, Islam is, or functions as, a totalitarian political ideology packaged as a religion. In this sense, the distinction between “moderate” and “extremist” is an empty one.

 

As for the efforts on the part of scholars and apologists to soften the concept of jihad, that is, to conceive it chiefly as a struggle of the individual against his own darker inclinations, these miss the obvious reality of its present application (with Koranic warrant), which is militant aggression against the non-believer, wherever he or she may happen to live.

 

The notion of jihad, despite the semantic smoke and mirrors and theological casuistry practised by its evangelists and the systematic misunderstanding of Western intellectuals, has preserved its preeminent meaning as holy war in the path of God against the kafir and the murtad, the infidel and the apostate, braced by felicitous proof-texting from the Koran and feeding the furor islamicus spreading across the globe. The late surah 8:39 establishes the holy and binding obligation upon the believer to pursue world conquest: “Make war upon them until there is no more idolatry and the religion of Allah is supreme over all.”

 

Apologists will point to surah 2:190-193 in which the identical phrase is repeated, but qualifed by the preceding injunction not to attack unbelievers first since “Allah does not love the aggressors.” This is the hitch. The Koran is shredded by internal contradictions, allowing scholars, clerics and potentates to pick and choose whatever message or edict supports their decisions or interpretations at any given time—exactly as Obama did in his Cairo oration. Moreover, should any Islamic leader elect to apply surah 8:39 and ignore surah 2:190, he can always invoke the reinforcing hadith in which the Prophet enjoins his followers “to go forth and do battle against all the people of the world until they confess there is no God but Allah.” And of course there is the unambiguous surah 47:4: “O true believers, when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads” (or, “smite their necks”).

 

It is too easy to forget that Islam is a faith whose ramparts have been raised upon the triple pillars of conversion, bondage and/or execution, specified in holy writ. As historian Michael Oren reminds us in his Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, the Koran has long been the basis on which Muslim belligerency is founded. During the American struggle against the Barbary Pirates in the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were informed by the Arab plenipotentiary, Abd al-Rahman, that the Koran authorized his country to wage war against, exact tribute from and enslave the infidel enemy.

 

Obviously, this interval represents only a fraction of the textual half-life of the Koran, whose effects carry into the present. Like their Barbary predecessors, the Somalian pirates who attack Western shipping in the Gulf of Aden are practising Muslims. Whether these marauders are terrorists or “merely” pirates, as some have contended, is neither here nor there. Their activities may be motivated by poverty and greed, but they are justified in the Koran as legitimate acts of war. By contrast, no Western nation has recourse to the Old or New Testament as a manual on which to base its implementation of foreign policy directives or to condone patently unacceptable conduct.

 

The two shahadahs, a declaration of faith sacred to all Muslims, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet,” must be respected by all non-Muslims, but they cannot be imposed by force or threat upon the democratic world as part of a purportedly irredentist program—in effect, the restoration of the Caliphate. The “surge” worked in Iraq. The counter-surge of Islamic popular feeling, exploding demographics, institutional infiltration, inflammatory rhetoric and organized terrorist warfare may work equally well against the West.

 

What many of us—no doubt a significant majority—are reluctant to acknowledge and fail to understand is that we are involved in a vast, historic conflict-wave that has been going on, with crests and troughs, since the 7th century and that is likely to persist for much of the century before us. The dilemma is a multiply compounded one. On the one hand, owing to the critical dilution of historical knowledge in the educating process since the advent of the Progressivist curriculum in the early part of the last century, we have lost the panoptic view of the larger historical drama. To put it bluntly, we have become ruinously ignorant of the past.

 

On the other hand, we have simultaneously experienced a gradual weakening of our collective moral fibre, jettisoning the belief in universal principles worth defending and sacrificing for, and paradoxically seeking false absolutes in the relatives of postmodern theorizing. The concept of supervening Truth has fallen upon evil days and the temptations of the immediate have taken precedence over the long historical curve in which we are implicated. Which is to say that the presumed interests of the moment have replaced precisely what is in our best long-term interests. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn repined, we are “no longer capable of making sacrifices…only compromises.”

 

The results of these movements in the social and intellectual life of the West is that we have suffered twin casualties of monumental proportions, the collapse of the Twin Towers of Intelligence and Courage that have up to now, and with albeit approximate success, sustained the civilization of the Modern West. The Islamic adversary knows this and is counting on the continued fecklessness and shallowness of Western political leaders—not only Obama but his many congeners in the seats of power—and the historical illiteracy of their constituents to advance its cause against the democracies of the liberal West. For, as I have suggested, this is more than a new Thirty Years War in which we are engaged, but a religious and civilizational conflict that is centuries old and that will extend into the indefinite future.

 

And we are complicit in what may well be our eventual defeat. On the one hand, we gratefully succumb to the notion of an Islamic democratic tradition, whether we call it shurah, a scriptural “ideal,” the “innovation and education” that Obama in his discourse attributed to “Muslim communities,” or anything else; on the other, we shrink inwardly before the threat and practice of violence. Thus, the jihadists pursue their campaign on two parallel fronts. One branch has insinuated itself into the fabric of Western life, assuring us of its peaceful intentions and democratic credentials. The other relies on bloodshed to weaken our resistance. Working in tandem, they feel convinced of ultimate success. They assume—and the evidence bears them out—that we have neither the will nor the knowledge to recognize and combat what is actually happening. They know that we do not know, that we pretend not to know or, what is even worse, that we do not want to know.

 

And our children, I am afraid, will have to live with the consequences. 


David Solway is the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as the Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity. A new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, will be released by CanadianValuesPress this fall.


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