In the wake of the 7/7 London bombings many politicians and pundits have raced to renounce the phrase “Islamic terrorism.” A London Anglican priest named Paul Hawkins said in a sermon: “We can name the people who did these things as criminals or terrorists. We must not name them as Muslims.” It may seem odd to deny to the likely perpetrators of the bombings the name that they themselves prize above all others, and it is certainly a disservice to any genuine Muslim reformers who might be trying to identify and root out the causes of violence from within Islam, but such are the politically correct dogmas that prevail in most contemporary public discourse. And no one is better versed in those dogmas, or more relentless in her pursuit of any dissenters from them (with a fury that the most ruthless Inquisitor would envy), than Karen Armstrong.
Armstrong, of course, is the ex-nun who now spends a great deal of time propagating, through her books Islam: A Short History and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and a steady stream of articles, a highly tendentious version of Islam, as benign as Quakerism and as expansive as the most liberal form of Anglicanism. In Islam: A Short History, she blames Christians for the misapprehension that Islam is not a peaceful religion:
Ever since the Crusades, the people of Western Christendom developed a stereotypical and distorted vision of Islam, which they regarded as the enemy of decent civilization....It was, for example, during the Crusades, when it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world, that Islam was described by the learned scholar-monks of Europe as an inherently violent and intolerant faith, which had only been able to establish itself by the sword. The myth of the supposed fanatical intolerance of Islam has become one of the received ideas of the West. (pp. 179-180)
As rescue workers continued to dig bodies out of the rubble in London, she took up the cudgels yet again, writing a piece in The Guardian entitled “The label of Catholic terror was never used about the IRA.” In it, she professes astonishment that last year, at a “conference in the US about security and intelligence in the so-called war on terror,” someone she identifies only as “one of the more belligerent participants” argued that “as a purely practical expedient, politicians and the media must stop referring to ‘Muslim terrorism.’ It was obvious, he said, that the atrocities had nothing to do with Islam, and to suggest otherwise was not merely inaccurate but dangerously counterproductive.”
Armstrong was astonished, mind you, not because this analysis is absurd, but because she was amazed to hear it from the bull-necked hawks she expected to find at such a conference. Yet although the belligerent participant’s recommendation is common these days, it makes about as much sense as saying, “Now, we must not refer to ‘Nazi anti-Semitism.’” The Nazis were anti-Semitic because of core Nazi teachings. The Muslim terrorists are committing acts of terrorism, by their own account, because of core Islamic teachings. Saying that we are supposed to ignore that is tantamount to saying that we must ignore what the enemy tells us about himself, who he is, what he wants, and why he is fighting. Which is tantamount to saying that we should surrender. We cannot defeat an enemy we are afraid to name.
Yet Armstrong says that “our priority must be to stem the flow of young people into organisations such as al-Qaida, instead of alienating them by routinely coupling their religion with immoral violence. Incorrect statements about Islam have convinced too many in the Muslim world that the west is an implacable enemy.” Armstrong here seems to be saying that if we ignore the elements of Islam that give rise to terror, they will stop giving rise to terror. I contend on the contrary that if we are to have any hope of stemming “the flow of young people into organisations such as al-Qaida,” it can only come from speaking forthrightly about what it is in Islam that makes them flow into such organizations, and calling upon Muslims who call themselves moderate to renounce those Islamic teachings -- while alerting non-Muslims to the existence of such teachings, so that they can take realistic actions against the threat in its true dimensions. No problem can be fixed by denying that it is a problem.
But of course, Armstrong would not accept that it is a problem in the first place. She declares that “these acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims, but they violate essential Islamic principles. The Qur’an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and insists that the true Islamic values are peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.” Yet it is not enough any longer, if it ever was, simply to assert that the terrorists “violate essential Islamic principles” and talk about self-defense and peace. The jihadists have again and again characterized their struggle as defensive. Let Ms. Armstrong demonstrate, if she can, from the Qur’an or Islamic tradition, why their characterization is in this case inaccurate, and how moderate Muslims today can refute it. If she cannot, then moderate Muslim leaders should do so, or risk giving their very professions of moderation a hollow ring.
“Like the Bible,” Armstrong says, “the Qur’an has its share of aggressive texts, but like all the great religions, its main thrust is towards kindliness and compassion. Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and forbids the use of fire, the destruction of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians in a military campaign.” But the problem within Islam is not that of a few aggressive texts in the Qur’an, parallel to a few in the Bible. In the Bible there are indeed aggressive texts, but there is no open-ended and universal command to all believers to make war against unbelievers, a la Qur’an 9:29. Nor is that an isolated text: Islam, unlike Christianity, has a developed doctrine sanctioning and calling for this warfare. The Shafi’i manual Reliance of the Traveller, which bears the endorsement of Sunni Islam’s most respected authority, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, stipulates that jihad is “a communal obligation” to “war against non-Muslims.” It teaches that “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax . . . The caliph fights all other peoples until they become Muslim” (o9.0, o9.1, o9.8, and o9.9). This is one reason why jihad terrorists like Osama bin Laden want so badly to restore the caliphate – so that such a jihad can be pursued. There is no doctrine like this in any other major religion.
Also, look closely at Armstrong’s wording: “Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely.” This is similar to a fatwa of Mufti Ebrahim Desai of South Africa: “if a country doesn’t allow the propagation of Islam to its inhabitants in a suitable manner or creates hindrances to this, then the Muslim ruler would be justifying in waging Jihad against this country, so that the message of Islam can reach its inhabitants, thus saving them from the Fire of Jahannum [hell]. If the Kuffaar [unbelievers] allow us to spread Islam peacefully, then we would not wage Jihad against them.” A central part of the Islamic religion traditionally has been its prescriptions for governance. Would opposition to Sharia be hindering Muslims from practicing their religion freely? The problem with such statements -- both Armstrong’s and Desai’s -- is that they are so elastic as to be meaningless in terms of restricting Muslims from waging war. The “America is waging war on Islam” rhetoric coming today from jihadists is a case in point. They assert that America is waging war on Islam, despite President Bush’s strenuous efforts to establish the contrary, and thus justify waging war against us.
Likewise Armstrong’s statement that “Islamic law...forbids the use of fire, the destruction of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians in a military campaign.” Innocent civilians. Were the office workers in the World Trade Center innocent? Osama says no. Can Armstrong refute him on Islamic grounds? If not, then what is the value of making such an assertion in the first place?
Armstrong continues with another common canard: “We rarely, if ever, called the IRA bombings ‘Catholic’ terrorism because we knew enough to realise that this was not essentially a religious campaign. Indeed, like the Irish republican movement, many fundamentalist movements worldwide are simply new forms of nationalism in a highly unorthodox religious guise. This is obviously the case with Zionist fundamentalism in Israel and the fervently patriotic Christian right in the US.” It is true that the IRA’s was not essentially a religious campaign. The IRA was not claiming to blow things up in the name of their religion or justifying their actions by reference to Christian scripture. The jihad terrorists today, however, explain that they are acting in the name of Islam, and quote Qur’an copiously. Nor was the IRA an international movement with a program calling for the subjugation the world under its system of law and societal mores. Islamic terrorism is.
Armstrong does grant that “sometimes a military effort may be a regrettable necessity in order to defend decent values, but an oft-quoted tradition has the Prophet Muhammad saying after a military victory: ‘We are coming back from the Lesser Jihad [ie the battle] and returning to the Greater Jihad’ - the far more important, difficult and momentous struggle to reform our own society and our own hearts.” Yet of course, Osama and his ilk would say precisely that a military effort is a regrettable necessity today in order to defend decent values. This again calls for refutation, not glossing-over. And as for that Hadith, Ms. Armstrong may not be aware that attacks upon it form a central part of jihadist polemic. Abdullah Azzam, a founder of Al-Qaeda, and Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued that it was a weak hadith, and thus should not be followed by Muslims. They maintained that jihad was primarily warfare and that Muslims should understand it as such. And indeed, this statement of Muhammad does not appear in the hadith collections that Muslims consider most reliable. Here again, if moderate Muslims really do not wish their children to join terrorist groups, they must refute the arguments advanced by Azzam and Al-Banna. Armstrong shows no indication of even knowing that such arguments exist.
It gets worse. Armstrong even goes to bat for the Wahhabis: “even though the narrow, sometimes bigoted vision of Wahhabism makes it a fruitful ground for extremism, the vast majority of Wahhabis do not commit acts of terror.” Obviously not, any more than the vast majority of Nazis actually worked in death camps. But in any case, the idea that Wahhabism is violent and the rest of Islam is peaceful is simply false. The doctrines of violent jihad are found among all Muslim sects. And Armstrong seems at least aware of this: she argues that jihad terrorism should be renamed “Qutbian terrorism,” stating that “Bin Laden was not inspired by Wahhabism but by the writings of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Nasser in 1966.” It is at least good of Armstrong to acknowledge that Qutb was not a Wahhabi. Other Islamic apologists are not so willing to do so. But what Armstrong has not demonstrated, and cannot demonstrate, is that “Qutbian terrorism” represents in any way a departure from traditional Islamic teaching, or that most Islamic schools of thought reject its key principles.
“There are too many lazy, unexamined assumptions about Islam,” complains Armstrong, and she notes that “precise intelligence is essential in any conflict.” Quite right. And she is right again when she says that “by making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the seemingly intractable and increasingly perilous problems of our divided world.” Yet ironically enough, it is clear from her own obfuscations and distortions of Islam that she herself has not made this disciplined effort. Her continuing influence, however, is just one indication of why it is so crucial today that other, less-biased analysts do so, and do so quickly.