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The Search for Moderate Islam: Part I Continued By: Lawrence Auster
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 28, 2005

Pipes defends his thesis

Pipes, of course, is not unaware that his thesis about Islam's underlying or potential goodness is widely doubted, and he has written several articles replying to critics. The arguments he has offered, however, are surprisingly, almost shockingly weak.

For example, in "The Evil Isn't Islam," published in July 2002, he attempts to meet head-on the assertion that Islam is "evil." His entire argument adds up to two factual claims:

            -     There are a couple of Koran verses that are "moderate"; and

 - "There have been occasions of Muslim moderation and tolerance." [Emphasis added.]


From these two insignificant data, Pipes concludes that "Islam's scriptures and history show variation." That's it. That's Pipes's "proof" that Islam isn't evil. This is like saying that Nazi Germany showed some concern for the well-being of the German people, and individual Nazis had their kindly side, and therefore Nazism was not evil.


We should also point out that variance in Koranic verses and in the moral conduct of individual Muslims tells us nothing. The key questions are: What do Muslims usually do—as opposed to what they do in rare circumstances? What does the religion command its followers to do? Christians violate the New Testament all the time, but it's disobedient people who are to blame, not the religion. Islam tells its followers to wage Holy War, to slaughter non-Muslims, to find the Jew behind a tree and kill him, and all the rest of it.


Pipes continues: "Things can get better. But it will not be easy. That requires that Muslims tackle the huge challenge of adapting their faith to the realities of modern life." He then gives examples of how backward Islamic societies really are and of how difficult the task of creating a moderate Islam will really be. Thus his whole case comes down to the wishful hope that if Islam can somehow be totally transformed, a good Islam can emerge. By his own account, he has conceded that his moderate Islam is not a substantial reality. It is a well-meant hope which he has touted, in one article after another, as though it were a reality. But as soon as he gets into specifics, its tenuous quality becomes all too apparent.


In a follow-up column, Pipes quotes the overwhelmingly negative mail he received in response to the earlier column. "Your point of view is for people who believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus," writes one correspondent. "I hope you are not beginning to lose your nerve," says another. "Maybe your hope is overshadowing your understanding of the truth," sniffs a third. The readers' points come down to these: Islam has always been aggressive, militant Islam is Islam, and the "moderate" suras of the Koran that Pipes had referenced were abrogated by Muhammad himself in the later suras.


And what does Pipes have to say to these critics?


My response ... is that no matter what Islam is now or was in the past, it will be something different in the future. The religion must adapt to modern mores. [Emphasis added.]


This can be done. [Emphasis added.]


In support of that possibility, he proceeds to tell about some "moderate" developments in Turkey, such as a greater respect for women, and anticipates that the same might happen in other Muslim countries as well. But—in this article written specifically to answer the attacks on his central thesis—Pipes offers no reply to his critics' claims about the absence of a historically moderate Islam. By saying, "no matter what Islam is now or was in the past," he tacitly concedes that Islam was not moderate in the past and is not moderate now, or at least that he has no proof of the opposite. All that is left is the imperative ("it must adapt") that Islam become moderate in the future. But why must it adapt? Here, finally, Pipes gets down to the motivational core of his position:

[I]f one sees Islam as irredeemably evil, what comes next? This approach turns all Muslims—even moderates fleeing the horrors of militant Islam—into eternal enemies. And it leaves one with zero policy options. My approach has the benefit of offering a realistic policy to deal with a major global problem. 

In other words, we are obligated to believe that Islam can change, because disbelief in that possibility would lead to unacceptable results. Pipes is no longer basing his promotion of moderate Islam on any claim of factual or historical truth. He is basing it on hope and fear—the hope that Islam may someday become something inconceivably better than that which it has always been, and the fear of the intolerable things that would happen if we abandoned that hope.


Pipes's ambivalence


Given Pipes's admission, in some articles, that moderate Islam has never existed as a concrete social and religious reality, and that "radical" Islam is therefore the historic norm of the faith after all, what explains his continuing insistence, in other articles, that radical Islam is only an extremist offshoot of the true, moderate Islam?


An opening into Pipes's contradictory thoughts on the subject can be found in remarks he wrote for an Islamic American magazine, The Minaret, in September 2000 (and which he repeated in the introduction of his 2002 book, Militant Islam Reaches America[2]). After praising Islam for the "extraordinary inner strength" it imbues in its followers and the great cultural achievements of its classical period, he said:


I approach the religion of Islam in a neutral fashion, neither praising it nor attacking it but in a spirit of inquiry. Neither apologist nor booster, neither spokesman nor critic, I consider myself a student of this subject.


This is an odd comment for an intellectual to make. Since when does studying a subject preclude one from criticizing it? Since when does scholarship require non-judgmentalism? If Pipes were a student of, say, Soviet Communism, like his father the historian Richard Pipes, would he say that his scholarly approach to Marxism-Leninism prevented him from criticizing the Soviet Gulag, the millions of political murders, the enslavement of entire nations? Also, how can Pipes as a scholar expect his evaluations of Islam to be considered reliable if he announces up front that he will not render a negative judgment about it?


In any case, Pipes's personal motivations, whether for not wanting to be seen as a critic of Islam (which would be an understandable tactic of self-preservation given his exposed position), or for actually not wanting to be a critic of Islam (which would be harder to excuse), are not our concern. Pipes has already given us a meaningful and satisfactory explanation of his political motivations for avoiding a too searching critique of Islam: his fear that if we come to the conclusion that Islam is not and cannot be moderate, we will lose any basis for a constructive policy toward it and will be doomed to regard all Muslims as our eternal enemies. This is not a concern that can be lightly dismissed, and is probably shared by millions of Westerners. We will return to it in the second part of this essay.


What matters to us here is not Pipes's motivations, but the truth of his statements about the nature of Islam and about his role as a student of it. For a scholar in a field so filled with bloody controversy, there can be no such thing as the non-judgmental neutrality that Pipes attributes to himself. For example, Communist regimes, according to the most authoritative book on the subject, The Black Book of Communism, killed upwards of 100 million unarmed civilians in the course of the 20th century. If I speak this true fact about Communism, I am, perforce, a critic of Communism. If, conversely, I choose not to be critic of Communism, I can only do that by ignoring or minimizing its crimes, in which case I have ceased to be its student and have become its apologist. Therefore Pipes's claim that he is neither a critic nor an apologist is not true. As we have seen, sometimes he is one, sometimes the other. When he tells us that militant Islam is a fearsomely dangerous movement that threatens us all, and when he tells us that reformist Muslims falsely imagine the historical existence of a moderate and liberal Islam, he is being a critic. But when he tells us that only modern Islamism—not historic Islam—is dangerous, and that moderate Islam is the solution to radical Islam, he is being an apologist.


The false distinction between Islamism and Islam


Insofar as Pipes is a protector of Islam, the chief way he protects it is through his distinction between modern Islamism, with which he associates everything bad about Islam, and traditional Islam, which he describes, not neutrally, but in respectful, glowing tones. Writing in The National Interest in Spring 2000, he evokes the full-bodied, romantic view of Islam that is familiar from the works of Arabists and traditional Islam scholars such as Bernard Lewis. There was, he tells us, this glorious civilization, far greater than the miserable Europe of the early Middle Ages (a condescending attitude toward medieval Christian Europe is, of course, de rigeuer in all such encomia to Islam). But in the modern period Islam lost ground to the West, became weak and powerless, and now Muslims are bewildered and angry and are looking for explanations and a way to win back their former glory. So they have turned to the vicious ideology of Islamism, which uses modern technology, communications, mass indoctrination, and propaganda to strike back at modern civilization.


There are two points to make about this description of Islam's Golden Age. As Serge Trifkovic writes in The Sword of the Prophet, the glories of medieval Islam are largely a myth. It was a parasite civilization whose achievements were mainly the work of its subject peoples such as Byzantines, Jews, and Indians, and it declined when it eventually killed off its host.


Second, Pipes in his wholly positive portrait of historic Islam says nothing about jihad, nothing about the Islamic conquests that destroyed the former Christian and Jewish civilization of the Near East, nothing about sharia or mass deportations or slavery or the suppression and extinction of conquered peoples under the conditions of dhimmitude. The only negative aspect of Islam that he notes is modern Islamism, which he describes as a reaction to Islam's defeat by the West and its resulting internal decay. The upshot is: Islam is not the problem. Jihad is not the problem. A trauma that Muslims went through in modern times is the problem. That trauma gave birth to the totalitarian murderous ideology of Islamism, just as the traumas of modernity gave birth to Communism and Nazism.


Consider how far Pipes goes to create an absolute distinction between bad Islamism and good Islam:


While Islamism is often seen as a form of traditional Islam, it is something profoundly different. Traditional Islam seeks to teach humans how to live in accord with God's will, whereas Islamism aspires to create a new order. The first is self-confident, the second deeply defensive. The one emphasizes individuals, the latter communities. The former is a personal credo, the latter a political ideology.


A personal credo that emphasizes individuals? This is the fighting creed that swept over half the known world, that crushed and dispossessed entire populations, that subjected the survivors to the miserable choice between conversion and dhimmitude, that treats women as a lower order of being, and that to this day pronounces a death sentence on anyone who leaves the faith—and Pipes calls it a personal credo that emphasizes individuals?


Pipes doesn't stop at denying the catastrophic human destructiveness of Islam; he even denies its aspirations to social and religious dominance. He wrote recently at Jewish World Review:


The mentality of radical Islam [emphasis added] includes several main components, of which one is Muslim supremacism—a belief that believers alone should rule and otherwise enjoy an exalted status over non-Muslims. This outlook dominates the Islamist [emphasis added] worldview as much in the elegant streets of Paris as in the rude caves of Afghanistan.... 


The Ehrgott and Okashah incidents fit an ugly Islamist [emphasis added] pattern of double standards. Although CAIR presents itself as a civil-rights group, it is just the opposite--an organization asserting special privileges for Muslims and derogating the rights of others.


Pipes is telling us that the radical ideology of Islamism believes in Muslim supremacy; that it holds that "believers alone should rule and ... enjoy an exalted status over non-Muslims"; and that it promotes a pro-Islamic double standard. Which means, given the constant theme of Pipes's writings, that Islam itself does not seek Muslim supremacy over non-Muslims, does not promote a pro-Muslim double standard, and does not derogate the rights of non-Muslims.


In effect, Pipes is removing more and more of the actual content of Islam and transferring it to Islamism. First he removed the extremism and terrorism that have characterized Islam for 1,400 years, and now he even removes Islam's aspiration to Islamic supremacy over non-Muslims.


Going against the whole historic record, Pipes denies the aggressive, collectivist, genocidal, tyrannical, and even hegemonic aspects of traditional Islam. Yet in some of his other writings, as we've seen, he speaks critically about the jihadist beliefs and practices that have characterized Islam from the beginning, and insists that Muslims admit and seek to change these ugly facts about their religion. While we have no wish to psychologize, there is no denying the profound ambivalence Pipes evidences between his affection for the good things of Islam and his knowledge of its evils. He cannot wholly deny that jihad is the core of Islam, since that would be a lie, nor can he admit it, since that would mean that Islam is unreformable. So he veers back and forth, sometimes portraying traditional Islam in altogether affirmative terms, sometimes pointing to the bloody historical realities of jihadism, but then turning around and insisting, regardless of how bleak the prospects may look now, that we must believe in Muslim's ability to change, because if we don't believe it, there is no hope.


However, we now understand that whatever Pipes's reasons may be, his absolute distinction between "radical" and "moderate" Islam is not true. While Islamism is certainly more toxic and murderous than traditional Islam, both have messianic elements, both appeal to the Koran as their ultimate source of authority, and neither can shed its jihadism in any principled and permanent way. Savage killings and beheadings of innocent non-Muslims did not begin in Iraq in 2004, but go back to Muhammad's days in Medina, when he carried out the treacherous and homicidal acts against his enemies (including mere critics) that became a paradigm of Muslim conduct toward unbelievers for all ages to come. Islamism—the modern, fascist-inspired version of the faith—may be new, but Islamic militancy is 1,400 years old.


Conclusion of Part I


While we have established that there can be no such thing as moderate Islam, most Americans, and certainly the political class, still believe that it exists. Therefore the next question is: what are the practical consequences of our society's holding to the belief in moderate Islam, even though it is not true? And that question gives rise to a second, which goes to the heart of Daniel Pipes's expressed fear: if Islam is radical Islam, what can we possibly do to make things better? What hopeful policies can result from such a seemingly hopeless insight? These issues will be addressed in the second part of this article.




1. William Muir, The Life of Mahomet, London, 1878, abridged from the first, four-volume edition published in 1861 (1878 edition reprinted by Kessinger Publishing), pp. 534-35.

2. Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America (W.W. Norton, 2002), pp. xii-xiii.

To read Part II, click here.

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