Review of The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims, ed. Robert Spencer
by Bruce S. Thornton
One of the greatest impediments in our war against jihadist terrorism is the misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies about Islam entertained by many of our public intellectuals. Examples are easy to find; here’s one from the otherwise intelligent Gregg Easterbrook, Atlantic Monthly contributor and senior editor at The New Republic, from his recent book The Progress Paradox: “Most Muslims are good-hearted, peace-loving people, just as are most Christians and Jews. A small minority of Muslims are vicious fanatics. But then the Christian ethos has spawned its share of hideous killers, among them the terrorist Timothy McVeigh, and this tells us nothing about the typical Christian.” The obviously false analogy in the last sentence — McVeigh didn’t kill with the sanction of Christian theology or belief, which has no doctrine remotely close to jihad, and millions of Christians didn’t dance in the streets after the bombing in Oklahoma City — could stand as a textbook example of this logical fallacy.
Such ignorance — on display everywhere in the media, especially among those eager to rationalize away the Islamic roots of the latest terrorist murder — makes a book like The Myth of Islamic Tolerance particularly important. Robert Spencer, in earlier books like Islam Unveiled, Onward Muslim Soldiers, and the recent The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, as well as on his invaluable website Jihad Watch (jihadwatch.org), has already done yeoman’s work in documenting Islam’s fundamental intolerance, martial aggressiveness, and sanctioning of violence against non-Muslim infidels. The 58 essays in the current book attack root and branch the widespread Orwellian myth, recently given cinematic sanction in Kingdom of Heaven, that Islamic societies have been historically more tolerant and friendly to minorities than has been Western culture.
Spencer sets the stage with an overview of the myth, its political uses, and its refutation by the simple facts of history and Islamic jurisprudence and theology. Politically, the myth provides psychic comfort for jaded Westerners, especially Europeans, who have made the devil’s bargain to accept large numbers of Islamic immigrants as a source of cheap labor: “European states eyeing the rapid growth of their Muslim populations console themselves with tales of old al-Andalus, reassuring one another that Islamic hegemony not only wasn’t all that bad — it was a veritable golden age.” Thus European and American politicians cater to Islamic immigrants, whom they believe will assimilate into Western society, their “tolerant” and “peace-loving” religion merely enriching the multi-ethnic tapestry.
But as Spencer points out, and as history and Islamic doctrine show repeatedly, “Islam doesn’t accept a position as just one among a community of disparate religions but must struggle to make itself supreme.” Unable to prosecute militarily the divine mandate to expand the House of Islam until it encompasses the whole world, modern jihadists have been adept at manipulating the various cultural pathologies of the West. As Ibn Warraq points out in his Foreword, the old myth of the “noble savage,” the habit of idealizing more primitive or alien non-Western cultures in order to castigate one’s own, has from the beginning of Western contact with Islam distorted the understanding of it. Later, Great Power geopolitical contests reinforced these European idealizations of Islamic societies, particularly the Ottoman Turks. The result has been centuries of mythic idealizations that continue to obscure the true nature of Islam, leading to the strange phenomenon we see nearly every day: non-Muslim Westerners “hastening,” as Spencer puts it, “to assure the public that the Islam of the terrorists is not the ‘true Islam,’ which is, they maintain, a benign and tolerant thing.”
Eager to display their sensitivity to and tolerance of the cultural “other,” apologists like those Spencer liberally quotes end up arrogantly asserting that millions of practicing Muslims don’t understand their own religion. But of course the jihadists know what their religion teaches about non-Muslims: they are categorically inferior infidels, particularly the “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians, “renegades who have rejected this final revelation [of Muhammad] out of corruption and malice and who have exchanged truth for falsehood.” They are accursed, and as such, it is the duty of every Muslim “to fight them,” in the words of the Qur’an, “until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah.” In a later verse this injunction is specifically directed against Jews and Christians: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [a special tax on non-Muslims] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
As for those fantasies of intercultural harmony entertained by many Western multiculturalists, consider this verse from the Qur’an: “O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turn to them (for friendship) is of them.” As Spencer reminds us, “This is the Qur’an that pious Muslims cherish and memorize in its entirety; it is for them their primary guide to understanding how they should make their way in the world and deal with other people. It is nothing short of staggering that the myth of Islamic tolerance could have gained such currency in the teeth of the Qur’an’s open contempt and hatred for Jews and Christians and incitements to violence against them.” Spencer’s survey of the Hadith, the words and deeds attributed to Muhammed and second in authority to the Qur’an; the interpretations of the Hadith and Qur’an by centuries of Islamic jurisprudence; and the writings of modern Islamic radicals like Sayyid Qutb, the premier theorist of modern jihad, testifies to a consistent tradition of intolerance towards non-Muslims and the divine sanction to subdue them to Islam.
The subsequent essays in The Myth of Islamic Tolerance elaborate with precise detail the more specific consequences of Islamic doctrine for religious minorities living in Muslim countries. All are valuable and repay careful reading; the Herculean efforts of David G. Littman over the years to force the United Nations to acknowledge the abuse of non-Muslims’ human rights in Islamic nations should be more widely known and acknowledged. As important as these documents are, the 18 essays and presentations by historian Bat Ye’or offer the most exhaustive and meticulous documentation of Islamic intolerance and oppression of “dhimmi,” those non-Muslims subjected not just to a tax (the “jizya”) but to institutionalized oppression and humiliation, a whole host of repressive restrictions covering dress, public behavior, and the practice of their religion. The particulars of dhimmitude as documented by Bat Ye’or are strikingly similar to the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South, and served a similar purpose: to remind Jews and Christians every day of their inferiority to Muslims, and to reinforce the dhimmi’s precarious position, since the “covenant” by which Muslims allowed the dhimmi to keep their lives could be revoked at any time, whereupon the dhimmi could be justly plundered and slaughtered.
As well as documenting this practice in Islamic history and jurisprudence, Bat Ye’or’s essays also detail how the dynamic of dhimmitude continues to inform relations between Europe and Islam today, as seen particularly in the scapegoating and marginalization of Israel, the one nation comprising former dhimmi who have shaken off their inferior status and thus challenged the Islamic confidence in its own divinely sanctioned superiority: “Israel’s struggle is none other than a fight to destroy a dhimmi archetype that has bewitched the Arab consciousness with a destructive and nostalgic dream of hegemony, irreconcilable with principles of decolonization or with the rights and liberties of peoples.”
Indeed, the myth of Islamic tolerance is itself an expression of the dhimmi mentality already characterizing many Westerners, their acceptance of their culture’s crimes and inferiority codified in multiculturalism and currently facilitating jihadist terrorism. In this regard the late Edward Said’s Orientalism stands as one of the most pernicious and influential peddlers of virulent anti-Westernism, in this instance one tarted up in the sort of postmodern jargon that impresses badly educated humanities professors. Said was the consummate academic hustler, a Westernized Egyptian child of privilege who invented a Palestinian refugee persona that gratified the American university’s insatiable appetite for oppressed victims “of color” (see the article by Justus Reid Weiner in the September 1999 issue of Commentary). The logical, historical, and philosophical sins of Orientalism have been noted by Bernard Lewis (reprinted in Islam and the West) and Keith Windschuttle (New Criterion, January 1999), and to this list should be added Ibn Warraq’s devastating critique. Warraq is the brave author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, a devastating exposure of Islam’s intolerant and illiberal principles and practices. His careful demolition of Said’s dishonest and intellectually incoherent book is alone worth the price of The Myth of Islamic Tolerance.
For as Warraq makes clear, Said’s book has indirectly sanctioned Islamic terrorism by giving an apparent scholarly justification for blaming the problems of the Middle East on Western colonial and imperial sins rather than on flaws in Islam and Arab regimes, the social, cultural, economic, and religious dysfunctions that prevent them from accommodating themselves to the modern world. And it has reinforced among many American intellectuals the bad habit of cultural self-loathing that leeches away moral support for any action that would defend America’s interests and security. Finally, Orientalism has contributed to the corruption of Middle Eastern studies in the West as manifested in the politically and ideologically skewed “scholarship” that has obscured the truth of Islam, a sampling of which can be read in Daniel Pipes’s “Jihad and the Professors,” another gem reprinted in Spencer’s book. As Warraq concludes, “Said has much to answer for.”
The eagerness of Western intellectuals to betray their professional duty to seek truth, and their zeal for idealizing a culture which wouldn’t tolerate their existence for five seconds, are both from the perspective of the jihadists evidence that the West is a spiritually bankrupt dhimmi culture ripe for submission to Islamic hegemony. Unfortunately, too many of our leaders who otherwise understand the nature of the enemy endorse many of the same myths exploded in this indispensable volume; just listen to one of Tony Blair’s closest aides, in a 2004 report on counter-terrorism: Britain’s strategy should be “to prevent terrorism by tackling its underlying causes, to work together to resolve regional conflicts to support moderate Islam and reform and to diminish support for terrorists by influencing relevant social and economic issues.” Meanwhile government-subsidized mosques were preaching jihad and creating the bombers who murdered over 50 Londoners. If we are to prevail in the struggle against jihad, we must first acknowledge the truth about the enemy and his motivations. The Myth of Islamic Tolerance is a good place to start.