27 September 2015

Glenn Beck, Can We Talk?

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Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Imam Khalid Latif shake hands in front of Pope Francis during an interfaith ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Imam Khalid Latif shake hands in front of Pope Francis during an interfaith ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. http://www.christianpost.com/news/pope-francis-proves-to-be-a-unifying-proclaimer-of-jesus-at-interfaith-gathering-in-new-york-city-146208/

Glenn, I’ve never met you, but I just read your new book, It IS about Islam. Congratulations to you and your team for a well-written book, with good sources (though very selective), and a great passion for the welfare of our country!

Can we talk about it? As someone who lived for sixteen years in Algeria, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine, and as a scholar of contemporary Islam, I see much that is true, but also much that is skewed, mostly because you were so intent on proving that “the world is going over the cliff,” and that Muslims are pushing us over it. If we don’t speak out loud and clear, you warn us, America is next. It’s that serious, you believe.

Let’s take a deep breath and consider the evidence. Let’s start with what you get right.


Classical Islamic Law, Jihad, House of Islam and House of War

Islam, indeed, is unique among the three monotheistic faiths, in that its founder was both prophet and statesman. But it’s less unique than you think. The Israelites coming out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership functioned as a theocracy. After much chaos and some divine reticence, God allowed them some kings, though it turned out badly for them in the long run. Still, King David is revered in all three faiths, and for us Christians he foreshadowed the Messiah, Jesus Christ, whose kingdom was “not of this world,” but will become a comprehensive rule of justice and peace over a New Heavens and a New Earth when he comes again. So the picture of just rule is actually common to these faiths, though playing out very differently in each case.

Here are some points worth reiterating about classical Islamic law:

1. Muhammad did initiate military conquests, which his successors continued with astonishing success.

2. The “sword verses” in the Qur’an that you cite were deemed by the consensus of scholars/jurists from all five schools of law to have abrogated the more peaceful, “live and let live” ones.

3. As a result, by the 10th century Muslims assumed a binary view of the world – the House of Islam versus the House of War, implying that through jihad they should strive to bring the whole world under the authority of Muslim rule.

4. You rightly single out the 18th-century Wahhabi revolution in Arabia as the launch of the modern Islamist revolution, which was then given ideological and practical expression as an urban mass movement by Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood (MBs) in Egypt and Mawdudi’s parallel movement in India/Pakistan. Sayyid Qutb, a latecomer to the MBs, nevertheless spearheaded the radical jihadi ideology picked up by many splinter groups starting in the 1970s.

5. You emphasize the Shia millenarian stream (the coming of the Hidden Imam as the Mahdi), the powerful influence of the Iranian Revolution across the Islamic spectrum, and the eschatological fervor evident in the ideology of ISIS, along with its horrific record of bloodshed, ruthless authoritarianism, and religious persecution of all who disagree with them, starting with other Muslims.

6. You’re right about the classical formulations of Islamic law butting against current norms of human rights – for women’s rights, freedom of expression, and especially freedom of religion in Muslim-majority states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and others (though each case is different).


I do have some sharp disagreements with your book, however.


Religious interpretations evolve with changing times

Islam is like any other faith tradition – it evolves over time, as people come to the texts and customs of the past with new questions borne out of the worldview and concerns of their day. So you wrongly equate “political Islam” (Islamism) with “Islam.” You acknowledge that most Muslims are “moderate,” but then add: “But increasingly I fear these Muslims are the exception” (p. 9).

Here you rightly point to a fact picked up by social scientists studying religion. Muslims have become generally more religiously conservative over the last few decades. But there are reasons. Among the three most important ones:

1. Globally, people of all religions have gotten a lot more religious since the 1970s (see the Fundamentalism Project, five volumes coming out in the late 80s and early 90s, and my blog on fundamentalism).

2. Saudi Arabia's petrodollars bankrolling the spread of their Wahhabi/Salafi ideology all over the world since the 1960s. This ultraconservative and literalistic reading of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sayings (the Sunna) is a huge factor working in conjunction with Qutb’s writings.

3. Most Muslims feel angry about all kinds of perceived injustices against Muslims in Bosnia (1990s), Palestine and Kashmir, and Western (mostly American) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including US drone attacks killing scores of civilians. Glenn, you yourself recognize in your book that the US war in Iraq helped to create ISIS.


Sharia and American Muslims

Your description of Sharia (p. 121ff) is skewed. You define it as the “codification of the rules of the lifestyle (or deen) ordained by Allah.” Sharia was never codified – that’s a modern, nation-state term implying law codes drafted by a country’s legislative body.

Islamic history is the story of two competing powers – the caliph, sultan, shah, warlord or dynastic king versus the thick network of Islamic scholars/jurists (ulama) and their institutions, including a powerful network of endowed mosques, schools (madrassa), sharia courts, and Sufi centers. The latter generally supported the political status quo, but more often than not looked the other way, resisted political appointments to the state courts, and sometimes even opposed regimes they considered iniquitous. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), whom you mention, spent a good deal of his life in prison.

So no, in practice Islamic societies experienced a near constant tug of war between religion and state, with a large space for what we call today “civil society.” Religion and state were never automatically welded in Islamic societies. Further, Sharia was very weak on constitutional law, even if you choose to call the political theory writings in that context by that name. It was more an exercise in justifying the less than ideal status quo by jurists who sought to curry favor with the rulers.

Now to the present day. First, the binary view of the world fell off a cliff, to use your terms, in the 18th century among the ulama establishment. Seeking to make their peace with Western colonial hegemony over their territories and lives (most puppet rulers put in place by the West also imported Western law codes and limited Shari’a courts to family law). Jihad now became a defensive ideology in the service of a modern nation-state eager to at least seem to be fitting in with the new world order, and this especially after WWII and the birth of multiple new nations.

That’s why many Muslims resisted, like Hasan al-Banna and his ilk, especially after the Ottoman caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Attatürk in 1924. No, they said, let’s get back to the classical theory of the House of War and the House of Islam. “To h… with the defensive jihad of the ulama!,” roared Sayyid Qutb, “We cannot rest till the whole world comes under the dominion of God’s law!” And so the modern jihadi movement was launched (he was executed by Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1966).

Second, with the redefinition of jihad came an acceptance of democracy as the best way to rule a modern state. Among the 48 nations that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Syria. No Muslim country opposed it; only Saudi Arabia abstained. Naturally, one has to point out the irony here – in practice most of these countries have never been able to establish a working democracy. But then, you cannot blame “Islam” for that. Look at the postcolonial states in Africa! And recall too that it took us over 200 years to get our democracy working, in spite of a bloody civil war that just about destroyed us!

This is why, Glenn, I cannot accept your statement, “Democracy itself is un-Islamic … Sharia does not respect individual rights.” I’ve written a great deal about Islam and democracy (see, for instance, this most recent publication). The largest Gallup poll ever conducted was from 2001 to 2007 in 35 different Muslim countries. Vast majorities said they wanted to be able to elect their government and that civil and political freedoms were important to them. Specifically, when asked whether they would guarantee freedom of speech if drafting a new constitution (defined as, “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social and economic issues of the day”), 94% answered yes in Egypt, 93% did so in Iran and 90% in Indonesia.

What also comes out clearly from this poll is that substantial majorities want both democracy and sharia – with majorities only in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh wanting it as “the only source of legislation.” Most others want it as “a source.” Also, both men and women score within a similar range on the issue of women’s civil and political rights. Having the same rights as men was chosen by 90% of respondents in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Lebanon; 85% in Iran. So obviously, their definition of sharia is quite different from yours!

Third, your statement that all the major US Islamic organizations are beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood is completely overblown. There were certainly students who have come to the US over the years who were related to this movement – it’s been so very influential all over the ME since the 1930s, and because Hamas is popular with at least a third of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, it has representation in this country as well. But from there to say that political Islam dominates the US Islamic landscape is an impossible leap.

You make a lot of Ismail Elbarasse’s arrest in 2004, but apart from a Washington Post article following the incident of the filming of the bridge and subsequent search of their home, I could find no more articles on this affair except on the various sites that purport to “expose jihad”: “global Muslim Brotherhood watch” and counter jihad report. He was never indicted for wrongdoing, let alone convicted.

The closest to a juridical body that most Muslims see as authoritative in this country is the Fiqh [jurisprudence] Council of North America (FCNA, see my blog showing that on the basis of the 2011 Gallup poll in the US we see that most American Muslims distrust their own organizations). It’s closely associated with the conservative, but also mainstream, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). If you point to “About ISNA” on their website, you will see “ISNA’s position on terrorism and religious extremism,” which is taken from a fatwa (legal opinion) handed down by FCNA. Here I quote one of the paragraphs, which follows an exposition of jihad that is the classic modern one I mentioned above.


“Third, it is a disingenuous and misleading tactic to focus exclusively on verses that deal with the contingencies of legitimate self-defense, and to ignore the repeated and consistent statements of the Qur’an that emphasize the sanctity of human life [5:32], respect for human dignity [17:70], acceptance of plurality, including plurality of religious convictions [5:48, 11:118], peaceful co-existence with all [60:8-9], universal and unbiased justice even with the enemy [4:135, 5:8], universal brotherhood [49:13] and mercy to all creation [21:107]. The Qur’an is a whole and cohesive book, and should not be interpreted in a piecemeal fashion” (emphasis theirs).


One last example … Imam Sayyid M. Syeed, one of ISNA’s top leaders for decades and also a personal friend of mine (we’ve worked together on several dialogue initiatives) said this to the press about Pope Francis’ recent visit to the US: “Francis’ visit is even more important for Muslims than it is for Catholics.” He explained that in contrast to the pope who 1,000 years ago helped to launch the First Crusade against Muslims, “now there is a pope who wants to destroy hatred the world over, a pope who named himself for a 13th-century saint who counseled Christians to cease their violence against Muslims.”

He concluded, “This pope is our pope.”


Your ranting about the threat of Muslims IS an infringement on religious freedom

I’m guessing that in reading these statement made by American Muslims you thought, “but that’s taqiya, or lies; they just say that …” I reply, based on just the little evidence I’ve presented here, that you’ve bought into conspiracy theories that are warranted by your version of right-wing politics. You constantly rail on the liberal Washington establishment and mainstream media, but that also makes it very difficult for you to listen to any other voice.

Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, wrote a telling column in USA Today. Reacting to Donald Trump’s refusal to question the man who said Obama was Muslim and Ben Carson’s stating just like you that Islam and our freedom were incompatible and that therefore no Muslim should be president, he reminded his readers that religious freedom in this country has a checkered past. Muslims are just the latest bogeyman.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to have been called a Muslim (an atheist and more), Catholics, almost until Kennedy was elected, were denounced as “fake Christians, amoral villains and traitors to the nation.” Jews have suffered at least that much discrimination and rancor. But also your own people, the Mormons, “were targeted as slaves of a religious despot whose liberty was incompatible with our own. Before this culture war was over, Mormon leaders would be sued, jailed, beaten, stripped naked, tarred and feathered, and murdered.”

Glen, you emphasize the good example of the Nazarene. Jesus surely would want us to speak kindly and truthfully about one another. His first commandment was love.

I challenge you to make friends with fellow Americans who are Muslims, as many of us have done. They are wonderful people you and I can learn a lot from. Yes, they will continue to work out their beliefs and practices within the context of this pluralistic, democratic society (that’s the thrust of my own academic work). And yes, law enforcement will bear down without mercy on all of those who threaten the security of our nation, whether Muslim or Christian extremists, or militia members like Timothy McVeigh. And by the way, terrorism specialists are not nearly as worried as you are about global jihad.

Glenn, I hope we can keep talking about these issues.