Robert Spencer: The Diversity of Islam?

Only thirteen years after 9/11, the Bill Maher/Ben Affleck kerfuffle has broken the media logjam preventing open discussion of whether Islam is a uniquely violent religion, and finally brought that question into the mainstream of the public discourse. The mainstream media and Leftist intelligentsia, badly rattled by Maher’s defection, is circling the wagons with a series of articles about how Maher is wrong, ignorant, bigoted, and after all just a comedian anyway – including aNew York Times column by Nicholas Kristof (a bit player in the Maher/Affleck brawl), predictably entitled “The Diversity of Islam.”

Islam’s glorious diversity, of course, is something that we are all supposed to acknowledge and celebrate, on pain of charges of “Islamophobia” and “bigotry.” For Leftists and Islamic supremacists, it is a cardinal sin toessentialize Islam – that is, to dare to suggest that it actually teaches and stands for anything in particular. It is even worse to say anything that might give anyone the impression that Islam is a monolith. The political and media elites insist that we must see Islam as a marvelously diverse, multifaceted thing – as long as we don’t whisper anything to the effect that its diversity includes mass murderers and rapists acting in accord with mainstream understandings of its texts and teachings.

One irony (among many) of all this is that Islam is, in point of fact, one of the least diverse entities on the planet. A few years I came across a group photo of a summit meeting of Southeast Asian government officials. The Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Thai, Burmese and Chinese officials all had names indigenous to their nations; the Malaysian and Indonesian ministers had names like Muhammad and Abdullah – names indigenous to Arabia. Converts to Islam the world over give up a bit of their cultural diversity to take on Arabic names, and in many cases feel compelled to adopt the dress of a seventh-century Arab. This is not diversity, it’s homogeneity.

Nor is there, despite numerous claims to the contrary, significant diversity in the understanding of Islamic law, Sharia. Wherever Sharia is fully implemented around the world today, from Sudan to Saudi Arabia to Iran, it looks largely the same: freedom of speech is restricted, women and non-Muslims are denied basic rights, apostates from Islam are ostracized or even killed, “heretics” and “blasphemers” are hounded by legal authorities and/or lynch mobs. The four major Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree on 75% of all rulings, and those matters upon which they differ are not central to Islamic faith or practice.

Nonetheless, the diversity of Islam is a key number in the liberal hymnbook, and Kristof gives it a game rendition in last Wednesday’s Times. The goal, of course, is to buttress Affleck’s claim that it is “gross” and “racist” to suggest that there is anything particularly violent about Islam – well, there are those jihad terrorists, yes, but the whole thing is so diverse, you see.

Kristof attempts to illustrate this by asserting that “historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women.” This is a common myth; that Kristof would retail it indicates he is unaware of, or unwilling to confront, the unpleasant facts of the institutionalized oppression of dhimmitude that made for the violent oppression of religious minorities in the Islamic world until they were abolished in the mid-nineteenth century.

But what about tolerant, pluralistic al-Andalus? The philosopher Maimonides, a Jew who lived for a time in Muslim Spain and then fled that supposedly tolerant and pluralistic land, remarked,

You know, my brethren, that on account of our sins God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us….No nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have….We have borne their imposed degradation, their lies, and absurdities, which are beyond human power to bear.

Kristof follows up this wishful thinking with a frankly bizarre sentence: “Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.” “Christian/Nazi/Communist”? “Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist”? These conflations render Kristof’s argument utterly incoherent. Islam is not “the bloodthirsty religion,” but “Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe” is? Is “Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe” a religion? Is it any single thing at all?

The real question is whether Islamic teachings are uniquely “bloodthirsty,” as opposed to “Christian/Nazi/Communist” teachings or anything else. And so Kristof addresses that point: “Likewise, it is true that the Quran has passages hailing violence, but so does the Bible, which recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.” Kristof doesn’t mention that this command is not an open-ended one directed to all believers (such as is found in the Qur’an), but is, rather, a specific directive given to Saul regarding one group only, the Amalekites. If you are neither Saul nor an Amalekite, it doesn’t concern you. Nor can Kristof adduce even a single example of a Jew or a Christian committing an act of violence and justifying it by referring to the order given against the Amalekites.

Nor does Kristof mention that neither Judaism nor Christianity, in any of their forms, have now or have ever had any doctrines equivalent to the Islamic doctrine that the Muslim community “makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians …until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax” (‘Umdat al-Salik O9.8). The quotation comes from a manual of Islamic law certified by the most prestigious and influential institution in Sunni Islam, al-Azhar, as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community.”

I challenge Nicholas Kristof to provide a quotation from any Jewish or Christian authority comparable to al-Azhar, calling upon believers to make war against and subjugate non-believers. He does not do so in this article; instead, he spends the balance of his article retailing anecdotes about non-Muslims who were scoundrels and Muslims who were wonderful people, which proves exactly nothing about the teachings of Islam and whether they have any unique capacity to incite believers to violence. Human beings all have a variety of influences and priorities; Christian villains and Muslim heroes indicate nothing about Christianity or Islam unless their actions are related to their religion’s teachings; Kristof makes no attempt to do so.

Kristof concludes by asserting that “the great divide is not between faiths, but one between intolerant zealots of any tradition and the large numbers of decent, peaceful believers likewise found in each tradition.” Times readers who read this ringing phrase with satisfaction over their morning lattes doubtless didn’t pause to try to name any Jewish or Christian intolerant zealots who committed mass murder on the scale of 9/11 and justified it by pointing to their scriptures. Mere details. Islam is diverse, Islam is peaceful, and stubborn skeptics can always be silenced with shouts of “Tim McVeigh” and “the Crusades” as the great march of tolerance and diversity moves confidently forward.