Playing into the Hands of Osama?


By Robert Spencer

Ed Husain is the author of The Islamist, a book about how he entered and then left the jihadist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. He recently debated Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and has now written a piece in The Guardian, "Stop supporting Bin Laden," about how Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq and I are -- unwittingly, of course -- playing into the hands of Osama bin Laden himself.

This is, of course, a familiar canard, and one that I have dealt with before, when Dinesh D'Souza made the same charge. The contention is that because I -- and Hirsi Ali, and Ibn Warraq, and others -- point out that there is a broad and deeply rooted tradition of violence and supremacism within Islam, therefore we are marginalizing other Islamic traditions and legitimizing bin Laden. In saying this, Husain (and D'Souza) implies that jihadism is a clear Islamic heresy, and that there is a broad tradition within Islam that rejects violence against non-Muslims and Islamic supremacism -- and that Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq and I are ignoring or downplaying it out of some base motives. Bin Laden or someone like him invented jihadism and grafted it onto a religion that has otherwise peaceful teachings.

In reality, however, while there are a few courageous reformers out there, all -- not just one, or a few, but all -- the orthodox sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence teach that it is part of the responsibility of the Islamic community to wage war against unbelievers and subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law (references can be found here). There is no sect or school recognized as orthodox that rejects this. It is not playing into bin Laden's hands to point it out; in fact, it is playing into bin Laden's hands to deny it and denigrate those who point out that it is so, for there can be no reform of what one will not admit needs reforming.

There are some disagreements between modern jihadism and traditional jihad theology: modern jihad is all defensive, as there is no caliph authorized to call offensive jihad, and some assert that only the state authority can call jihad in any case. But these disagreements do not touch on the central point: that it is legitimate to wage religious war. If Ed Husain wishes to pretend to the world that the situation of Islamic theology and jurisprudence is other than what it is, how sincere a reformer can he be? Wouldn't a genuine reformer acknowledge the existence of problematic passages and doctrines and formulate new ways to understand them, rather than pretending that they don't exist at all -- except in the minds of violent fanatics and those he would have you believe are merely hatemongers?

Husain's account of the debate is revealing:

...Organised by the thinktank the Centre for Social Cohesion, and masterfully chaired by Douglas Murray, a capacity crowd of politicians, journalists, Muslims, civil servants, authors, thinktankers, publishers, police bosses, Islamists, and feminists questioned Hirsi Ali and me on issues not ordinarily raised in public. Was the Prophet Mohammad responsible for the murders committed by some of his companions? Was the prophet a military leader? Is political sovereignty for God, or humans?

Good questions. Can we get answers from this reasonable reformist? Alas, no, for the questions themselves are ignorant and hostile:

These, and other, questions stem from a deep ignorance of, and hostility towards, a complex, millennium-old Islamic tradition.

Maybe they do. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be answered. Maybe he answered them in the debate, but he certainly doesn't do so here. And since there are Muslims who say Muhammad ordered his companions to kill prisoners and to murder his opponents, and that he was a military leader, and that political sovereignty belongs to Allah, not to humans, why are non-Muslims ignorant and hostile when they ask these questions?

Just as Wahhabites and Islamists bypass scholarship, context, and history in the name of "returning to the book", Hirsi Ali and others such as Robert Spencer and Ibn Warraq commit exactly the same error. What do I mean? Let's take the question of apostasy. At an Evening Standard debate the other night, Rod Liddle had no qualms in declaring Islam, with a barrage of other baseless abuse, "a fascistic ideology". Why? Because the Qur'an commands the killing of those who abandon it. Really?

Actually, no, but read on:

Well, here are a few facts that might help the new coterie of Islam-bashers retract ill-informed statements: a) there is no verse in the Qur'an that calls for the killing of apostates;

Actually, there is no verse in the Qur'an that calls clearly and unequivocally for the killing of apostates. But Al-Shafi'i, the jurist who founded the school of Sunni jurisprudence that bears his name, held that Qur'an 2:217 called for the killing of the apostate: "And they will not cease from fighting against you till they have made you renegades from your religion, if they can. And whoso becometh a renegade and dieth in his disbelief: such are they whose works have fallen both in the world and the Hereafter." Others point to Qur'an 4:89 -- "But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them" -- as calling for the execution of apostates. The Qur'an interpreter Baydawi explained this verse this way: "Whosoever turns back from his belief (irtada), openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel."

Is it ill-informed Islam-bashing for me to quote Baydawi and al-Shafi'i in their interpretations of these Qur'an verses? I don't see why. Is it not rather disingenuous of Ed Husain to assert flatly that no verse in the Qur'an calls for the killing of apostates, without bothering to inform us that leading Islamic thinkers have said otherwise? I am all for reform and the rejection of the idea that apostates should be killed, but I seriously doubt it can be affected by denial that a problem exists rather than by confrontation of the problem.

b) the Prophet Mohammed did not kill several people who freely left Islam;

Here again, Husain doesn't mention the reason why that fact would be notable: because Muhammad himself directed that apostates be killed:

"If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him." (Bukhari 4.52.60)

"Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him." (Bukhari 9.84.57)

So did he not kill apostates on some occasions? Great. But unfortunately, he didn't direct his followers not to kill apostates. In fact, he did just the opposite. When Muhammad conquered Mecca, according to his ninth-century biographer Ibn Sa‘d, he ordered the Muslims to fight only those individuals or groups who resisted their advance into the city -- except for a list of people who were to be killed, even if they had sought sanctuary in the Ka’bah itself. One of those was Abdullah bin Sa’d, a former Muslim who at one time had been employed by Muhammad to write down the Qur’anic revelations; but he had subsequently apostatized and returned to the Quraysh. He was found and brought to Muhammad along with his brother, and pleaded with the Prophet of Islam for clemency: “Accept the allegiance of Abdullah, Apostle of Allah!” Abdullah repeated this twice, but Muhammad remained impassive. After Abdullah repeated it a third time, Muhammad accepted.

Did he thus reject the killing of apostates? Not quite. As soon as Abdullah had left, Muhammad turned to the Muslims who were in the room and asked: “Was not there a wise man among you who would stand up to him when he saw that I had withheld my hand from accepting his allegiance, and kill him?”

The companions, aghast, responded: “We did not know what you had in your heart, Apostle of Allah! Why did you not give us a signal with your eye?”

“It is not advisable,” said the Prophet of Islam, “for a Prophet to play deceptive tricks with the eyes.”

Apostasy from Islam had always been for Muhammad a supreme evil. When he was master of Medina, some livestock herders came to the city and accepted Islam. But they disliked Medina’s climate, so Muhammad gave them some camels and a shepherd; once away from Medina, the herders killed the shepherd, released the camels and renounced Islam. Muhammad had them pursued. When they were caught, he ordered that their hands and feet be amputated (in accord with Qur’an 5:33, which directs that those who cause “corruption in the land” be punished by the amputation of their hands and feet on opposite sides) and their eyes put out with heated iron bars, and that they be left in the desert to die. Their pleas for water, he ordered, must be refused. That's also in Bukhari, the Hadith collection that Muslims consider most reliable.

It stains credulity, in light of all this, for Ed Husain to give the impression that Muhammad disapproved of the murder of apostates. This kind of assertion may be comforting to non-Muslims who would prefer to believe that the notorious capital charges levied in early 2006 against the Afghan convert from Islam to Christianity, Abdul Rahman, were some sort of anomaly. Unfortunately, this claim simply does not accord with the facts of Muhammad’s life. And here again, if Ed Husain really wishes to work for reform within Islam, he can't stand before his fellow Muslims and pretend that those stories about Muhammad don't exist. They know they exist. He has to deal with them for what they are.

c) Sufyan al-Thawri, a second-generation Muslim, clearly stated that ex-Muslims should be free to exercise their will;

Great. And who is Sufyan al-Thawri? He was a renowned ascetic, but why do all the schools of Sunni jurisprudence -- Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali -- as well as the Shi'ites teach that the apostasy of a male adult merits death, if Sufyan al-Thawri's word is so authoritative? How can Muslims be persuaded to follow Sufyan al-Thawri rather than virtually all the mainstream Islamic jurists? It is easy to impress non-Muslims with a statement like this, when they don't know Sufyan al-Thawri from a hole in the ground, but unfortunately it is Muslims who today must be convinced that Islam doesn't mandate death for apostasy, and invoking Sufyan al-Thawri isn't going to accomplish that.

d) the four schools of Muslim jurisprudential thought that endorsed the killing of apostates did so on grounds of treason and sedition, not theology;

Yet another misleading point. It is true that the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence endorsed the killing of apostates because the apostate was seen as a threat to the stability of the Islamic state. But in that same Islamic jurisprudence, there is no separation between matters of state and theology, between the sacred and the secular. That is a Western, Judeo-Christian distinction. Islam has been since Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina a political and social system as well as an individual religious faith. To say that something is political rather than theological is essentially meaningless in terms of traditional Islam.

And in any case, the death penalty for apostates is based on the statements of Muhammad quoted above, and so have his prophetic seal. To say they're not theological is simply false.

e) the 1843-44 Ottoman reforms enshrined the right of Muslims to accept other religions without state punishment.

Indeed, but under heavy Western pressure, and with resistance from the Islamic clerocracy. These reforms, in other words, were not affected by Islam or from within Islam, but in spite of Islam. Here again, this is not to say that a form of Islam could develop that teaches that the apostate should not be harmed, but the Ottoman reforms did not come about because such a form of Islam had actually developed. It had not.

I could go on.

Oh, please do. And I hope it will be in a debate with me.

Hirsi Ali vociferously objects to the Prophet Mohammed being a moral guide. For me, it is his guidance, compassion, humanity, warmth, love, kindness that rescued me, and others, from Islamist extremism. He warned against religious extremism. His was a smiling face. His tomb in Medina today radiates the peace and serenity to which he was called.

These are lovely greeting-card sentiments, but they do not mitigate the force of Muhammad's statements above, or of his call to his followers to offer non-Muslims conversion, subjugation, or war. I'm glad that Ed Husain has apparently rejected such calls. How can he persuade more of his fellow Muslims to do so?

I concede that there is a problem with extremism among sections of the Muslim population - a context-vacuous literalism continues to threaten the very spirit of Islam.

"A context-vacuous literalism"? So it would appear that Ed Husain is now granting that the Qur'an and Sunnah, taken literally, mandate warfare against unbelievers. It is only by a rejection of that literalism that their force for incitement can be mitigated. If that is what he means, I am with him. But I find this rather odd after he strongly implied above that the Qur'an and Muhammad, taken literally, do not command death for apostates.

That same extremism has unleashed what is called "al-Qaida": an operation that adopts Islamism as its political ideology and Wahhabism as its theology. Mainstream Muslims have common cause with the west in defeating this hybrid beast. Just as Christian fundamentalists threaten the fibre of the Christian spirit (see Chris Hedges' recent book)

Yes, do, and see also my book responding to his hysteria about "Christian theocrats."

...Muslim extremists with petrodollars seek to impose a new, bastardised, soulless, rigid religiosity on the world's Muslims.

As with the issue of apostasy, there is, and has always been, much disagreement and debate within Islam on this and other contentious topics. It is by rediscovering the Muslim pluralist past that we will defeat literalism-based claims of exclusivity in our midst. There is no stronger argument against religious fanatics than to illustrate the scriptural weaknesses of their case.

Here again, Husain seems uncertain as to whether Islamic scripture bears out the jihadist case -- albeit in a literalistic, context-free way -- or not. If their case has scriptural weaknesses, it is odd that no school of Islamic jurisprudence has noticed them and modified its teaching on warfare against unbelievers and apostasy.

Hirsi Ali and others also frequently cite Muslim scripture to support their claims of a mythical "monolithic Islam". In my debate with Hirsi Ali, I was struck by the simple anecdotes she forwarded to illustrate her case. In Hirsi Ali, I see the same selective use of scripture as those that she opposes. Her objections to the Qur'an should also lead her to object to the Bible - after all, Leveticus has more references to stoning and burning sinners than ever found in the Qur'an. That's not to say it makes it right: it's about fairness in criticism....

Fairness in criticism? Physician, heal thyself! Leviticus may indeed talk more about stoning than the Qur'an, but in reality neither Jews nor Christians stone adulterers today, and both have evolved interpretative traditions that reject the literal application of such commands. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where Islamic law is still in force, stonings are still practiced. Eight women are awaiting death by stoning in Iran today, and Iranian authorities justify this by quoting Islamic law, not the statements of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If she is employing a "selective use of scripture," so are they, and yet Husain's ire is directed at her, not at them. In my own books I've explained at length how Islamic authorities interpret Islamic texts to justify warfare against unbelievers and other atrocities: it is not my interpretation, or Ayaan's, but theirs.

Will Ed Husain confront it as such and work in good faith for Islamic reform, or will he continue to attack those who, if he really rejects jihad and Islamic supremacism, should be his allies?

When ex-Muslims such as Hirsi Ali ignore the nuances, complexities, and plurality inherent within Islam and allow the actions of a minority of Wahhabite-Islamists to speak for a billion Muslims, then she plays into the hands of extremists and allows their discourse to dominate one of the great faiths of our world. Worse, it creates a public space in which attacking all Muslims and Islam becomes acceptable, even fashionable. Demonising Europe's second largest minority helps nobody. No good can come of ratcheting up the prejudice against them. Yes, identify and combat extremists and in that fight you will find orthodox Muslims as partners. But continue to attack with ignorance, spite and hatred our history, our prophet, our scriptures, our scholars: then you confirm the al-Qaida narrative of a war against Islam. No, there is no moral equivalence between Bin Laden's murderous worldview and his critics. But a damage is being done that may take generations to repair.

When Muslims such as Ed Husain ignore the deep scriptural, theological and legal foundations of Islamic violence and supremacism, rather than acknowledging those foundations and calling for reform and reinterpretation of those aspects of Islam, then he plays into the hands of extremists and allows their discourse to dominate one of the great faiths of our world. For it will continue to dominate as long as it goes unchallenged, and Ed Husain and others like him hinder genuine reform by attacking those who are trying to call attention to these aspects.

Then he plays the basest "Islamophobia" card, suggesting that Ayaan is creating an environment in which "attacking all Muslims and Islam becomes acceptable, even fashionable." No. If anyone is doing that, it is Ed Husain: if he really wants to end "ignorance, spite and hatred" directed at Muslims, he could start by ending his sly disingenousness, his evasions, his half-truths and finger-pointing in the face of the biggest crisis of our time.