Sunday, April 6, 2008
Robert Spencer: Soft on Islam?
Today’s critique Jihad Watch may be the subtlest of my variety of complaints I have articulated on this blog.
Obviously, Robert Spencer has been, for a few years now, remarkably prolific and effective (within the severe limitations of the surrounding culture of PC MC) as a critic of Islamic jihad and neo-dhimmitude. For the most part, I have no problem with his “hardness” with respect to those aspects of Islam. There remains, however, an important dimension to the overall issue on which he seems a little too soft.
This dimension has several features:
1) Overall (and despite what many of his pro-Islam critics claim), Spencer refuses to condemn Islam itself.
He remains fixed at a position where he only condemns the jihad doctrine of Islam and the Sharia law that is central to Islamic tradition and culture, and which many Muslims try to concretize wherever they have the power to do so, whether by hook (military conquest, violent intimidation and terror) or by crook (subtler methods of what Spencer calls “stealth jihad”).
This seems to be a fine distinction, for the dedicated reader of Jihad Watch and its sister site Dhimmi Watch over the years (as I am) will become profoundly inculcated in the impression, based on the ever-growing mountain of evidence presented on those sites, that the menace of jihad and its raison d’etre—the concretization of Sharia law wherever possible, ideally over the whole planet—pertain to the very heart, brain, marrow, blood, tissues and nerves of Islam. I.e., only by a process of tenuous abstraction could one extract those central parts of Islam for the purposes of condemnation, but then consider the remainder, apart from those central parts, to be viable as potentially okay for non-Muslims.
His Vice-President at Jihad Watch, Hugh Fitzgerald, has over the past year or so begun to harden his language here and there and comes closer than does Spencer to actually condemning Islam itself. His language, unfortunately, continues to suffer from the curious phenomenon of “close but no cigar” asymptotization, whereby the analyst cannot seem to firmly, unequivocably, vividly and simply state that Islam is the Problem and that therefore all Muslims—not just some of them—are the concrete agents of that Problem. We may return to Fitzgerald in subsequent essays on this blog that stem directly from this one.
This brings us to the second feature of Spencer’s problematic approach to the Problem of Islam:
2) He repeatedly frames his condemnations of those putatively detachable parts of Islam in terms of a challenge to the Islam Apologists he debates, as well as to Muslims at large who seem—in their relative passivity, ambivalence or downright disingenuousness—to be more or less enabling the bad parts of Islam.
And that challenge is, in a nutshell:
a) Denounce the bad aspects of Islam
b) Make your denunciation formal, explicit, comprehensive and utterly absent of the disingenuous loopholes which characterize all previous denunciations of terrorism by Muslims
c) Begin instituting education programs directed at fellow Muslims throughout mosques, Islamic organizations and Islamic media against the bad aspects of Islam.
Now, there are a couple of problems with Spencer’s challenge:
1) The first problem we already dealt with in #1 above: it implies that the menace of Islam pertains only to a part, or parts, of Islam, which can apparently be detached from a good (or at least harmless) part (or parts) of Islam, and that the menace of Islam therefore does not permeate all of Islam (and by extension does not render all Muslims colluders in that menace—not merely those Muslims who continue to support and/or enable Islam either actively or passively, but all Muslims insofar as we cannot sufficiently identify the truly harmless Muslims and effectively discriminate a sufficient number of them from the other Muslims we agree to acknowledge as colluders in the menace of Islam). Note: the preceding parenthetical comment will become important later in our analysis.
2) Secondly, Spencer’s challenge implies the realistic capability for a sufficient number of Muslims to rise to the challenge to the degree necessary—i.e., to the degree that would effectively annul the menace of Islam. Spencer himself has many times (albeit in parenthetical caveats) expressed the unlikely prospect of this capability on the part of a sufficient number of Muslims. What then is the point of repeatedly issuing the challenge? And what is the point of making this challenge a fundamental aspect of the structure of his overall critique of the bad parts of Islam? Spencer has never clarified answers to these questions, much less has he even adverted to them at all. Only two conclusions can be drawn, it seems:
a) Spencer is being disingenuously rhetorical: he reasonably assumes that a sufficient number of Muslims will not rise to his challenge, but he does not candidly admit this. Instead, he persists in his unrealistic challenge—which he himself agrees is unrealistic but which he frames sincerely as though he really does believe it is realistic—only to highlight the significant, and ongoing, absence of Muslims in fact rising to that challenge.
b) Or, Spencer really does believe in the possibility of Muslims rising to the challenge, and though he admits it is unlikely, he holds out the hope they will and frames his whole mission around that hope—likely informed by his Christian faith in the essential goodness of man (including Muslims) and the ever-present possibility each man will turn to God (i.e., turn away from the bad aspects of Islam).
Now, (a) has certain advantages: It puts the onus of the problem squarely back onto the Islam Apologists to demonstrate that they sincerely desire reform and modernization, which rhetorically is superior. However, this rhetorical superiority requires for maximum effect the following factors:
i) a conducive and mainstream sociopolitical atmosphere surrounding the challenger
ii) a realistically widespread reformist base among the Muslims
iii) closely related to (i) and (ii), an irrefutable position revolving around the central points of the challenge—to wit: the whole complex issue of modern Western superiority and the inferiority of at least those large chunks of Islam which Spencer is asking Muslims to foreswear. While this superiority is of course clear to the tiny minority of Jihad Watchers, it still requires immense labor to adumbrate and articulate. Why? Because the factors of (i) and (ii) are not only lacking—what are in their place are massively hostile to Spencer's challenge: For (i), we have the mainstream dominance of PC MC, and for (ii), we have Muslims who at best remain confused by their mental disarray and cannot participate in a rational manner in any constructive dialogue, or who at worst are evidently practicing elaborate taqiyya to forestall any meaningful dialogue and fair compromise in the first place.
One disadvantage of (a) is that Spencer would have to maintain a major lie for years—not a comfortable thing to do for a Christian, no matter how much such a lie is spun and finessed with weaselly language (e.g., “While I maintain this challenge to Muslims, it is probably not very likely that sufficient Muslims will in fact rise to the challenge. . .”). Personally, I wouldn’t mind lying in order to proactively defend ourselves from the menace of Islam; but somehow, I doubt Spencer would make the same admission so blandly. More importantly, the other disadvantages of (a) are that it is superfluous at best, and counter-productive at worst. It is superfluous because Spencer need not convey the impression that he sincerely expects his challenge to be met: he can easily establish his conviction—framed as his own personal opinion—that the likelihood of his challenge being met is exceedingly unrealistic and that all our attention, energies and policies should be geared to that grim reality; while at the same time he can leave the challenge on the table.
The amended posture, then, would be:
Dear Muslims -- ALL Muslims, not merely some prefixed, suffixed or qualified truncation detached from Islam:
Okay, Muslims, here’s what you need to do. Let us be honest right from the start: We don’t think you are going to do it and we believe in taking every precaution on the basis of our realistic cynicism. But if perchance you wish to pleasantly surprise us and actually set the gears in motion of a genuine dialogue for peace and mutual cooperation for a workable future with the West according to the tenets of our challenge, we will turn our cynical ship around and meet you halfway—as long as we are convinced you really mean it. Don’t wait too long, however, Dear Muslims, there may well be a time in the not-too-distant future when it will be too late for us to turn our ship around! Oh, and in case you didn't get the gist of this message to you: we are not putting our self-defense on hold while we wait for you to meet our challenge. We are proceeding as though you will NOT meet our challenge. So either pleasantly surprise us—soon!—or cower in fear at our coming wrath. Capice?
Of course, this amended posture suffers just as much as Spencer’s current posture from a woeful lack of support from our surrounding sociopolitical culture. Nevertheless, it is more honest and—down the line, should our surrounding sociopolitical culture actually begin to warm up to our views—it errs better on the side of cautious cynicism and rational realism. I.e., our #1 priority should be our pro-active self-defense. We should not be pursuing that self-defense with any hope in Muslims at all. We should assume the worst: we should base our policies on the presumption that Muslims are a menace—whether overtly or covertly. Should Muslims pleasantly surprise us in a timely manner with massively convincing evidence, we will re-orient our position. But not one second sooner.
This would be the hard stance, in contradistinction to Spencer’s ostensibly soft stance.
As Emanuel Tanay, a German victim of the murderous mass pathology of Nazism has written in his lucidly cogent public e-mail in which he argues that just as it did not matter during the rise of Hitler that “most Germans were peaceful” so it does not matter whether or not “most Muslims are peaceful” (even if we could in fact determine this, let alone actually distinguish the harmless Muslims from the dangerous ones), for he concludes:
. . .for those of us who watch it unfold, we must pay attention to the only group that counts; the fanatics who threaten our way of life.
Of course, Spencer does “pay attention” to the fanatics—massively—through his site Jihad Watch. But I do not interpret Dr. Tanay’s “pay attention” to be restricted to documenting the metastasis of fanaticism among Muslims and occasionally analyzing its underpinnings. I think what Dr. Tanay is getting at here is that we must focus all our energies, intelligence and activities on the “fanatics”—and this necessarily entails ignoring, as pragmatically irrelevant, the supposed “majority” of “peaceful Muslims”. Again, from everything Spencer says about this particular pivot in the Problem of Islam, it does not seem he would agree, or—if he is being rhetorically clever but insincere about his true position on the matter—then he has nevertheless been solidly, for years now, laying the foundation for a posture that does indeed “pay attention” to a putatively sufficient number of Muslims assumed to be, at least potentially, effectively reformist.
Meanwhile, the disadvantage of (b) compounds the problem of (a): For, if Spencer is being sincere about his challenge and the hope (however "unlikely" he would put it) that guides this challenge, and if this sincerity is grounded in a Christian optimism about the potential for humans to be “touched” by God, then we have a framework where our requisitely ruthless self-defense might well be compromised. This would be to “pay” too much “attention” to that sector of Islam of peaceful Muslims who should not be significant to our proactive self-defense—just as the “peaceful” German and Japanese citizens proved to be entirely insignificant to the tragically necessary measures we had to take against their regimes—and therefore against them too—during World War II.
I have in a couple of essays touched on this apparent Christian bias in Spencer. I would also add this quote that was part of an article approvingly featured on Jihad Watch last month. Its writer is Raymond Ibrahim, a critic of Islam, about a Coptic priest named Zakaria Botros, who has engaged in many arguments with Muslims over the years and has, according to Ibrahim, shown their attempts at counter-argument to be specious and shoddy:
Botros’s motive is not to incite the West against Islam, promote "Israeli interests," or "demonize" Muslims, but to draw Muslims away from the dead legalism of sharia to the spirituality of Christianity. . . the ultimate reason for Botros’s success is that—unlike his Western counterparts who criticize Islam from a political standpoint—his primary interest is the salvation of souls. . .
To that end, he doesn't just expose troubling aspects of Islam. Before concluding every program, he quotes pertinent biblical verses and invites his readers to come to Christ. . .
. . . Many Western critics fail to appreciate that, to disempower radical Islam, something theocentric and spiritually satisfying—not secularism, democracy, capitalism, materialism, feminism, etc.—must be offered in its place. The truths of one religion can only be supplanted by the truths of another.
To which Spencer appended his seal of approval: “Excellent. Read it all.”
Of course, Spencer does not engage in the rhetoric or stylistics of Botros. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t share his underlying belief in the overarching framework of our epochal entanglement with Islam. This is not the place to get embroiled in the complex issue of Western Secularism, the progress of Modernity, and Judaeo-Christianity. Suffice it to say that, although I respect Judaeo-Christianity as one major source of modern Western Secularism, I fear I rather tend to a position at odds with Spencer and other conservative Christians on this matter, insofar as I see modern Western Secularism as not only a beneficent unfolding of Judaeo-Christianity, but also as its irrevocable mutation. Both Spencerian Christians and, ironically enough, Leftist secularists, share a perception of some essential distinction between Secularism and Judaeo-Christianity, and therefore frame issues relating to these in terms separate sociocultural spheres, if not a fundamental antagonism on certain levels.
I, on the other hand, see Secularism as the latest stage in the ongoing evolution of the Western genius that existed previously, for some 1,500 years, as Christendom. For all the faults of Secularism, I admire and support this latest phase of Western development as an amazing and spectacularly progressive moment in the history of Mankind. It is our collective and intelligent support for the modern West along with the sociopolitico-cultural matrix of Secularism it has developed that will be our strength against Islam. And this support of modern Western secularism is not a repudiation of the Western heritage of Judaeo-Christianity by any means. Both must work together in the hearts and minds of Westerners to give us the strength and cohesion and intellect to withstand the menace of Islam: it would be unrealistic to expect the West to split into two halves and choose only one half by which to forge our self-identity in order to resist and overcome and Islam Redivivus. While there is a tension between Judaeo-Christianity and Secularism, there is no reason to exacerbate that tension into an internecine fission. The tension only reflects the internal organic dynamism and epochal birth pains of the West’s ongoing adventure into the future. In many ways, Secularism has refined Judaeo-Christianity for the better; and conversely, in many ways, Secularism requires the values of its Judaeo-Christian heritage to keep it on the right course as it unfolds into the uncertain future.
The one fly in the ointment here—and it is a major problem—is PC MC, which is, like it or not, an intrinsic part of the organism of modern Western Secularism. We should not, however, throw the baby (Secularism) out with the dirty noxious bathwater (PC MC).
It it true, Spencer did come down decidedly on the right side of at least one angle of this issue when he debated Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza argued, among other silly points, that radicalized Muslims hate us mainly (if not solely) because of our Secularism—which he agrees with the Muslims is an immoral and decadent culture that needs to be changed—while more “moderate” Muslims he claims are reasonably repulsed by Secularism (even if they don’t kill people to express their revulsion). Spencer rightfully pointed out two important facts to vitiate D’Souza’s argument:
Firstly, expansionist supremacist military jihad pre-dates Western Secularism. Indeed, Muslims were waging such jihad on the West for centuries while the West was as Christian as could be (approximately one millennium of jihad attacks on the West, from the 7th century to the 17th century, markedly petering out after that but by no means abandoned);
And secondly, Islamic societies are riddled with most, if not all, of the same immoralities they accuse the West of having (Spencer might have added, but didn’t as far as I know, that these same immoralities in Muslim societies are further compounded by the Puritanically schizophrenic pathology of Islamic culture which exacerbates the hypocrisy involved).
So far, Spencer is right on the money. However, while he rightly repudiates the D’Souza view in its superficially simple-minded form, I am not so sure Spencer repudiates the deeper, more intelligent version of basically the same argument which, by the way, has been a theme of Pope Benedict XVI: to wit, that the modern West has lost too much of its Judaeo-Christian moral center, that this is evidenced in a multitude of ways in social pathologies ultimately rooted in an amorphously widespread agnosticism-cum-atheism, and that the way to rectify this is to pursue some form of Judaeo-Christian revival that will influence if not transform Secularism.
There are various ways of pursuing that form of Judaeo-Christian revival, of course; and Spencer, from everything I’ve read of his writings, does not seem to be the type to pursue it in any way that would resuscitate theocracy. Nor, as we intimated above, does he agree with dimwitted D’Souza that if we just rein in our “offensive” pop culture, then Muslims will be mollified enough to stop terrorism. I think Spencer simply generally believes that the more Western people recover Judaeo-Christian values—freely and not through governmental or legal coercion—, the stronger we will become in our self-identity and moral fiber, and thus more capable of standing up for our civilization in the face of forces that seek to undermine and ultimately overthrow it. This is fine, though it leaves our solution to the Problem of Islam rather up in the air and to the winds of the free wills of millions of Westerners (or to the listing of divine grace. . . ?).
More troubling than this, though, is the implicit latitude this would propose in the interest of a Christian mercy toward Muslims, of keeping the door ever open to accomodate the possibility their conversion to Christianity—a thematic latitude, as we noted above, of the present Pope, who could not have exemplified it more dramatically or significantly than when he chose to baptize, on Eastern Sunday no less, as a new convert out of Islam a rather well-known Italian Muslim, Magdi Allam; or when he will shortly pray, at Ground Zero on his first trip to the U.S.A. as Pope no less, for the conversion of the 911 terrorists!
And the problem of this latitude is clear, as we have explored above: if it is to be more than merely an empty rhetorical expression of some virtue otherwise unrealized in any meaningfully concrete manner, then it will perforce have the effect of softening and therefore hindering, in one way or another, the necessarily ruthless measures we need to take for our proactive self-defense.
3) The third problem with the Spencerian rhetorical challenge to Muslims is that it assumes such measures which Muslims would take—even if there were a sufficient number of them rising to the challenge—would actually work. Here is one example of that Spencerian challenge, culled from a typically parenthetical editorial remark made by Spencer introducing some news story about dangerous Muslims, one of hundreds which could be found in the Jihad Watch archives:
Update on the Toronto Jihad Plot. Oh, and by the way, has the Muslim community in Canada gotten around to instituting transparent, inspectable programs in every school and mosque teaching against the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism? No? So then how can we be sure there won’t be other such plots?
The screamingly obvious first problem with Spencer’s wording here that jumps out at the reader is: Even if the Muslim community in Canada “gets around to” doing those things Spencer outlines, this will still not make us “sure” there won’t be other such plots. So why does Spencer imply that it would make us “sure”?
The second problem we have already gone into at length above: it is, of course, an extremely unlikely prospect that any Muslim “community” will do what Spencer expects them to do. So why even propose they do it at all, when we know they won’t? As I said above, we need to move beyond harboring any reasonable expectations at all from Muslims, to a more grimly realistic appreciation of the essentially and inveterately hostile intractability of Islam.
The third, somewhat subtler problem with Spencer’s phrasing in the quote we have also explored above: namely, he is truncating the Problem of Islam into “jihad ideology and supremacism”, implying there is another large and viable part of Islam outside this isolated truncation which could (or even which already does) realistically exist, operate and flourish without that truncation. This too is an unrealistic expectation and one which we need to move beyond.
1) Islam is the Problem: Islam, the whole Islam, and nothing but Islam.
2) The Problem in question is the menace Islam poses on the West, and on the Rest of the World.
3) All Muslims—not just some of them—are the concrete agents of that Problem—whether actively or passively.
4) It should not be our problem to go through the extraordinary labor involved in weeding out the dangerous Muslims from the harmless Muslims:
a) All the onus of solving this problem should be squarely on the shoulders of Muslims themselves;
b) and we should not hold our breath waiting for them to do it: we should proceed on the assumption that they will not reform.
5) All four points above need to be the central points of our guiding paradigm with respect to how we analyze and act upon the Problem of Islam.
Because Spencer, for whatever reasons, would not accept #5, I conclude he is too soft on Islam.
Continue reading Part 2.