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Patrick Sookhdeo’s article (July 30, 2005) in London’s The Spectator, “The Myth of a Moderate Islam” reflects a dangerous trend in the war on terror. Under the guise of informing Westerners about Islam, he is in fact spreading the very same disinformation that anti-Islamic polemics have been based upon for over 1,000 years. This plays directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and others, for it encourages the “clash of civilizations” they so appallingly desire. It is indeed of the utmost importance that we learn more about Islam and fight the scourge of extremism with all the tools possible. But Sookhdeo and those like him corrupt this process, seeking to advance their own agenda by turning the war on terror into an ideological war against Islam.
Sookhdeo’s bias is evident from the outset. He argues that terrorists truly represent Islam, writing: “If they say they do it in the name of Islam, we must believe them. Is it not the height of illiberalism and arrogance to deny them the right to define themselves?” The remainder of the essay, however, is an extensive effort to deny other Muslims the right to define themselves by rejecting extremist interpretations of Islam. In fact, less than 5% of Muslims could be classified as fundamentalist in outlook, and of that 5%, less than 0.01% have shown any tendency toward enacting terrorism or “religious violence”. It is thus “the height of illiberalism” to define as terrorists over 1.3 billion Muslims who have nothing to do with “religious violence” because of the misdeeds of a fringe minority of 0.005%. At most, one in every 200,000 Muslims can be accused of terrorism. That is to say there are a maximum of about 65,000 terrorists worldwide — roughly the same figure as the number of murderers on the loose in the U.S. alone, with over 20,000 homicides a year and a population of only 300 million.
Sookhdeo claims that Muslims “must with honesty recognize the violence that has existed in their history.” However, given that the majority of books that record the transgressions of Muslims have been written by Muslims, it is difficult to argue that Muslims have chosen en masse to ignore the atrocities of their past. Of course, there are Muslims who deny many parts of this past, just as there are British people who still deny the atrocities of colonialism; Americans who deny the massacre of the Native Americans; and Germans who deny the Holocaust of 6 million Jews. But the fact remains that Christian civilization has given rise to many more atrocities than has Islamic civilization, even relative to its greater population and longer age.
Nowhere in Islamic history can one find a doctrine similar to Saint Augustine’s cognite intrare (“lead them in” — i.e. “force them to convert”). In fact the Qur’an says the exact opposite: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Augustine’s frightening idea that all must be compelled to “conform” to the “true Christian faith” has unleashed centuries of unparalleled bloodshed.
Indeed, Christians have suffered more under the rule of Christian civilization than under pre-Christian Roman rule or any other rule in history. Millions were tortured and slaughtered in the name of Christianity during the periods of the Arian, Donatist and Albigensian heresies, to say nothing of the various Inquisitions, or the Crusades, when the European armies were saying, as they slaughtered both Christian and Muslim Arabs: “Kill them all, God will know his own.” Needless to say, these transgressions — and indeed all the transgressions of Christians throughout the ages — have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus Christ and or even the New Testament as such. Indeed, no Muslim by definition would ever or will ever blame this on Jesus Christ (the Word made Flesh, for Christians and Muslims). So how is it that Sookhdeo blames Muslim transgressions (even though far less than “Christian” ones) on the Qur’an (the Word made Book, for Muslims)?
By no means was such indiscriminate violence limited to Europe’s “Dark Ages” or to one period of Christian history. The Reformation and Counter Reformation took inter- Christian slaughter to new extremes; two thirds of the Christian population of Europe being slaughtered during this time. Then there were (among many others wars, pogroms, revolutions and genocides) the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815); the African slave trade that claimed the lives of 10 million; and the Colonial Conquests. Estimates for the number of Native Americans slaughtered by the Europeans in North, Central and South America run as high as 20 million within three generations. Despite the ravages of Europe’s violent past, in the 20th century, Western Civilization took warfare to new extremes. A conservative estimate puts the total number of brutal deaths in the 20 th century at more than 250 million. Of these, Muslims are responsible for less than 10 million deaths. Christians, or those coming from Christian backgrounds account for more than 200 million of these! The greatest death totals come from World War I (about 20 million, at least 90% of which were inflicted by “Christians”) and World War II (90 million, at least 50% of which were inflicted by “Christians,” the majority of the rest occurring in the Far East). Given this grim history, it appears that we Europeans must all come to grips with the fact that Islamic civilization has actually been incomparably less brutal than Christian civilization. Did the Holocaust of over 6 million Jews occur out of the background of a Muslim Civilization?
In the 20th century alone, Western and/or Christian powers have been responsible for at least twenty times more deaths than have Muslim powers. In this most brutal of centuries, we created incomparably more civilian casualties than have Muslims in the whole of Islamic history. This continues even in our day — witness the slaughter of 900,000 Rwandans in 1994 in a population that was over 90% Christian; or the genocide of over 300,000 Muslims and systematic rape of over 100,000 Muslim women by Christian Serbs in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. The horrible truth is that, numerically and statistically speaking, Christian Civilization is the bloodiest and most violent of all civilizations in all of history, and is responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths. The production and use of nuclear weapons alone should be enough to make the West stand in shame before the rest of the world. America created nuclear weapons. America is the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons, and Western countries strive to maintain a monopoly over them. As the record stands, we have no moral grounds for objecting to the acquisition of such weapons until we prove willing to forfeit them entirely.
It should also be mentioned that although Islam has the concept of legitimate war in self-defense (as does Christianity, and even Buddhism), nowhere in Islamic culture (or in other cultures that survive today) is there latent the idealization, and perhaps idolization, of violence that exists in Western Culture. Westerners think of themselves as peaceful, but in fact the gentleness and sublimity of the New Testament, and the peace-loving nature of the principles of democracy, are scarcely reflected in Western popular culture. Rather, the entire inclination of popular culture — Hollywood movies, Western television, video games, popular music and sports entertainment — is to glorify and inculcate violence. Accordingly, the relative rates of murder (especially random and serial murder) are higher in the Western World (particularly in the U.S., but even in Europe, taken as a whole) than they are in the Islamic world in counties that are not suffering civil wars, and this is true despite the much greater wealth of the West. So has Sookhdeo ever read the following words?:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
The Qur’an and the Use of Force
Like most anti-Islamic polemics, the rest of Sookhdeo’s article is a mix of fact and fiction. For example, he argues that many of the Qur’anic verses that advocate peace were abrogated by later verses. It is true that many Muslim scholars claim later verses abrogate earlier verses, but the extent of abrogation is greatly debated. Some scholars say that only five verses have ever been abrogated. Some say that over 150 have been abrogated. Sookhdeo’s claim that “wherever contradictions are found, the later-dated text abrogates the earlier one” is thus a gross simplification. To claim that all of the peaceful verses are earlier revelations that have been abrogated by later militant verses is simply false. For example, verses revealed in the last two years of Muhammad’s mission enjoin Muslims to not seek vengeance against those who had driven them from their homes:
Let not the hatred of the people — because they hindered you from the Sacred Mosque — incite you to transgress. Help one another in goodness and reverence, and do not help one another in sin and aggression”(Qur’an 5:2).
O ye who believe, be upright for God witnesses injustice; and let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust. Be just — that is closer to piety” (Qur’an 5:8).
One can hardly imagine a more emphatic message of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Moreover, many highly qualified Muslim scholars have cited the earlier verses advocating peace to dissuade young Muslims from answering the call of the extremists. Would Sookhdeo prefer that these young Muslims listen to those who explain these verses away by applying his truncated version of abrogation?
Significantly enough, like extremist interpreters of Islam, Sookhdeo misrepresents Qur’anic verses by citing them out of context. He claims that Qu’ranic verses 8:59-60 condone terrorism. Verse 8:60 does indeed condone fighting one’s enemies, but it is followed by verse 8:61: “And if they incline unto peace then incline unto it” — another later revelation. In this context, verse 8:60 is advocating that one not take the course of passivism when threatened by an enemy, but 8:61 then limits the application. This hardly constitutes terrorism. Perhaps if Sookhdeo knew Arabic properly, he would have the capacity to read the Qur’an more clearly. But he does not. This makes it difficult to accept him as an authority on Islamic teachings, whatever may be his post or title.
Sookhdeo goes on to claim that one can pick between Qur’anic verses that support violence and those that support peace. This is true, but one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the Qur’an condones violence more than the Old Testament (say, for example, the Book of Leviticus or the Book of Joshua). And if we say that the Qur’an condones violence, what are we to think of the passages of the Bible that directly command slaughter and genocide? In Numbers 31:17 Moses says (of the Midianite captives, whose menfolk the Israelites have already slaughtered): “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and every woman who has known a man intimately.” I Samuel 15:1-9 tells the story of the Prophet Samuel commanding King Saul to eradicate the Amalekites as follows: “Slay both men and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Such extremes were forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad who ordered his community: “Fight in the way of God against those who disbelieve in God! Do not act brutally! Do not exceed the proper bounds! Do not mutilate! Do not kill children and hermits! And likewise, “Attack in the Name of God, but do not revert to treachery; do not kill a child; neither kill a woman; do not wish to confront the enemy.”
To claim that the warfare advocated in some Qur’anic verses is a justification for wanton acts of violence fails to acknowledge that classical interpretations have always limited the scope of such verses. For example, a verse that is often misinterpreted in the modern era is 2:191-92:
Slay the polytheists wherever you find them, and capture them and blockade them, and watch for them at every lookout. But if they repent and establish the prayer and give alms, then let them go their way.
On the one hand, extremists employ this verse to sanction shedding innocent blood. On the other hand, it is employed by non-Muslim polemicists to portray the Qur’an as a bellicose declaration of perpetual warfare. But according to the classical Islamic tradition, this verse cannot be taken as a carte blanche to fight non-Muslims. It can only be applied to the specific polytheists who opposed the early Muslim community and threatened the very survival of Islam. As one authoritative jurisprudent Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-‘Arabi of the 11th – 12th century CE writes:
This verse is general regarding the polytheists, but is restricted by the Prophet’s prohibition of the killing of women, children, religious adherents, and non-combatants. But understood also are those who do not fight you nor are preparing to fight you or harm you. The verse actually means, “Slay the polytheists who are attempting to slay you.”
Such interpretations could be cited ad infinitum. They clearly demonstrate that Sookhdeo’s equation of “radical Muslims” with “medieval jurists” who claim that “Islam is war” is not only unfounded, but an utter distortion. Either Sookhdeo is not qualified to analyze the classical Islamic tradition and compare it to modern deviations, or he is intentionally distorting Islamic teachings. Either way, he proves himself to be completely unreliable.
Sookhdeo’s dubious scholarship is on display throughout this article, particularly when he uses the hackneyed distinction between Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the abode of war) to argue that Muslims accept nothing but war or triumph. These are important classical terms, but Muslim scholars also wrote of many other abodes between them. Some classifications include three abodes, some five, and some seven. In the modern era, Europe and America have been regarded by the vast majority of Muslim scholars as the Dar al-Sulh, or “the abode of treaty.” This means that a Muslim can engage with this world on many levels and should abide by the laws of the land if he or she chooses to live there or to visit. Using this distinction, Muslim scholars have even declared that Muslims can serve in the U.S. Army, even when combating other Muslim countries. Only those who seek conflict continue to misinform the public by limiting the world to Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb.
Sookhdeo’s miscomprehension is also revealed when he discusses the recent conference of Islamic scholars in Jordan, which issued a final declaration that opposed the practice of calling other Muslims non-believers and clarified the qualifications for issuing fatwas. He argues that this has “negated a very helpful fatwa which had been issued in March by the Spanish Islamic scholars declaring Osama bin Laden an apostate.” However, a war of words wherein Muslims begin calling other Muslims unbelievers is precisely what Al-Qaida and other extremists desire. This way they can brand as apostate and kill everyone who disagrees with them. Let us not forget how two days before 9/11, Al-Qaida assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud. This was no mere coincidence; it was a strategic imperative. By removing the most charismatic representative of traditional Islam in Afghanistan, Al-Qaida removed the greatest obstacle to their distortions of Islam, a credible leader who would expose the spurious nature of their claim to represent Islam.
In order to avoid people being killed over even petty faults or sins, classical Islamic law does not allow one to “ex-communicate” another Muslim for sinning nor to declare him or her to be a non-believer. By reaffirming this and removing the possibility of takfir (calling someone an apostate) in our age, King Abdullah’s conference has made the world a safer place. This is true not just for traditional, “moderate” Muslims — the only ones in fact who can effectively isolate the extremists and thus protect non-Muslims — but also for others, such as Jews and Christians whom the Qur’an (and the greatest classical scholars of Islam, such as the famous al-Ghazali) regards as “fellow believers.” Sookhdeo desires to keep this “door” open so that Muslims he does not like can be “ex-communicated.” He wants to keep this “sword” — in effect — unsheathed, completely forgetting that all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52).
Sookhdeo further displays a complete lack of understanding of Islamic law when he asks: “Could not the King reconvene his conference and ask them to issue a fatwa banning violence against non-Muslims also?” In fact this is exactly what did happen by the scholars declaring that the fatwas issued in support of wanton violence are illegitimate. For everyone who commits an act of terrorism in the name of Islam attempts to first justify that act through the issuance — and misuse — of a fatwa, and no one commits terrorist acts without being convinced that terrorism is justified.
The conference reaffirmed that all fatwas must necessarily be bound by a triple system of internal “checks and balances”: all those issuing fatwas must have certain, stringent personal and educational credentials; they must all follow the methodology of the eight Madhahib or tradional schools of Islamic jurisprudence; and no fatwa may go outside the bounds of what the traditional Madhahib allow—precisely what the extremist fatwa s attempt to do. The conference assembled over 180 major scholars from 45 countries, and garnered 17 major fatwas from the greatest Islamic Authorities in the world (including the Sheikh Al-Azhar, Ayatollah Sistani, and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi) to declare this. The conference thus not only de-legitimized the extremists de jure, but, to quote Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek (July 18,2005), constituted “a frontal attack on Al-Qaida’s theological methods.” This is surely a vital tool in the war against extremism, and so the King and his conference are very much to be commended.
Isolating and eradicating extremists does not, however, appear to be Sookhdeo’s agenda. Rather he wishes to misrepresent the Qur’an, history, and contemporary Muslims in order to substantiate his own claim that terrorism and extremism are inherent to Islam. Following this approach is exactly how we will lose the war on terrorism. The true war is the war of ideas.
The lynch-pin in the arguments of Bin Laden, Zarqawi and others is that they think they represent Islam. Traditional Muslim scholars from around the world have confirmed that such deviant ideologies and actions violate the very principles of Islam. By working with such scholars we can help them to consolidate the traditional middle ground of Islam and further expose the extremists for being just that. This is the most efficient, most peaceful and most effective weapon in the war against extremist interpretations of Islam. If we do not use it, we will have surrendered the higher ground in the war of ideas. By responding with extremism of another kind, Sookhdeo and those like him allow the extremists to determine the general inter-religious ambiance and thus the course of events. Rather than providing a realistic presentation of the challenges we face and their possible peaceful solutions, they take advantage of the situation to advance their own hidden polemical agenda and prejudices. In doing so they work not only against Muslims and Islam, but against the whole of humanity, Christians included (or perhaps especially). Onward Christian soldiers, Reverend Sookhdeo?