David Frum has entered the jihad fray hoping to project his Western thinking onto what he like the Koran to be. Isn't that special? And tiresome. This is not Frum's milieu and it shows. I have been studying and covering this single subject intensively for 3 years now after coming to it after 9/11/01. I won't pretend to know as much as Spencer, Yeor, Bostom, Warraq, but I do know that they provide empirical evidence. They do the work to substantiate their deductions. It's not theory. It's fact and they back it up.
Frum switching gears on Bat Yeor, arguably the most important historical scholar of our time diminishes him in no small measure. The man is way out of his league here. And it is damaging at a critical time. The more the various aspects of jihad and sharia take hold, Americans will want to know what is what. Frum putting lipstick on a pig wastes precious time. Something we do not have a lot of.
Over at Jihadwatch, Robert Spencer rips Frums intellectually lazy and dishonest argument to shreds. No contest. " I am sorry that Mr. Frum has decided to frame it as an attack on Bat Ye'or and me, or at least as if it is something we would oppose. Also, he does sincere Muslim reformers a disservice by painting an overly optimistic picture of what they need to do, without even bothering to mention that even to begin this undertaking puts their lives at risk. They deserve better."
David Frum appears to have changed his mind about Bat Ye'or, the pioneering historian of dhimmitude and the Cassandra of Eurabia. In 2002, he called her "the great Islamic scholar," a "very great scholar: original, authoritative, lucid."
I agree with those assessments, but today Frum apparently does not. For in a new article published in Moment Magazine and reprinted at the American Enterprise Institute site, Frum portrays her -- and me -- as one side of a Manichaean dualism (of which the other side is represented by John Esposito and Karen Armstrong) that fails to take into account the nuance, the richness, the multifaceted way in which Muslims have approached the Qur'an throughout history, and instead, in an over-simplistic and reductionist way, finds the cause of today's Islamic violence in the Qur'an and Muhammad:
[...] After the 9/11 terror attacks, Americans understandably felt a new surge of curiosity about Islam. In response, scholars and writers have offered two broad types of answer.
The first answer is defensive and apologetic. As typified, for example, in the work of the scholar John Esposito and the popularizer Karen Armstrong, this school denies any special connection at all between Islam and violence. To the extent that it acknowledges Islamic violence at all, it condones it as response to the aggressions of others. The logical implication of this work: If we want terrorism to stop, we must change our own behavior to stop provoking it.
The opposing answer is accusatory. As typified by the work of the scholar Bat Ye'or and the popularizer Robert Spencer, it locates the sources of Islamic violence in the Koran itself, in the person of Muhammad, and in the core teachings of the Muslim faith. The logical implication of this work: Islamic violence will continue so long as Islam itself plagues the earth.
I think it is important to point out that I have never, ever spoken in these terms, and never will. I don't speak about Islam "plaguing the earth," and I don't think speaking in lurid terms like that gets us anywhere. Also, I don't approve of talk of eradicating Islam, which is not only complete fantasy, but also seems to me to be an inherently genocidal idea, barring some mass apostasy or mass conversion, neither of which seems any more likely than a UFO invasion.
Instead, I have consistently called for the West to mount a strong military and cultural/ideological defense, while asking Muslims who sincerely don't condone the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism to confront the elements of their tradition and theology that jihadists use today to justify violence and make recruits among peaceful Muslims, and formulate new ways to understand them so as to try to blunt the force of that justification and recruitment.
Let me suggest another way to think about this dilemma.
The Koran is certainly a troublesome book. Hastily compiled over a period of probably less than a century (as compared to almost a millennium for the Tanakh and three hundred years for the Christian scriptures), it is a weird and often contradictory agglomeration. Ancient Arabic poetry is shoved together with primitive legal rulings. Garbled accounts of obscure military triumphs are thrown in alongside apocryphal literature translated from the Aramaic. Calls to arms appear among preachings of brotherhood. The whole is then interspersed with repeated threats of eternal damnation to anyone who doubts the literal truth of all that is said therein.
It is an easy task for the modern polemicist to choose one of the harsher Wahhabi translations, pluck the most lurid verses and frame an indictment. But doing so does not correspond to the human realities. Millions of human beings over hundreds of years have been inspired to lead better and more moral lives by their Islamic faith. Like the doctors and lawyers, accountants and businessmen, psychologists and teachers of my synagogue, they have nodded their heads over shocking words--and then reinterpreted them, allegorized them or simply ignored them.
"It is an easy task for the modern polemicist to choose one of the harsher Wahhabi translations, pluck the most lurid verses and frame an indictment." Frum apparently buys into the common idea, which I debunked here, that the "most lurid verses" of the Qur'an are relatively newly minted, and planted into translations by wicked Saudi Wahhabis. In reality, as you can see from my discussions of sura 9 and other passages in the Blogging the Qur'an series, mainstream pre-Wahhabi Qur'an interpreters affirm that the Qur'an teaches warfare against and the subjugation of non-Muslims under the rule of lslamic law.
But perhaps more importantly, Frum seems to buy into the very common claim that I (and possibly Bat Ye'or, and others) make it our business to root around in the Qur'an trying to find passages that make Muslims look bad. In reality, I would have no interest in doing such a thing, and in any case there is no need to do it, because the jihadists themselves are already doing it. It is Osama bin Laden and others like him all over the world who consistently and copiously quote the Qur'an in order to convince Muslims that they need to be waging jihad. All I do is report on that use.
I do not, however, believe that the Qur'an and other holy books are infinitely malleable, and that we can make them into whatever we want to make them into. I believe that words mean things, and that ideas have power, and that they are not simply meaningless and interchangeable, which is the assumption behind this view -- as if Marxism could just as easily give rise to asceticism and monasticism as Buddhism, given the proper conditions. But Frum, apparently, does subscribe to this Qur'an-As-Silly-Putty view:
Holy books are like mirrors that reflect us back to ourselves. The peaceful man finds words of reconciliation, the vindictive woman reads a summon to revenge. The loving hear calls to love more deeply; the hateful are confirmed in their hate. It is not the text that makes the religion what it is; it is the reader.
Very well. Even taking this as true doesn't deal with the problem of what to do about readers who see hate in the text and act upon it. One would think that those who see love there would see a need to confront those who see hate and try to counter their views -- the very thing I keep calling upon peaceful Muslims to do regarding the jihadists.
If one goes back into Islamic history, one encounters many devout Muslims who read their religion in ways that seem impressively modern. They recognized that the Koran was a work of human origin, a product of its times. They applied the techniques of skeptical historiography to the legends of the life of Muhammad, the hadiths, eliminating thousands of them as spurious. Muslims called this approach "ijtihad," the application of human reason to religious revelation.
In speaking of Muslims who "recognized that the Koran was a work of human origin, a product of its times," Frum may be referring to the Mu'tazilites, who rejected the notion that the Qur'an is a perfect copy of an eternal and immutable book that has existed forever with Allah. They were hardly nonviolent, as they viciously persecuted their Muslim enemies during the ninth-century caliphate of Al-Ma'mun.
But in any case, they were attacked as heretical, and ultimately completely eradicated. It is hard to see how a movement long ago declared heretical by mainstream Islamic authorities could possibily provide a way forward today without encountering the same kind of opposition. Perhaps Frum has an explanation for this, but in his piece he gives no hint of it, and instead gives the impression that Muslims who regarded the Qur'an as "a work of human origin, a product of its times" were perfectly mainstream, and that this was an Islamic idea that was acceptable to the orthodox theologians. It never was.
Catastrophic events in Islamic history--and perhaps also a gathering awareness that the skeptical method might cut much deeply than even its first practitioners anticipated--led to the famous "closing of the gates of ijtihad" almost one thousand years ago. But now the pressure of modernity is forcing those gates open again. Many Muslims experience this opening as deeply threatening. Reactionary Islam promises to relieve those feelings by slamming the gates shut forever, with all the force derivable from hundreds of billions of dollars of oil wealth.
They may be opening again. Some claim they've never closed. But the opposition to their opening is not just Saudi oil wealth. It is the weight of a millennium of orthodoxy. No less an eminence than the prominent moderate Shi'ite theologian Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, in his consideration of Islam and modernity, Ideals and Realities of Islam, says:
Certain modernists over the past century have tried to change the Shari‘ah, to reopen the gate of ijtihad, with the aim of incorporating modern practices into the Law and limiting the function of Shari‘ah to personal life. All of these activities emanate from a particular attitude of spiritual weakness vis-à-vis the world and surrender to the world. Those who are conquered by such a mentality want to make the Shari‘ah ‘conform to the times,’ which means to the whims and fancies of men and the ever changing human nature which has made ‘the times.’ They do not realize that it is the Shari‘ah according to which society should be modeled not vice versa.
Yet against these reactionaries stand many other Muslims to whom free inquiry offers emancipation and progress. Like you and me, they believe that they can sift enduring ethical truths from the accidents and accretions of tradition; that they can extract moral lessons from stories even after they have ceased to believe in their literal truth; that they can judge their religion as well as be judged by it.
The Koran is their book, too. They don't have to rewrite it. Just reread it.
I think that is theoretically possible, with the caveats I have explained above, but I am sorry that Mr. Frum has decided to frame it as an attack on Bat Ye'or and me, or at least as if it is something we would oppose. Also, he does non-Muslims (who get unrealistic hopes) and sincere Muslim reformers a disservice by painting an overly optimistic picture of what those reformers need to do, without bothering to mention that even to begin this undertaking puts their lives at risk. They deserve better.