Yesterday I debated Robert Spencer at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in Washington D.C. The debate was aired live on C-Span. Our topic was essentially, Is Islam the Problem? My book The Enemy at Home says no, locating the problem in the way that liberal foreign policy and liberal values projected abroad have strengthened radical Islam and emboldened it to attack us. Spencer's books collectively answer yes, the problem is with Islam itself.
But Islam has been around for 1300 years and the problem of Islamic terrorism is a recent one. How can Islam be to blame? For me the intelligent question is: what is it about Islam today that has made it an incubator of a certain kind of fanaticism and terrorism?
Spencer iwill have none of it. He is part of an influential strain of conservatives who blame the teachings and practice of Islam for producing Islamic terrorism. Since the terrorists do what they do on behalf of Islam, Islam must be the source of their convictions and therefore Islam needs to be examined, denounced and reformed. This is how Spencer thinks we can win the war on terror: by demanding that Muslims stop practicing Islam as it has been practiced since Muhammad.
In arguing his thesis Spencer locates all the violent verses in the Koran and all the hideous deeds performed by Islamic conquerors, especially in their early centuries of irredentist expansion. Then he links these to the words and actions of Khomeini, Bin Laden and today's Islamic radicals. Spencer is an effective polemicist.
But his historical argument is dubious. It emphasizes violent passages in the Koran, while downplaying the passages that urge peace and goodwill. It applies a moral standard to Islamic empires (they didn't give minorities full rights! they reduced Jews and Christians to second class citizens!) that certainly could not be met by the Roman empire or the empires established by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the British. In the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, for example, Jews had three choices: convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be killed. No Muslim empire legislated or systematically enforced such a policy toward its religious minorities. Yes, the Koran says "slay the infidels" but no Muslim empire actually did that. For example the Muslims ruled North India for two centuries before they were displaced by the British. The Mughal emperors could have killed the tens of millions of Hindus under their control or at least forced them to become Muslims? They did nothing of the sort.
Spencer glibly jumps over entire centuries in linking, say, the savagery of the Ottomans in Constantinople with the savagery of Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Taliban in Afghanistan. How different is Spencer's one-sided reading of Islam from, say, the works of historian Bernard Lewis. Lewis is hardly uncritical of Islam. But he knows that world, speaks the local languages, and exhibits in his work a nuance, judiciousness and balance that, alas, I don't find in Spencer or other conservative Islamophobes.
It is Bin Laden's argument that radical Islam is true Islam. It is Bin Laden's contention that he is doing nothing more than what is commanded in the Koran and the Islamic tradition. And Robert Spencer essentially agress with Bin Laden! Spencer is willing to concede one of the world's great religions--one with more than a billion adherents worldwide--to the murderers of Al Qaeda. At one point in our CPAC debate he asked me to name a traditional Muslim, as if such a creature scarcely exists in the world.
Do we really want to go to war with a billion Muslims? If not, is it realistic to approach the Muslim world with the premise that the only good Muslim is a non-Muslim? Don't all these Western attacks on Islam and the Koran and Muhammad, not to mention Spencer's agreement with Bin Laden that Islam mandates violence and terrorism, have the effect of alienating traditional Muslims and pushing them toward the radical camp? These are my questions for Spencer, and for other conservatives who follow the same line. It's time, I would urge these good folks, to reconsider some basic assumptions. Unfortunately you are part of the reason we are losing this war of ideas.