Apologists of Totalitarianism: From Communism to Islam

Part II: Christian Apologists Of Islam

by Ibn Warraq

From New English Review, February 2009.

The first modern apologists of Islam – even in its fundamentalist mode – were Christian scholars who perceived a common danger in certain economic, philosophical, and social developments in the West: the rise of rationalism, scepticism, atheism, secularism; the Industrial Revolution; the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism and materialism. Sir Hamilton Gibb writes of Islam as a Christian “engaged in a common spiritual enterprise”.[1] But let us beware of skepticism: “Both Christianity and Islam suffer under the weight of worldly pressure, and the attack of scientific atheists and their like,” laments Norman Daniel.[2]

Hence the tendency amongst Christian scholars to be rather uncritical; a tendency not to wish to offend Muslim friends and Muslim colleagues. Either there were explicit apologies if the writer felt there was something offensive to Muslim eyes, or to use various devices to avoid seeming to take sides, or to avoid judging whatever issue was under discussion.

Christian scholars such as William Montgomery Watt, who was curate of St. Mary Boltons, London, and Old St. Paul’s, Edinburgh and ordained Episcopalian minister, and who was one of the most influential Islamic scholars in Britain of the last fifty years, and Sir Hamilton Gibb saw skepticism, atheism and communism as the common enemy of all true religion. They followed Carlyle in hoping for spiritual inspiration from the East. Here is Watt: “Islam – or perhaps one should rather say, the East – has tended to overemphasize Divine sovereignty, whereas in the West too much influence has been attributed to man’s will, especially in recent times. Both have strayed from the true path, though in different directions. The West has probably something to learn of that aspect of truth which has been so clearly apprehended in the East”

Throughout his article Religion and Anti-Religion, Professor Watt can barely disguise his contempt for secularism. “The wave of secularism and materialism is receding,” notes Watt with approval, “most serious minded men in the Middle East realize the gravity of the problems of the present time, and are therefore aware of the need for a religion that will enable them to cope with the situations that arise from the impingement of these problems on their personal lives”. Watt then goes on to discuss the work of Manfred Halpern, who “speaks of the Muslim Brethren in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, together with movements like Fida’iyan – i Islam in Persia and Khaksars and Jama’at-i Islam in Pakistan, as neo-Islamic totalitarianism, and points out their resemblances to fascism, including the National Socialism of Germany under Adolf Hitler. From a purely political point of view this may be justified, and the resemblances certainly exist. Yet in a wider perspective this characterisation is misleading. It is true that these movements sometimes ‘concentrate on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement … ‘ , and that ‘they champion the values and emotions of a heroic past, but repress all critical analysis of either past roots or present problems’. Yet political ineptitude and even failure do not outweigh their positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion … The neo- Islamic mass movements, far from being tantamount to national socialism or fascism are likely to be an important barrier against such a development.” [3]

Watt’s wonderful euphemism for fascism is “political ineptitude”; and we are asked to overlook this fascism, and instead asked to admire it for its “positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion.” Watt’s support for, what Amir Taheri calls, Holy Terrorists is worth pondering. It must not be forgotten that the Muslim Brethren was a terrorist organisation whose founder made no secret of his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. After the end of the Second World War, Hassan’s Muslim Brethren launched a series of attacks at civilian targets; cinemas, hotels and restaurants were bombed or set on fire, women incorrectly dressed were attacked with knifes. There were also a series of assassinations. Yes; we are asked to overlook this in the name of religious resurgence.

Watt reveals even more disturbing qualities- a mistrust of the intellect and a rejection of the importance of historical objectivity and truth: “This emphasis on historicity, however, has as its complement a neglect of symbols; and it may be that ultimately ‘symbolic truth ‘ is more important than ‘historical truth'”.[4]

In his “Introduction to the Quran,” Watt seems to have a very tenuous grasp on the notion of truth- indeed objective truth is abandoned altogether in favour of total subjectivism “… the systems of of ideas followed by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others are all true in so far as they enable human beings to have a more or less satisfactory ‘experience of life as a whole’. So far as observation can tell, none of the great systems is markedly inferior or superior to the others. Each is therefore true. Inparticular the Quran is in this sense true. The fact that the Quranic conception of the unity of God appears to contradict the Christian conception of God does not imply that either system is false, nor even that either conception is false. Each conception is true in that it is part of a system which is true. In so far as some conception in a system seems to contradict the accepted teaching of science – or, that of history in so far as it is objective – that contradiction raises problems for the adherents of the system, but does not prove that the system as a whole is inferior to others. That is to say, the Quranic assertion that the Jews did not kill Jesus does not prove that the Quranic system as a whole is inferior to the Christian, even on the assumption that the crucifixion is an objective fact” .[5]

In this astonishing passage of intellectual dishonesty, Watt performs all sorts of mental gymnastics in an effort to please everyone, not to offend anyone. Leaving aside the problem of the vagueness of Watt’s terminology – terms like “experience of life as a whole,” “conception,” “Quranic system,” – we can now understand what we set out to understand at the beginning of this enquiry, namely, why British Islamicists have been so uncritical of Islam.

“The non-Muslim scholar,” continues Watt, “is not concerned with any question of ultimate truth, since that, it has been suggested, cannot be attained by man. He assumes the truth [my emphasis, I.W.], in the relative sense just explained, of the Quranic ststem of ideas.” Under such conditions, the scholar is not likely to be critical of anyone’s “belief system” as long as it meets his or her “spiritual needs.”

The above attitude, exemplified by Watt, was brilliantly exposed and attacked by Julien Benda in his classic “Betrayal of the Intellectuals.” He wrote, “But the modern ‘clerks’ [intellectuals] have held up universal truth to the scorn of mankind, as well as universal morality. Here the ‘clerks’ have positively shown genius in their effort to serve the passions of the laymen. It is obvious that truth is a great impediment to those who wish to set themselves up as distinct; from the very moment when they accept truth, it condemns them to be conscious of themselves in a universal. What a joy for them to learn that this universal is a mere phantom, that there exist only particular truths, ‘Lorrain truths, Provencal truths, Britanny truths, the harmony of which in the course of centuries constitutes what is beneficial, respectable, true in France.”[6] Watt would add “a Muslim truth, a Christian truth, and so on; or as he put in Islamic Revelation, “Each [great religion] is valid in a particular cultural region, but not beyond that”.[7]

The sentimental ecumenical tradition established by scholars such as Watt and Gibb continues to this day. We can follow the gradual introduction of this tradition in the pages of the journal The Muslim World, which was founded in 1911 [originally titled The Moslem World] to promote the work of Christian Missionaries in the Middle East. Since 1938 it has been edited by the Hartford Seminary. The first issues of the journal were highly critical of various aspects of Islam – I have already cited Charles Watson’s description of Islam as totalitarian which appeared in its pages in 1937. Its first editor was a committed Christian and a considerable scholar, Samuel Zwemer [1867-1952]. In 1929 he was appointed Professor of Missions and Professor of the History of Religion at thePrinceton Theological Seminary where he taught until 1951. He had an almost perfect command of Arabic and a thorough knowledge of the Koran, often referred to as “the lion-hearted missionary who tried to confound the Muslims out of their own scriptures using the Christian Bible.”[8]

By the late 1940s, however, the journal began publishing articles very favorable to Islam, and by 1950s its pages were dominated by scholars such as Watt. It is now co-edited by a Muslim and a Christian – converting Muslims to Christianity is no longer considered respectable by Liberal Christians who instead bend over backwards to accommodate Muslims – as for example calling on all Christians to use the term “Allah” instead of God[9]: generous gestures not reciprocated by the Muslims.

To bring the story to the present, one cannot leave out the case of John Esposito, a Catholic, and Professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the director of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the same university. While studying for his doctorate at Temple University, Esposito came under the influence of the Islamist, Ismail R. Faruqi, “Palestinian pan-Islamist and theorist of the ‘Islamization of knowledge’, around whom had developed a personality cult.”[10] Esposito tried to present Islam and Islamism in western categories thereby hoping to create a more favorable attitude to them in the West.

“Why not place Islamist movements in the political category of participation, or even democratization?”[11] Esposito then went on claim that Islamist movements were nothing other than movements of democratic reform! It was sheer “Orientalist” prejudice that prevented Westerners from seeing this. Esposito wrote that Americans would “have to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy” to understand Islamic democracy that might create effective systems of popular participation, though unlike the Westminster model or the American system”.[12]

Esposito, and his close collaborator, John Voll asserted with great confidence that every Islamist state or movement was either democratic or potentially democratic. John Voll appeared before a congressional committee in 1992 pleading on behalf of Sudan, which Kramer describes aptly as “a place without political parties, ruled by a military junta in league with an Islamist ideologue.” For Voll the Sudanese regime was “an effort to create consensual rather than a conflict format for popular political particpation,” and in his opinion, “It is not possible, even using exclusively Western political experience as basis for defintion, to state that if a system does not have two parties, it is not democratic.”[13]

Martin Kramer sums up Voll’s grotesque apology for Islamism thus: “And so American congressman were instructed by the president-elect of MESA [Middle East Studies Association] that a country with no political parties, presided over by a coup-plotting general, ridden by civil war, with a per capita gross domestic product of $200, still might qualify somehow as democracy. This was not deliberate self-parody; it was merely Esposito’s logic advanced ad absurdum.”[14]

Just months before 9/11, Esposito wrote, “focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man.” Still earlier he had predicted that the 1990s would “be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West.” In 1994, he claimed that Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, was only a community-focused group that engages in “honey, cheese-making, and home-based clothing manufacture.” While he saw nothing sinister in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat’s call for Jihad, it was in reality comparable to a “literacy campaign.”

After 9/11, Esposito blamed America first. “September 11,” he said, “has made everyone aware of the fact that not addressing the kinds of issues involved here, of tolerance and pluralism, have catastrophic repercussions.”

Even more disgracefully, Esposito refuses to acknowledge that the application of the Shari’a, or Islamic law, inevitably leads to a totalitarian society as in former Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, present-day Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. Freedom House ranks these countries as the worst offenders of human rights in the world. Furthermore, each one of these countries has been linked to the export of international terrorism. And yet, Esposito writes that “contrary to what some have advised, the United States should not in principle object to implementation of Islamic law or involvement of Islamic activists in government.”[15]

[1] H.A.R.Gibb. Modern Trends in Islam. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1947.
[2] Norman Daniel. Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960, p.307.
[3] William Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti-Religion, in Religion in the Middle East:Three Religions in Conflict and Concord, ed. A.J.Arberry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp.625-627
[4] William Montgomery Watt, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969, p.116
[5] William Montogomery Watt ,Introduction to the Quran Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1977 p.183.
[6] Julien Benda The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, pp.76-77.
[7] William Montgomery Watt, Islam and the Integration of Society, London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1961, p.278
[8] Samuel Zwemer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Marinus_Zwemer : accessed 15 November, 2007.
[9] In August, 2007,Bishop of Breda, Tiny Muskens: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/staticarticles/article57178.html, accessed 15 November, 2007.
[10] Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.49.
[11] Ibid.,p.50
[12]       John Voll and John L.Esposito, “Islam’s Democratic Essence“, Middle East Quarterly 1, no.3 (September 1994) p.11, quoted in Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.50
[13] Quoted in Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.50
[14] Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, pp.50-51
[15] All the quotes in the last three paragraphs are from Campus Watch, Esposito: Apologist for Militant Islam, published byFrontPage Magazine, September 3 2002, accessed Nov.30, 2007