Holy War

Culture/Society
Source: American Prospect
Published: 17 Dec 2001 Author: Chris Mooney
Posted on 12/17/01 8:01 AM Pacific by white trash redneck

Holy War
Chris Mooney

When “Ibn Warraq,” the pseudonymous Muslim apostate, visited the United States after September 11, one of his first stops was the White House. There, he enjoyed an hour-and-a-half lunch with President Bush’s chief economic speechwriter, David Frum. Though Warraq confirms the meeting and has told supporters about it, Frum refuses to discuss it “in any way,” perhaps because it suggests that some in the administration just don’t buy the president’s claim that Islam is a “peaceful” religion. Warraq has made a name for himself (and lost the one he was born with) by becoming Islam’s most outspoken critic.

His controversial 1995 book Why I Am Not a Muslim makes Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses look like bush-league blasphemy. A dense treatise modeled after Bertrand Russell’s famous 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” the work presents a strident historical, moral, and philosophical indictment of Islam and advocates not just a firm separation of mosque and state but outright atheism.

It’s also enjoying a vibrant second life. Since the World Trade Center massacre, Why I Am Not a Muslim has shot onto Amazon.com’s top-25 list of titles on Islam. Traditionally, U.S. liberals have shown far more interest in creating secular societies, but much of the interest in Warraq comes from the political right–from the ideological allies of Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist who recently dubbed Islam a “very evil and wicked religion”; and from conservative, pro-Israeli Jews like Frum and Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, who wrote a piece in The Weekly Standard in 1996 calling Warraq’s book a “quite brilliant…indictment of one of the world’s great religions.”

WorldNetDaily.com–a Web site that runs columns from Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan and articles with titles such as “Jesus Says Pack Heat…The Bible and self-defense”–now sells Why I Am Not a Muslim through its catalog. The irony of fundamentalist Christians purchasing this atheistic tome is not lost on Warraq, who comments, “The Christian right will find my book extremely embarrassing.” Indeed, he makes a similar point in the book:

An Algerian friend, a well-educated Muslim…came across Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” while looking through my books. He pounced on it with evident glee. As I learned later, he apparently considered Russell’s classic to be a great blow to Christianity; at no time was my friend aware that Russell’s arguments applied, mutatis mutandis, to Islam.

In person, Ibn Warraq seems an unlikely candidate to become Islam’s Tom Paine. His previous occupations include teaching primary school, working as a tour guide, and running a restaurant; he freely confesses, “I really do not wish to spend my life being a professional Islam basher.” I first met Warraq two years ago in Amherst, New York, while working for Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines. (Although my boss at the time, Paul Kurtz, separately runs Prometheus Books, Warraq’s publisher, I have never worked for Prometheus.) When I next saw him, again in Amherst, last November, he was convening a meeting of anti-Muslim dissidents from Iran, Bangladesh, and other Islamic countries. Many of the attendees came across as starkly angry (“My target is to get rid of Islam,” huffed the Iranian-born activist Parvin Darabi) and more than a little paranoid (the group held a long discussion on how to prevent Muslims from secretly infiltrating their ranks). Warraq seemed by far the most moderate, courtly, and conciliatory person present.

Admittedly, some dispute this description. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says that he has only skimmed Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim, but observes: “The fact that his book is being promoted by hate-mongers is interesting.” And it’s true that Warraq occasionally takes a taunting tone. But at more than 400 pages of mostly airless prose, Why I Am Not a Muslim is predominantly argument. As for ad hominems, Warraq remarks at the book’s outset that, following the Rushdie affair, the Muslim world needs to learn to live with such unfettered speech and asserts his “right to criticize everything and anything in Islam–even to blaspheme, to make errors, to satirize, and mock.”

Those in most Western countries have the right to criticize their predominant religion (Christianity) in a way that those in Muslim countries don’t; this stems in part from the tradition of religious dissent that ushered in the Protestant Reformation and continues to inform Christian scholarly revision. Andrew Rippin, a Koran specialist who is dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Victoria in Canada, says that “what some people call the Reformation in Islam, the counterpart to the Christian Reformation–that hasn’t occurred yet.” Warraq and his ilk hope that such a Reformation will draw fuel from the work of Islamic revisionists (inspired by the British expert John Wansbrough), who today find themselves in the delicate position of asserting that the Koran–which Muslims claim to be the infallible word of God–is actually a mishmash of oral traditions that evolved over several centuries.

Not all revisionists see themselves as Warraq’s allies. One scholar has called his book “religious polemic masquerading as scholarship” and worried that it would “raise suspicions among some Muslims that all revisionist scholarship is motivated by intolerance.”

Yet Warraq’s basic critique, which finds something fundamentally (though perhaps not uniquely) intolerant about doctrinal Islam–rendering it inimical to women’s rights, freedom of thought and expression, and other modern liberties–does not differ so starkly from the views expressed by Bernard Lewis, the Princeton Islam guru, in his now-canonical 1990 Atlantic Monthly essay “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” Traditional Muslims believe that their duty is to bring all unbelievers to Islam, explains Lewis: “Islam was never prepared, either in theory or in practice, to accord full equality to those who held other beliefs and practiced other forms of worship.”

So why has Warraq been embraced by the political right in this country rather than the civil-rights-conscious left?

Warraq contends that because of the work of Edward Said and other theorists, the American left has “been scared of being called colonialists and imperialists” and so has adopted a guilt-ridden shyness about Islam. Yet liberals in other Western countries have been more open to his views: Warraq has recently contributed a commentary to the left-leaning British newspaper The Guardian; in October, Australia’s Radio National devoted an entire Religion Report program to interviewing him. As one Islamic historian put it, “At least until September 11, the place where it was the most difficult to criticize Islam was in America.”

But if the American left is confused or afraid, Christian conservatives are sowing a whirlwind by circulating Warraq’s atheist tract. WorldNetDaily.com’s editor and CEO, Joseph Farah, admits that when it comes to those Christians who buy Why I Am Not a Muslim through his site, “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are shocked.” The secularization and reformation of Islam, after all, will hardly yield many Christian converts.

Religion thrives in the United States largely because of church-state separation; Islam in particular has benefited through this openness. Ibn Warraq’s critique, says Rippin, leaves open the door for a “modernist Muslim thought, the same as within Christianity.” Grappling with a book like Why I Am Not a Muslim may not only make Islam more tolerant–it could make it stronger.

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