[The Search for Moderate Islam:] A Reply to Lawrence Auster
by Daniel Pipes
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Lawrence Auster characterizes my approach to Islam as "ecumenist" and his own as "civilizationist." I prefer to call my approach historical and his essentialist. That is, I emphasize that things change over time and he sees them as static. For example, he emphasizes continuities going back centuries, I focus on the vast changes since I began studying Islam in 1969.
At the core of his argument is the view that "moderate Islam cannot exist." To which I reply that Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to make of it. I commend to him the study of Muslim history, so that he can for himself understand how (to take two extremes) Bosnian and Najdi Islam turned out the way they did, with one among the most tolerant and the other surely the most stringent.
The religion has changed momentously in the past and surely will continue to do so. Most of us can agree that the Muslim world is in the throes of terrible crisis now, but Auster sees this as a permanent condition. I see it as temporary, comparable, perhaps, to Germany's in the interwar period.
In particular, Auster's argument is based on a static understanding of the Koran, ignoring how much Muslim views have changed in the past and continue to do so. Interpretations already exist (such as that of the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha) that upturn centuries of Koranic interpretation and would make Islam compatible with modernity. They exist, ready for the taking.
I am "deluded," writes Auster, into thinking that moderate Islam (or anti-Islamist Islam) exists. But I personally have worked side-by-side with moderate Muslims and have provided specifics (see "Naming Moderate Muslims" for details) about some of them. For Auster to deny their existence suggests he is driven more by theory than facts.
I find Auster's comparison of Islam with Soviet communism offensive. But if he must compare a faith with a political ideology, then he should compare Islam with socialism as a whole, inclusive of its range from social democrat to Stalinist.
He wonders that I do not judge Islam, to which I say that a person's faith is not within my purview, only the person's politics and actions. I suggest it is generally a good idea not to mix scholarship with matters of faith.
As for his dig, "Since when does studying a subject preclude one from criticizing it?" I reply that my study is not of Islam the faith but of Muslims in history. I repeatedly have signaled this prism, for example, in the sub-titles of my books ("The Genesis of a Military System," "Islam and Political Power," "Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics"). In contrast, he will search my bibliography in vain to find works on such topics as the concept of the godhead in the Qur'an, the origins of the Hadith, the poetry of Rumi, and the faith of Sufis.
The Auster view of premodern Islam ("the glories of medieval Islam are largely a myth. It was a parasite civilization whose achievements were mainly the work of its subject peoples such as Byzantines, Jews, and Indians, and it declined when it eventually killed off its host") is a superficial projection backwards of today's problems. Indeed, its very premise ("a parasite civilization") is oxymoronic. There was a true and vital civilization of Islam and (to take a convenient date) in 1005 it represented the best that humans had attained at that time in terms of learning, governance, and general advancement. I suggest that Auster ground himself more in this civilization before dismissing it.
Auster portrays me as an apologist for traditional Islam ("Pipes unbelievably denies the aggressive, collectivist, genocidal, and tyrannical aspects of traditional Islam…. he evokes the full-bodied, romantic view of Islam"). My view of historic Islam is allegedly "wholly positive," with a notable absence in my writings of anything about jihad, the Islamic conquests, Shari‘a, slavery, and dhimmitude. I wish Auster had spent a bit more time looking over my writings before drawing conclusions about them. For example, a long 2002 article, "Jihad and the Professors," as well as several shorter pieces ("Harvard ♥ Jihad," "What is Jihad?") deal extensively with jihad and are as tough as even Auster could ask for (a "gruesome reality" I call it in one place; in another, I quote Bat Ye'or on the suffering jihad has caused through "war, dispossession, dhimmitude, slavery, and death"). And slavery? My first book is titled Slave Soldiers and Islam. I also published lesser works on this subject (mostly dating from around 1980 and not online) carrying such titles as "Mawlas: Freed Slaves and Converts in Early Islam" and "Why Did Military Slavery Exist?"
I wonder what, exactly, I must do to prove my non-romantic view of premodern Islam.
That said, I view premodern Islam by the standards of its time, not ours and so am less judgmental than is Auster. Further, I subscribe to the wide scholarly consensus that during the first half of Islam's history, its adherents were less "aggressive, collectivist, genocidal, and tyrannical" than their Christian counterparts in Europe. The consistent pattern of Jews fleeing Christendom for Islamdom provides one indication of this reality.
And finally, I must respond to this characterization: "Pipes's respect for Islam, his faith in its essential benignity, and his abiding hope (despite all the evidence) that we can ultimately live in complete harmony with it, contradict and undercut his realistic analysis of its dangers." Yes, I have respect for the faith of a billion people but I don't recall ever espousing "faith in its essential benignity." To the contrary, I have publicly argued against President George W. Bush's formulation that "Islam is peace." As for my hope that Muslims and non-Muslims can live in complete harmony, it is a hope. But who in 1940 could imagine living in complete harmony with Germany, Italy, and Japan? Such hope is functional. That we have for many decades now suggests that change is possible through victory in war and wise guidance of the defeated to understand their own traditions in a moderate, modern, and good-neighborly way.
As for the second part of Auster's analysis, his policy recommendations; they differ surprisingly little from my own, as presented three years ago in "Who Is the Enemy?". Auster asserts "that the West must confront Islam as Islam and so reduce its power to the point where Muslims have no opportunity to wage jihad campaigns against us. Under such circumstances a more decent type of Islam may arise." This two-stage approach resembles or perhaps even derives from my program of defeating radical Islam, then promoting moderate Islam in its place. Auster and I agree that, in the end, "a more decent type of Islam" is the only answer.
I'll leave it to Auster to explain how his "decent" Islam differs from my "moderate" Islam (which he insists "does not exist, and cannot exist"). And why, if Islam cannot change, he pins his hopes, with me, on a changed Islam.
For a continuation of this debate, please see "Cataloging Muslim outrages is necessary, but not sufficient."
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