'I am surprised at your lack of courage, Mr. Pipes," one reader scolded me. "Your point of view is for people who believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus," opined another. "You really dropped the ball on this one!" "I hope you are not beginning to lose your nerve." "Totally wrong." Or, more charitably: "Maybe your hope is overshadowing your understanding of the truth."
Those are a sampling of the many negative responses (found on the comments section of my Web site) to my column two weeks ago arguing that Islam is not evil. "Rather than rail on about Islam's alleged 'evil,' " I wrote, we all need to pitch in and "help modernize this civilization." By about a 5-to-1 margin, my readers disagree. Three main points emerge from their letters.
* Islam has always been on the warpath. "The violent conquest against the infidel was present at [Islam's] inception," writes one respondent. It "is based on war, conquest and forced conversion," asserts another. "The war, declared by Muhammad in [the year] 600 . . ., continues to this day," notes a third.
* Militant Islam is Islam. The readers insist that the evils I attribute to a modern, radical utopian ideology inheres to the faith at large. What I call militant Islam, they say, "should properly be called, 'real Islam.' " One writer asks, "what exactly is it that the Wahhabis and other Islamic extremists are doing that is not in accord with Muhammad's doctrine?" He then replies: "The answer is they are behaving very true to Muhammad's doctrine!"
* Mild Koranic verses were abrogated. They argue that the Koran contains contradictory passages that Muslim scholars handled by deciding that chronologically latter verses superseded earlier ones. Specifically, the conciliatory verses I quoted ("There must be no coercion in matters of faith!" and "O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another,") were voided by one of the aggressive ones I cited ("Then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them. And seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them").
My response, however, is that no matter what Islam is now or was in the past, it will be something different in the future. The religion must adapt to modern mores.
This can be done. One recent example: In May, the Turkish religious authorities ruled - completely contrary to Islamic custom - to permit women to pray next to men and to attend mosque services while menstruating. The High Religious Affairs Board decided this on the (distinctly modern) basis that men and women are "equal and complementary beings." Next month, this same board takes up the extremely delicate topic of permitting Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, when it will perhaps again rule against centuries of practice.
If Turkish theologians can execute such changes, why not theologians in other countries, too? And if practices concerning women can be changed, why not those concerning jihad or the role of Islamic law as a whole? Islam can adjust to modernity no less than have other faiths.
Conversely, if one sees Islam as irredeemably evil, what comes next? This approach turns all Muslims - even moderates fleeing the horrors of militant Islam - into eternal enemies. And it leaves one with zero policy options. My approach has the benefit of offering a realistic policy to deal with a major global problem.
In conclusion, a reflection: Americans have acquired an impressive knowledge of Islam. Contrary to the incessant bleating by apologists for militant Islam about American ignorance of this topic, my readers know what they are talking about. Their critiques are sometimes erudite (for example, on the subject of Koranic abrogations), sometimes eloquent ("The next time you watch a film clip of the miniscule and microscopic body parts of Israeli citizens being scraped from the streets, sidewalks and buildings, just think about what is truly evil").
These readers, surely, are not typical of American opinion, but their informed antagonism to Islam bears remarking. It is likely to have a larger political role as Islam ever-more becomes central a topic of discussion in the West.
Mar. 8, 2009 update: The above text notes a change in Islamic law in Turkey. For a discussion of changes under Khomeini, see a comment by Sani on this website titled "Examples of re-interpretation of Islamic Sharia in modern times."
Also, today, Y. Admon of MEMRI writes in an article about "Rising Criticism of Child Bride Marriages in Saudi Arabia":
It should be noted that at least two religiously based practices have been previously changed in Saudi Arabia. The first is slavery. In 1962, King Faisal bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz issued a decree "abolishing all [forms of] slavery" and freeing all the slaves in the kingdom. The second is the Jizya (the poll tax on non-Muslims), which is no longer enforced in the kingdom.
Admon is likewise hopeful that recent developments mean that "the religious law permitting child marriages may be amended."
Apr. 30, 2009 update: "Scholars hotly debate treatment of apostates" reads the title of an article in the Arab News, a Saudi paper, by Badea Abu Al-Naja. It points to some interesting ferment:
In a session here [Sharjah, U.A.E.] on religious freedom, Muslim scholars from around the world yesterday debated how apostates should be treated according to Islamic law. More than 200 delegates representing 60 countries are discussing diverse issues in the light of Shariah at the ongoing International Islamic Fiqh Conference hosted by Sharjah ruler Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi. The event at the Zahra Hall Auditorium at the University of Sharjah has been organized by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA), an offshoot of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference.
In other words, this is arch-Sunni establishment fare.
While several scholars demanded a review of the punishment for apostates in the light of the changing modern values, others refuted their argument saying the original Islamic texts call for harsh punishments. "Religious freedom is a right that should be guaranteed to every human being. We have come here to present and discuss different viewpoints and we should do it in order to reach the right solution," said Mahmoud Zaqzouq, Egypt's minister of endowments.
Some participants doubted the validity of texts quoted in support of the beheading of apostates. On the other hand, several others were adamant in their refusal to the demand for a lighter approach toward apostates in the name of freedom of religion. "The view that Islamic scholars of the past had different views on how to punish apostates is incorrect. They only disagreed on how soon apostates should be executed; should it be done in three days, one week or few months. The waiting time is left to the discretion of the ruler," said Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, a professor at the Higher Institute of Law in Riyadh.
June 3, 2012 update: Darul Uloom Deoband, a key Indian Muslim institution, has delivered what MEMRI calls "a revolutionary fatwa (edict) against polygamy, advising Muslims in India not to contract a second marriage." Their fatwa reads, in the unedited English:
According to Shariah, it is lawful to keep two wives at the same time but it is not generally acceptable in Indian custom. Here in India it is like to invite hundreds of problems to keep two wives. Moreover, the husband generally cannot maintain justice and equality between two wives. Hence it is better to have only one wife as the Quran said: "And if you don't [meaning, are unable to] be just to all [wives] equally – then marry one [only]." You should discard the idea of second marriage; otherwise you would feel sorry later. Allah (Subhana Wa Ta'ala) knows Best.