Review: The Critical Qur’an – Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research

If you want a Qur’an commentary that goes where others fear to tread, then try Robert Spencer’s The Critical Qur’an. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a reference tool like that, and a very useful one.

There are four features of this Qur’an that are virtually impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume:

1. Variant readings. It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament.

2. Tafsir commentary. Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative. Their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam.

3. Critical commentary. There are also citations from Qur’anic scholars whose academic insights shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an.

4. Clarity. This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages. For example, the many exhortations to jihad are usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is perfectly legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. So in The Critical Qur’an, when it says “jihad” in Arabic, it says “jihad” in English, so the English-speaking reader will be keyed to the fact that this word has been consistently interpreted a certain way in mainstream Islam.

I’ll elaborate with examples of Spencer’s commentary, to give an idea as to the book’s format.

1. Variants

The Qur’an we think of today was published in 1924 in Cairo and has since been the dominant edition over the world — the supposed version of the Qur’an that was agreed on in 653 CE under Muhammad’s third successor, the caliph Uthman. In fact there were many different qira’at (variants) used throughout the Islamic empire, at least fourteen of which were known by the 8th century (all listed by Spencer on p 3). And each of those divergent traditions had more than one transmitter (usually two), compounding the variance.

Of those many qira’at, the Hafs tradition became the one of “Uthman’s” Qur’an of 1924, but the Warsh tradition still dominates in western and north-western Africa. The Critical Qur’an follows Hafs while noting the Warsh and other variants for some verses. So for example, Sura 2:10 reads (following Hafs), “They will suffer a painful doom because they lie.” Spencer comments: “Instead of ‘because they lie’ (yakzibuuna), the Warsh Qur’an has ‘because they accuse of lying’ (yukazzibuuna).” (p 14)

Another example is Sura 9:66, which reads, “If we forgive a group of you, we punish a group of you, because they have been guilty.” Spencer lists two variants for this one: “Instead of, ‘If we forgive [na’fu] a group of you, we punish [nu’azzib] a group of you,’ Ibn Kathir [the 8th century transmitter, not the 14th-century tasfir exegete] has, ‘If some of you are forgiven [yu’fa], others will be punished [tu’azzab]. Instead of ‘we forgive,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he forgives.’ Instead of ‘we punish,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he punishes.'” (p 142)

2. Tafsir Commentary

The bulk of Spencer’s commentary draws on the tafsir — mainstream exegetes, theologians, and jurists who are authoritative in the Islamic world, notably, al-Tabari (839-923), al-Zamakhshari (1074-1173), al-Qurtubi (1214-1273), Ibn Juzayy (1294-1340), Ibn Kathir (1301-1372), the two Jalals (Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli, 1389-1459, and Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti, 1445-1505), along with 20th century tasfirs, such as the influential Pakistani Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and the Indian Mufti Muhammad Ashiq Ilahi Bulandshahri (1925-2002). And others. Ibn Kathir and the two Jalals are cited the most frequently, given their influence.

So for example, Sura 8:12-13 reads, “When your Lord inspired the angels, I am with you. So make those who believe stand firm. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Strike the necks and strike their fingertips. That is because they opposed Allah and his messenger. Whoever opposes Allah and his messenger, indeed, Allah is severe in punishment.” Spencer comments:

“[This passage] became one of the chief justifications for the Islamic practice of beheading hostages and war captives. Ibn Kathir explains that the angels are instruments of Allah’s wrath who are to ‘support the believers, strengthen their (battle) front against their enemies, thus, implementing My command to you. I will cast fear, disgrace and humiliation over those who defied My command and denied My Messenger. Strike them on their foreheads to tear them apart and over the necks to cut them off, and cut off their limbs, hands and feet.’

The Tafsir al-Jalalayn [the two Jalals] explains this in terms that assume divine assistance, asserting: ‘It happened that a man would go to strike at the neck of an unbeliever and his head would fall off before his sword was able to get there.’ ” (p 126)

For another example, Sura 9:29 reads, “Fight against those do not believe in Allah or the last day, and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden,and do not follow the religion of truth, even if they are among the people of the book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” Here is part of Spencer’s commentary on the verse:

“The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this verse specifies that Muslims must fight against those who do not follow Islam, ‘which confirms and abrogates’ other religions. The people of the book are mentioned in the verse and traditionally have been understood as the only ones who are offered the option of paying the jizya, while other non-Muslims who do not have a written scripture that is recognized in the Qur’an must either convert or die. However, the Tafsir as-Sadi explains that ‘the jizya may be taken from all the disbelievers, People of the Book and others, because this verse was revealed after the Muslims had finished fighting with the polytheist Arabs and had begun to fight the People of the Book and their ilk, so this condition is describing the real situation and is not meant to impose a restriction on accepting jizya from the People of the Book only.’

Ibn Kathir says that the dhimmis must be “disgraced, humiliated and belittled. Therefore, Muslims are not allowed to honor the people of dhimmah or elevate them above Muslims, for they are miserable, disgraced and humiliated.” The seventh-century jurist Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab is said to have declared: ‘I prefer that the people of the dhimma become tired by paying the jizya since He says, “until they pay the jizya with their own hands in a state of complete abasement.” ‘ As-Suyuti elaborates that this verse ‘is used as a proof by those who say that it is taken in a humiliating way, and so the taker sits and the dhimmi stands with his head bowed and his back bent. The jizya is placed in the balance and the taker seizes his beard and hits his chin.’ Al-Zamakhshari agreed that the jizya should be collected ‘with belittlement and humiliation.’

In explaining how the Jews and Christians must ‘feel themselves subdued,’ Ibn Kathir quotes a saying of Muhammad: ‘Do not initiate the Salam [greeting of peace] to the Jews and Christians, and if you meet any of them in a road, force them to its narrowest alley.’

With remarkably little variation, throughout Islamic history whenever Islamic law was strictly enforced, this is generally how non-Muslims were treated. Although today they’re often presented as tolerant toward the Christians, Ibn Kathir says that these rules ‘ensured their continued humiliation, degradation and disgrace.’ The Christians agreed not to ‘restore any place of worship that needs restoration’; ‘ride on saddles, hang swords on the shoulders, collect weapons of any kind or carry these weapons’; or ‘publicize practices of Shirk’ (see 2:193, 4:31, and 6:21). They also agreed not to build ‘crosses on the outside of our churches and demonstrating them and our books in public in Muslim fairways and markets’ or ‘sound the bells in our churches, except discreetly, or raise our voices while reciting our holy books inside our churches in the presence of Muslims, nor raise our voices [with prayer] at our funerals, or light torches in funeral processions in the fairways of Muslims, or their markets.’ ” (pp 137-138)

Commentary like this is immensely valuable on the strength of its authority, and it may inspire the reader (as it did me) to become more familiar with the tafsir.

3. Critical commentary

Spencer also has an eye on history and textual criticism — corruptions, substrata, and other aspects that challenge the reader. Sura 37:75-78 reads, “And Noah prayed to us, and the hearer of his prayer was favorable. And we saved him and his family from the great distress, and made his descendants the survivors, and left for him among the later people.” Spencer notes a possible textual corruption:

“The phrase ‘left for him among the later people’ is repeated at 37:108, 37:119, and 37:129. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains it as meaning that the ‘later people’ would remain ‘in praise until the Day of Rising’ of those righteous ones who went before. However, Barth notes that this usage of taraka alayhi, ‘we left for him,’ is unusual in the extreme and may be evidence of textual corruption, for this phrase ‘without an object in the accusative is against all Arabic usage, even against that of the Koran.’ (J. Barth, “Studies Contributing to Criticism and Exegesis of the Koran,” in Ibn Warraq, ed., What the Koran Really Says (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2002), 409.)” (p 311)

It’s worth noting that Spencer relies significantly on the work of Christoph Luxenberg, who argued that the Qur’an was derived from Syriac Christian liturgy, and that obscure portions of the Qur’an become clear when retro-translated into Syrio-Aramaic. I’m generally not on board with this sort of approach. Luxenberg’s large-scale etymological retroversions remind me of the way Maurice Casey reconstructed Aramaic passages behind the gospel of Mark. The Qur’an surely drew on Syrio-Aramaic sources, and perhaps some of Luxenberg’s etymological solutions are valid, but I’m skeptical that his approach can be taken as a rule. Likewise, it’s not controversial to acknowledge that Islam is descended from Christianity (a more obscure Torah-observant wing of Christianity, that is), and that in some ways Islam was the first Mormonism. You can easily spot Christian themes throughout the Qur’anic text, but I don’t see the “original Qur’an” as being an actual Christian lectionary as Luxenberg urges.

I count the following dozen references to Luxenberg in The Critical Qur’an:

2:1. The mysterious letters of the Qur’an, which in the Syriac lectionary indicated what Psalms were to be recited.

2:135. The idea of Abraham as a hanif (heathen), which was imported from Christian belief (Rom 4:9-12).

2:185. The word “Qur’an”, derived from the Syrio-Aramaic qeryana (“reading” or “pericope” or “selection for reading”).

3:96. Bakka, the first Islamic sanctuary, was doubtfully Mecca.

5:114. Echo of the Christian eucharist, but more than just an echo (as most scholars would have it): an actual Christian liturgical celebration lying behind the text.

17:64. Satan startling people with his voice, which is at odds with 114:5.

19:24. The Lord placing a stream beneath Mary, which originally had nothing to do with a stream but rather Mary’s delivering a virgin birth.

24:31. Women’s behavior in public, which paraphrases Isaiah 3:16.

44:54. The infamous houris, which is usually translated as “maidens” or “virgins,” and central to the Islamic understanding of the virgins of paradise. But hur (the equivalent of houri in Islamic tradition) doesn’t mean “virgins,” as even Arabic philologists acknowledge, but is rather the plural form of an adjective that means “white”. The original passage referred not to virgins but to white raisins, or grapes, which were a prized delicacy and indeed a much more fitting symbol of the reward of paradise (which is frequently referred to in the Qur’an as a “garden,”, in any case, rather than sexual favors from virgins).

52:24. Servant boys likened to “hidden pearls”. Like the “virgins” of 44:54, the “boys” were originally grapes and another example of Christian paradisal imagery.

96:6,15,19. “No indeed”, a confusing negation that makes sense when retro-translated, pointing to eucharist practices.

108:1-3. Three verses that appear pre-Qur’anic.

For all I know, some of these may be valid, though really I find only 44:54 persuasive and 3:96 an interesting idea. (Regarding the latter, it has been suggested that the original Islamic sanctuary was Petra rather than Mecca.) “Grapes” may very well lie behind the houris passage. I regard Sura 44:54 as somewhat analogous to Mark 2:27-28 (where Jesus says “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”) Maurice Casey argued that “son of man” was a generic for “man/humanity” in Aramaic, with Jesus saying, effectively, that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, and so any man — not just a messianic/titular Son of Man — is master of the sabbath. It makes good sense of the saying and fits the portrayed conflict in the gospel, though this generic use of “son of man” perhaps fits less well in other passages (Mark 9:11-13, 10:35-45, 14:12-26).

Linguistic retroversions have heuristic value but I don’t put too much stock in them. This isn’t much of a criticism, however, for whatever you think of Luxenberg, Spencer’s citations are useful reference points.

4. Clarity

In general Spencer brings clarity to passages that are especially problematic for non-Muslim readers and are often obscured in apologetics. For example, Sura 4:34 reads, “Good women are obedient, guarding in secret what Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, give them a warning and banish them to separate beds, and beat them.” Spencer comments:

“Wife-beating exists in all cultures, but only in Islam does it enjoy divine sanction. Allah tells men to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. This is, of course, an extremely controversial verse, but there is not a great deal of variation in how the primary translators of the Qur’an have rendered the salient word, waidriboohunna.

Pickthall: ‘and scourge them’
Yusuf Ali: ‘(And last) beat them (lightly)’
Al-Hilali/Khan: ‘(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)’
Shakir: ‘and beat them’
Sher Ali: ‘and chastise them’
Khalifa: ‘then you may (as a last alternative) beat them’
Arberry: ‘and beat them’
Rodwell: ‘and scourge them’
Sale: ‘and chastise them’
Asad: ‘then beat them’
The Study Quran: ‘then strike them’
Saheeh International: ‘strike them [lightly]’

Those translations that add the word ‘lightly’ are not working from the Arabic text of the Qur’an, in which this caveat does not appear.

In her 2007 translation, The Sublime Quran, the Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar translates waidriboohunna as ‘go away from them.’ In light of the essential unanimity among virtually all other translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain, as it would require believing that all of these authorities got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar. But the acute embarrassment that this passage causes contemporary Muslims is widespread. In his 1980 translation, Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad ‘forbade the beating of any woman,’ concluding that wife-beating is ‘barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.’

In contrast Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his nineteenth-century commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: ‘if she refuses to beautify herself for him’, if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and ‘if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.’

Also, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an ‘excellent example’ (33:21), and a hadith has Aisha report that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: ‘He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?’ In another hadith, a woman comes to Aisha and ‘showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating from her husband;’ Aisha is made to say: ‘I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.’ ” (p 70)

Diligent clarity like this is what readers are often looking for in Qur’an commentaries to no avail, and so it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

The question of cherry-picking

The Critical Qur’an puts to bed claims about cherry-picking. Critics like Spencer are often accused of this — fixating on verses of the Qur’an that advocate violence and oppression while dismissing peaceful texts — but this is the entire Qur’an, and Spencer comments on the (few) peaceful passages as much as the (many) violent ones, making clear why the former are problematic. The Doctrine of Abrogation holds that violent verses of the Qur’an take precedence over peaceful verses, since the violent ones were revealed later in the lifetime of Muhammad, when he was in a position to wage war and subjugate his enemies. Per Sura 2:106, later revelations abrogate earlier ones when the two are in conflict. Peace and tolerance are advised only when Muslims are in no position to wage war.

So for example, the highly militant Sura 9 is arguably the most important sura in the Qur’an, since according to the Hadith, it was the very last one revealed to Muhammad (see Bukhari, vol. 5, book 64, no. 4364). Sura 9 holds precedence over other suras and legitimates offensive war as normative for believers for all time. That’s not cherry picking on the part of the critic or commentator. It’s acknowledging how mainstream Islam “cherry picks” from its holy book and prioritizes its passages.

Other religions allow more leeway. The early rabbis, for example, were able to have lively debates over whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, for there is no controlling text within the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s what makes most scriptures conveniently malleable. A Doctrine of Abrogation kills that malleability.

And it should go without saying — though it usually needs saying — that not every Muslim, nor even most Muslims, adhere strictly to Islamic doctrine. And there are very brave Islamic reformers doing their utmost to change things. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (1909-1985) of Sudan tried to reverse the Doctrine of Abrogation and make the Qur’an’s early peaceful revelations supersede the later violent ones, and for this heresy he was killed. Reformers deserve our full support and respect for acknowledging the only (and very difficult) way out of the problem.

Most Muslims are peaceful and don’t follow Islam strictly. But significant numbers of them do. Jihad and sharia remain imperatives in mainstream Islam, and The Critical Qur’an goes a long way towards accounting for why that is the case. That won’t stop this book from being dismissed on grounds of “Islamophobia”, manufactured bigotry, and Spencer’s personal politics, but those are empty criticisms — ad hominems leveled by people who have little to show for themselves. The Critical Qur’an is a multi-purpose tool for those wanting to understand how Islam’s holy book is widely interpreted, for ideas about its origins and textual issues, and it is a most welcome contribution.

Germany’s Similar Regional Policies in the Two World Wars

To supplement the award-winner on the the relationship between Islam and Nazism during WWII I’m reading Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz, 2014), which was published the same year. The books make similar points, apparently independently and unaware of each other. As I said before, I’d never realized how deep Germany was in with Islam and jihad during the first world war. I’d assumed the German-Ottoman alliance was much like any other.

At the end of one of the chapters, Rubin and Schwanitz list the following parallels between Kaiser Wilhelm’s and Fuhrer Hitler’s regional policies (pp 57-58):

1. Inciting Jihad. Germany’s policy in both wars was based on stirring Muslim revolt, and fomenting jihad, against its enemies. Germany cast itself as being the “friend of Islam” and of Muslim peoples, and as the sworn enemy of colonialism. The first world war, to be sure, was an awful conflict everywhere, in which hundreds of thousands of people died and poison gas was used, but Germany’s decision to launch a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism against civilians was nonetheless shocking at the time.

2. Racism. The second war needs no commentary on this point. In the first war, the Armenian Christians were vilified on racist grounds while the Turkish Muslims were praised as fellow warriors and rulers. Wrote one propagandist: “The Ottoman Turk will be cured, so thoroughly that when he wakes up from his sleep of recovery he will be difficult to recognize. One would think he has got blond hair, blue eyes, and looks quite Germanic. In our loving embrace we have injected so much German essence into him that he will be hard to distinguish from a German.”

3. Holocaust. In purposefully stirring racial hatred, Germany anticipated and accepted the idea that this would produce mass murders of minorities (Armenian Christians in WW1, Jews in WWII), as well as other non-combatant civilians who were not on Germany’s side. The mass murder of Ottoman Armenians (between 600,000 – 1,200,000) was the largest organized massacre against a civilian minority since medieval and probably ancient times. It was carried out by the Ottomans, but the Germans broadly inspired it and did nothing to interfere with it. While there is no concrete evidence for a later account that Hitler said Germany could get away with the Jewish Holocaust because no one remembered the Armenian massacres, that seems to be what he thought.

4. Delusional Leadership. German policymakers believed that powerful forces could be set in motion by charismatic individuals, and that they were able to ignite and control wildly fanatical forces. Wilhelm exhorted his officers to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam” and Hitler of course deeply admired Islam for its militant doctrines. In both wars the policymakers erred grievously. In the first, the “jihad” proclaimed by the secular Ottoman leadership was not taken seriously in the Muslim world, and in the second, pro-Aryan Nazi doctrine (for all the creative allowances it made for Arabs and Turks) was seen by Muslims as too problematic. In both wars, Muslims became acutely aware that they were being manipulated.

5. Personnel. In the first war, Germany accumulated a large cadre of experts and soldiers who knew the Middle-East well and had extensive contacts there. About one hundred of them remained active in key positions during the Nazi era. Likewise many Middle-Eastern people who cooperated with Germany during the first war did so during the second.

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War (David Motadel, 2014) is a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details.

Historians usually concentrate on population groups defined by ethnicity or nationality during wars and conflicts, while religious population groups get far less attention. And in the case of World War II, some scholars either play down or deny any significance at all to the role of Islam in the war. Motadel’s book is a healthy corrective to that, and it taught me some things I was clueless about.

I had no idea, for example, that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go way back to the late 1800s, when Imperial Germany ruled over Muslim populations in various colonies (Togo, Cameroon, German East Africa, etc). Indigenous animist religions were dismissed by the Germans as savage, but the Islamic religion was seen as enlightened. German authorities recognized sharia courts in these colonies, Islamic holidays, and allowed madrasas (Islamic schools) to stay open. Only a small minority of officials mistrusted the militant spirit of Islam and the danger of holy war. In this Germany was different from Britain, France, Holland, and Russia, who for the most part perceived pan-Islamism as a threat. In Berlin Islam was seen as an opportunity.

The Two World Wars

The opportunity was first exploited in World War I. Motadel describes how German officers were knee-deep involved with the Ottoman caliph, when he called on Muslims around the world to wage holy war against the Entente powers. The jihad, however, wasn’t a religious war in the usual Islamic sense — not “believers” vs. “infidels”, but rather a selective jihad aimed only at the Entente powers (the British, French, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Russians) — and because of that, it failed to galvanize enough Muslims to support it. What’s interesting is the degree to which the Germans pushed for the jihad (Wilhelm II exhorting his officers to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam”), and as a matter of policy to incite religious violence in the Muslim areas of the Entente colonies.

Motadel says the campaign ultimately lacked credibility in the eyes of Muslims, who knew they were being manipulated by a colonial power, and because the Young Turks (who led the Ottomans since their revolt in 1908) were too blatantly secular to take seriously:

“It was all too clear that Muslims were being employed for the strategic purposes of the Central Powers, not for a truly religious cause. The Young Turks had no religious credentials. The power of the caliphate was limited.”

Between the two world wars, Germany kept Islam in its agenda, determined to learn from the mistake of World War I. It was widely agreed that the Muslim mobilization had failed because “the Ottoman leadership had long renounced Islam”, and plenty of German literature was cranked out on the subject. Motadel cites Thomas Reichardt’s Islam at the Gates) (1939), published a few months before the beginning of World War II, which argued that, “When Islam looks at the West, it sees in democracy, in parliamentarianism, capitalism, individualism, unrestrained mechanization, and the blind belief in progress all things which it opposes.” Germany, like Japan and Italy, saw the West in similar terms.

What was unanimous in the German literature was (a) a disdain for the lack of authenticity (religiosity) of the Young Turks in World War I which killed the jihad in its crib, and (b) a belief that Muslim religious sensibilities needed respecting, as Italy and Japan did. Islam was an opportunity that couldn’t be ignored and had to be done right by this time around.

Amin al-Husayni

He became the mufti of Jerusalem in 1921, and with other Muslims worked ceaselessly for years to prepare a base for Islamism in Europe and throughout the Muslim world. He was basically the pioneer of modern Arab and Islamist politics, but tends to be misunderstood and undervalued in his role. He advocated genocide of the Jews long before the Nazi government did, and furthermore killed Hitler’s initial plan to let the Jews leave Germany and emigrate to Palestine. Al-Husayni warned Hitler that if he really wanted Muslim allies, then he had to close Europe’s exits to Jews. The mufti thus contributed directly to the Holocaust, cornering Hitler into his “final solution”. It’s quite wrong to see al-Husayni and his fellow Islamists as merely being influenced by the Nazis, as some critics do. They weren’t trying to please Hitler; they genuinely believed in the Islamic doctrine promoting hatred of Jews, and they bonded with the Nazis on the basis of common interests.

The mufti eventually settled in Berlin in 1941 at Hitler’s invitation. He wanted German support to wipe out the Jews in the Middle-East, and in return he would “wage terror” (as he put it) against the British and French. Unlike the Ottomans during the first world war, al-Husayni framed the jihad imperative in its classic religious sense, heaping curses on the Jews and exhorting all Muslims everywhere to fear Allah above all, for anyone who does not “is not a Muslim anymore”. But the jihad, and the German-Muslim alliance, ultimately failed in this war too, though for different reasons.

The Question of Ideology: Nazism and Islam

Motadel handles this whole issue well. The promotion of Islam was a strategic move for Germany (as it had been in the past), but it was only the Reich’s willingness to deal with it ideologically that made that move possible. “After all,” says Motadel, “The Third Reich was an ideological state and Second World War an ideological war. Ideology mattered.” And ideology was easier to deal with than ethnicity.

Race/ethnicity

The Nazi regime was pragmatic on the issue of race — making allowances for Turks, Arabs, and Iranians — but this required a bit of backpedaling on the Fuhrer’s views of Aryan supremacy. Dr. Walter Gross (who ran the Office of Racial Policy) wrote (in 1944) that “National Socialist race theory in fact recognizes Arabs as members of a high-grade race, which looks back on a glorious and heroic history.” Others like him insisted that the Reich was “anti-Jewish/Judaic” (which it was) but not “anti-Semitic” (though it was obviously this too), catering to the common understanding that Arabs were “Semites”.

Others, following Gross, insisted that German race theory wasn’t directed at other peoples aside from the Jews, while insisting that the racial mixing between Germans and Turks/Arabs/Iranians (especially as more Muslims were deployed in the Reich) had to be avoided for the benefit of both peoples. Muslims were “racially valuable”, and yet their bloodstream was different from the Germans and had to be kept separate. Hitler went so far as to call the mufti al-Husayni an Aryan (on the basis of his blond hair and blue eyes), and had the physician Pierre Schrumpf confirm his judgment: Schrumpf gave the mufti a six-hour medical examination, and officially proclaimed al-Husayni to be a Circassian, and thus a Caucasian.

Hitler and his propagandists, in other words, fumbled over issues of race, trying to uphold white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways.

Religion/ideology

There was no awkward fumbling when it came to ideology. Religion has nothing to do with race, after all (though many people today don’t get this), and Hitler and his Reichsführer (Himmler) revered the doctrines of Islam. Himmler believed that Muhammad was one of the greatest men in history and had in his collection many books on Islam and the Prophet. He esteemed Islam as a masculine soldierly religion:

“Mohammed knew that most people are terribly cowardly and stupid. That is why he promised every warrior who fights courageously and falls in battle two beautiful women. This kind of language a soldier understands. When he believes that he will be welcomed in this manner in the afterlife, he will be willing to give his life; he will be enthusiastic about going into battle and not fear death. You may call this primitive and laugh about it, but it is based on deeper wisdom.”

Himmler got on well with mufti al-Husayni, who after the war was impressed by Himmler’s “intelligence and breadth of knowledge”. And Himmler’s views of Islam were shared by others, like his right-hand Gottlob Berger.

As for Hitler, he repeatedly devalued Christianity while extolling Islam. Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak; Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquered the world. Motadel cites Albert Speer, who remembers Hitler saying thus:

“Had the Arabs won this battle [against Charles Martel in 732] the world would be Mohammedan today. For theirs is a religion that believes in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that faith. The Germanic peoples would have become heirs to that religion. Such a creed was perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament. Hitler said that the conquering Arabs, because of their racial inferiority, would in the long run have been unable to contend with the harsher climate and conditions of the country. Ultimately not Arabs but Islamized Germans could have stood at the head of the Mohammedan Empire.”

Thus again, the importance of distinguishing beliefs/doctrines from cultures/peoples. Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it.

The Failure of a Reich-Muslim Alliance

For all the Reich leaders’ ideological passion, it evidently rang hollow on its hearers. Whether Muslims were under German rule, behind the front lines, or deployed in German military units, “it was all too obvious that the Germans wanted to instrumentalize Muslims for their interests and war necessities rather than for a truly religious cause.” The Reich’s hypocrisies — its mixed messages on race and ethnicity, if not religion and ideology — and ultimately its attempts to bond with Muslims over a religious cause lacked credibility.

The other reason offered by Motadel for the failure of a WWII German-Muslim alliance is that Germany respected Italy and its imperial interests too much. Italy may have patronized Islam like Japan did, but Muslims resented Italians for their colonial oppressive measures even more than they hated the British and the French. Ultimately Muslims saw Germans as complicit in Italian oppression.

Lessons

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War taught me some things I was oblivious to, and the research behind it is impeccable. I’m not surprised it won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize. I was drawn to reading it over the recent unpleasant revelation of M.A.R. Barker. Barker was a convert to Islam who designed the brilliant RPG Empire of the Petal Rose, and then later became a pro-Nazi and Holocaust denier. Empire of the Petal Rose was the first role-playing game (released in 1974) not based on a European/white setting, and the fantasy world (Tekumel) has Asian-type cultures. It may be hard to wrap our heads around someone like Barker turning militant-white-supremacist, but then ideology and ethnicity are different things. Love for doctrines doesn’t necessarily imply love for whatever peoples happen to embrace those doctrines. And Barker was an American convert to Islam, not a native of Asia or the Middle-East.

 

Update: See more here, for the parallels between Wilhelm and Hitler in the two world wars.

Reading Roundup: 2021

This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.

1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.

2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.

4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.

5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.

6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.

7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.

8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.

9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.

10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.

Kindly Inquisitors: A Prophetic View from the Early 90s

If there was ever a prophet about the fate of speech in America, it’s Jonathan Rauch. Almost 30 years ago he wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993), and there’s been an expanded edition available for eight years. I don’t know how I ever missed it. The text in all six chapters remains unaltered, for, as the author says in his new afterword, fresher examples would simply prove the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. He’s being modest. He needs no fresher supplements for any reason; his argument is unassailable.

Rauch knew exactly where the left was headed. In ’93 he stood at a crossroads and saw the coming of 2014. Let’s look back, and look forward with him.

In the beginning was pornography

It’s almost eerie the way Rauch starts with an example that was the start of it all for me. The first time I realized something was rotten in leftist-ville was in the late ’80s. I was a college undergrad and was learning, to my shock, that feminists were decrying pornography and advocating its censorship. That made no sense to me, and when I told my feminist librarian supervisor about it over summer break, she didn’t believe it. (These were the days you couldn’t just get on the internet and google something for clarity.) I had to work hard to persuade her that my undergrad colleagues weren’t necessarily fringe wackos; that there was indeed a burgeoning movement in feminism that was pro-censorship.

The striking claim made by both fundies and feminists was that pornography hurt people. (It doesn’t seem as striking today, since the wokes have run wild with this idea: that words and images are as harmful as physical violence.) The fundies claimed that pornography was hurtful because it eroded morality and was detrimental to society. The feminists claimed that pornography was hurtful because it degraded women, aided in their repression and denied them their rights.

Obviously pornography doesn’t do these things. Women are raped and battered by criminals, not by porno-mags or porno-flicks, and no respectable study has ever shown a causal link between pornography and violence. Just the opposite: in countries where pornography is legalized there is (as the intelligent person might suspect) a decrease in rape and sex crimes. But even if there were a link between pornography and violence, says Rauch, since when do we advocate the banning of books or films which “cretins find exciting, thereby letting the very lowest among us determine what we can read and watch”? Do we ban Mein Kampf because someone read it and killed a Jew? Do we ban the Bible because its prescription to kill sodomites inspired a hate crime against gays?

Of course not, which is why feminists quickly switched gears in the ’90s, and broadened their attack, claiming that pornography does more than hurt women as individuals who suffer criminal assault. Pornography also hurts women as a class, as a group of people, whether or not any of them suffer a criminal attack. Pornography, the argument now went, institutionalizes gender inequality and male supremacy. It fuses the erotization of male dominance and female submission.

Plenty of feminist strippers and showgirls rightly scoffed at this claim, and as Rauch says, if you ask for evidence of it, don’t expect to find it. The argument is much more sly: that the oppressive nature of pornography is so woven into the social fabric of society that it is invisible harm — save to those who are offended by it:

“In the world constructed by pornography, people who are not radical feminists can no more see the harm of pornography than a fish can see water. How, then, do we know if pornography is really doing the harm that feminists allege? Because it must be. By its very nature — by the images it expresses and the psychological climate it creates, pornography is oppressive.” (p 17)

Writing in ’93, Rauch was essentially describing the religiosity of the post-2014 wokes. Only radical feminists (those who have “awokened”, in today’s lingo) can see how transparently harmful pornography is, while others remain blind. Dogma takes the place of evidence-based science.

The defining moment

I’ll look at another example and then turn to the heart of Rauch’s analysis. In February 1989 came what he calls the defining moment: when Islamic jihadists called famously for the death of Salman Rushdie for disrespecting Islam in his novel. As Rauch notes, what was striking was that Khomeini appealed to humanitarian principles in defending his (most non-humanitarian) death sentence on Salman Rushdie. And he was no dummy; his strategy was very effective:

“You have hurt us with your evil words, your impious words, disrespectfully and needlessly written in utter disregard for Muslim sensibilities. You have caused pain and offense to many people. And this you have no right to do.”

Hurt, pain, offense. Typical fundie accusations. But now, alarmingly, winning a sympathetic ear.

Here, for the first time, liberals began to pander to those who called for the silencing of others. Up until now, the left could be relied on to come back full swing against such religious intolerance — especially death threats — by retorting, yes, of course Rushdie’s words caused fury and pain (like any of thousands of other novels do), and that is perfectly 100% all right. Now liberalism was losing its mind, in the name of a perverted “multiculturalism” which says all cultures have their valid ways of believing and that western people should be “be nice” above all. They allowed, of course, that the Ayatollah shouldn’t have ordered Rushdie’s death, but you know, Rushdie really shouldn’t have said those things that provoked Muslims. Seriously.

This was more than a decade before 9/11, and since that second watershed moment — and in its wake the slaying of cartoonists who draw pictures of Muhammad — the unwitting alliance between Muslim jihadists and western liberals has grown stronger. The Islamist argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the western liberal says that it is morally wrong but should be followed. Both positions yield the identical outcome: silence, for sake of not giving offense. It’s impossible to exaggerate the moral confusion on the side of the left, when they’re blaming cartoonists more than (or instead of) the jihadists who killed them.

What the left has given up (and which Rauch predicted) is the most important cornerstone of liberalism: that the defense of free expression and universal human rights is not a provocation — far less a “phobia” or bigotry — but a moral obligation. Let’s turn to Rauch’s taxonomy for knowledge-building and truth-seeking.

The five ways to truth

It’s rare to find a good analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions, instead of just focusing on where we stand. Rauch outlines five such processes that people take to find or argue for the truth:

(1) The Fundamentalist Approach: Those who know the truth should decide who is right. Unassailable authority figures have been enlightened with the truth and they disseminate it. Arguments might ensue but they are irrelevant if they come from non-authority figures. Examples of this approach include Plato’s Republic and Khomeni’s Iran.

(2) The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held beliefs have equal claims to respect. If I sincerely believe that I am a woman, despite my male biological appendage, then who are you to doubt me?

(3) The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Like approach (2), but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration. In today’s world, Critical Race Theory is the king of this approach.

(4) The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with approaches (1), (2), or (3), but adds that you must not cause harm with your words or expression. It is the recipient of your words who determines how harmful your words are. On this approach, words are understood as literal violence. Examples of this include the two examples I started with: pornography and Rushdie’s novel.

(5) The Liberal Science Approach: Public criticism is the only way to determine who is right. In any argument, no one gets final say and no one is accorded special status, whether for fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian reasons. You can only be right on the merit of your arguments. Arguments should ideally be conducted with collegiality and respect, but they do not have to be in order to arrive at the truth.

In the end, Rauch says that the fifth approach of liberal science is the only one that can work. That is, a social system that allows and even sometimes encourages offense, is ultimately the only genuinely humane system. A truly humane society is a critical society that stimulates curiosity by rewarding people, not punishing them, for finding mistakes and correcting deficient ideas, no matter how cherished those deficient ideas appear.

Of the first four approaches, it’s actually the humanitarian that is the most dangerous, says Rauch, for this approach takes aim not just at free speech but at liberal science itself (p 27). It leads to the doctrine that people should be punished for holding hurtful beliefs which are thus construed to be false and dangerous. “It leads, in other words, toward an inquisition.”

Authoritarianism used to be the providence of the religious and political right in America, but Rauch saw it starting to flourish among the secular and political left in the ’90s, and warned:

“There is no social principle in the world more foolish or dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence (or torture, or harassment) and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it.” (p 28)

The “new sensitivity”, in other words, was just the old authoritarianism in disguise, and look where the hell we are today.

The Obligation of Governments and Universities

The liberal science approach charges two institutions in particular to not punish people for anything they say or believe, no matter how offensive: governments and universities:

“Governments because their monopoly on force gives them enormous repressive powers, and universities, because their moral charter is first and foremost to advance human knowledge by practicing and teaching criticism. If governments stifle criticism, then they impoverish and oppress their citizenry. If universities do so, then they have no reason to exist.” (p 86)

While it’s true that private universities aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment (and shouldn’t be, by virtue of being private), they would do well to act as if they are bound by it in the same way that public universities are. Assuming they want to be taken seriously as an academic institution.

I would add the caveat however, that in college/university settings we need to distinguish between (a) the professional zone and (b) the larger free speech zone. The former protects the expression of ideas but not absolutely; it imposes an obligation of responsible discourse in the classroom. Even in a public university, you can’t just say literally whatever you want in class. The professor has the right to enforce scholarly standards as he or she sees fit, and hopefully does a fair job of it. (Not all of them do.) The free-speech zone exists outside of the scholarly setting. Guest speaker lectures and other campus activities are in this zone (for public universities) or at least should be treated as if they are in a free speech zone (for private ones).

Rauch gets at the same thing when he distinguishes between belief and knowledge. Liberal science doesn’t restrict belief, but in the academic environment it does restrict knowledge. “There is positively no right to have one’s opinions, however heartfelt, taken seriously as knowledge.” (p 116) Believe all you want and express that belief, but don’t expect your beliefs to be taught or entertained in a classroom setting. If you want to believe the earth is 6000 years old, go ahead. If you want to believe that sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum, feel free. If you say that vaccines are dangerous and should be opposed, that’s your absolute right. If you insist that Islam is a religion of peace, that too is your prerogative. But none of those claims deserves to taught in schools (even though some of them are). The way to set a curriculum, says Rauch, is to insist that it teach knowledge which consists of thoroughly tested claims, checked and back-checked over again empirically.

The problem today is that while right-wing fantasies are usually treated with the contempt they deserve at universities, left-wing fantasies often get a pass. We have the egalitarian/humanitarian approaches to thank for that.

The greater danger: right or left?

Rauch was suggesting in ’93 what some classical liberals today are now saying: that the greater authoritarian threats come not from fundamentalists (approach 1), or at least not anymore; in the ’80s it was different. Since the ’90s, “the greater threat lies in letting down our guard against ourselves: in high-mindedly embracing authoritarianism in the name of fairness and compassion (approaches 2, 3, and 4)” (p 112). Rauch was all but promising a woke movement.

But… isn’t science supposed to be egalitarian?

Only in the sense that the rules apply to everyone. Liberal science is, as Rauch says, an equal-opportunity knowledge maker. The fact that women and minorities didn’t always have access to the scientific field wasn’t the failure of liberal science. It was the failure to fully embrace it. We didn’t renounce democracy just because women and African Americans and Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in certain periods. No, we embraced democracy more fully, just as we did with liberal science. The nature of liberal science (like democracy) carries within itself the seeds of its egalitarian improvements.

But, as Rauch goes on to clarify, science is not egalitarian in its results. “An equal-opportunity knowledge maker is very different from being an equal-results knowledge maker” (p 113), and unfortunately, hordes of voices on the left demand equal results. So leftists insist that all religions carry the same potential for peace and violence (which isn’t true), just like the right-wingers would prefer that creationism is taught in schools alongside evolution, to present “both sides fairly”.

Bottom line: no one has a claim to knowledge because their tribe or group or class of people or sect has been marginalized or historically left out. One has a claim to knowledge only to the extent that “one’s opinion still stands up after prolonged exposure to withering public testing” (p 118).

Science’s key to success: rewarding those who prove it wrong

Rauch makes the point that an enlightened intellectual regime allows all sorts of prejudices to bloom, including hateful ones. This is because attempting to stamp out prejudice simply makes everyone share the same prejudice, and thus kills science (p 68). One person’s hate speech is another person’s well-founded criticism, and another person’s stride for social justice. Look at Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One of the greatest human rights activists and yet she was uninvited from speaking at Brandeis University for her (supposed) hate speech.

Science has a failsafe against error in any case: when it makes mistakes — whether by prejudice or not — it rewards those who find them. Science, unlike the other four approaches, is always looking for disconfirmation, not affirmation, of its theories. That’s why it’s the truly humane and progressive approach.

Rauch puts it this way:

“The difference between a scientific society and a mythmaking group is not that one relies on imagination while the other does not; it is that the skeptical and empirical rules set up a tension which makes imagination its own watchman. For if you play the game well, you must be imaginative in two ways at once: in dreaming up statements about the external world, and in dreaming up ways to debunk them.” (p 69)

Liberal science is successful, in other words, because it’s a problem finder as much as a problem attacker, and uses its resources well. It can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the other four approaches.

Once and for all

Thus should Rauch’s statement of knowledge be embraced for what it is: good liberal common sense.

“Let us be frank, once and for all: creating knowledge is painful, for the same reason that it can be exhilarating. Knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test our ideas, we get angry, hurt, embarrassed… The fact is that even the most scientific criticism can be horribly hurtful, devastatingly so… I am certainly not saying that we should all go out and be offensive or inflammatory just for the sake of it. But I am also only too well aware that in the pursuit of knowledge many people will be hurt. A no-offense society is a no-knowledge society.” (pp 125-126)

Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting (it’s not bigoted or “Islamophobic”). Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum is hurtful to many transgendered people, but it’s truth (not “transphobic”). Hearing that obesity is unhealthy is upsetting to heavy people, but that’s a public service of health (not mean-spirited bullying or “body-shaming”). And on and on.

If you’re a college professor, and a student insists in the classroom that the Holocaust never happened, feel free to silence him, but do it for the right reason. Not because he’s offending Jews. (No one has the right to be not offended in an academic environment, nor to feel secure in an “intellectual safe space”.) Not because he’s “inciting violence”. (Crackpot theories don’t incite violence; the very idea is absurd.) Silence him, in the classroom, because he is trying to pass off as knowledge something that has been thoroughly debunked, and is not worth wasting the time of his fellow students — or their tuition money for that matter. He’s free to speak his crackpot theories on campus outside the classroom.

And above all — I would add before signing off — if you’re going to insist that racial or homophobic slurs “are not speech, but bullets” (saith a University of Michigan law professor), or that offensive speech “wounds” and “injures” (saith another), then you erase, as Rauch says, the distinction between discussion and bloodshed, which carries logical consequences. If offensive speech is so violent, then it requires authorities and thought police to weed out anything perceived as hurtful and wounding. It requires, in other words, an inquisition.

That may have sounded alarmist in 1993, but thirty years later we have the woke-scolds and their cancel culture. And many smart, good-willed people who find it difficult, if not impossible, to have open and honest discussions. Society can’t progress that way. Time for us to shape up and accept results that speak for themselves: offensive speech has proven itself to be a precious commodity.

 

See also the author’s sequel, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

Why Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

For reasons seldom heard: to prepare the world for the Last Judgment and finance the Last Crusade.

Strange we don’t often hear that.

It took me years to get around to Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011), mostly because I kept forgetting that it was squeezed into the end of my bookshelf. It’s a solid treatment of Columbus that takes his millenarian beliefs seriously, which surprisingly many scholars have not done. It’s common to suppose that Columbus was driven by greed, but as Delaney shows, it’s misleading to equate the material goal with the personal motive. Columbus’s search for gold wasn’t a commercial expedition; it was all but an apocalyptic geas.

We don’t know exactly when Columbus originally developed his plan to cross the ocean, but Delaney suggests that it was on the island of Porto Santo (where he had gone to live with his wife in 1480) when the pieces started falling into place. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated once-and-for-all from Muslim control. Columbus knew that another crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a crusade. He needed a seaward route, since the land route to Asia had been closed to Europeans since 1453. His intent was to find a way to the east by sailing west around.

He also knew (from the writings of Marco Polo) that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religiosity that continued to drive Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus would prepare the world for the Last Judgment, and acquire the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade.

Columbus’ religious zeal can be seen in the primary sources (his diary, his letters, his “Book of Prophecies”, etc). For example, during the sail back from his first voyage, he wrote to Isabella and Ferdinand that, “Within seven years I shall give Your Highnesses enough money to pay for 5,000 knights and 50,000 foot soldiers for the conquest of Jerusalem” (letter dated March 4, 1493, which surfaced in 1985). In another letter he said that gold wasn’t primarily a medium of exchange but a medium of redemption: “Gold is a metal most excellent above all others and of gold treasures are formed, and he who has it makes and accomplishes whatever he wishes in the world and finally uses it to send souls into Paradise.”

The Garden of Eden

Delaney offers an interesting commentary on Columbus’s first sight of South America (on August 1, 1498) during his third voyage. When he saw the Orinoco River and other parts of present day Venezuela, he became convinced that he found the Garden of Eden — the place where Creation itself began. (Remember, he believed that Cuba and Hispaniola were in the Asian region, having sailed far enough west to come back east to the area of Marco Polo’s adventures.) He didn’t go ashore to explore the region (he had to get back to his colony at Santa Domingo with supplies that were already spoiling), but his mind was churning with excitement. Delaney writes:

“Columbus did not try to enter the Terrestrial Paradise, but he could not stop thinking about what his discovery might mean. The widely held belief that the Terrestrial Paradise would be found only near the end time was part of the medieval Christian interpretation of the story of Enoch and Elijah. These two figures from Genesis were associated with the two witnesses in Revelation (11:3), thought to be waiting in the Garden until the end time, when they were prophesied to fight the Antichrist. Having found the Terrestrial Paradise must have confirmed Columbus’s belief that the end was nigh, and that his enterprise was the beginning of the fulfillment of prophecy. The extraordinary discovery of the Terrestrial Paradise was the first step in the apocalyptic drama. He hoped this event would spur the Spanish sovereigns to take the next steps.” (p 174)

Shortly after, Columbus wrote to the Spanish sovereigns, explaining that he found a new continent and the location of the Terrestrial Paradise (Garden of Eden). He reminded them of the real achievements of his voyages which were being overshadowed by mundane logistical concerns, saying, “Your Highnesses have won these vast lands, which are an Other World, in which Christendom will have so much enjoyment and our faith in time so great an increase, and in the end of your days you will have the glory of Paradise”.

Not a hero, but not really a villain either

Delaney also shows how Columbus tried to treat the natives decently, time and time again throughout all his voyages, unlike some of the men he led, many of whom defied his orders or even rebelled. Isabella herself made some bad appointments that undermined Columbus’s command, the worst being when she chose Knight Commander Francisco de Bobadilla. When he arrived in Santa Domingo in 1500 he saw two Spaniards hanging from a gallows, executed by Columbus for their rebellion and crimes against the Indians. Columbus had intended their deaths to serve as an example to the rest of the colonists, and also to show the Indians that the rule of law applied to his own men. Upon arrival, Bobadilla immediately put Columbus in chains and imprisoned him. Then he sent him back to Spain in disgrace, while releasing all the rebel prisoners Columbus had jailed, and making common cause with them.

Columbus won back some measure of approval from the Spanish monarchs — thanks to Isabella who liked him — but he never fully recovered his standing after the outrage of the third voyage. Yet he became the symbol of all that went wrong in the Indies, while true monsters like Bobadilla, and his even worse successor Ovando, have been largely passed over. Governor Ovando’s massacre of Queen Anacaona and the Taino people (during Columbus’s fourth voyage) was especially treacherous. In the fall of 1503, the queen had welcomed Ovando with a feast, and Ovando responded to this honor by burning the Taino alive, running their children through with lances, and hanging Anacaona. Almost a year later, when Columbus returned to Santa Domingo (after being marooned on Jamaica for over a year), Ovando freed mutineers and punished all those who were loyal to Columbus. Columbus once again returned to Spain powerless over awful men who had displaced him.

Even the friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 spent decades as a repentant radical, actively fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, viewed Columbus kindly in hindsight, and as a far better and just person than Bobadilla or Ovando or any of the governors and conquistadors who came after.

The Book of Prophecies

In the time between his third and fourth voyages (1501-1502), as he worked to clear his name from the Bobadilla episode, Columbus also devoted himself to writing the Libro de las profecias (the Book of Prophecies). Scholars tend to dismiss the book, as it disrupts their traditional view of Columbus as the “first modern man”, but Delaney gives it the spotlight it deserves: it shows what truly motivated Columbus.

There are massive amounts of quotes in the Libro from the Old Testament prophets, but also from the New Testament, Josephus, Augustine, and other church fathers. The Libro is nothing less than the “explicit and extensive expression of Columbus’s quest for the liberation of Jerusalem and the way he thought about his discoveries and his role in the fulfillment of Christian prophecy” (p 190). But it wasn’t published until 1892, and only in 1984 was the Latin translated into Spanish; only in 1992 were English-speaking translations made available.

It puts beyond doubt that from Columbus’ view, his (1) discovery of the islands and (2) conversion of the Indians had made possible two of the conditions necessary for Christ to return, but the third most important one — (3) the conquest of Jerusalem — remained the ultimate goal. In February 1502, he wrote a letter to Pope Alexander VI, saying that he (a) had located the Garden of Eden on his third voyage, (b) needed more priests to be sent to the new world to spread God’s word, and (c) must remind His Holiness that the whole enterprise had been taken with the purpose of obtaining gold to restore the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to the church.

In Delaney’s view, the Libro was

“a kind of literary gauntlet thrown down to the Spanish sovereigns with the hope that they would be persuaded by the logic of the signs that the end of the world was imminent. Columbus’s passion for the conquest of Jerusalem never ended. While his passion was most explicit in the Libro de las profecias, it had been there from the beginning, even if he had not quite understood how it would unfold. But once he had crossed the ocean and understood his discoveries within the wider Christian prophetic tradition, his passion grew stronger and more emphatic. It was a vision that would occupy him to the end of his life.” (p 201)

And it’s no wonder that Columbus felt betrayed upon returning from his fourth journey. He came back to find that Isabella had died (in November 1504), and with it all the friendship he had at the royal court. King Ferdinand (who never liked Columbus) stripped away most of Columbus’s privileges and hereditary titles that the crown had bestowed on him in 1492 (and had reinstated after the Bobadilla affair of the third voyage). The friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 committed his life to fighting slavery and colonial tyranny, wrote this (sometime in the 1520s or 1530s) of the king’s treatment of Columbus:

“As for King Ferdinand, I do not know why he was not only ungrateful in words and deeds but actually harmed Columbus whenever he could. It was believed that if, in good conscience and without losing face, he could have violated all the articles of the privileges that he and the Queen had justly granted him for his services, he would indeed have done so. I have never been able to ascertain the reason for this dislike and unkingly conduct toward one whose unparalleled service no other monarch ever received. Perhaps he was unduly impressed by the arguments and false testimonies of Columbus’s enemies and rivals.” (History of the Indies, pp 138-140)

But the king really knifed Columbus in the back by reneging on the quest for Jerusalem. He had never shared the apocalyptic zeal of Columbus or his wife, and so, with Isabella gone, instead of organizing a crusade he simply asked the Islamic sultan to protect the holy places in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims. Columbus was outraged and — whatever we think today of crusades and apocalyptic dramas — rightly so.

Conclusion

This book changed some of my feelings for Columbus, but not by a great deal. I still think his legacy is overrated and that there’s no need for a holiday in his name. But I do appreciate him more as a man of his times, and as someone who has studied the crusades extensively, I join the chorus of endorsement of Delaney’s thesis. No scholar of the crusades thinks that crusaders were driven primarily by greed or colonial ambitions, and this book extends that idea based on Columbus’s clear passion for a “crusade that would end all crusades”.

That passion soon fizzled out. Soon after Columbus’s death (1506) came the Protestant Reformation and with it new spiritual battles. Apocalyptic hopes receded in Catholic thought, while in Protestant churches they revved up in new ways that had nothing to do with crusades. Columbus’ vision mutated; America, not Jerusalem, was now the place of redemption, and it would be around a long time for the plundering. Columbus is remembered more for the mutation of his vision, and Delaney’s book is a sort of Albert Schweitzer-like portrayal of the original man who “comes to us as one unknown”.

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.

 

Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights

“This is a trigger warning for the entire book. Reading it, you should be triggered.” (from the cover page of Prey)

I wasn’t triggered by Prey, but many readers have evidently been, not least Jill Filipovic who wrote a grossly inaccurate hit piece for the New York Times. Read Tunku Varadarajan from the Wall Street Journal for a worthy review of Prey. What follows is my review.

Prey is in fact Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best book to date. Vilified for speaking truth, and castigated for her common sense, she now turns her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis.

“The rape game [taharrush gamea] crossed the Mediterranean in December 2015. During New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, more than a thousand young men formed rings around individual women, sexually assaulting them. And when the victims identified the perpetrators as looking foreign, North African, and Arab, they were pilloried as racists on social media.” (p 161)

The “rape game”, or taharrush gamea, is sexual harassment/assault in crowds, and the inevitable expression of many elements — religiously sanctioned misogyny, values of honor and shame, lack of sex education, and repressed urges. Far from being the reprehensible crime it is in the west, in many Muslim-majority countries the rape game happens openly. Immigrant Muslim men do not — contrary to the claims of some — use sexual violence to lash out at host societies because they feel disenfranchised. These men simply behave as they always have. If Egyptian men play the rape game on the streets of Cairo and then come to Germany and do the same thing, it’s not because they feel inferior or oppressed. It’s because of entrenched factors — religiously sanctioned misogyny, honor-shame values, lack of sex education, and repressed urges — and because they think they can get away with it, as they always have.

Until recently, sexual violence in public places — especially when orchestrated by gangs — had come to be seen as an aberration in most of Europe. Rape and sexual assault rates had been falling for decades, and it was widely known that most sexual violence occurred within established relationships. Europe was simply unprepared for what ignited on New Year’s Eve, 2015, and before long, women avoided going outdoors as much as possible.

It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are incredibly lower in some parts of the world than others — especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy — and I was particularly struck by the her analogy with the #MeToo movement, and the usual leftist/woke hypocrisy:

“As I was researching for this book, the #MeToo movement shone a light on sexual abuse and exploitation in the upper echelons of North America. I found myself wondering why an equally bright light was not being shone on the often more serious crimes against women in lower-income neighborhoods in Europe.” (p 9)

“I am not claiming that sexual harassment is a vice unique to immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. On the contrary, part of my reason for writing this book was to make sense of the changing attitudes of women toward sexual harassment, which have come to be associated around the world with the #MeToo movement. For me, it is a puzzle that in the United States and other Western countries, countless pages and copious airtime have been devoted to the misdeeds of a few hundred prominent figures in the entertainment industry, politics, education, and finance, but much less has been written about the far more numerous acts of rape, assault, and harassment perpetrated by recent migrants to Europe.” (p 61)

And one could of course expand this critique to swipe huger hypocrisies and misplaced priorities. Westerns, for example, will crusade over being misgendered or called by their non-preferred pronouns, but fall utterly silent about honor-killings and female genital mutilation in the Islamic world.

The Playbook of Denial

Another important point: Hirsi Ali was an asylum seeker and an immigrant (first to the Netherlands and then to the U.S.), and the last thing she wants are obstacles put up to those who want to escape religious oppression and have better lives in the west. She wrote Prey “not to help the proponents of closed borders but to persuade liberal Europeans that denial is a self-defeating strategy” (p 10). I’ll get to her proposed alternative to right-wing “closed border” solutions at the end of the review. For now let’s focus on denial — since leftists and wokes have made such a bloody art of it — of which Hirsi Ali identifies eight different types (see chapter 9):

1. The Brush-off. Police and politicians simply don’t take reports of migrant sexual assault seriously, because they fear the political ramifications.

2. Misdirection. People conjure up a smoke screen by universalizing the problem of sexual violence. They claim that it’s not immigrants who disproportionately rape women, but rather that “all men are rapists” and “every third woman experiences physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence”. While it’s obviously true that sexual violence is a universal problem, it is also true (just as obviously, to those living in reality) that such violence from migrant Muslims has been a disproportionate problem across Europe, especially in Germany and Sweden.

3. The Semantic Muddle. Suspects in police reports and media coverage are described as “southerners”, “men with dark skin”, or people with “poor German” language skills, deliberately obscuring their migration status. In some parts of Europe, the semantic muddle is officially imposed by media regulators. To suggest that an immigrants’ religion and culture may have anything to do with their attitudes to women can jeopardize a journalist’s career in Europe.

4. Bogus Research and Commentary. Manufacturing statistics and surveys debunk reality on the ground. Attitudinal studies in particular are designed in such a way to reflect the preferred conclusions of researchers. Such studies will conclude falsely that attitudes to immigrants in various European countries are highly stable and becoming more favorable, when that is not necessarily true.

5. Dismissal of Honest Academics as Bigots. Academics often reject evidence supplied by their honest colleagues that goes against woke agendas. False charges of racism are leveled against those who portray Muslim societies as far more patriarchal and oppressive than Western ones, and against those who explain the links between Islamic beliefs and the idea of women as commodities.

6. Appeals to Compassion and Platitudes. Virtue-signaling at the expense of reason or caution is also a common denial tactic. When politicians implore citizens to fulfill their moral duty to rescue migrant workers, they imply that any critics of immigration policies are automatically immoral, inhumane, and racist.

7. Bad Advice and Bogus Solutions. Police and politicians have engaged in victim-blaming. After the mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve 2015, for example, the mayor of Cologne suggested that women were afraid of being assaulted should keep themselves “at arm’s length” from strangers. Police have suggested that women wear comfortable shoes that are made for running so that they can flee fast if they need to. Instead of implementing measures to ensure women’s safety, they place the onus on women to protect themselves from predatory men.

8. Fear of Bigotry and Backlash. Probably the most powerful tool in maintaining denial about the religious and cultural aspects of sexual violence is to claim that talking about the facts will fan the flames of racism, empower right-wing populists, and further divide society. This excuse has been used repeatedly by the police, politicians, social workers, and the media. To avoid being perceived as xenophobic, people would rather cover up the problem and leave victims at risk.

The last is especially a problem, because right-wing groups can be very effective in exaggerating or fabricating anti-immigrant stories. Anyone who tries discussing the negative aspects of immigration is almost certain to be accused of legitimizing the alt-right. But we can’t let fears like that intimidate us. Hirsi Ali is right: openly honest books like Prey can provide far more effective arguments against the alt-right than strategies of denial and perverted woke multiculturalist agendas.

Hard Truths

The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from places that don’t grant such rights to women. Women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women, who no longer recognize their neighborhoods or feel safe.

Likewise, German public transit has lost its reputation for safety. Women and girls have been increasingly reluctant in recent years to take the subway lines alone where many young Muslim men are traveling. Sexual assaults from migrant men take place daily in certain subway lines. In a 2014 report (by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights), about half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their movement out of fear of sexual assault. Street harassment is obviously not a new phenomenon, but only recently has it become so dramatically pervasive to make women change their behavior patterns.

What’s astonishing is that Chancellor Angela Merkel made her fateful decision (to welcome refugees fleeing the Syrian war in 2015) almost absent-mindedly. As Hirsi Ali explains, there was no decision. An official thirty-page order to close the German borders had been drafted, but no one had the courage to sign off on  it. It wasn’t a policy change or a strategy; it just slipped through everyone’s fingers and happened. And at first a lot of Germans were (understandably) happy about the unrestricted welcome to immigrants. It signaled a humanitarian approach and made the German people look enlightened.

They changed their tune mighty fast, not only when women felt unsafe to go outside alone, but with the wave of jihadist attacks that followed in 2016: an Afghan asylum seeker stabbing five people on a train near Wurzburg; a Syrian refugee blowing himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach; a twelve-year old Iraqi boy planting a bomb at a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen; a Tunisian asylum seeker (who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State) who drove a truck into the crowd at a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, killing twelve and injuring fifty-six others.

The Problem of Islam, and Collectivist Societies

And just as Islam mandates jihad (holy war) against unbelievers, it sanctions the treatment of women as inferior commodities, especially sura 4 of the Qur’an. While wife-beating obviously exists everywhere, only in Islam does it have divine sanction (4:34). Polygamy is sanctioned as well (4:3). The sexual enslavement of infidel women also has divine approval (4:24).

Hirsi Ali describes harrowing accounts of the survivors of sexual assaults. One victim of a gang rape in Rotherham said that her rapists said that she deserved to be raped because she was non-Muslim and dressed immodestly. As she was raped more than a hundred times, her attackers quoted the Qur’an to her (pp 173-174).

Accentuating the problem of Islam is the nature of group-oriented collectivist societies like the Muslim-majority nations which immigrants come from. Hirsi Ali points out that in our western world, “the individual, whether male or female, is recognized as a decision maker responsible for his or her behavior. In the Muslim world, by contrast, it is the group that is responsible. Whether it is the family, clan, or the whole ummah (community), the group makes decisions on behalf of individuals, and the condemnation of an individual is considered vilification of the group.” (pp 174-175)

So if the group doesn’t acknowledge the individual’s action as criminal (as in cases of rape), then the whole community feels victimized by the state. And this is what fuels Muslim communities to deflect individual responsibility for sexual assault by charging others with “Islamophobia” and the fear of a backlash — or, ludicrously, a “Muslim Holocaust”.

All of this dramatically reduces the chances for successful Muslim integration, and this takes us to the chapter on that subject.

Why Integration Hasn’t Happened

Muslims of course have been migrating to Europe since long before the 2010s. And it would seem logical, based on the history of other immigrants: the inherent superiority of secular democratic pluralism would be so attractive that migrant Muslims would eventually welcome it. The question of competing values would take care of itself as the migrants became employed and their children went to school. But that’s not what has happened with most Muslims; the values don’t rub off, and the cause comes down to religious (not ethnic) differences.

According to Hirsi Ali, Muslim immigrants take one of four paths (see pp 180-181):

1. The Adapters. Those who use the freedoms they find in Europe to learn, educate themselves and their children, find gainful employment, to start businesses, to vote, and to take part in society and thrive. Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself was an Adapter, in the Netherlands in 1990.

2. The Menaces. Those — mostly young men — who become a danger to their own homes and outside in public. Some drop out of school, some commit crimes big and small, and many spend time in prison. They’re often into alcohol and drugs, and most are unemployable. They tend to be neither religious nor morally driven. They take full advantage of welfare, and of criminal lawyers when they are charged with stealing, vandalizing, and sexual assault.

3. The Fanatics. Those who come to Europe driven by religiosity. They use the freedoms they find in Europe to spread Islamism and jihadism. They become language proficient in their host country and employed, and seek to work within the system to to destroy it and replace it with sharia law. They will use whatever means necessary to bring about the Islamic vision, using violence, threats, intimidation, blackmail, and peer pressure.

4. The Coasters. Men and women with little or no formal education who accept welfare benefits, live off them, and invite their families from abroad to come and join them. They see no reason to work because the jobs available to them are menial and pay little more than their welfare benefits. They attend mosque but also send their children to local schools. They are not criminal, but when enough of them live in close proximity they create ghettos, in which the Islamic way of life is replicated in the west. It is in these neighborhoods that children of the Coasters can either become Menaces, or find their way to the Fanatics.

Obviously these categories aren’t rigidly separate. A Coaster’s children can become Adapters; some Menaces clean up their acts; Menaces can turn into Fanatics; etc. The point is simple: If European officials and academics are honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that significant numbers of immigrant Muslims fall into one or more of the last three categories: Menace, Fanatic, or Coaster. The Adapters are there, to sure, but they are a minority (p 182).

What Holds Back Muslim Integration?

Italians, Irish, Jews, and Chinese integrated well into America, even though they faced they same obstacles as Muslim immigrants in Europe. They lived in crowded accommodations and ghettos, were unable to speak English well at first, began as unskilled workers, and faced worse bigotry and prejudices than Muslims do (Chinese immigrants were thought of as the “yellow plague”, Jews were exposed to intense anti-Semitism and discrimination, etc.). By the middle of the twentieth century, Italian Americans and Irish Americans were more or less fully integrated into American society, without repudiating their cultural heritage (even acknowledging the problem of mafia crime). Why haven’t Muslims done so after one or two decades?

The common answer is that Muslims come from countries with low education, poor protection of human rights, and societal trauma. But the history of Vietnamese integration refutes that argument. In the ’70s and ’80s many Vietnamese refugees fled war, communism, and poverty, and arrived in the west with a poor education and few language skills. Some relied on welfare but within two decades were thoroughly integrated. Many of them retain their customs, language, and religious beliefs, while embracing western values.

Hirsi Ali says that of all the forces holding back Muslim immigrants from integrating properly, the Islamic religion is the biggest. She’s right: Islam is a political religion that allows for no separation of mosque and state, and envisions a sharia-based society where unbelievers are subjugated (if not slain), and women kept firmly under the boot of oppression. In surveys comparing the attitudes of the children of migrant parents, it is only Muslims who do not develop more egalitarian views of women as they grow up in the west.

Many Islamic organizations advise Western governments on integration policies that encourage the respect of illiberal Islamic beliefs, and the further entrenchment of practices that keep Muslims segregated from the rest of liberal society.  “It is paradoxical that in the name of freedom of religion, governments permit Islamist organizations to hamper the integration of communities and new arrivals. It’s trying to put out the fire with a flame thrower.” (p 190)

Two Alternative Solutions: Populism or Radical Reform

So what’s the solution? In the final two chapters, she considers two responses to the problems of migrant Muslims. The first is the right-wing populist solution, that favors expelling illegal immigrants and restricting future Muslim immigration — which Hirsi Ali considers neither wise nor practical — and the second is to radically reform the European systems of integrating immigrants.

Populism: The lesson of the past decade is clear. If wokes and leftists refuse to listen to citizens’ concerns about Muslim immigrants, or dismiss them as racist, right-wing populists will gain an audience. Populist parties do a great job of articulating voters’ grievances when everyone else fears to. You have to give them that. But their promises to expel immigrants or “stop the boats” is usually not the humane approach, and it’s easier said than done in any case (in Europe anyway; it’s easier to enforce in America). Europe, says Hirsi Ali, must face facts and create the right incentives for immigrants and native populations to succeed together.

Reform: To emphasize again — especially since critics have misrepresented Hirsi Ali on this point, including the New York Times reviewer — she advocates a humane approach: “I have been a beneficiary of the asylum system and of a successful integration program. I have emigrated twice in my life. I would be a monstrous hypocrite if I lent support to the proponents of deportation and immigration restriction. What I want to see is many others like me enjoying the same opportunities that I have enjoyed and contributing to the health of the West’s open societies. But without drastic reforms of Europe’s immigration and integration systems, that is not going to happen.” (p 256)

Indeed, if leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand, then Hirsi Ali is probably right: within a decade or two at the most, there will be a serious rollback of women’s rights in Europe. Public spaces will look very different. Women will no longer walk about confidently, unaccompanied, in the streets or taking the public transit alone.

Specifically, Hirsi Ali proposes six measures of reform:

1. Repeal the Existing Asylum Framework. The global asylum and refugee system is outdated and ill equipped to cope with the challenges posed by mass violence and global immigration today. The distinction between migrant and asylum seeker has become blurred so that’s no longer useful. Rather than focus on where people come from and their motivations for leaving, Hirsi Ali suggests that the main criterion for granting access should be how far they are likely to abide by the laws and adopt the values of their host country. Those who can demonstrate their ability to adapt, and who will most likely enter the labor market (instead of the welfare state), would be those who qualify. Officials should ask migrants what they know about the culture and laws of the society they wish to join, and what the migrant envisions for him or herself in the west. Then, instead of being thrown in a reception center for years (to wait while asylum applications and appeals are assessed), the migrant will be given a reasonable time frame to prove a willingness to adapt to the west — a probation period of say one or two years — and if unsuccessful, the migrant will be ordered to leave or be deported.

2. Address the Push Factors… She suggests that western countries need to invest more resources into examining the problems in countries that cause migrants to flee to begin with. Trade agreements, developmental aid, diplomatic pressure should be used to help stabilize the Muslim world, instead of leaving everything to the United States.

3. … as well as the Pull Factors. The original welfare state was predicated on a notion of reciprocity, but to immigrants it looks more like a universal basic income. There must be meaningful limits on what outsiders can claim. The Austrian government has been demonized for trying to inject reciprocity back into its welfare system. The Austrians should be lauded. The threat of penalties and deportation works; it gets migrants to register for courses and language training.

4. Reinstate the Rule of Law. European national governments need to reform their criminal justice systems. As they stand, they are way too lenient on violent offenders, and they make outrageous exceptions for immigrants on grounds of “cultural sensitivity”.

5. Listen to the Successful Immigrants – not to the Islamists or the wokes. Rather than pander to Islamist spokesmen and white wokes, western governments should reallocate their resources to support the ideas of the successful Adpaters — the immigrants, that is, who have adopted the values of the country that has given them sanctuary, and come out as well-adjusted liberal Europeans. In other words, listen to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

6. Provide Sex Education to all Children. The only way to crack the shell of those who live an honor-shame framework of sex (in which clit-cutting, honor killings, sexual repression, and treating women as commodities are the norm) is to have mandatory sex education.

The Road to Gilead

It’s fitting that Hirsi Ali ends her book with reflections on The Handmaid’s Tale. I have said myself that the scenario envisioned in the novel/TV series evokes Islam far more than a hypothetical Christianity that takes over the state. Hirsi Ali writes:

“Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 to warn that American Evangelical Christians might one day succeed in establishing a patriarchal regime in the United States — or at least part of it, as ‘Gilead’ is supposed to be New England. Most of her readers appear to have missed the fact that something very like this had already happened in the Muslim world as religious ideologues seized power in the 1970s and ’80s in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. Islamic dystopias completely changed the circumstances of women in these countries — particularly better-off women in the large cities, who, in the 1950s and ’60s, had enjoyed at least some of the freedoms of women in the West. Islamists turned back the clock for women by claiming the public space for men with a religious fiat. Women were reduced to the role of mere breeders of sons.”

“I am not predicting that European women will meet exactly the same fate. History is unlikely to move as far back in time in Sweden or Germany as it has done in Iran and Somalia. It would be hyperbolic to suggest that Europe is sliding toward sharia law. Yet the recent wave of sexual violence and harassment in Europe is subtly but undeniably changing the nature of female life in Europe for the worse. Do we want a Europe in which photographs of female life taken before 2015 become objects of fascination, like the pictures in the books that the central character censors in Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments? If we wish to avoid it, we must imagine Old Europe as Gilead. It is already a closer fit than New England.”

I hope it’s not too late, for Europe’s sake.

Paul’s Holy War in Dune: Jihad or Crusade?

“There’s a crusade coming.”

Paul Atreides says that at the start of the Dune trailer, and some fans (including myself) are in varying degrees concerned. Has Denis Villeneuve pulled a “Sum of all Fears”, and catered to woke culture by censoring the idea of jihad from Frank Herbert’s story? Add to this that no Arabs were cast for the Fremen characters (Stilgar played by Javiar Bardem is Hispanic, and Chani played by Zendaya is African American), and one might wonder if Villeneuve is trying to keep Dune‘s holy war free of any implied Muslim and/or Arab association. (Which would be ironic, since other fans have been complaining about the lack of Arab representation among the cast; you can’t win with the woke crowd.) After all, it’s perfectly PC to portray barbaric warfare and devastation as the result of crusades. But leave the jihad out of it, you bigot!

In Herbert’s novels, of course, the Fremen are close analogs to Muslim Arabs. They’re a patriarchal warrior culture of the desert; they have a monopoly on a prized commodity (spice instead of oil); and their religion derives from an amalgam of religions emerging out of old Earth, the most influential being Sunni Islam. Under Paul’s messianic leadership they rise against the oppressive Corrino empire (and the Harkonnen lackeys) to lead a jihad across the galaxy — slaughtering over 60 billion people and sterilizing all life on over 90 planets. It’s a monstrous holy war that Paul agonizes over, and then rationalizes as a necessary or lesser evil, but few readers seriously buy that. The jihad results in devastation and a uniformly oppressive way of life that is far worse than anything experienced under the previous 10,000 years of Corrino rule.

By turning Paul’s jihad into a crusade, and (perhaps) leaving Arabs completely out of the cast, it looks as if Villeneuve could be trying to make a Dune adaptation that will pass the PC litmus test. If this turns out to be the case — that he has removed all references to jihad in his film for fear of stereotyping Muslims — then I will join the chorus of condemnation. But I think this is probably not the case. In Herbert’s books the term “crusade” is actually used as a loose equivalent of the jihad on a couple of occasions. Maybe the trailer just happened to include Herbert’s rare phrase instead of his common one.

But before going any further with the Dune universe, let’s review the differences and similarities between the Christian crusades and the Islamic jihad in our real world, since in reality “crusade” and “jihad” are not interchangeable.

The Christian crusades vs. the Islamic jihad

Here are the differences:

  • The crusades emerged (in the 11th century) as a response to the Islamic jihad and had no basis in the tenets of Christianity. It was a hijacking of the Christian religion. Reactively (defensively), the crusades were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced (what was for Christianity) a radical concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels. The profession of medieval knighthood didn’t allow for peace, and knights had been taught by monks that they led an inherently sinful life; now they were taught they could channel that sinful aggression into a sacred cause.
  • The jihad, on the other hand, under Islamic law, is derived from the Qur’an and has always been mandatory on all able-bodied male members of the Muslim community. This remains true to this day, in all four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi) and Shi’ite schools as well. Unlike the crusades, the jihad takes two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar) internal struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar) military struggle to subjugate infidels (and eventually the whole world) under Islamic law. Both jihads are obligatory, the lesser as much as the greater. Unlike the Christian crusades of the medieval period, which were voluntary and non-essential to the faith, the Islamic jihad has always been a faith fundamental.

What the crusades and the jihad do have in common is the drive of religious zeal. For whatever strange reason, modern academics have difficulty accepting that people find holy war attractive on the strength of religiosity — that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding, irrespective of social or economic factors. Rational people are capable of believing things which a lot of us consider crazy, especially when it comes to beliefs about the afterlife. Specifically:

  • Claims that the crusaders were mostly disenfranchised second sons disaffected with their lot in life, or that crusaders in general were colonizers intent on acquiring land abroad, are the products of dated and uninformed scholarship. Many crusaders were wealthy first-born sons, and most crusaders expected to be bankrupt by the cost of crusading, and to return home to Europe immediately after. Simply put: one did not improve one’s lot in life by going on crusade; just the opposite. Crusaders believed in the virtues of sacred violence for its own sake (despite and against the long-standing tradition of their savior’s pacifism). Holy war was a penitential act offering the warrior a way to bypass purgatory on his way to heaven. Medieval Christians were anxious about suffering in purgatory, however silly that seems to us.
  • Claims that jihadists are mostly poor and uneducated are PC fantasies. There is no correlation whatsoever between poverty and jihad. No evidence supports the idea that jihadists are unusually maladjusted, poor, or badly schooled. For jihadists, slaying infidels is a fundamental guarantee to paradise. To many Muslims — wealthy as much as poor — that is a psychologically appealing belief.

There hasn’t been a crusade in centuries. The Christian holy wars were foreordained to pass, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged rather for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians.

Jihadists, on the other hand, have remained routinely active since the 7th century, because of beliefs endemic to Islam. But no one likes to admit that for fear of stereotyping Muslims, and Islamic groups like CAIR have made a career of lobbying the movie industry to remove portrayals of jihad. Especially since The Sum of all Fears.

The Sum of all Woke Fears: Portraying Jihadists in Film

Hollywood bends over backwards for busybody groups like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. In 2002 the jihadist plot of Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears was, absurdly, turned into a neo-Nazi plot under pressure from CAIR. Obviously there are no neo-Nazis running around Europe blowing things up like Islamic jihadists are. The film was made acceptable to Hollywood sensibilities and the Arab lobby, but it was silly and unrealistic. Once you subordinate artistry to politics, you may as well quit your job as a filmmaker (Bob Kruger writes plenty about this). I never read The Sum of all Fears, but my father did, and I remember seeing the film with him, and he couldn’t believe how ridiculously the plot was changed for fears of prejudice. (And my father was a very liberal guy.)

Whether or not Villeneuve has pulled a “Sum of All Fears” in Dune is difficult to predict at this time. For now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. For one, he has proven himself to be a damn good filmmaker, uninterested in genuflecting at the woke altar. His masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 pissed off the PC-police for supposedly objectifying women with “porno” images and the hologram character Joi. Commendably he never flinched. I suspect we’re going to get plenty of the jihad in Dune.

But the fact is, I’m just not sure. Even the best director can bend under too much pressure, and Villeneuve has already made one casting choice that I find bewildering: the character of Liet-Kynes, who has been turned into a female, which makes no sense at all (unless you’re just trying to score woke points). Liet-Kynes is the leader of the patriarchal Fremen; making a gender swap with this role is weird to say the least.

Even if Herbert used the term “crusade” as a rare equivalent with “jihad”, it was the latter term that so obviously summed up the spirit of his epic. That’s why he used it. From the desert planet comes the jihad, sweeping across the galaxy, waged by a people whose harsh culture and beliefs mirror those of Islamists. That doesn’t make Dune a signpost to bigotry anymore than a novel like Shogun is.

 

Update, 10/22/21: My fears were justified. The jihad was discarded and the generic “holy war” substituted instead. On top of that, the film is a lackluster affair and underwhelming to say the least.

The Best Books I Read in the 2010s

Here are my favorite books from the last decade. They are mostly academic scholarly works. I didn’t read as much fiction as I would have liked.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer, 2018. This book is the first of its kind and easily wins the top slot. Plenty of such comprehensive treatments have been written for the Christian crusades, but none that cover the Islamic jihad. Spencer starts with Muhammad, the warlord exemplar, and proceeds through every century since the seventh, in every theater of the globe, showing that holy war has always been an essential element of Islam. He relies on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war throughout history. He even covers the jihads against in India against the Hindus, which is hard information to come by. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and the history presented in the book speaks for itself. Jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It is legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. The History of Jihad is a first-rate guide to a massively misunderstood phenomenon that would be quite easy to understand if the implications weren’t so unpleasant.

2. Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison, 2010. The culmination of Allison’s trilogy (begun in Millenarian Prophet, 1998, and continued in Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) keeps Jesus grounded in delusions of grandeur, millennial dreams, and heavenly alter-egos. Same as before, we see that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally, and that he was naturally inconsistent about the things he preached. Even the best theologians and most charismatic leaders contradict themselves, and Jesus would have been no different. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and he embraced martyrdom. But by far the most intriguing contribution of Constructing Jesus comes in the author’s solution to the Son of Man enigma. Allison argues that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure: his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos, this would resolve long standing puzzles. For example, if Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones; and if Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur; he was already up there; and much more. This book was a good start to the new decade, pounding the final nail in the coffin of Jesus-Seminar minimalism, so that Jesus studies could move forward.

3. Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland, 2014. This book inspired me to write my own presidential series. Most rankings of the U.S. presidents are superficial, praising executives who have effective management styles and strong charisma, regardless of how good or bad their actual policies were. Eland ignores those elements and slaughters sacred cows: FDR was one of the worst presidents, not the best; Warren Harding was one of the best, not the worst. Eland’s criteria are simple. He bases his rankings on the way a president’s policies promoted three things: peace, prosperity and liberty. When you get down to it, those are what most Americans want. Eland is a hard-core libertarian, however, and so I don’t always agree with what he sees as best serving those three causes. He correctly ranks Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time, but then astonishingly places Harry Truman as the second worst, as if Truman were a fulfillment of the Wilsonian dream. He rightly elevates John Tyler and Rutherford Hayes to Mount Rushmore, but also includes Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland in that honor, where I think those latter two were very poor executives. He skewers George W. Bush and Barack Obama for being basically the same president, and I certainly agree with that. Eland is no respecter of persons or parties. If you want a book that values presidents who were actually good for the American people, then get Recarving Rushmore. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized, or who had mesmerizing charisma and effective management styles, then get any of the mainstream rankings that waste space on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

marginal4. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier, 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four, only four, with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. As for the most popular and cherished Good Samaritan, Meier shows it to be almost certainly a creation of Luke. The dominant scholarly view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. That’s an ironical conclusion in a work that relies on the classic criteria to get at what Jesus really said and did: this fifth volume of A Marginal Jew is all about uncertainty. Full review here.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final5. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera, 2016. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

6. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler, 2011. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force hard questions about our common humanity, and Esler’s analysis cuts like a laser as always.

7. Thomas and the Gospels, Mark Goodacre, 2012. A sort-of sequel to the author’s Case Against Q, putting to bed scholarly mirages, in this case showing that the gospel of Thomas is not independent but reinterprets synoptic sayings. Thomas’s rearrangement of those sayings is no more surprising than Luke’s rearrangment of Matthew which befuddles Q-advocates. Against scholars who demand unreasonable amounts of verbatim agreement to prove dependency, Goodacre invokes the “plagiarist’s charter”, pointing out that this burden of proof would excuse a lot of unethical behavior. In my view, Goodacre establishes Thomas’ dependence beyond a reasonable doubt. That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is fairly easy to see, when you see it outlined for you. Goodacre has cheekily called himself the spoilsport of New Testament studies, and of course we need more spoilsports and killjoys to keep us honest. It would be admittedly nice if Q existed and Thomas carried more “original authority” than the canonical gospels, but history is often more boring than that. I think there’s a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. Goodacre’s book is a model analysis of the relationship between Thomas and the snyoptics, indeed the best there is on the subject.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari, 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed. It’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using. I have no illusions this book will result in headway against the American drug war, but I can keep hoping.

9. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, 2017. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman.

disciples prayer10. The Disciples’ Prayer, Jeffrey Gibson, 2015. Those who like the “Lord’s Prayer” should make this book required reading. The “Disciples’ Prayer”, properly called, had little to do with what Christians today pray on their knees. As Gibson argues, Jesus’ disciples operated out of an austere remnant theology, and the prayer was taught to them to secure them as the faithful elect, and to keep them from apostasy. It doesn’t pray future blessings down into the now, but rather wards against evil by keeping people constrained under hard demands — loving enemies; shunning families; rejecting violence; inviting martyrdom. Gibson refutes apocalyptic readings of the prayer, but if you believe Jesus was an apocalyptic (as I do), his thesis still holds. For if Jesus believed the world was about to end, then he would have insisted on intense commitment and unconditioned loyalty in preparation, just as Gibson argues that the prayer does. For modern Christians, the book perhaps functions as a dare: To consider what Jesus demands, instead of (or as much as) what God will bring — and how the first disciples feared God’s wrath if they couldn’t meet those demands. Jesus demanded a rigorous pacifism, for example, and not all religious martyrs are pacifist; the path of non-violence is a hard one. For Jesus, “to profess God as Father entails taking a stance, and to pledge oneself to demonstrating and proclaiming this certain way of being in the world”. Biblical scholars are at their best when they force relevant questions in view of original intentions, and that’s what Gibson does in The Disciples’ Prayer.

11. Babatha’s Orchard, Philip Esler, 2017. If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be immensely proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from New Testament scholars. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha documents dated between 94 and 132 AD, which consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land. It’s feels like a true archaeological adventure to read this book, but without any of the sensationalism of Indiana Jones movies or Herschel Shanks’ yellow journalism in Biblical Archaeology Review.

12. Recovering Communion in a Violent World, Christopher Grundy, 2019. This book is an attempt to reform the eucharist of its violent theology. Christians would be better off, says Grundy, to accept that Jesus’ death was unnecessary, and to focus on the meal practices of the New Testament that don’t rely on his body and blood (however real or symbolic) or reenact his execution. Alternative examples include the manna-and-water traditions (I Cor 10), drawing from the Exodus and Number stories, tied to a theme of abundance and the messianic age; the bread-and-fish miracles (in all four gospels), in which there is food for everyone; the Johannine beach breakfast, focused on sharing and abundance; and the bread-only Emmaus story in Luke, urging hospitality even to strangers. Grundy suggests that Holy Communion can be just as sacramental (and more positively so) in the meeting of strangers across boundaries, sharing one’s food, and feeding hungry bodies. In this sense, the eucharist can become primarily about what Jesus did instead of what was done to him. Grundy sees a disturbing connection between the “objectification” of Jesus’ body in the traditional eucharist, and the way people objectify others, whether sexually, violently, or both. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but Grundy is careful in how he explains this: “It’s not that the eucharist carries an explicit message that objectifying people is okay,” he writes, “but rather that without really noticing, Christian believers create opportunities for our instincts to be structured by objectifying practices that we don’t understand all that clearly.” Likewise, he doesn’t say that the eucharist promotes violence per se, but rather that Christians engage themselves in ritualized acts of collective violence without asking if what was done to Jesus was really necessary. Ritualized violence can shape the believer, whether consciously or not. It’s a fascinating book, and makes for an excellent supplement to Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement (though there is no mention of Finlan in the bibliography). See also my review of Finlan’s analysis of the different and conflicting death metaphors in Paul’s letters.

moh_and_cha_revisited13. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott, 2012. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it wouldn’t have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. The lights went out with the arrival of Islam, and from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. Full review here.

14. The Wife of Jesus, Anthony Le Donne, 2013. No, this isn’t crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn’t Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn’t even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it’s written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar. Le Donne’s argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don’t say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn’t, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given in Jesus’s day, and weren’t mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter’s wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Jesus could have been married prior to becoming a prophet, and it’s more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny. Only by the time of his itinerant career was Jesus single and celibate and engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties and advocating prophetic celibacy. But while The Wife of Jesus is devoid of sensationalism, never fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by Le Donne, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus’ Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. It’s a concise and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.

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15. Waking Up, Sam Harris, 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing. I’m still lousy at it, but I can say that I’ve benefited at least some from trying.

16. Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, David Watson, 2010. The secret is out now: there never was a messianic secret, whether from Jesus’ life or pre-Markan traditions. “Secrecy is nothing more than our own bewilderment projected into the Markan text,” once wrote a scholar, and Watson finally puts the idea to rest. David Watson shows that the “secrecy” passages in Mark wouldn’t have been understood as such by the ancients. In silencing those he healed, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep his identity or healing ability secret (as if that would be possible in a world of rampant gossip networks), but rather to resist achieved honor. In patron-client cultures, recipients of benefaction are expected to repay their benefactor through public praise, and it’s this kind of honor which Jesus resists. In silencing demons, likewise, Jesus is resisting ascribed honor, since a demon calling him “the Holy One of God” would be issuing a positive challenge and staking a claim on him; Jesus refuses to become indebted to demons and drawn into the laws of reciprocation. While the Markan Jesus doesn’t do away with the honor-shame system altogether (no one in antiquity could do that an survive), he does offer a new vision in its place, by claiming that the persecuted and suffering will be honored, and the great and powerful will be shamed. Basically, Mark portrays Jesus as authoritative and deserving of honor even as he reshapes the way that honor was conventionally assigned. This is a terrific book filled with insights that seem too obvious once pointed out.

17. The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Spencer, 2019. Many will find this book dispiriting, but reality is often just that, especially in the Middle-East. Spencer chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years, showing quite clearly that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim. He starts with Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords, and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was never interested in genuine peace. He then proceeds to the time of Bill Clinton, explaining how Yasser Arafat went from denouncing terrorism and promising to recognize the State of Israel (in ’93), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (in ’96). Arafat simply followed the example of Muhammad, for whom deception was honorable. And so on. Spencer shows that the solution to the Middle-East lies not in peace processes which are guaranteed to fail, but containment or management of the problem, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel no matter what. This book is a serious wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

night-comes18. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison, 2016. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

19. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler, 2017. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine20. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, 2014. This book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Amy-Jill Levine claims that Jesus’ parables show people torn apart and then reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then this book just might be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. She claims that “the last coming first and the first last” is always an editorial intrusion. And despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, she won’t abide any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions. The problem is that she has an axe to grind against those see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. It’s true that Judaism has become a punching bag — for pastors and scholars alike — and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are all mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock. I think she makes Jesus out to be too ideal; indeed she aligns him with modern Unitarian Universalism. But then (from my UU perspective) that’s precisely why these parable readings are such good theology, even if they’re bad history. Maybe that’s a backhanded compliment, but if used the right way, Short Stories by Jesus is an important contribution.

* Stranger Things: The College Years and Beyond, Loren Rosson, 2018. As a bonus, I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, and fiction to boot, which I had said wasn’t included. But I’m happy with what I did here, and gratified by the positive reception to it. This is a trilogy of generational stories that follow the kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. There’s pain and heartache, perhaps more than some readers will find bearable, but hopefully inspiring in the ways tragedy should be. The first novella is The College Years, set in 1990, with an estranged Mike Wheeler able only to harm those he loves. The second is The New Generation, set in 2009, involving an Upside-Down creature nesting in the internet, and attacking a kid through his computer screensaver. Finally it all comes together in World’s End, in the future of 2037, after Donald Trump has gotten America nuked, and salvation (if that’s what it can be called) lies in a particular twelve-year old who can time travel. That’s the best spoiler-free synopsis I can offer, and if you really like the trilogy, I wrote three prequel novellas as well.