“No one has upset the Islamophobia cabal more than Robert Spencer. First, he knows more about Islamic doctrine than they do. Next, he has outed all the tricks they use in their taqiyyah bag to disinform the public. Finally, and most importantly, Robert will not be cowed. Please read this important book and make sure you share it with as many people as possible.” (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights activist)
Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I have liberal politics, but it’s rare to find liberals like us who commend the work of Robert Spencer. He’s a political conservative who runs the Jihad Watch blog, has written numerous publications, and is viewed by some as an Islamophobe. The problem with that word is that it conflates bigotry with any examination of how jihadis use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence, recruit among peaceful Muslims, and advocate for oppression by sharia law. Spencer is no bigot; and so it is somewhat surprising that in his latest book, Confessions of an Islamophobe, he has decided to wear the label his critics have foisted on him.
Spencer wants to make a distinction between good and bad Islamophobia. He says the bad version certainly exists, is never justified, and people have no reason to be afraid of all Muslims. Yet there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the disproportionate number of Muslims who embrace a commitment to reestablishing the caliphate, on the basis of normative Islam. He writes:
“I am not an Islamophobe within the meaning of those who have affixed this label on me. In other words, I am not the ‘bad’ kind of Islamophobe who wants any innocent people, Muslim or otherwise, to be victimized. Instead I am what I would call the ‘good’ kind of Islamophobe, someone who is honest enough to call a problem a problem, even when the whole world wishes to ignore or deny its existence.”
But that’s redefining phobia itself. Phobia is commonly understood as an irrational fear of something, and Spencer’s concerns about Islam (as he would obviously agree) are not irrational — any more than Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s or Sam Harris’s are. I’m not sure why he wants to co-opt the idea of phobia in a positive way like this. It will doubtfully catch on.
I believe that Islamophobia is a propagandist term, as people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris have always said, and as Spencer used to say. It’s propagandist because what people really mean when they call people “Islamophobes” is that they are bigots. But any religion is fair game for the razor, and harsh critics of Islam are not necessarily intolerant of Muslims as people; certainly Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, and Sam Harris aren’t. There are genuine bigots — like Terry Jones — and for them, the proper term to use is exactly that: anti-Muslim bigotry. We don’t call people who are prejudiced against Jews “Jewaphobes”; we call them anti-Semites. Someone who is “honest enough to call a problem a problem”, as Spencer says, is not phobic, and to redefine it this way is really a form of double-speak.
Aside from his willingness to wear a label that doesn’t apply to him, Spencer is in fine form in his latest book, and I’ll review some of the issues he brings up. Starting with pussy-grabbing.
Pussy-Grabbing and Linda Sarsour
The rise of Linda Sarsour as a national feminist leader shows how far feminists have fallen. Sarsour’s offenses are legion, but perhaps she’s most infamous for painting sharia law as benign for its provision of interest-free loans. Seriously. At her most vicious, if you can believe the irony, she outdid President Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” remark. That a boor like Trump would broadcast his impulses to grab women’s genitalia is no surprise, but who would have guessed that he would be trumped (sorry) by his own arch-enemy. Linda Sarsour — that wonderful feminist hero — declared that human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserved to have her pussy removed, and on top of that to be violently attacked. Back in March 2011, she said that she wished she could remove Hirsi Ali’s vagina, as she (Hirsi Ali) “does not deserve to be a woman”. Hirsi Ali also needed an “ass-whipping”, according to Sarsour.
It’s hard to imagine a more Orwellian ass-backwards view of feminism than Sarsour’s. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation, and Sarsour was obviously implying that she “deserved what she got”. Incredibly, Hirsi Ali is hated by many leftists like Sarsour, and has been banned from speaking at college universities. And why? Because she has called for a reform within Islam. Because she is honest about Islam. Because she cares about the millions of Muslims, not least women, who suffer under sharia law. For all of this she has been branded a hateful “Islamophobe”, while mean-spirited liars like Linda Sarsour are considered feminist heroes.
It gets worse. As Spencer points out, Sarsour doesn’t just endorse sharia, but also a rhetorical form of jihad. Last summer she denounced the Trump administration saying, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” and, “I hope that when we stand up to those [like Trump] who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts that from us as a form of jihad.” Her statements were controversial, since jihad means (and has always meant) violent warfare in all schools of Sunni and Shia Islam. Sarsour quickly protested that she meant a non-violent standing up — a metaphorical jihad — and she was probably being honest on that point. But as Spencer says, Linda Sarsour isn’t stupid. Even though she herself may mean a non-violent standing up, she obviously knows that when other Muslims who know the real meaning of jihad in Islam hear that, they will hear it as a call to violence. Speaking “words of truth to a tyrant” isn’t mutually exclusive with violent uprisings; they’ve gone hand in hand throughout history. And as much as I despise Trump, if any Muslims were to try assassinating him on the inspiration of Sarsour’s rhetoric, she could (and should) be held legally accountable for incitement to violence, exactly as Spencer says.
Is Female Circumcision a Religious Practice in Islam?
Yes, it is. The Reliance of the Traveler is a manual of Islamic law (the Shafi’i school) from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious institution of Sunni Islam. (Al-Azhar is Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican.) The Reliance says:
“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)
It’s worth noting, though Spencer does not, that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s Translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. In Shafi’i jurisprudence, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. There is a close correlation between the Shafi’i school of Islam and the pervasiveness of female genital mutilation. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates also just happen to be the places where clit-cutting is more frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time with Shafi’i Islam, and this was a part of the world where female circumcision had previously been unknown. Obviously the Shafi’is have not been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.
Spencer does note the other apologetic tactics used by Muslim leaders who deny that clit-cutting has religious sanction. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, insists that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. The former, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin at the top of the clitoral glans. As Spencer notes, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.
Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It is recommended on religious grounds by the Maliki and Hanbali law schools and is considered obligatory by the Shafi’i school. It is a religious practice as much as a cultural one in these three schools. (Only in Hanafi regions is it “purely” a cultural issue; the Hanafis allow female genital mutilation but do not consider it a religious virtue.) But it is “Islamophobic” to point this out. Unless, that is, you happen to be a lawyer defending clients who are being prosecuted for clit-cutting. Spencer notes the case of two Muslim doctors from Detroit who were charged this year (in April 2017) for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” In reality, says Spencer, the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I just explained. No western liberal or media outlet likes to admit that, but Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients.
If the court rules in Chartier’s favor, that would set a disastrous precedent for creeping sharia. I don’t see it happening (most legal experts think the defendants will lose), but the fact that the argument is being taken seriously is too much.
The plight of gays, near and far
What is morally repugnant ( “racist”, “Islamophobic”) to many people is calling attention to the plight of women under Islamic law, not the actual mistreatment of women under Islamic law. The same is true for the plight of gays. Islam has a death penalty for gays based on its religious writings, and that penalty is enforced in many Muslim countries. But calling attention to this is considered by many LGBT activists more offensive than the Islamic killing of gays itself.
So for example, the transgendered Theresa Sparks, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, objected to bus ads that were run in 2013. The ads highlighted the mistreatment of gays in Islamic law. “Posting those ads,” she claimed, “suggested that all Muslims hate gays.” Spencer (who is vice-president of the organization that ran the bus ads) rightly notes that the ads neither stated nor suggested that all Muslims hate gays. Sparks had nothing to say at all about the practice of killing gays where Islam is the rule of law. You can bet her reaction would have been different had the bus ads cited Leviticus and Romans in order to call attention to homophobic elements in Christianity. I guarantee you she wouldn’t have objected that such ads “tar Christians with too big a brush”; and I’m sure she would have had plenty to say about the influence of the apostle Paul on those who regard LGBTs as deviant.
Then there is Chris Stedman, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, who is gay, and who writes for Salon.com. He too objected to the bus ads, and wrote an article called “Stop Trying to Split Gays and Muslims”, which is conceptually absurd. Stedman is surely aware that gays like him in other parts of the world suffer far worse for their orientation — especially gay Muslims. How can he be so clueless to think the bus ads were trying to “split gays and Muslims”?
Sparks and Stedman aren’t alone. Many LGBTs — the same folks who cry foul when you use the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgendered person — fall utterly silent when it comes to Islamic crimes against gays, which are by far the worst. While this is baffling, Spencer suggests two reasons:
“It is likely attributable at least in part to the common human tendency to find the near enemy more urgently to be fought than the far enemy, even if the far enemy is, in the long run, more lethal. Sparks, Stedman, and others like them have experienced opposition from conservatives for the choices they have made in life about aspects of their core identity. It is unlikely, however, that they have encountered Islamic jihadis or even sharia supremacists who are willing to confront them openly. The Islamic disapproval of gays and the sharia death penalty remain abstractions for them. Conservative Christians, by contrast, are all too real.”
The second reason:
“There is a deeper reason, however, that is related to that one. Gay and transgender activists may be aware of the sharia mistreatment of gays, but they don’t say anything about it, and disapprove of those who do, because of ‘Islamophobia’. Opposition to jihad terror and to sharia oppression of gays and others is identified in the United States and Europe of the 21st century as a conservative ‘right-wing’ issue. And there is that near enemy again. Should gays in the west today join conservatives, including Christian conservatives, in standing against Islamic oppression of gays and its call for violence against them? To do so would not only mean uniting with the enemy they hate the most, but it would also mean ostracism and villification from the members of their community who refused to go along with them.”
I think he’s right on both counts. I’m a left-leaning liberal and member of the LGBT community, but I can say I’ve never had these problems. Part of it is that I have no use for identity politics, and I avoid the “guilt by association” trap. I care about what someone is saying more than who is saying it. Robert Spencer may be worlds apart from me politically, but I’m happy to join his hands when I agree with him on a critical issue like Islam.
Covering up Orlando
The code of silence helps make sense of the FBI cover up of the jihad attack on the gay club in Orlando. On June 12 2016, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people in the club, and injured 53 more. I remember the days that followed. My Facebook feed was full of screeds written by liberal friends who blasted conservatives for saying this was a jihad attack or had anything to do with Islam. I went on record saying the opposite: that Omar Mateen was more than likely inspired for religious reasons, and I put those odds at about 85%. Sure enough, it came out that he was inspired by the Boston Marathon bomber, and had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State over phone calls that he made right before walking into the club and opening fire.
But as Spencer says, in this case the LGBT activists can be partially excused, because Omar Mateen’s jihad attack was covered up at the highest levels. A day after the attacks, in a sanctimonious speech, Barack Obama dismissed the evidence of Mateen’s phone calls to 911, saying that fears of jihad were groundless. A week after the attacks, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the FBI would release transcripts of Mateen’s phone calls, but that the transcripts would omit Mateen’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups. “We are not going to further his propaganda,” she said, then adding — wait for it — that they were still trying to “get as much information as possible” about why Mateen did what he did.
That’s right. She dismissed the explanation right under her nose — that Mateen killed gays in line with his holy duty as an adherent of the Islamic State — and called that explanation “propaganda”. Lynch and the Justice Department were pounced on for this blatant cover up, and they did backpedal a bit, and later released the full transcripts. But as Spencer says, the damage had been done.
All of the craziness described above — Linda Sarsour being hailed as a national feminist, an American lawyer willing to defend clit-cutting on grounds of religious freedom, social activists speaking loudly against sexism and homophobia unless it’s the Islamic kind, law officials covering up jihad attacks — derives, in part, from worries about “anti-Muslim backlash”. It’s a backlash that almost never occurs. As Spencer points out, since 9/11 (2001) there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. Until the Finsbury Mosque attack in June of this year (2017), by contrast, there have been no Muslims killed by bigoted “Islamophobes”. 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse for moral equivalence, but there you have it.
Spencer describes events occurring in the wake of the jihad attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester England (May 22, 2017). The Muslim attackers killed 29 people and injured many more, and there came a later attack at the London Bridge (June 3) killing 7 people and injuring more. For a long while after the attacks, England was on high alert, but the police were as much worried about backlash. They increased their patrols at mosques in Cambridge when strips of bacon were left on car windshields to insult Muslims. This is how the British police were allocating their resources in the wake of jihad massacres: bacon patrols. Says Spencer:
“Not that any such hate crimes, whenever they actually occur, are ever justified. But the proportions were off. Twenty-two people were dead in Manchester and seven in London at the hands of Islamic jihadists. One would have thought that in light of that, the Cambridge police would have laughed off a few strips of bacon in front of a mosque, and told the mosque leaders to direct their attention to more important matters, such as working to root out jihad terror sympathizers and plotters from their communities.”
To be fair, backlash concerns are more legitimate in a United States where Donald Trump is president. But not nearly to the extent we grant it. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community instead of constantly playing the victim card. It’s not just conservatives like Spencer who say this. The liberal Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz is equally fed up with the lack of perspective, and has held up the example of the American civil rights movement, where people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their communities and acted in positively empowering ways, rather than playing the victim card and/or rioting in the streets.
Confessions of an Islamophobe is vintage Robert Spencer. The man has been hated on for bad reasons. He has been accused of cherry-picking violent verses out of the Qur’an and ignoring peaceful ones, but in reality the verses of warfare have been interpreted by Islamic authorities throughout history as being normative for all time, while the peaceful passages are not only fewer in number, they are conditional, and superseded (in the Qur’an itself) by the warfare passages on the basis of their status as later revelations.
He has right-wing politics, but he does not believe that most Muslims are terrorists or bad people. He has never stated that the United States is in danger of being taken over by Muslims and transformed into a sharia-based caliphate. (I don’t think that’s a danger in America either; Europe may be another story.) It’s true that Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have articulated goals to take over the U.S., and it’s true that spokespeople for the Council on American-Islamic Relations have let it slip that sharia rule in the U.S. is their objective. But their chances of success are almost zero, and Spencer acknowledges that. He is no more an irrational alarmist than he is a bigot.
What could happen, however, and probably will, according to Spencer, is that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to undermine counter-terror efforts. There will be increasing challenges to our way of life — the kind we see in Europe all the time. There will be more jihad massacres, more assaults on women and gays, and other threats. For these reasons, Spencer calls himself a “good Islamophobe”, someone concerned about the harm and devastation Islam brings into everyone’s lives. I don’t think co-opting that problematic term is particularly helpful here, but he’s substantively right. There is much to ponder in his new book, and I’ve only scratched a few chapters in this review. Read it all, and reflect on what it really means to be a humanitarian.