Robert Spencer and the Stealth Jihad
by Dr. David L. Johnston
A reader of my previous blog, “Fear, Inc.,” asked a very reasonable question. He or she had wondered how accurate my placing Robert Spencer among the “purveyors of hate and misinformation” actually was. I like this. I know everyone on the PCI team wants open and transparent communication. Indeed, let’s urge one another to speak the truth and to speak it in love, as Paul challenged the Ephesian church.
I used “purveyor of . . . misinformation” as a blanket statement on the heels of Fear, Inc.’s Chapter 2 title, “The Islamophobia Disinformation Experts.” In that sense, this covered Spencer and several others, including Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes.
Yet Spencer is the most prolific – at least 11 monographs on Islam, including the 2005 title, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades),” and hundreds of newspaper articles and blog entries to his name. He’s written nonstop on Islam since his Masters Degree in 1980 (Religious Studies, University of North Carolina), and though he’s accumulated a good deal of knowledge, his sources are either secondary or translated into English.
For this blog I have carefully combed through two of his more recent books, as I discovered that his works do overlap a fair amount. I also glanced at a large volume he edited in 2005, "The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims." None of the authors of that volume are scholars with academic posts, and they are generally considered too biased to be taken seriously by Islamicists in the academy.
Nevertheless, two of these writers have international reputations: Bat Ye’or, who has specialized in the historic treatment of the dhimmis (“protected minorities”) under Muslim rule, authored seventeen chapters in "The Myth of Islamic Tolerance;" and Ibn Warraq, a pen name for a former Muslim from Pakistan who writes scathing critiques of Islam, contributed the Foreword and a chapter on apostasy. As the other contributors to this volume, they clearly have an axe to grind.
Spencer ’s Mostly Accurate Research
In his two books, "Religion of peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't" (2007) and "Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs" (2008), Spencer accurately quotes dozens of Islamic sources and cites many historical events – and all of this carefully footnoted. The second book, in particular, references dozens of current events that at least seem to be based on credible media sources.
Let’s start with "Religion of Peace?" In his Chapter 5, “Cherry-Picking in the Fields of the Lord,” he admits that on the subject of violence, “the evidence of the Qur’anic text itself goes both ways” (p. 71). From the Meccan period, when Muhammad was leading a small, battered and often persecuted fringe group, we find many conciliatory verses – don’t argue, goes the text, God will judge on the Last Day (but he fails to mention that the famous “freedom” verse, “nocompulsion in religion,” comes from the early Medinan period).
Then there are texts that command defensive war when under attack. Here he is careful to emphasize all the most unsavory texts, like the injunction to make no prisoners until the land has been “thoroughly subdued”; permission to take the wives of the slain as one’s own concubines (Q. 33:50); and the statement that “the highest rank” of believers “in the sight of Allah” are those who “strive with might and main in Allah’s cause, with their goods and their persons,” a clear reference to military jihad (Q. 9:19-20). And finally, he mentions the famous “sword verses” (Q.9:5, 29), adding some rather dark commentary over the centuries gleaned from Ibn Warraq (75-81).
As I wrote in my two blogs on jihad, the Islamic legal understanding of these verses in the classical period (10th-14th centuries) was indeed that the later verses abrogated the earlier more peaceful verses, and that the world was divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. I then added that mainstream Islamic scholarship and leadership had moved on in the modern period to a strictly defensive view of jihad. Spencer won’t acknowledge this.
Also correct are the data he presents on Islamic anti-Semitism over the centuries. It is true that there are harsh passages in the Qur’an about Jews – though he fails to mention that this was in the context of the three Jewish tribes in Medina either in sympathy or in outright collaboration with the Meccan enemy during the war years (624 to 628). Still, there is no shortage of hateful literature aimed at the Jews in the course of Islamic history, including today.
Then in his second book, "Stealth Jihad," Spencer quotes all manner of media publications about incidents related to Muslims in the US – some people being tried for terrorism, and others allegedly linked to terrorist organizations. But here is where I want to draw a line: the outline of what you “recount” might have a factual basis, but your “ spin” might weave a story line that gravely distorts the actual facts.
The Ideological Divide
Here I have to point out that the debate, especially in the United States, is fraught with strident ideological clamoring. As you gathered from my previous blogs and from your own browsing on the Internet, this polarizing does have clear political overtones.
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution highlights a polarized America on the issue of Islam and Muslims largely along party lines. Among the number of respondents who doubt whether Islamic values are in any way compatible with American ones, the numbers are much higher for Republicans (63%) and Tea Party affiliates (66%). A majority of Democrats (55%) and Independents (53%) disagree with this view.
People also divide according to the news channels they tend to watch. Thus, two-thirds of those who say they trust Fox News agree that Muslim values are at odds with those cherished in the United States. Yet only 37% of viewers of CNN and public television shared those views. “The divisions are along partisan and ideological lines,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI in a recent interview. He added this,
“We’re seeing just as polarizing divides around this issue as we’ve seen in such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. That’s one of the new things that this survey shows. We may be living with this as a new front in the culture wars."
This happened during the previous presidential elections too. The 2007 documentary “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West” was produced by a heretofore unknown entity (Clarion Fund) and distributed to 30 million US homes in the spring of 2008. Clips of suicide bombings were juxtaposed with clips of Hitler haranguing the crowds in 1930s Germany. It was a glossy, fear inducing, heavily funded piece meant to sway voters to the Republican side.
Distorting the Facts
Spencer accurately quotes many classical and current Islamic sources, but he also twists the facts in a couple of ways. He peppers his book with blanket statements to the effect that “Islam” is, no matter what Muslims may say, a fascist ideology.
In the first chapter of "Religion for Peace?" (“No, Virginia, All Religions Aren’t Equal”), he enunciates his book’s thesis:
“Islam seeks the conversion, subjugation, or death of not only Christians but also all other non-Muslims. Thus it is imperative that all the victims and potential victims of Islamic Jihad – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, secular Muslims, and all others – recognize that, in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin, we must all hang together, or we shall indeed all hang separately” (9).
This comes after several pages of quotes by al-Qaeda figures, and in particular, of the American terrorist, Adam Gadahn, who in a 2006 videotape lambasts Christianity and ends with the following invitation: “Isn’t it time for every Christian, Jew, pagan, and atheist to cast off the cloak of spiritual darkness which enshrouds them, and emerge into the light of Islam . . . ?”
Plainly, Spencer is projecting the ideology and doctrine of the most extreme (and tiniest minority) elements of the Muslim community onto the whole. On page 25 he offers his justification for this: “Nowhere in the world is there a significant anti-jihad, anti al-Qaeda, or anti-bin Laden movement.” But this is simply not true – from all the largest Muslim organizations globally, which have condemned terrorism in the strongest terms, to the hundreds of respected Muslim scholars and leaders who signed the Common Word document and continue to promote it.
A second way Spencer distorts facts is by choosing them selectively. Hence, in his chapter on anti-Semitism he reports how four thousand Jews were massacred in Granada on December 30, 1066. He quotes from historian Richard Fletcher’s book, "Moorish Spain" (University of California Press, 1992).
I looked up the passage in Fletcher’s book and the very next paragraph read, “This was an isolated outbreak. By and large the eleventh century was a time of peace and prosperity for Spanish Jewry. It was also a time of cultural vitality” (Fletcher, p. 97). Spencer was not quoting the passage in its context.
I have no room to illustrate this same kind of selective quoting from various sources in his book, "Stealth Jihad." But to give you an idea, this sentence will do:
“Islam is a religion of the sword and there are, by even the most conservative estimates, more than one hundred million active jihadists seeking to impose sharia not only in the Islamic world, but in Europe and ultimately in the United States” (209).
Here Spencer a) makes a sweeping statement; b) is plainly using an inflated, undocumented number with emotionally charged words (“jihadi” and “imposing sharia”) to instill panic.
The Crux of Spencer ’s Own Anger
Right from the start, the reader is confronted with animus and venom, and the outraged tone runs from beginning to end. Yet the root of his anger is not just Islam and its terrorist threat, but Islam as the arrogant denier of the goodness and truth of Western Judeo-Christian civilization, and thus forging an alliance with the no less hated phalanges of the political Left.
This perceived double attack led by a secular, even atheist Left, in conjunction with the forces of “Islamofascism,” seems to have thrust Spencer and his ilk into a siege mentality. We cannot just fight Islamic terrorism, he warns; we must also fight to regain our Judeo-Christian heritage, which has “two legs: The Christian and the Jewish one. Europe rises or falls with the fortunes of Israel” (Religion of Peace?, 10). This sounds strangely similar to the writings of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-Right activist – turned mass killer – who, as it turned out, quoted copiously from Spencer.
Spencer also laments what he sees as the establishment media floating naïve platitudes designed to placate a determined enemy. After 9/11 President Bush “summed up mainstream assumptions” by declaring that “Islam is a peaceful religion” and that the terrorists “have hijacked a great religion” (Religion of Peace?, 14). But the truth, intones Spencer, is that we are living on the edge of disaster, and Western internal squabbles only make it easier for Muslims to achieve their sinister goals. This is because Islam, to be truly “Islam,” necessarily includes what he calls “supremacism,” i.e., taking over the world either militarily or by other means – the “stealth jihad.”
What is “Truth” in a Democratic Society?
Free speech includes the right of people to engage in conspiracy theories. But is it ethically defensible to devote all one’s energy to attack another religious group? When I played for my Interreligious Dialogue class a CNN clip in which Spencer’s colleague Pamela Geller debates with a Muslim journalist the desirability of housing the Cordoba House two blocks from Ground Zero, the reaction was strong and unanimous. Students used “embarrassing,” “outrageous,” and “totally contrary to our democratic American values” to describe Geller’s speech.
Truth in a democratic society has an ethical component, particularly for people of faith. If every person has inherent dignity as created in God’s image and empowered to be his trustee on earth, then we must commit to speaking the truth so as to build up our fellow human beings and co-citizens of the same polity. I am free to dig up all the dirt I can on the “other,” but how does that foster a sense of solidarity and constructive engagement with that “other” to tackle together the very real problems of our world?
I began by saying I wanted to “speak the truth in love,” as I believe Jesus would want me to. I hope to have shown that any scholarship stemming from venom and hate must be suspect. It’s both wrong and counterproductive. I hope that my scholarship can glean truth from Spencer’s work, yet at the same time denounce the hate and prejudice.
This is a worthy but difficult balance to keep. With God’s help, together with my colleagues at PCI, this is what we desire: to create peace through genuine listening and honest sharing between Muslims, Christians, and hopefully, even those who now take extreme positions on both sides.
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