My response to Spencer

My emailed response to Mr. Spencer was posted on Jihad Watch this morning. 

Dear Mr. Spencer,

Some corrections and clarifications: First (and perhaps you can be forgiven for overlooking this fact given the number and chaotic arrangement of comments on the blog), I made it quite clear in my contributions that I was questioning your credibility and qualifications not to discuss “Islamic issues” but rather to participate in a forum on library policies and outreach to Muslim communities. Second, you neglected to note the backdrop of lively and blunt give and take regarding Islam—some of it quite crudely prejudiced or hostile—in the comments which inevitably colored my comments at times. Third, despite my inclusion of a link to the term’s definition you neglected to note that “Islamophobe-e-Azam” was a play on the title Quaid-e-Azam (“Great Leader”) used by Pakistanis for their nation’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, rather than some obscure insult or malediction; given your already established fame as a critic of Islam and, thus, little need for introduction to Muslim readers in the Blogosphere, it functioned as a joke more than anything else. Fourth, the quip about your writings representing a “personal crusade” involved a bit of poetic license, but I think it’s a defensible interpretation of your career as a public figure. More generally, my comments were frank and opionated [sic] —in keeping with the medium—but hardly “defamatory.” In fact, I took another commenter to task for engaging in ad hominem attacks against you. (Still, there is a limit to how diplomatic one can be when confronting what one sees as bigotry; a spade must be called a spade.)

I am not particularly inclined to write a treatise on special topics in Fiqh for Jihad Watch or otherwise play games with you. My comments on the blog in question were undoubtedly a bit disjointed and off the cuff, but they captured the gist of my concerns reasonably well. People who dismiss those objections out of hand aren’t likely to be a very receptive audience for further reflections by me here.

Islamic law is besides the point in a way, though. In my view, the flaws in your writings on Islam transcend simple factual points and speak to far more fundamental conceptual problems. There is a critical dearth of social scientific awareness in the writings I have seen by you, this manifesting itself most strikingly in an acute overemphasize of jurisprudence, as if Islamic civilization and Muslims were simply the sum of their laws. (Nor coincidently [sic], I suspect, this narrow, legalistic approach dovetails nicely with the agenda of those in contemporary politics intent on discouraging consideration of the many non-religious factors at play in the Muslim world’s problems.)

The graver problem, though is systematic bias, and the point at which it rises to the level of outright prejudice and hate. As you must know, a new definition of anti-Semitism added to the Western political lexicon in recent years holds that criticism of Israel that demands of the Jewish State that it adhere to standards never applied to other nations is anti-Semitism. It is a reasonable criterion for prejudice and method of detecting more insidious forms of bias. It is also at the crux of this debate: Analyses of Muslims—or any other community, for that matter—that discuss them in a vacuum and hold them to ahistorical and/or unique standards are equally immoral and intellectually disreputable. (Sadly, it has become second nature in wide swathes of American political life to view Muslims through such a dehumanizing, Islamophobic prism, thanks in part to the attacks of people such as yourself.)

That will have to do for now. Perhaps another time.


Was sleepy when I wrote it, so  I guess I should be grateful it only had 2 typos.

I'm still ticked with myself for my mangled rendering–lovingly highlighted by Mr. Spencer and, of course, seized on  as proof of my lacking literacy by a JW reader who doesn't appear to understand the concept of a metaphor–of gerrymander as "jerrymander". You can never spell-check too often. You never know when your mind is going to play a prank on you and toggle to Soundex mode. [Unless you're my wife, who never misspells anything whatsoever, and who thus sees perfect spelling as the self-evident touchstone of literacy.]

As could be predicted, Spencer has dismissed the above as a "non-answer." So be it–I'm under no obligation to drop what I'm doing to dance at Mr. Spencer's command. Besides, I was responding to a non-question, anyway. Fair's fair.

Back to work. More later.

Update (2009-08-09): All the posts on Robert Spencer/Jihad Watch exchange are available on a single page here.

  • Jamil

    As Salaam Alaikum Svend,
    Jazakallahu khair, for taking the time and effort to address this issue. It takes a lot of stamina to do what your doing I’m sure. I’m glad someone is taking the time to say it even if very few are really listening. I guess for many it’s easier to have Islam spoon fed to you by Islamiphobes in cut & paste fashion rather than actually studying and learning for yourself. Unfortunately I have to deal with the same non-sense from my in-laws since my wife is a convert (so am I but my family takes a different approach, mashAllah).

  • Geoff

    Dear Svend,
    These are fine sentiments; yet, it is simply impossible to avoid the issue of islamic jurisprudence regarding other religions, women and homosexuals. This is the end result, you see, of the marriage of law and the dominant religion – true to some extent in all places and at all times, but none more so that for islam, then and now. (Ironically, in your quest for that never-realized but ‘perfect’ sharia in preference to Western law, you have turned your back on a legal system that indeed has thrown off most such shackles. A grand step backwards indeed.) You might make much – and you do – of individual variations, but when islamic law finds it necessary to legislate against minority religions, how much common ground do you possibly think you can engender?
    Best regards,

  • Geoff

    Your pardon, sir: Nor are such sentiments as I alluded to present only in the islamic world. Far from it. I give you recent statements at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention:
    “One featured speaker was the Imam Warith Deen Umar, the former head of New York prisons’ Muslim chaplain program. He spoke about his books, Jews for Salaam: The Straight Path to Global Peace, and Judaiology. Umar repeatedly described Jewish conspiracies to control the world, saying:
    “You need to know that Obama, the first man that Obama picked when we were so happy that he was the President, he picked an Israeli — Rahm Emanuel — his number one man. His number two man — [David] Axelrod — another Israeli person. Why do this small number of people have control of the world…There’s some people in the world says no Holocaust even happened. Some of their leaders say no Holocaust even happened. Well it did happen. These people were punished. They were punished for a reason because they were serially disobedient to Allah.” ”
    Serial disobedience to God? It makes one wonder at your accusation of a “code” in which Mr. Spencer writes or speaks: surely he has no need of any imaginary code when naked hatred may be so easily displayed, and with such impunity?
    Best regards,

  • sabiwabi

    A “non-answer”, huh? That was by far the most well thought out, eloquent “non-answer” I’ve ever heard!
    You will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever please these types Svend. Remember, this is their LIFEBLOOD. People who have an agenda to hate and vilify will continue to look for ways to hate and vilify, no matter what you write.
    And personally, I love seeing a typo or two, it keeps us looking human… opposed to the sleathy, robo-like decepticons over there.

  • sabiwabi

    ooops, I meant “stealthy”.
    Yeah for being HUMAN!!!! ;)

  • svend

    Thank you. I have no illusions about that crowd, but most crowds have at least a few decent and reasonable people. Hopefully, they learned something.
    I don’t defend such stupid and needlessly insulting prattle. (Even if similar sentiments have been known to come out of the ultra Orthodox Jewish community.)
    I don’t know this individual or the case, but I’ve long complained about how our community has a long-standing problem with its least nuanced and open-minded members being allowed to represent Islam in outreach efforts. Unfortunately, the best and brighest don’t always get involved in the areas they’re ultimately needed most.

  • Geoff

    Thanks for your reply. No one of sense would defend similar sentiments coming out of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community…although I’m sure you’ll understand that I can’t see for the life of me what they have to do with this question. Why, specifically, do you raise them as an issue of contention? Do they possess arms, explosives or terrorist cells? My understanding was that they refuse even military service. Again, your raising of them in an oblique tu quoque is odd.
    Furthermore, while I appreciate your deploring of the above individual, you can hardly dismiss him – and all the other presumably incidental religious bigots that invariably seem to get elected to high office or the ranks of official representation by islamic communities worldwide: CAIR, ISNA, the MSA, MPACUK and so forth, again and again, and all seemingly reflective of that very conservative supremacism that you deplore which is found throughout the Middle East. Should we assume no causative correlation here at all, or is it more reasonable to assume that the significant (not tiny” 20-30%) minority of muslims the world over have, indeed, interpreted their religion in the ways in which you allude to? Have you not yourself made similar generalizations about a far more mixed back of the visitors to, or to those agreeing in whatever part with Robert Spencer? It’s not enough to wax rhapsodical about the enlightened members of your community that don’t get involved in outreach – their voices seem to be not infrequently muted by ‘internal discord’, shall we say? And given the strong undercurrent of literalist, dogmatically conservative interpretations of sharia in that significant minority, can liberalistic muslims really say they represent their community so accurately. Or: what does it matter what the ‘outreach’ to non-muslims sounds like, when the evils of conservative sharia lurk just around the corner? The rights of women, homosexuals and non-muslims in the islamic world could illustrate a thing or two there.
    And how about that issue of sharia law in dar-al-islam? Shall we make no assumptions about it, all evidence to the contrary?

  • Ikram Kurdi

    Even though this is an interesting post, I don’t think much good will come out of it. The Quran explicitly commands us to avoid the likes of Spencer. We are not supposed to waste time arguing with these manufacturers of lies. I have written a post about this issue here: