New comment on Spencer invite

I posted a new comment to the labrynth of comments on the Spencer/ALA controversy mentioned yesterday.

Here it again.

svend Says:
July 10, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Reply

Incidentally, it’s not just Muslims or traditional academics who
decry Spencer’s dubious scholarship and lacking objectivity. It’s even
caught the eye of media observers.

Take a look at media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting (FAIR) report, “Smearcasters: How Islamophobes spread fear,
bigotry and misinformation”

There’s no question that Spencer’s endless attacks on Islam and
Muslims have played a role in fueling the kind of irrational fear and
bigotry against Muslims with the Republican Party that General Colin
Powell so courageously denounced at the tail end of the 2008
presidential election.

As FAIR’s report points out, his prejudice has even been
denounced by fellow rightwing critics of Islam, such as Dinesh D’Souza
and Stephen Schwartz. When an inveterate Muslim basher like Schwartz,
known for shrill attacks on pretty much all mainstream Muslim groups
(not to mention his trademark obsession with Saudi Arabia and
Wahhabism) is moved to speak out against your rants against Islam,
that’s pretty serious.

  • kamala

    Questions for you Svend:
    1. Do you consider the DIH concept a “perversion of Islamic tradition”? A “fringe” belief?
    2. Do you consider Ibn Kathir’s tafsir a “perversion of Islamic tradition”? A set of “fringe” beliefs?
    3. Would you like to see Sharia implemented anywhere in the world? If so, could you point to a book or document that lists the legal code of the Sharia you’d like to see implemented? Presumably, Reliance of the Traveler isn’t it. Presumably, neither is Minhaj al Muslim. And presumably the countries today that claim to implement Sharia didn’t get it right either. So, surely you could point us to a book or document that does represent the Sharia you’d like to see?

  • dawood

    Well at least you are going to get some traffic from the links – although exactly what kind of visitors will remain debatable!

  • null

    Keep up the good fight Svend. You must have the fortitude of ten men to willingly debate the JW crowd.

  • Morgaan Sinclair

    Svend, are you really this stupid? Schwartz **IS** a Muslim. He just doesn’t like terrorism, lying, and deceit, and will not pretend all Muslims are the same or that all are up to something good.

  • svend

    What is the “DIH concept”?
    It is an important early tafsir, authoritative in some respects and less so in others. These questions aren’t simply either/or. It’s not scripture.
    For various reasons, I am not comfortable with the current state of shariah, as too work still needs to be done and our scholarly class has yet to embrace the philosophical changes needed to do that right. It’s happening, but still rather slowly.
    But I do not reject shariah in principle. If it were reformed, updated in keeping with contemporary needs, it could have a place in modern societies (albeit on a more voluntary basis than in the past in the case of many rulings).
    Like I said, I don’t know him. If he says he’s a Muslim, he’s a Muslim from a legal standpoint. But that does not make him consistent, or exempt him from criticism by the community for his inexplicable choice to spread pernicious myths about “his” community, much less work hand in glove with people who harass Muslims at every turn.
    Anyone who knows me and my background knows that I’m not afraid to call out stupid and/or immoral behavior and ideas among Muslim. But I don’t promote myself at innocent people’s expense by declaring myself the great exception to the rule of Muslim barbarity and ignorance.
    Thanks for the kind words. Yes, it does take some stamina.
    Yeah, time for me to get my ads working! ;-)

  • kamala

    Hi Svend, thanks for the answers.
    1. DIH = Dar-al-Islam/Dar-al-Harb world view. That is, do you think this theory is a “perversion of Islamic tradition”? A “fringe” belief?
    2. As to Ibn Kathir, thank you for your response. But excuse for me for asking again these specific questions: Do you consider this tafsir a “perversion of Islamic tradition”? Is Ibn Kathir’s tafsir a “fringe” interpretation of the Qur’an?
    3. Glad to hear you’re uncomfortable with Shariah today. Would you mind explaining a bit more about which aspects of “the current state of Shariah” that you’re not comfortable with?

  • John C

    Dear Svend White,
    Once again, I must say that I’m flattered that you responded to me in the first place. I am, moreover, perversely pleased that you present, above, my initial comment and part of our exchange on the Open Letter. I am pleased to think that I thus become a foil for the Joke du jour–as a credulous simpleton who takes Robert Spencer’s posturings and pontifications at face value, an exemplar of the kind of credulity that allowed the ALA to fall for such laughable absurdity.
    . . . Actually it starts back in my childhood–Seriously, this perversity of mine doesn’t just stem from the kind of cluelessness that infects the ALA, but from a profoundly deep-rooted inferiority complex that compells an otherwise lackluster nebbish to compete with potted plants for attention.
    I already know what role SL, your other would-be nemesis plays in this comic set-up, but let’s not go there . . ..

  • svend

    John, thanks for the comment.
    All I can say in all sincerity is that my intention is to attack the ideas, not the man (well, with the exception of the guy who’s peddling them). There is no way to critique these claims (which aren’t exactly diplomatic towards Muslims or their beliefs, lest you feel uniquely aggrieved in this exchange) without stepping on some toes, I’m afraid. The narratives are too mutually-exclusive, the stakes too high and the political backdrop too polarized.
    I don’t agree that it follows from my criticisms of Spencer’s discourse that the caricature you lay out above applies or any other well meaning observer.
    I know some very smart and sincere people think Spencer’s on to something, I respect their opinion, mistaken though it may me IMO. As far as I’m concerned Spencer’s fans are getting intellectual snake oil, but I realize that smart and/or well-meaning people can not only be taken for a ride, but they can disagree. Especially by somebody who IMO crafts his message as cunningly and seductively as Spencer.
    That doesn’t change the need (or my right) to speak out against Spencer’s message with the same directness and zeal for which he himself is proverbial.

  • Geoff

    “Anyone who knows me and my background knows that I’m not afraid to call out stupid and/or immoral behavior and ideas among Muslim. ”
    Very well. Illustrate where you have done so, just for the amusement value.
    As for the issue of the kind of sharia you’d like to see, I read your answer as: “none of the current forms”. Do you suppose there’s some reason for that that a slight bit of introspection might reveal? Do you suppose that some “new” sharia will succeed in its purported humanitarianism, where the other 64 or so attempts have critically failed?
    Prophet Geoff

  • Stephen Schwartz

    Traditional Islam holds that Shariah cannot be introduced as a general legal system in non-Muslim societies. Shariah in non-Muslim societies is to be limited to matters of exclusively personal conduct such as diet, charity, form of prayer, male circumcision, and burial. Muslims living in non-Muslim societies are traditionally enjoined to obey the laws of the land. This is a principle dating to the life of Prophet Muhammad — specifically to the period when the early Muslims went to Christian Ethiopia to live. The Prophet commanded them to obey the local laws and customs. This cannot be “abrogated.”
    Shariah does not exist as a general legal system in any Muslim country except for Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan (where the attempt to introduce it has failed), and local areas of Pakistan, Malaysia, and Nigeria, along with a very limited area in Indonesia. Iran never abandoned elements of Western law adopted during the revolutionary period of 1905-1908.
    After the 13th century fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, Shariah ceased to exist as an exclusive legal system in the main Muslim empires. Ottoman Turkey as well as the Persian culture zone adopted a dual system of standards in which traditional, customary, communal law applied to non-religious matters and Shariah was limited to religious matters. Both the Mongols who became Muslims after conquering Baghdad and the Turks refused to abandon their ancient customary law, although these systems no longer exist anywhere. That is why the Turkish sultan known in the West as Suleyman the Magnificent is known in Islam as Suleyman Kanuni or “the law-giver.” It is also why there is a relief of Suleyman Kanuni on the wall of the U.S. House of Representatives. Certain people would doubtless like the relief torn down. There is also a statue of Muhammad in the U.S. Supreme Court.
    Shariah scholars always, from the inception of Islamic legal thought, recognized that there were areas that fell outside the scope of religious law. The term “Shariah” is not mentioned in Qur’an and Shariah as Muslims now understand it did not exist in the time of the Prophet.
    Shariah draws on Jewish law, specifically the corpus known in Arabic as Israyiliyat, for precedents. The present form of Jewish religious law, or Halakhah, as codified in the 17th century in Palestine by R. Yosef Karo, was modelled explicitly on Shariah. “Shariah” and “Halakhah” have the same connotational meaning: “the path to water.” Shariah is an option for resolution of family matters in many Muslim countries, but Israel also has Shariah courts for Israeli Arabs, supported by the state, that handle family affairs.
    Shariah has four meanings in Islam. It can refer to religion in general, and traditional Islamic works refer to Judaism as “Shariah ul-Musa” or the Shariah of Moses.
    Among Sufis, Shariah refers to standard religious practice, such as prayer. Sufis distinguish between Shariah (ordinary religious practice), Tariqah (spiritual discipline), Marifah (spiritual insight), and Haqiqah (transcendence.)
    And then there is Shariah as a legal system. As with religion, Shariah in Islam can refer to any law, including Western law. This is reflected in the post-Mongol and Ottoman retention of customary law.
    My organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, has issued an extensive report titled “A Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe, 2007-09.” It is a free, downloadable .pdf accessible at
    Shariah is not a topic that lends itself to improvised or second-hand opinions.
    Stephen Schwartz

  • svend

    I care not a whit whether an Islamophobe heckler is convinced of my progressive bona fides. Try reading the publications on the left. Better yet, don’t, so that your comments will continue to expose such kneejerk prejudice and paranoia.
    @Mr. Schwartz:
    AA. Thanks for your comment, which certainly was a surprise. As when I read your book on Saudi Arabia, I’m appreciative of your obvious erudition and passion for the subject matter while very concerned about the politics of your analysis. Did you not have such to my mind unfortunate taste in political bedfellows and were you not so prone to tarring eminently moderate Muslim leaders and activists as extremists, we might have much to talk about.
    I don’t know what is in your heart–and I realize there are many issues one can disagree on–but as I’ve said in other places, I find it hard to understand how a sincere, reasonably well informed Muslim could so enthusiastically support many of these dehumanizing neocon smear campaigns against the American Muslim community and many of its organizations.
    Allahu `alaam, and may He guide you to a more constructive role. Not to mention one that makes better use of your talents.

  • Suleyman Schwartz

    I think you should face facts, brother.
    I became Muslim in Bosnia and although I am an American in my political loyalties my Islamic culture is much more Bosnian and Albanian in content than American. Bosnia has outstanding ulema, born in their own country and serving the believers with much greater sense and imagination, to say nothing of physical courage, than anybody in the U.S. I take the side of the critics of Mustafa ef. Ceric, whom I know personally and who was once a friend of mine, but I do not deprecate Balkan Islam and nobody can show otherwise.
    American Islam has the lowest intellectual quality in the world. That dogmatic, extremist fronts like ISNA, CAIR, ICNA and MSA dominate the community is something that does not exist in such European countries as The Netherlands, Germany, or France. I advise you to read our report on Shariah and Islamist ideology and ponder why we we do not have anybody comparable to Dalil Boubakeur and Soheib Bencheikh in France. Someone like Jamal Badawi (a Canadian or something, I guess — I once debated him on Canadian TV) — is unfit to clean the shoes of a great alim like Bencheikh, the mufti of Marseille.
    The idea that young American Muslims flock to the absurd sideshow produced by Hamza Yusuf Hanson is appalling. Hanson would not make a hair on the brow of an immigrant Kurdish shaykh with no formal education living in Germany, to say nothing of the Kosovar Sufis. We have a layer of mediocre, careerist academics who dominate the media dialogue here but otherwise, nothing except Wahhabi and other radical apologists. Many of the people who claim to speak of and for Muslims in this country are actually Christians like the egregious Fawaz Gerges. Allowing this stratum of mental midgets armed with tenure to represent American Islam is the worst sort of racism — it reduces Islam to the cliche about it heing the “Arab religion” with a few Pakistanis or Africans added for variety.
    Ingrid Mattson as a peer of Dalil Boubakeur is so ridiculous it makes me, as they say on blogs, ROTFL. Or that pearl of bogus pluralism, Siraj Wahhaj.
    The paradoxical truth is that because Muslims are free in this country to live and work as they please they focus on their professional lives and do nothing at all to satisfy the spiritual needs of the community. American Muslim “unity” is not a response to aggression against Muslims but an expression of assimilation to American cultural blandness. The other religious groups are moving in the opposite direction. Nobody today praises American Catholics for becoming homogenized; rather, the Catholics increasingly embody Hispanic traditions, for demographic reasons. And an Americanized, spiritually dull Judaism never had a real future.
    And don’t be offended, but since when does Islam require us to submit to the brainwashing of a bunch of nonentities in the name of so-called unity? Where in the world is there any Muslim unity? In the grave and in America. Everywhere else disagreeements are argued out quite sharply and nobody makes these silly accusations of dividing the community, except a few loudhmouths in Britain. I can tell you from personal experience that the Turkish and Kurdish ulema in Germany would never countenance this argument against criticizing the so-called leading organizations such as we see in America. And personal polemics have a long and distinguished history in Islam outside America. If I have been personal in my rejection of the pretensions of the “axis of hot air” — Hanson, Mattson, Wahhaj — you should look at how Shaykh ul-Aqbar Muhyid’din Ibn ul-Arabi (ra) dealt with his opponents.
    At least I do not attempt takfir on people, even those I oppose the most strenuously.
    Argument humanizes, it does not dehumanize. It makes issues vivid. Don’t fear serious criticism.
    Also, BTW, in my new book on Sufism, THE OTHER ISLAM, I specifically reject the argument that Sufis represent a force to be exploited by the West in the struggle against takfiris. I call for respect, not recruitment. So if there is something that can be described as McSufism, I repudiate being described as part of it. I think the media coverage of Sufism in terms of its so-called picturesque practices is repellent. I am interested in the intellectual and spiritual content of tasawwuf, not tourist postcards. My new book includes nothing of that kind whatever.
    Allah knows best.

  • svend

    Oy vey. Thanks for your response, I guess…
    I too have a positive impression of Sh. Bencheikh from my time in France, but I doubt his thinking goes unchallenged within French Islam, to put it mildly (which I often found rather schizophrenic, oscillating between secularism and ideological Islam in various forms; in some respects I think the North American community compares favorably with its French counterpart, and that of the UK, as well). I will admit to occasionally finding less, if you will, “hegemonic” brands of Islam (e.g., Malay Islam) salutary in their relative openness to certain kinds of conversations that I think are especially needed today, but Arabic/Middle Eastern Islam is hardly monolithic, and healthy debate and reflection are occurring throughout the Ummah, if perhaps not always at the pace one might hope for.
    Perhaps the level of discourse in certain particularly cosmopolitan (not to mention deeply Sufi) milieus is arguably ahead of the curve in significant respects, but all is not darkness outside the Balkans and Turkey, as one could be forgiven for assuming after reading some of your writings.
    More fundamentally, to the extent they could be said to have merit I think your strictures about the North American Muslim community are woefully out of date. I find this rant akin to going on about the influence of the John Birch Society in today’s GOP. Their ideological heyday has long since passed.
    Sure, some North American Muslims thanks to petrodollar-funded “largess” went through a rather obscurantist (though in most cases politically harmless; and when it wasn’t harmless the US was often actively supporting it) phase during the 1980s and early 1990s, but there’s no denying that such approaches have greatly declined in influence and a much more inclusive ethos has taken root. Like people, communities (and their organizations) evolve.
    I might disagree with some of them on specific matters, but I categorically reject your characterization of these scholars and the aspersions you cast on the organizations and initiatives in which the are involved.
    This is not some pan-Islamic ideological litmus test. The objection is to your destructive invective and conspiracy theorizing about Muslims who–however imperfect (like the rest of us)–are doing their best to guide the community through times of rapid change and great strife. Spouting unbalanced sensationalistic rhetoric that reinforces paranoia and prejudice and lends political support to the machinations of bigots is wrong no matter who your targets may be.
    > That dogmatic, extremist fronts like ISNA, CAIR, ICNA and MSA dominate the community is something that does not exist in such European countries as The Netherlands, Germany, or France. <
    This is simply rubbish. Music to Muslim-basher's ears, but poisonous, politically motivated sophistry nonetheless. First of all, religio-cultural organizations of this sort are a hallmark of Anglo-American civic life, so the comparison isn't very meaningful, especially given how in European societies Muslims are far more as it were balkanized– divided along ethnic and linguistic lines–than in the US. Second, even if one disagrees with particular positions, the charge that these organizations are "fronts" for extremism is simply disconnected from reality, based on uncritical acceptance of shrill, unsubstantiated accusations from Islamophobes whose political agenda and indiscriminate animus towards Muslims are well established. Third, you are lumping together a diverse group of leaders with quite different beliefs and treating them members of some cohesive ideological movement, which does not inspire confidence in your analysis.
    That's the extent to which I'm willing to dignify these offensive attacks with a response.
    As for the "McSufism" moniker, by that I was referring only to superficial, New Age constructs of Sufism in the MSM.

  • S. Ahmad Schwartz

    I think this discussion is sufficiently defined by the fact that you reproach me for my association with neoconservatives but you include among your favorite pundits the Jew-baiter Dennis “Justin” Raimondo, author of the theory that Israel committed the atrocities of 9/11, and belated polemicist for Japanese victory in the second world war.
    Nothing I have written on the Wahhabi lobby (ISNA, CAIR, MSA, ICNA, MPAC) is based on anything other than my personal observation. Many born Muslims agree with me. Ask around about ISNA and CAIR discrimination against American Shias, the conflicts inside MSA over Wahhabi influence, the paramilitary nature of ICNA as a front for the Pakistani Jamaat ul-Islam, and the comments of MPAC’s Marayati on the afternoon of 9/11. Ask why serious Sufis are not represented in the leadership of ISNA.
    As for your condemnation of divisions in Islam in Europe or elsewhere, perhaps you should ponder the hadith that says “Differences about religion are a blessing and a mercy.” The glory of Islam was that for centuries it supported vigorous debate. The disgrace of the Wahhabis is that they suppress such debate in the name of the same fake unity the communists used to demand in the labor movement. I.e. unity under their command.
    I would not normally say such a thing but I truly believe that I and my colleagues in the Center for Islamic Pluralism, by challenging the Wahhabi lobby, are doing far more for the good of American Muslims than happy conformists like yourself.
    Allah knows best.

  • svend

    Again, Mr. Schwartz, I don’t accept the lurid picture you paint. They’re not perfect, but like most organizations serving large, diverse communities they represent a range of views (some of which I disagree with) and they are constantly evolving just like the broader Muslim community. Most importantly, the reality on the ground is very mundane. These aren’t fronts for terror or extremism; in the overwhelming majority of cases, they’re community organizations that reflect the ideological and cultural growing pains of their community.
    Are they as inclusive/progressive/etc. as they could be in a perfect world? (Is the Southern Baptist Convention? The Missouri Lutheran Synod? Ad infinitum.) No, but a heck of a lot has changed, and mostly for the better, I think.
    There’s a reason why the ISNA bazaar has become infamous for provocatively clad young women and open flirting. It’s a more inclusive organization that is catering to more and more of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) community, even if not without growing pains. Such complicated realities on the ground seem to have eluded you as you talk about ISNA as if it were some militant organization holed up in a compound in the woods.
    First of all, Sufism is nearly everywhere in the community today. If anything, there is a danger of a new Sufi ideological orthodoxy emerging in many quarters.
    There is friction at times within organizations between Sufis and former detractors of Sufism, but that too is a reflection of the broader community. It’s a fact that many North American Muslims were anti-Sufi to some degree until fairly recently, and SUfism always has had its detractors. In our day of heightened rationalism and scientism–not to mention all sorts of political ideologies–it should come as no suprise that Sufism aren’t always welcomed with open arms.
    But the fact remains that prominent Sufis (and Shiahs) are involved at the highest levels of ISNA these days, too, and that involvement is only increasing. All is not perfect, but it’s hardly as grim as you imply.
    Not unlike on the American Right, some kooky (and occasionally threatening) ideas used to a lot more popular among American Muslims thanks to the complex dynamics of the non-African American Muslim community’s birth (at the height of the Cold War and in a time when the only source for funding for community projects was the Persian Gulf).
    It’s a very different world now. Seems to me that you need refresh your data set, as your conclusions are a decade (perhaps two) out of date. Not to mention hopelessly one-sided.

  • svend

    One more brief observation: I don’t like it when American Muslims assume themselves to be the embodiment of progress in the Muslim world, but I must say that I find your picture of American Muslims as being so dismally unsophisticated seriously at odds with the views one gets from Muslims abroad. Seems to me that many in the rest of the Ummah look to the American Muslim community for leadership in navigating the challenges of modernity and pluralism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the foremost proponents of promising new projects such as the Fiqh of Minorities have emerged in America.
    In a similar vein, I reject your petty slurs against prominent American Muslim leaders. The esteem in which they in many cases are held by scholars around the Muslim world speaks far more eloquently in their defense than I ever could.

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