My 15 minutes of fame on the loony Far Right continues.
I'm a little late in reporting this–haven't had much time to blog this week–but Hugh Fitzgerald of Jihad Watch also wrote about me recently (2 days ago) to thunder in florid outrage at my refusal to waste my time debating Islamic law with the likes of Mr. Spencer.
I have to hand it to him. He has a way with words, if perhaps not careful reading or nuanced thinking (and, boy, does he get a lot of mileage out of a typo). He charges me with changing my tune when I say that my objection was to Spencer's participation in a forum to discuss outreach to Muslims by libraries even though–however one feels about that characterization of the panel–it's a point I made repeatedly and consistently in my exchanges with Spencerites (and one to be found in my very first comment on the matter). In fact, as misleading and unscholarly as I (and many, Muslim as well as non-Muslim) find Spencer's writings to be, I wouldn't deny that he has relevant expertise to some discussions of Islam, especially those that put more of a premium on debate than careful, reasonably evenhanded analysis. And I certainly don't believe in censoring his ideas (not that this controversy really was about censorship, anyway).
You get a sense of what a parallel universe Fitzgerald inhabits by how he holds up Spencer's striking lack of credibility among some of most highly regarded scholars of Islam working today in the academy as badge of honor. Then he rattles off a list of shrill, right-wing polemicists and pundits with about as the same claim to objectivity and rectitude on Islam enjoyed by, say, Richard Dawkins on Christianity. The puny shadow cast by the "academic" cavalry dispatched to Spencer's rescue is quite striking, and gets one thinking: Where are the endorsements from the leading conservative historians, theologians and scholars of religion? It is interesting that Fitzgerald can't muster an endorsement from historians of the stature of, say, Bernard Lewis or a Fouad Ajami. To the contrary, the Great Truth Teller About Islam and his alter ego are reduced to dismissing both influential figures–who, for all their political bias in my opinion, are serious scholars who've produced seminal works about Islamic history and political thought–as duped dhimmis. (Think about that, these people are so fringe and gloriously kooky that they think Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis are apologists for Islam!)
The less credibility someone has among scholars and professionals, it appears, the more self-evident their mastery of the subject matter. It's logic worthy of a teenager in the throes of filial rebellion. Consider it an AM radio-style update to Jack Weinberg's iconic slogan from the Sixties: Don't trust anybody the grown-up professionals like. (This academic standards thing is just leftist conspiracy to keep right-wing pundits down!)
It's very flattering to be getting so much attention from such luminaries in the Islam bashing industry. If I'm not mistaken, Hugh repeats my full name 25 times in the piece. At times, I don't know whether it's a jeremiad or a billet doux. And I must say that I enjoyed the "SS Svend White" quip. I'm a swashbuckling pirate! A zippy new byline for my blog, coined by a master sloganeer. (Spencer's "Dot dot dash, Svend!" was a gem, too.) Great stuff, stylistically if not intellectually.
Based, apparently, merely on my name, Fitzgerald mocks me for allegedly being a convert and paints an image of me as a knee-jerk apologist for Islamic fundamentalism terrified of the debate and reform Spencer allegedly represents. To those who know me, both inside and outside the Muslim community, his screed is surely high comedy. Not because of any notable merits on my part, but because of how the canned, clichéd nature of his rhetoric becomes so obvious when applied to a person with my beliefs and background.
You see, first of all, I'm not a convert (not that there's anything wrong with that and not that one can even make generalizations about converts beyond a few common patterns of experience during their early years). I grew up in a Muslim American family in Boston during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, I suspect that Islam entered my family tree before Mr. Fitzgerald was even born–my American father embraced Islam as a teenager in 1957, and my Danish mother did so in Copenhagen in 1970, before meeting my future father. So I've been this way all my life, and in America.
As far as beliefs and politics go, I'm a liberal, a feminist known for speaking out against sexism within the Muslim community (e.g., here and here), a staunch believer in religious universalism,* a democracy activist and proponent of full Muslim integration into American society, a defender of non-Muslim rights, and a believer in legal reform who concedes that Shari'ah cannot be implemented in the modern world without major overhauls. A regular John Walker Lindh, right, Hugh? Good luck with that.
Fizgerald's shallow caricature is not merely stupendously off-target, but also illustrative, I think, of how woefully out of touch these cliché-spouting "experts" on Muslim problems are with intellectual, cultural and political developments in the American Muslim community and the broader Muslim world. Like many American Muslims–including a fair number of those smeared by Spencer and his goons–my very existence refutes their tautological philosophical and political categories.
The laughable mismatch between Fitzgerald's pulp-fiction imagery and the reality in my case highlights yet another ideologically inconvenient fact for Spencer and his fellow travelers in Islamophobic hate: They'd like the public to believe that people like me take them seriously and perhaps even look to them for leadership, yet nothing could be further than the truth. We see them for what they are, as well. However well footnoted it may be, the "scholarship" this motley movement produces is no less superficial or self-evidently out of touch with reality to liberal and moderate Muslims than to the most staunchly conservative ones, which seems an unlikely quality in scholarship at the forefront of Islamic denigration reform efforts.
To be fair, there is one Muslim constituency for which Spencer's fundamentalist scripturalism, jihadi Manichaeism and unreconstructed medievalism rings authentic: the real "Islamofascists"! Throw a turban and a shalwar khameez on him and Spencer could practically be a mullah in the Lal Masjid, so deep do the methodological and epistemological affinities run.
Spencer and his ilk go to great lengths to spin their attacks on the Muslim community and non-Muslim scholars who don't play ball with their political agenda as skirmishes with Islamic extremists and their brainwashed sympathizers, but the truth is that their attacks on "Islamofascists" are crafted in such a poorly defined and broad-brushed way that the fundamental beliefs of all Muslims are targeted, and all Muslims smeared and ultimately demonized.
These sad, conflict-stoking figures are best ignored, it is true–to even dignify their screeds with a response is to risk conferring upon them legitimacy they do not deserve–but sometimes you need to call a spade a spade to remind the broader public what's at stake.
* I believe that God's mercy knows no creedal boundaries, albeit in a more [Karl] Rahner-esque sense than the unequivocal universalism of, say, Hans Kung, to use examples from the Western religious lexicon. So I do believe in divine truth and some traditions being blessed with more of it than others, but it does not follow God withholds his mercy to those who find themselves in the "wrong" religion (or without one at all).
Update (2009-08-09): All the posts on Robert Spencer/Jihad Watch exchange are available on a single page here.
Update (2009-07-18): Added the paragraph on scholars. Also made a few minor stylistic tweaks and added some supporting links.
Update (2009-07-19): Somehow, this post was set to draft status again and disappeared. Thought I'd published it. Here it is again.