David Frum’s Axilla of Ignorance*

*(“Axilla of Ignorance,” coined by Ruth King)

Inexplicably David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute—hardly an authority on Islamic doctrine, or history—has nevertheless lashed out—albeit inaccurately, and within the constraints of his own crude understanding—at two contemporary scholars, Bat Ye’or and Robert Spencer. A serious, respected writer/essayist on jihad terrorism sent me this assessment:

I don’t know why I should be surprised at this kind of thing any more, but I am. Frum really should have known better.

His criticism makes it sound as if you [AB] and Bat Ye’or and Spencer simply read the Koran and the Life of Mohammad, and inferred the nature of Islam from these isolated texts. As I said in my book—I would have no problem if Muslims decided to go back and read jihad out of the Koran; it would be okay if they pretended jihad had never played any important role in the expansion of Islam. I would rejoice if Muslims really behaved as Frum thinks he would behave if he were a Muslim! But it ain’t gonna happen.

Secularized Westerner intellectuals like Frum simply cannot imagine what it is like to be possessed by a living faith that commands its faithful to expand the community of the faithful by violent methods. This kind of fanaticism, as I argue in my book, is outside their imaginative scope. So whenever contemporary scholars like you, Bat Ye’or, or Spencer point out what every schoolboy once knew about Islam, you are the ones who are treated like extremists. When your first book came out I was astonished that anyone thought it was controversial. You didn’t make up the idea of jihad—you simply documented the historical Muslim theory and practice of it. And yet that is considered as “going too far.” The same thing can be said of Bat Ye’or work. If the two of you were merely investigating a historically transcended and outmoded form of Islam, I suppose you could be blamed for failing to let the dead bury the dead. But today people are still dying and killing in the name of Islam—but we are forbidden even to see the truth, let alone speak it.

The links (at Jihad Watch) and full texts to the eviscerating rebuttals of Frum’s self-righteous juvenilia by Bat Ye’or, and Robert Spencer, are provided below.

Bat Ye’or’s Rejoinder to David Frum

In his latest article, “Ancient Holy Books, Modern Dilemmas” (posted January 8, 2008), David Frum poses as a referee in a disputation, pretending there are two alleged extremes, whereas he ignores the rules and the meaning of the subject itself. This hoax has often been used by Sages who pontificate: “As usual, the truth is in the middle.” But often this scenario of two opposed extremisms allows the Sages to pride themselves on what is only the appearance of wisdom. Moreover, this catch-phrase is meaningless, because truth is not found at a linear distance between two extremes. Between the Nazi genocidal policy toward the Jews and the victims’ affirmation of their right to live there is no middle-way solution. Would we discuss how many Jews it would be right for the Nazis to exterminate? Between slavery and human equality, there is no middle position. Between the dehumanization of dhimmitude and the inalienable right to freedom, dignity and equality, there is no meeting in the middle. Would one haggle over the amount due for protecting one’s life and rights?

David Frum describes my work as a study of Islam, whereas it is research into a neglected and specific domain involving Islamic theology, jurisprudence and history in relation to non-Muslims. Within this particular field, I only examined the Jewish and Christian aspect, not that of the Zoroastrians and other religious denominations. It is therefore not an assessment of Islam in general. Even more, in none of my writing is there the implication that Islam must disappear for the sake of peace. Maybe Frum has hidden his own thought, which he unconsciously projects on Robert Spencer and myself, while contrasting our alleged somber designs with his own generous wisdom — which is not, in the least, very original. It hangs on the usual love paradigm of interfaith dialogue, dhimmi biased vision, and subvention of billions of dollars, while waiting with humble timidity for a powerful Muslim majority to reinterpret the Koran as a book of universal love and peace. I do not object to that, except that meanwhile, Muslim reformers even in Europe must hide to save their lives, while terrorism claims countless innocent victims throughout the globe, and tomorrow we might be facing a global nuclear jihad.

Robert Spencer’s Rejoinder to David Frum

David Frum appears to have changed his mind about Bat Ye’or, the pioneering historian of dhimmitude and the Cassandra of Eurabia. In 2002, he called her “the great Islamic scholar,” a “very great scholar: original, authoritative, lucid.”

I agree with those assessments, but today Frum apparently does not. For in a new article published in Moment Magazine and reprinted at the American Enterprise Institute site, Frum portrays her — and me — as one side of a Manichaean dualism (of which the other side is represented by John Esposito and Karen Armstrong) that fails to take into account the nuance, the richness, the multifaceted way in which Muslims have approached the Qur’an throughout history, and instead, in an over-simplistic and reductionist way, finds the cause of today’s Islamic violence in the Qur’an and Muhammad:

[…] After the 9/11 terror attacks, Americans understandably felt a new surge of curiosity about Islam. In response, scholars and writers have offered two broad types of answer.

The first answer is defensive and apologetic. As typified, for example, in the work of the scholar John Esposito and the popularizer Karen Armstrong, this school denies any special connection at all between Islam and violence. To the extent that it acknowledges Islamic violence at all, it condones it as response to the aggressions of others. The logical implication of this work: If we want terrorism to stop, we must change our own behavior to stop provoking it.

The opposing answer is accusatory. As typified by the work of the scholar Bat Ye’or and the popularizer Robert Spencer, it locates the sources of Islamic violence in the Koran itself, in the person of Muhammad, and in the core teachings of the Muslim faith. The logical implication of this work: Islamic violence will continue so long as Islam itself plagues the earth.

I think it is important to point out that I have never, ever spoken in these terms, and never will. I don’t speak about Islam “plaguing the earth,” and I don’t think speaking in lurid terms like that gets us anywhere. Also, I don’t approve of talk of eradicating Islam, which is not only complete fantasy, but also seems to me to be an inherently genocidal idea, barring some mass apostasy or mass conversion, neither of which seems any more likely than a UFO invasion.

Instead, I have consistently called for the West to mount a strong military and cultural/ideological defense, while asking Muslims who sincerely don’t condone the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism to confront the elements of their tradition and theology that jihadists use today to justify violence and make recruits among peaceful Muslims, and formulate new ways to understand them so as to try to blunt the force of that justification and recruitment.

Frum continues:

Let me suggest another way to think about this dilemma.

The Koran is certainly a troublesome book. Hastily compiled over a period of probably less than a century (as compared to almost a millennium for the Tanakh and three hundred years for the Christian scriptures), it is a weird and often contradictory agglomeration. Ancient Arabic poetry is shoved together with primitive legal rulings. Garbled accounts of obscure military triumphs are thrown in alongside apocryphal literature translated from the Aramaic. Calls to arms appear among preachings of brotherhood. The whole is then interspersed with repeated threats of eternal damnation to anyone who doubts the literal truth of all that is said therein.

It is an easy task for the modern polemicist to choose one of the harsher Wahhabi translations, pluck the most lurid verses and frame an indictment. But doing so does not correspond to the human realities. Millions of human beings over hundreds of years have been inspired to lead better and more moral lives by their Islamic faith. Like the doctors and lawyers, accountants and businessmen, psychologists and teachers of my synagogue, they have nodded their heads over shocking words–and then reinterpreted them, allegorized them or simply ignored them.

“It is an easy task for the modern polemicist to choose one of the harsher Wahhabi translations, pluck the most lurid verses and frame an indictment.” Frum apparently buys into the common idea, which I debunked here, that the “most lurid verses” of the Qur’an are relatively newly minted, and planted into translations by wicked Saudi Wahhabis. In reality, as you can see from my discussions of sura 9 and other passages in the Blogging the Qur’an series, mainstream pre-Wahhabi Qur’an interpreters affirm that the Qur’an teaches warfare against and the subjugation of non-Muslims under the rule of lslamic law.

But perhaps more importantly, Frum seems to buy into the very common claim that I (and possibly Bat Ye’or, and others) make it our business to root around in the Qur’an trying to find passages that make Muslims look bad. In reality, I would have no interest in doing such a thing, and in any case there is no need to do it, because the jihadists themselves are already doing it. It is Osama bin Laden and others like him all over the world who consistently and copiously quote the Qur’an in order to convince Muslims that they need to be waging jihad. All I do is report on that use.

I do not, however, believe that the Qur’an and other holy books are infinitely malleable, and that we can make them into whatever we want to make them into. I believe that words mean things, and that ideas have power, and that they are not simply meaningless and interchangeable, which is the assumption behind this view — as if Marxism could just as easily give rise to asceticism and monasticism as Buddhism, given the proper conditions. But Frum, apparently, does subscribe to this Qur’an-As-Silly-Putty view:

Holy books are like mirrors that reflect us back to ourselves. The peaceful man finds words of reconciliation, the vindictive woman reads a summon to revenge. The loving hear calls to love more deeply; the hateful are confirmed in their hate. It is not the text that makes the religion what it is; it is the reader.

Very well. Even taking this as true doesn’t deal with the problem of what to do about readers who see hate in the text and act upon it. One would think that those who see love there would see a need to confront those who see hate and try to counter their views — the very thing I keep calling upon peaceful Muslims to do regarding the jihadists.

If one goes back into Islamic history, one encounters many devout Muslims who read their religion in ways that seem impressively modern. They recognized that the Koran was a work of human origin, a product of its times. They applied the techniques of skeptical historiography to the legends of the life of Muhammad, the hadiths, eliminating thousands of them as spurious. Muslims called this approach “ijtihad,” the application of human reason to religious revelation.
In speaking of Muslims who “recognized that the Koran was a work of human origin, a product of its times,” Frum may be referring to the Mu’tazilites, who rejected the notion that the Qur’an is a perfect copy of an eternal and immutable book that has existed forever with Allah. They were hardly nonviolent, as they viciously persecuted their Muslim enemies during the ninth-century caliphate of Al-Ma’mun.

But in any case, they were attacked as heretical, and ultimately completely eradicated. It is hard to see how a movement long ago declared heretical by mainstream Islamic authorities could possibily provide a way forward today without encountering the same kind of opposition. Perhaps Frum has an explanation for this, but in his piece he gives no hint of it, and instead gives the impression that Muslims who regarded the Qur’an as “a work of human origin, a product of its times” were perfectly mainstream, and that this was an Islamic idea that was acceptable to the orthodox theologians. It never was.

Catastrophic events in Islamic history–and perhaps also a gathering awareness that the skeptical method might cut much deeply than even its first practitioners anticipated–led to the famous “closing of the gates of ijtihad” almost one thousand years ago. But now the pressure of modernity is forcing those gates open again. Many Muslims experience this opening as deeply threatening. Reactionary Islam promises to relieve those feelings by slamming the gates shut forever, with all the force derivable from hundreds of billions of dollars of oil wealth.

They may be opening again. Some claim they’ve never closed. But the opposition to their opening is not just Saudi oil wealth. It is the weight of a millennium of orthodoxy. No less an eminence than the prominent moderate Shi’ite theologian Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, in his consideration of Islam and modernity, Ideals and Realities of Islam, says:

Certain modernists over the past century have tried to change the Shari‘ah, to reopen the gate of ijtihad, with the aim of incorporating modern practices into the Law and limiting the function of Shari‘ah to personal life. All of these activities emanate from a particular attitude of spiritual weakness vis-à-vis the world and surrender to the world. Those who are conquered by such a mentality want to make the Shari‘ah ‘conform to the times,’ which means to the whims and fancies of men and the ever changing human nature which has made ‘the times.’ They do not realize that it is the Shari‘ah according to which society should be modeled not vice versa.

Frum concludes:

Yet against these reactionaries stand many other Muslims to whom free inquiry offers emancipation and progress. Like you and me, they believe that they can sift enduring ethical truths from the accidents and accretions of tradition; that they can extract moral lessons from stories even after they have ceased to believe in their literal truth; that they can judge their religion as well as be judged by it. The Koran is their book, too. They don’t have to rewrite it. Just reread it.

I think that is theoretically possible, with the caveats I have explained above, but I am sorry that Mr. Frum has decided to frame it as an attack on Bat Ye’or and me, or at least as if it is something we would oppose. Also, he does non-Muslims (who get unrealistic hopes) and sincere Muslim reformers a disservice by painting an overly optimistic picture of what those reformers need to do, without bothering to mention that even to begin this undertaking puts their lives at risk.

They deserve better.

2 responses to “David Frum’s Axilla of Ignorance*