A Reply to Lawrence Auster (FrontPageMagazine.com) By Daniel Pipes 01/28/05)
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Lawrence Auster characterizes my approach to Islam as "ecumenist" and
his own as "civilizationist." I prefer to call my approach historical
and his essentialist. That is, I emphasize that things change over
time and he sees them as static. For example, he emphasizes
continuities going back centuries, I focus on the vast changes since
I began studying Islam in 1969.
At the core of his argument is the view that "moderate Islam cannot
exist." To which I reply that Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to
make of it. I commend to him the study of Muslim history, so that he
can for himself understand how (to take two extremes) Bosnian and
Najdi Islam turned out the way they did, with one among the most
tolerant and the other surely the most stringent.
The religion has changed momentously in the past and surely will
continue to do so. Most of us can agree that the Muslim world is in
the throes of terrible crisis now, but Auster sees this as a
permanent condition, I see it as temporary, comparable, perhaps, to
Germany´s in the interwar period.
In particular, Auster´s argument is based on a static understanding
of the Koran, ignoring how much Muslim views have changed in the past
and continue to do so. Interpretations already exist (such as that of
the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha) that upturn centuries of
Koranic interpretation and would make Islam compatible with
modernity. They exist, ready for the taking. I am "deluded," writes
Auster, into thinking that moderate Islam (or anti-Islamist Islam)
exists. But I personally have worked side-by-side with moderate
Muslims and have provided specifics (see "Naming Moderate Muslims"
for details) about some of them. For Auster to deny their existence
suggests he is driven more by theory that facts.
I find Auster´s comparison of Islam with Soviet communism offensive.
But if he must compare a faith with a political ideology, then he
should compare Islam with socialism as a whole, inclusive of its
range from social democrat to Stalinist.
He wonders that I do not judge Islam, to which I say that a person´
faith is not within my purview, only the person´ politics and
actions. I suggest it is generally a good idea not to mix scholarship
with matters of faith.
As for his dig, "Since when does studying a subject preclude one from
criticizing it?" I reply that my study is not of Islam the faith but
of Muslims in history. I repeatedly have signaled this prism, for
example, in the sub-titles of my books ("The Genesis of a Military
System," "Islam and Political Power," "Views of Islamic and Middle
Eastern Politics"). In contrast, he will search my bibliography in
vain to find works on such topics as the concept of the godhead in
the Qur’an, the origins of the Hadith, the poetry of Rumi, and the
faith of Sufis.
The Auster view of premodern Islam ("the glories of medieval Islam
are largely a myth. It was a parasite civilization whose achievements
were mainly the work of its subject peoples such as Byzantines, Jews,
and Indians, and it declined when it eventually killed off its host")
is a superficial projection backwards of today´s problems. Indeed,
its very premise ("a parasite civilization") is oxymoronic. There was
a true and vital civilization of Islam and (to take a convenient
date) in 1005 it represented the best that humans had attained at
that time in terms of learning, governance, and general advancement.
I suggest that Auster ground himself more in this civilization before
Auster portrays me as an apologist for traditional Islam ("Pipes
unbelievably denies the aggressive, collectivist, genocidal, and
tyrannical aspects of traditional Islam. he evokes the full-bodied,
romantic view of Islam"). My view of historic Islam is
allegedly "wholly positive," with a notable absence in my writings of
anything about jihad, the Islamic conquests, Sharia, slavery, and
dhimmitude. I wish Auster had spent a bit more time looking over my
writings before drawing conclusions about them. For example, a long
2002 article, "Jihad and the Professors," as well as several shorter
pieces ("Harvard Jihad," "What is Jihad?") deal extensively with
jihad and are as tough as even Auster could ask for (a "gruesome
reality" I call it in one place; in another, I quote Bat Ye´or on the
suffering jihad has caused through "war, dispossession, dhimmitude,
slavery, and death"). And slavery? My first book is titled Slave
Soldiers and Islam. I also published lesser works on this subject
(mostly dating from around 1980 and not online) carrying such titles
as "Mawlas: Freed Slaves and Converts in Early Islam" and "Why Did
Military Slavery Exist?"
I wonder what, exactly, I must do to prove my non-romantic view of
That said, I view premodern Islam by the standards of its time, not
ours and so am less judgmental than is Auster. Further, I subscribe
to the wide scholarly consensus that during the first half of Islam´s
history, its adherents were less "aggressive, collectivist,
genocidal, and tyrannical" than their Christian counterparts in
Europe. The consistent pattern of Jews fleeing Christendom for
Islamdom provides one indication of this reality.
And finally, I must respond to this characterization: "Pipes´s
respect for Islam, his faith in its essential benignity, and his
abiding hope (despite all the evidence) that we can ultimately live
in complete harmony with it, contradict and undercut his realistic
analysis of its dangers." Yes, I have respect for the faith of a
billion people but I don´t recall ever espousing "faith in its
essential benignity." To the contrary, I have publicly argued against
President George W. Bush´s formulation that "Islam is peace." As for
my hope that Muslims and non-Muslims can live in complete harmony, it
is a hope. But who in 1940 could imagine living in complete harmony
with Germany, Italy, and Japan? Such hope is functional. That we have
for many decades now suggests that change is possible through victory
in war and wise guidance of the defeated to understand their own
traditions in a moderate, modern, and good-neighborly way.
As for the second part of Auster´s analysis, his policy
recommendations; they differ surprisingly little from my own, as
presented three years ago in "Who Is the Enemy?." Auster
asserts "that the West must confront Islam as Islam and so reduce its
power to the point where Muslims have no opportunity to wage jihad
campaigns against us. Under such circumstances a more decent type of
Islam may arise." This two-stage approach resembles or perhaps even
derives from my program of defeating radical Islam, then promoting
moderate Islam in its place. Auster and I agree that, in the end, "a
more decent type of Islam" is the only answer.
I´ll leave it to Auster to explain how his "decent" Islam differs
from my "moderate" Islam (which he insists "does not exist, and
cannot exist"). And why, if Islam cannot change, he pins his hopes,
with me, on a changed Islam.
Daniel Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East
Forum and author of Miniatures (Transaction Publishers). (©2005
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