Holy War

When "Ibn Warraq," the pseudonymous Muslim apostate,
visited the United States after September 11, one of his first stops was the
White House. There, he enjoyed an hour-and-a-half lunch with President Bush's
chief economic speechwriter, David Frum. Though Warraq confirms the meeting and
has told supporters about it, Frum refuses to discuss it "in any way," perhaps
because it suggests that some in the administration just don't buy the
president's claim that Islam is a "peaceful" religion. Warraq has made a name for
himself (and lost the one he was born with) by becoming Islam's most outspoken
critic.

His controversial 1995 book Why I Am Not a Muslim makes Salman
Rushdie's The Satanic Verses look like bush-league blasphemy. A dense
treatise modeled after Bertrand Russell's famous 1927 essay "Why I Am Not a
Christian," the work presents a strident historical, moral, and philosophical
indictment of Islam and advocates not just a firm separation of mosque and state
but outright atheism.

It's also enjoying a vibrant second life. Since the World Trade Center
massacre, Why I Am Not a Muslim has shot onto Amazon.com's top-25 list of
titles on Islam. Traditionally, U.S. liberals have shown far more interest in
creating secular societies, but much of the interest in Warraq comes from the
political right--from the ideological allies of Franklin Graham, the Christian
evangelist who recently dubbed Islam a "very evil and wicked religion"; and from
conservative, pro-Israeli Jews like Frum and Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle
East Forum, who wrote a piece in The Weekly Standard in 1996 calling
Warraq's book a "quite brilliant...indictment of one of the world's great
religions."

WorldNetDaily.com--a Web site that runs columns from Ann Coulter and Pat
Buchanan and articles with titles such as "Jesus Says Pack Heat...The Bible and
self-defense"--now sells Why I Am Not a Muslim through its catalog. The
irony of fundamentalist Christians purchasing this atheistic tome is not lost on
Warraq, who comments, "The Christian right will find my book extremely
embarrassing." Indeed, he makes a similar point in the book:

An Algerian friend, a well-educated Muslim...came across
Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" while looking through my books. He pounced
on it with evident glee. As I learned later, he apparently considered Russell's
classic to be a great blow to Christianity; at no time was my friend aware that
Russell's arguments applied, mutatis mutandis, to Islam.

In person, Ibn Warraq seems an unlikely candidate to become
Islam's Tom Paine. His previous occupations include teaching primary school,
working as a tour guide, and running a restaurant; he freely confesses, "I really
do not wish to spend my life being a professional Islam basher." I first met
Warraq two years ago in Amherst, New York, while working for Free Inquiry
and Skeptical Inquirer magazines. (Although my boss at the time, Paul
Kurtz, separately runs Prometheus Books, Warraq's publisher, I have never worked
for Prometheus.) When I next saw him, again in Amherst, last November, he was
convening a meeting of anti-Muslim dissidents from Iran, Bangladesh, and other
Islamic countries. Many of the attendees came across as starkly angry ("My target
is to get rid of Islam," huffed the Iranian-born activist Parvin Darabi) and more
than a little paranoid (the group held a long discussion on how to prevent
Muslims from secretly infiltrating their ranks). Warraq seemed by far the most
moderate, courtly, and conciliatory person present.

Admittedly, some dispute this description. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations says that he has only skimmed Warraq's Why I Am Not
a Muslim,
but observes: "The fact that his book is being promoted by
hate-mongers is interesting." And it's true that Warraq occasionally takes a
taunting tone. But at more than 400 pages of mostly airless prose, Why I Am
Not a Muslim
is predominantly argument. As for ad hominems, Warraq remarks at
the book's outset that, following the Rushdie affair, the Muslim world needs to
learn to live with such unfettered speech and asserts his "right to criticize
everything and anything in Islam--even to blaspheme, to make errors, to satirize,
and mock."

Those in most Western countries have the right to criticize their predominant
religion (Christianity) in a way that those in Muslim countries don't; this stems
in part from the tradition of religious dissent that ushered in the Protestant
Reformation and continues to inform Christian scholarly revision. Andrew Rippin,
a Koran specialist who is dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of
Victoria in Canada, says that "what some people call the Reformation in Islam,
the counterpart to the Christian Reformation--that hasn't occurred yet." Warraq
and his ilk hope that such a Reformation will draw fuel from the work of Islamic
revisionists (inspired by the British expert John Wansbrough), who today find
themselves in the delicate position of asserting that the Koran--which Muslims
claim to be the infallible word of God--is actually a mishmash of oral traditions
that evolved over several centuries.

Not all revisionists see themselves as Warraq's allies. One scholar has called
his book "religious polemic masquerading as scholarship" and worried that it
would "raise suspicions among some Muslims that all revisionist scholarship is
motivated by intolerance."

Yet Warraq's basic critique, which finds something fundamentally (though
perhaps not uniquely) intolerant about doctrinal Islam--rendering it inimical to
women's rights, freedom of thought and expression, and other modern
liberties--does not differ so starkly from the views expressed by Bernard Lewis,
the Princeton Islam guru, in his now-canonical 1990 Atlantic Monthly essay
"The Roots of Muslim Rage." Traditional Muslims believe that their duty is to
bring all unbelievers to Islam, explains Lewis: "Islam was never prepared, either
in theory or in practice, to accord full equality to those who held other beliefs
and practiced other forms of worship."

So why has Warraq been embraced by the political right in this
country rather than the civil-rights-conscious left?

Warraq contends that because of the work of Edward Said and other
theorists, the American left has "been scared of being called colonialists and
imperialists" and so has adopted a guilt-ridden shyness about Islam. Yet liberals
in other Western countries have been more open to his views: Warraq has recently
contributed a commentary to the left-leaning British newspaper The
Guardian
; in October, Australia's Radio National devoted an entire Religion
Report program to interviewing him. As one Islamic historian put it, "At least
until September 11, the place where it was the most difficult to criticize Islam
was in America."

But if the American left is confused or afraid, Christian conservatives are
sowing a whirlwind by circulating Warraq's atheist tract. WorldNetDaily.com's
editor and CEO, Joseph Farah, admits that when it comes to those Christians who
buy Why I Am Not a Muslim through his site, "I wouldn't be surprised if
some of them are shocked." The secularization and reformation of Islam, after
all, will hardly yield many Christian converts.

Religion thrives in the United States largely because of church-state
separation; Islam in particular has benefited through this openness. Ibn Warraq's
critique, says Rippin, leaves open the door for a "modernist Muslim thought, the
same as within Christianity." Grappling with a book like Why I Am Not a
Muslim
may not only make Islam more tolerant--it could make it stronger.

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