Is Islam Dominated by Radicals?

April 20, 2008

The Rosenkranz Foundation recently sponsored a debate of the resolution, “Islam Is Dominated by Radicals”. Six experts debated the resolution, including two Muslim women, one on each side. It was very well done, although in a strictly time-limited format there are always important points left unmade (hence my comments here).

On the side for the resolution were Paul Marshall, with the Hudson Institute; Asra Nomani, a Muslim woman who has been fighting against radicalization of Islam; and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a former Islamic fundamentalist. Against the resolution were Reza Aslan, professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside; Edina Lekovic, from the Muslim Public Affairs Council; and Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia.

It is disconcerting that this panel included Edina Lekovic, who once edited a paper which published a pro-terrorist article, lied about doing so on national television, then personally attacked Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert, who made her dishonesty public. The very fact that a woman who has links to radicalism herself, and has falsely denied those links, gets invited to speak publicly about Islam supports the notion that Islamic radicalism has hegemony in this country. Why is it so hard to find spokespeople for Islam who have no links to radicalism?

The first speaker for the resolution, Paul Marshall, defined “radicals” as “those who are striving for a political order representing a reactionary version of Islam that denies legal and civic equality to men and women and also denies it on the basis of religion. It also denies freedom of speech and freedom of thought….” Those opposed to the resolution neither accepted nor refuted this definition, they simply ignored it and spoke as though violence is the only radical issue to discuss.

For purposes of this debate, this is an OK definition. At least it isn’t limiting the discussion to the Jihadists; it’s time we get past the idea that only the Jihadists are a threat. Islamic Supremacists desire a vision which is wholely unacceptable from the perspective of the West, whether they accomplish it peacefully or not.

The only downside to using the term “Radical Islam” to describe Islamic Supremacists is that it implies these “radicals” are advocating a form of Islam that is contrary to mainstream, traditional, scholarly Islam. This is, unfortunately, not the case. These people’s world view is radical as compared to mainstream Western thought, but not radical as compared to mainstream Islamic scholarship. For simplicity, in this article I will use “radical” as defined by Mr. Marshall, and “moderate” to mean those within Islam who oppose the “radicals”, even though these definitions have their problems in the larger picture.

Although this was not specifically the topic, some causes of radicalism were alleged, but they were not debated with any thoroughness. The Islamic doctrines that support radicalism were barely mentioned.

The basic argument for the resolution was that Islamic radicals, even if not a majority of the Muslim population, control all levels of power through the Muslim world, and thus they dominate Islam. Saudi oil money is one means used for disseminating a radical view, but not the only means. The debaters for the resolution were very persuasive, and the percentage of the audience who agreed with them shifted dramatically in their favor during the debate. There are just a couple points I’d like to expand upon, which I did not feel were adequately addressed during the debate.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (for the resolution) mentioned the UK poll which found that 36% of Muslim youth (ages 16-24) believe apostates should be killed. Richard Bulliet from the other side said this shows the radical view does not have hegemony (power), because it is a minority view. However, this ignores an important dynamic: a significant minority which is willing to use violence will have hegemony over an acquiescent majority. As we have discussed, apostates are, indeed, intimidated by “radical” Muslims, even in the West. There is no question but that their freedom of expression is severely curtailed even in the West, and it is virtually squelched in Muslim countries. Even if this were the only facet of Islamic Supremacy regarding which the “radicals” have hegemony (and it is not), it would be alarming by itself.

Reza Aslan (against the resolution) made a bizarre comparison between that 36% figure above and a poll showing that “46 percent… of American Christians believe that the Constitution and American laws should be changed in order to match Christian law and Christian values.” What kind of bizarre comparison is this? Christian “radicals” can be fairly compared with Muslim “radicals” when:

  • Ex-Christians worldwide are afraid to speak out about why they left Christianity in fear for their lives
  • Christians hold big protests calling for the death of anyone who has insulted them
  • Christians form a world-wide movement that’s for stoning for adulterers and gays; for the court testimony of women to count half that of men; for the removal, by force if necessary, of all non-Christians from power; for non-Christians to pay an extra tax in lieu of being killed; etc.
  • These things are not happening, obviously, so we can relax about the Christian radicals.

    Reza Aslan cites a declaration of many leading clerics outlawing “takfir”, which means declaring a Muslim to be a non-Muslim. “Takfir” is often used by Jihadists who want to kill unsupportive Muslims: It is illegal under Islamic law for a Muslim to kill a Muslim, but if a Muslim is pronounced a non-Muslim with a fatwa of takfir, voila! It’s suddenly legal to kill him. Although the ban on takfir was cited as evidence that radicalism has no hegemony, this is a mixed blessing at best: the Jihadists do not consider themselves bound by a bunch of clerics, so they will continue to pronounce takfir as before; however, the moderates now are hamstrung in efforts to distance Islam from the Jihadists. The ban on takfir means that no one can declare Osama bin Laden to be a non-Muslim, which would actually be a good move for the moderates.

    Incidentally, Robert Spencer had been invited to participate in this debate for the resolution, and then was disinvited at the request of one of the speakers against the resolution (he does not know which one, nor does it matter). Mr. Spencer is extremely knowledgable, articulate, and backs up virtually everything with solid data. The fact that someone did not want to debate him is a compliment to him, and not to the someone.