Saturday, February 11, 2006

Booknote: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and The Crusades)

Title: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and The Crusades)
Author: Robert Spencer
Publication Information: Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 0-89526-013-1
270 pages, including notes and index
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Political science, Current Events

I must say that I started reading this book before the whole cartoon debacle, and with said debacle, this book has just made me think more. I was going to post this note later in the week, but since I did my other post today on religion, I figured I might as well post this now as well. Some of the questions raised by Spencer's book seem to go well with my other thoughts as of late.

Spencer's book is politically incorrect because it takes the argument that Islam is not a religion of peace, but in fact a religion of conquest that continues this philosophy to this day. He makes a very compelling argument. He looks at the history of Islam, and the conquests by Islam leaders from Muhammad to the days of the Caliphate of lands in what is today the Middle East and their incursions into Europe (they did hold the Iberian Peninsula from 711 AD to 1492, and I don't recall anywhere in my history books anything about the Spanish just inviting them over). What he shows is that before the Crusades came around, the Muslims had already been active conquering Christian lands, so the Crusades were actually a delayed action of defense. Unfortunately for any Muslim apologists, this part of history happens to be true. Also true is the fact that those nonbelievers living in Muslim lands were given the choice of conversion, subjugation with a tax, or death. This is something that is rarely mentioned when speaking of Islam's history and the Crusades, yet one look at a few history books will provide the evidence.

Spencer goes on to argue that Islam continues to embrace the philosophy of subjugating unbelievers. The call to jihad is as active today as it was when Muhammad began his mission. I recently read the short book of Osama's communications (I will post the note on that one later), and I have to say his words are pretty consistent. Osama does convey a desire to make Islam the rule for everyone, and he calls on his enemies to convert. Now, some people will say that Bin Laden is a radical, that he is a fundamentalist, and that is certainly true. But what Spencer argues is that many Muslims, even the moderate ones, have sympathies for Bin Laden and his ilk precisely because Bin Laden is preaching directly from the Qu'ran as well as from respected Muslim scholars and clerics. In other words, while many Muslims may not know everything their theology entails (keep in mind the Qu'ran is written in classical Arabic, very different from modern Arabic. Also note that many Muslims around the world are not Arabs nor do they know how to read Arabic. They memorize verses by rote very often), they have not exactly repudiated the belief of jihad and of eliminating unbelievers.

Now, Spencer makes an argument that Christianity and Western Civilization are superior because of their values. He argues that had the Crusades not happened, and the Muslims conquered Europe, we would not have seen the works of Michelangelo or Dante. I can't help but wonder. The fact that the terrible riots protesting cartoons are going on only fuel people's fears of Muslims. They help keep the negative images alive, and they also help make Spencer's arguments stronger. Now, while Spencer pretty much glosses over Christianity's defects, a sceptic reader may want to keep in mind other events such as the Inquisition in Spain, and the conquest of America where Christians in the name of their churches and God, enslaved and killed civilizations. Spencer does not even look at this.

And there is the rub. I personally have no use for religion, mostly because between experience and education, I have seen that it more often than not is an excuse to hurt people, to legitimize discrimination, and to marginalize others who are different. Christianity as well as Islam have a deep and strong history of violence. True, when Islamic historians say the conflict started with the Crusades, the fact is the conflict was happening long before that. But Christians have their own history of violence as well. So have some other traditions. Overall, while the book has a conservative viewpoint, it does raise some good and interesting points, albeit some may not be popular. I do recommend it, but I also recommend readers search other books and strive to get a balance. The book is organized almost like those For Dummies (tm) books, in the sense it has short sections, questions and answers, and many boxes for notes and such. Spencer uses these boxes to compare verses of the Gospels and the Qu'ran, to suggest books for further reading, and give other quick highlights of points. I may actually pick up a book or two from the suggestions. In case anyone is wondering, I have read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations (the Catholic version, meaning I also read books Protestants consider apocryphal). This was back when I was still practicing. In a way, when I did not know better, but that is another post. Anyhow, not many people can say that. I have also read a good portion of the Qu'ran (a translation, since I can't read Arabic. Would not mind learning it someday along with a few other languages. Observant Muslims only accept the text in classical Arabic as the real deal), so when Spencer makes comparisons, I actually have an idea what he is using. And that is something I wonder about. Many readers may pick up this book, not having read the religious books, or other history books, and take everything Spencer says at face value. As I said, he does make some good points, but other things should be questioned. I still think this is something many people should read.

On a note, the "Politically Incorrect Guide" is a series (the phrase is trademarked). I may look up the others. I am aware of one for American History and one for Science. If I do pick them up, mostly out of curiosity, I will certainly post a note here.


Mark said...

Excellent post Angel! Good balance on your part.

I'd like to throw a few comments in though.

"Spencer goes on to argue that Islam continues to embrace the philosophy of subjugating unbelievers. The call to jihad is as active today...."

Could easily be said of modern Christianity (and much historically). And even better, they (Christians, as most religions do) get to define "believer." Two words for Mr. Spencer, "gay marriage."

"Also note that many Muslims around the world are not Arabs nor do they know how to read Arabic. They memorize verses by rote very often), ...."

Hmmm, really makes me think of Ong in relation to what happened to Eastern science and medicine. If they have remained primarily oral, or been returned to a primarily oral culture by fundamentalism...?

"Now, Spencer makes an argument that Christianity and Western Civilization are superior because of their values. He argues that had the Crusades not happened, and the Muslims conquered Europe, we would not have seen the works of Michelangelo or Dante."

Simply ridiculous! It is the West's reengagement with the East (and not particularly militarily but commerce and knowledge) that gave us back our Classical Western heritage. It was the Arabs who gave us back our Aristotle and others that were lost during the Dark Ages of Europe. Michelangelo and Dante are direct descendants of the West that the East gave us back in large part.

I agree with your recommendation and your warning for a counterbalancing viewpoint.

The last thing I'll say is "I said burn that library COL Johnston!"

Angel, librarian and educator said...

MArk: Thanks for stopping by. And as always, feel free to throw stuff into the pot, makes things interesting. Yes, the issue of Islam as actively calling jihad is definitely something that can be said of Christianity, even if it has a different label. Spencer simply glosses over this. In a way, it just settles for Islam as the worst of evils. When I hear of religions defining believers, I always think of the physics test question of whether hell is exothermic or endothermic. Part of the answer the student wrote to answer it says that you can't belong to all relgions, and since all religions say unbelievers of their religion will go to hell, we are all going to hell.

I picked up the Ong book, but have not started it yet. Have others in my reading cue, but I am more curious now that you mention it in this context. I wonder if for some Christian fundamentalists this may be the case as well. They memorize parts of the Bible whether told by their pastors or in Bible study groups, but they never actually read the whole thing.

Actually, on the West superiority issue, Spencer's argument hinges in large part on saying that those advances were not all Muslim. For instance, the preservation of Aristotle was done by others, for instance Coptic Christians, who were assimilated by the Muslims in their conquest. Also, the very few Muslims who did do anything substantial were often radicals themselves out of the mainstream. The premise is that Islam the religion sees God as not having bounds. Spencer compares this to Christianity and Thomas Aquinas, who argued that God created the world and one could discover its laws. To Muslims, any universal laws would bind God, so they would not believe in such. Thus, Islam would be anti-science because science, in revealing natural laws, would be binding the One who cannot be bound. It is an interesting piece of thinking. Add to this that Spencer argues that many of the mosques we think of as great architectural wonders were either Christian cathedrals the Muslims converted after they repressed Christians, or they copied the designs from the Byzantines. It is a stretch, but not without some merit as there were some cathedrals taken over and coverted to mosques. So, in a way, it is not as simple to say totally ridiculous, but on the other hand, there is some ridiculousness. Still with me?

As always, best, and keep on blogging.

Mark said...

Outstanding Angel! So much more to think about, but no time ...

I'll be back to you on this. Hold off on the Ong based on my reference here. I stand by it, and will explain it later (when I really get back to this with an attentive mind as it deserves), but it is a fairly oblique reference. I mean certainly read Ong, but don't let this glancing reference move it around in the pile. Maybe after I explain myself.


Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mark: I will certainly wait. Given how the reading pile keeps getting bigger, I don't think stirring it may be that good. I shall look forward to more insights. Best.

Anonymous said...

I like to take a broader view when parsing whether religions per se causes violent behavior or something more intrinsic; I tend towards something more intrinsic.

Though one can cite the historic violence associated with various religious groups, one can also note that the propensity for violence is not limited to those so called groups. As a matter of historic fact, the whole spectrum of human enterprise has violence associated with it, be it Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Marxist, Fascist pagan ... history is pock marked with atrocities and injustice as it is with goodwill and sacrifice.
The "elephant in the room" issue is the inherent capability in the human being for tyranny. The real question is what checks and balances does a society adhere to limit the outbreaks of this bad behavior instead of the instances where this behavior is unmitigated.