Following article is in response to the article “Either You Are a Believer or an Infidel” by Michael Skube, (Washington Post, 10/21/2001).
In his article, “Either You Are a Believer or an Infidel” (Washington Post, 10/21/2001), Skube is disgruntled at everyone “from President Bush to imams at American mosques” for taking issue only with the terrorists who act in Islam’s name, rather than with Islam itself and all its adherents. As you can already tell, his is going to be a rather interesting argument.
Skube’s article is one of the rare articles I have read in recent times that do not make an effort to distinguish the actions of people from the teachings of their faith. Skube does not hide the fact that his disaffection is not targeted against Muslims who behave badly, but against Islam itself.
Let us take a look at Skube’s perception of Islam as articulated in his own words. Skube, an ex beer columnist and pulitzer prize winner, sees Islam as “a fighting faith” whose “very nature seems to be one of intolerance”. His perception of the Koran is concise: an “homage to equality in submission”. He compares the status of women in Islam to that of Black slavery in America, suggesting they lose out in the comparison since they, unlike the slaves, are yet to be emancipated. He brushes aside Abu Bakr, one of Islam’s most revered spiritual and political figures and the most democratically elected leader of his time, as a dictator and likens him to Khomeini. According to Skube, Islam “was content to remain in its torpor, locked in rigid orthodoxy, fearful of freedom, achieving little except what it could achieve through fear or force”.
In the onset, the essay’s sensationalized title seems to be an ultimatum that Skube, presumably, purports to make on behalf of Muslims, even as Muslims have never made it on behalf of themselves. Simply put, Muslims believe what the Koran inscribes, if indeed they are to be called Muslims. The Koran, still ever-present in our midst and available for all to scrutinize, does not endorse the message expressed in Skube’s title. It teaches Muslims that it is not for them to classify people as believers, infidels, or anything in between. That is God’s exclusive right; Muslims are instructed to say, “God knows best”, if asked to classify someone. The Koran teaches us that there is no compulsion in religion, clearly indicating the right of others to not be Muslim and not be penalized for it. The Koran acknowledges Judaism and Christianity as true faiths, even as no Christian scripture or official theological document recognizes Islam, and no Jewish scripture or official theological document recognizes either Christianity or Islam. It instructs Muslims towards a healthy relationship with them, whom it refers to with respect as “People of the Scripture”. Even regarding non-Abrahamic faiths, Islam’s message is clear: “I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your Way, and to me mine”. This Koranic verse (109, 4-6), a narration on behalf of the believer, clearly indicates a laissez-faire approach to religion, recognizing the right of others to worship what they may. Only when Islam and Muslims are under physical threat is the term infidels used to refer to the perpetrators of the offenses, not unlike its usage in Christian rhetoric. That is what the Koran teaches. If Skube is only interested in what Bin laden and his like teach, then he should be upfront about that and refrain from implicating Islam and the Koran in such an article.
Skube states, “the problem is that Islam has a quarrel with us”. I would be interested to know whom Skube intends by “us”. If he means “America” or the “West”, then it would suffiROBOo note the existence of American and Western Muslims to render his statement oxymoronic. If he means Christians, then I ask him what authority does he have to speak on behalf of Christendom, which includes for example, millions of Arab Christians who have coexisted peaceably in Muslim countries for centuries, even pending his disapproval. If Skube intends something other than either “Americans” or “Christians”, then it would be outside the scope of the discussion – albeit inside the “Skube” of it – and therefore irrelevant.
Skube proclaims that “the Islamic past has known no such intellectual h=45 transformation” as the European Enlightenment. It is worth noting the confidence and conviction with which Skube dishes out the term “Enlightenment” as if it were an indisputable scientific phenomenon, rather than a subjective term very much a possible brainchild of historical revisionism; contrasting that with his incessant questioning of Islamic established concepts and terms, it reflects a sort of conditioned bias that transcends into the realm of historical self-righteousness. That point aside, Skube through this claim is again demonstrating a general ignorance of the main fulcrums of his argument: Islam and history. Without requiring him to delve into the history of Islam in far away treacherous lands, and staying within the warm and comforting annals of European history itself with all of its popular period nicknames that he so extols; one can point Skube’s attention to the fact that the European “Renaissance”, Europe’s salvation out of the “Dark Ages”, was indeed started in Muslim Spain. In a very real sense, had it not been for the Muslim Enlightenment many centuries before, the European one would never have come about. For centuries, the European intellectual elite wholly depended on the advancements in the Muslim world to quench their thirst for science and reason. Most of the books and scientific material sought after by the top European academic institutions were translations of Arabic texts compiled by Muslim scholars. How then can Skube claim that Islam “has known no such intellectual transformation” when the West’s very intellectual transformation owes itself to the Muslim one. Could it be that Skube is guilty of attempting to redefine the events of six centuries ago in hindsight, shrouded by the complexities of modern day conflicts such as the recent terrorist acts in the East Coast, and America’s war against Bin Laden and the Taliban.
But why was there no revolutionary movement that cast off religious influence in Islam, as the Enlightenment in Europe did with Christianity. As already mentioned, Skube sings the adulations of the Enlightenment and its cast of star philosophers, and resonates the popular notion that Christianity as a social and political force in Europe was in opposition to creative thought, reason, and science; therefore, necessitating this revolution against intellectual stagnation and in support of reason and law. I do not entirely disagree with Skube on that. But when he goes on to express regret that Islamic history has witnessed no such movement, I beg to differ. This is where Skube once again demonstrates a nominal familiarity with Islamic history. In comparing Islam’s situation to Christianity’s, Skube is comparing apples with oranges. The Orthodox Islamic Empire did not bear the same malady the Church did – namely, the championing of superstition over science – and seeing as it did not have its malady, did not require its remedy. In other words, there was never a need for an intellectual “revolution”, seeing as intellectuality was embraced within the existing Islamic system as a sacred tenet sanctioned by religion itself. In his criticism, Skube seems to therefore be addressing one faith by the shortcomings of another, rather than examining each individually. When Islam was the prevalent socio-political system spanning many nations and languages from Southern France to China, economic and academic prosperity was at its relative high for that part of the world. Where there was an inverse relationship between Christianity and social and scientific advancement in Europe, there was a direct one between Islam and social and scientific advancement in the “Muslim world”. In Europe, the likes of Copernicus and Galileo where accused of heresy for their great scientific endeavors. Conversely, Islam, which supported science and made the pursuit of knowledge a religious obligation, saw accomplished Muslim scholars such as Avicenna, Averroes, Al Jaber, and Khwarizmi glorified in their communities. Even with such subjects as philosophy and poetry, Islamic society was abundant with impressive material by names ever so popular in the West itself. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates were brought back to life by non other than Arab Muslim scholars after they had laid for centuries in oblivion. Islam’s track record is clear. Indeed, it was only after the fall of Islam as a socio-political force that Muslims started to show symptoms of the social diseases with which Skube diagnoses them today.
Skube demonstrates poor cross-cultural insight when he refers to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as one of “its [the Islamic past’s] most liberal revolutionaries”, indicating a possessive relationship between Islam and Ataturk. It is as absurd a remark as referring to Hitler as “the Christian past’s most fascist revolutionary”. Simply because Ataturk was born in predominantly Muslim Turkey, he should not be referred to as a figure of Islam’s past or history, considering he himself was critical and rejective of Islam. Stranger still, Skube suggests that Islam is somehow disadvantaged because it does not honor Ataturk, yet he goes back to admit that Ataturk was a secular-minded man who thought religion was a superstition.
Skube complains that in the 1990’s Muslims have had been involved in the highest number of conflicts. But he fails to note that in the vast majority of them, they have been involved as victims. In Palestine, Bosnia, Kosova, Kashmir, and Chechnya, Muslims have been on the defensive, suffering brutal suppression and in some cases genocide. If Muslims are guilty of one thing, it is possession of the fighting spirit, not in offense, but in defense of themselves regardless of the strength and popularity of the aggressor.
But why does Skube conveniently stumble exclusively upon the nineties? Why not take a glance at say the whole of the last century. World War I and World War II, the single two most brutal and destructive conflicts mankind has ever known were more or less Christian affairs. Christian? Of course it is witless to brand them “Christian”, but I do it purposely, only to parody the standard indiscriminate usage of the word “Islamic” by Skube and many other media sources to label conflicts involving Muslims even as they do not directly relate to Islam. The two World Wars, which featured countries like Germany, Austria, France, England, Italy, and the US as primary sides are as much Christian affairs as the terrorist attacks of September 11th and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait were Muslim ones.
If we choose to glance further than the last century, we will find the “Christian” European civilization to be plodded with bloody conflicts from beginning to end. From the 100 years war and the countless Church wars, to the Inquisition and the Crusades (two intensely bloody affairs officially pursued in the name of Christ), to Europe’s frequent monarchial wars, to slavery and the massacres of Native American, to Colonialism, to World Wars I and II, to modern US bloody foreign flings; the list is endless. The West’s track record of wars and violence is conspicuously the world’s gravest. Yet most of these conflicts are not attributed to “Christian history” – but simply to “history”. If we glance at the modern “Jewish” civilization, though only claiming a little more than half a century to its name, it’s historical track record is almost exclusively an account of bloody wars, and savage oppression of the Palestinians. In short, though Muslim populations have seen their share of wars, and conflicts, they do not at all stand out so as to require Skube’s precious articles and special treatment.
How would Skube, who harps throughout his article on the now antiquated argument that Islam was spread by the sword, explain the fact that the world’s largest Muslim enclave, located in Southeast Asia and comprised of hundreds of millions of Muslims, was never chanced by so much as a lone Muslim soldier. Muslim missionaries and merchants who spread their faith by example were solely responsible for the mass reversions.
The problem with essayists such as Skube is that they attempt to refashion universal realities in order to fit within the scheme of their politicized account of local, contemporary events – a rather selfish, foolish, and careless endeavor.
(Mr. Ahmed Rehab is an Egyptian-American, free-lance writer and Software Engineer in Chicago, Illinois.)