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Review of 'Why I Am Not A Muslim' (Part I of VI) - The Weekly Standard of New York, U.S.A.

Daniel Pipes ()
22 January 1996

Title: Roll over, Rushdie
Author: Daniel Pipes
Publication: The Weekly Standard of New York, U.S.A.
Date: January 22, 1996

Review of 'Why I Am Not A Muslim' (part I of VI)

(Daniel Pipes, a Professor at Harvard University, U.S.A.. is one of the
world's foremost historians. He is editor of the Middle East Quarterly and
author of The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West. This
review by him was published in The Weekly Standard of New York, U.S.A.. on
January 22, 1996.)

In March 1989, shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his decree
sentencing Salman Rushdie to death for his novel The Satanic Verses,
London's Observer newspaper published an anonymous letter from Pakistan.
"Salman Rushdie speaks for me," wrote its author, who explained: "Mine is a
voice that has not yet found expression in newspaper columns. It. is the
voice of those who are born Muslims but wish to recant in adulthood, yet
are not permitted to on pain of death. Someone who does not live in an
Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions, both self-imposed and
external, that militate against expressing religious disbelief. 'I don't
believe in God' is an impossible public utterance even among family and
friends... So we hold our tongues, those of us who doubt."

"Ibn Warraq" has decided no longer to hold his tongue. Identified only as
a man who grew up in a country now called an Islamic republic, presently
living and teaching in Ohio, the Khomeini decree so outraged him that he
wrote a book called Why I Am Not A Muslim (Prometheus Books, 402 pages,
$25.95) that transcends The Satanic Verses in terms of sacrilege. Where
Rushdie offered an elusive critique in an airy tale of magical realism, Ibn
Warraq brings a scholarly sledge-hammer to the task of demolishing Islam.
Writing a polemic against Islam, especially for an author of Muslim birth,
is an act so incendiary that the author must write under a pseudonym; not
to do so would be an act of suicide.

And what does Ibn Warraq have to show for this act of unheard-of defiance?
A well-researched and quite brilliant, if somewhat disorganized, indictment
of one of the world's great religions. While the author disclaims any
pretence to originality, he has read widely enough to write an essay that
offers a startlingly novel rendering of the faith he left.

To begin with, Ibn Warraq draws on current Western scholarship to make the
astonishing claim that Muhammad never existed, or if he did, he had nothing
to do with the Koran. Rather, that holy book was fabricated a century or
two later in Palestine, then "projected back onto an invented Arabian point
of origin." If the Koran is a fraud, it's not surprising to learn that the
author finds little authentic in other parts of the Islamic tradition. For
example, he dispatches Islamic law as "a fantastic creation founded on
forgeries and pious fictions." The whole of Islam, in short, he portrays as
a concoction of lies.

Having thus dispensed with religion, Ibn Warraq takes up history and
culture. Turning political correctness exactly on its head, he condemns
the early Islamic conquests and condones European colonialism, "Bowing
toward Arabia five times a day," he writes, "must surely be the ultimate
symbol of... cultural imperialism." In contrast, European rule, "with all
its shortcomings, ultimately benefited the ruled as much as the rulers.
Despite certain infamous incidents, the European powers conducted
themselves on the whole very humanely."

To the conventional argument that the achievements of Islamic civilization
in the medieval period are proof of Islam's greatness, Ibn Warraq revives
the Victorian argument that Islamic civilization came into existence not
because of the Koran and Islamic law but despite them. The stimulus in
science and the arts came from outside the Muslim world; where Islam
reigned, these accomplishments took place only where the dead hand of
Islamic authority could be avoided. Crediting Islam for the medieval
cultural. glories, he believes, would be like crediting the Inquisition for
Galileo's discoveries.

Turning to the present, Ibn Warraq argues that Muslims have experienced
great travails trying to modernize because Islam stands foursquare in their
way. Its regressive orientation makes change difficult: "All innovations
are discouraged in Islam every problem, is seen as a religious problem
rather than a social or economic one." This religion would seem to have
nothing functional to offer. "Islam, in particular political Islam, has
totally failed to cope with the modem world and all its attendant problems
- social, economic, and philosophical." Nor does the author hold out hope
for improvement. Take the matter of protecting individuals from the state:
"The major obstacle in Islam to any move toward international human rights
is God, or to put it more precisely... the reverence for the sources, the
Koran and the Sunna."

In a chapter of particular delicacy, given his status as a Muslim living in
the West, Ibn Warraq discusses Muslim emigration to Europe and North
America. He worries about the importation of Islamic ways and advises the
British not to make concessions to immigrant demands but to stick firmly by
their traditional principles. "Unless great vigilance is exercised, we are
all likely to find British society greatly impoverished morally" by Muslim
influence. At the same time, as befits a liberal and Western-oriented
Muslim, Ibn Warraq argues that the key dividing line is one of personal
philosophy and not (as Samuel Huntington would have it) religious
adherence. "[T]he final battle will not necessarily be between Islam and
the West, but between those who value freedom and those who do not." This
argument in fact offers hope, implying as it does that people of divergent
faiths can find common ground.

As a whole, Ibn Warraq's assessment of Islam is exceptionally severe: The
religion is based on deception; it succeeded through aggression and
intimidation; it holds back progress; and it is a "form of
totalitarianism." Surveying nearly fourteen centuries of History, he
concludes, "the effects of the teachings of the Koran have been a disaster
for human reason and social, intellectual, and moral progress."

As if this were not enough, Ibn Warraq tops off his blasphemy with an
assault on what he calls "monotheistic arrogance" and even religion as
such. He asks some interesting questions, the sort that we in the West seem
not to ask each other any more, "If there is a natural evolution from
polytheism to monotheism, then is there not a natural development from
monotheism to atheism?" Instead of God appearing in obscure places and
murky circumstance, "Why can He not reveal Himself to the masses in a
football stadium during the final of the World Cup"? In 1917, rather than
permit a miracle in Fatima, Portugal, why did He not end the carriage on
the Western Front?

It is hard for a non-Muslim fully to appreciate the offense Ibn Warraq has
committed, for his book of deep protest and astonishing provocation goes
beyond anything imaginable in our rough-and-tumble culture. We have no
pieties remotely comparable to Islam's. In the religious realm, for
example, Joseph Heller turned several Biblical stories into pornographic
fare in his. 1984 novel God Knows, and no one even noticed. For his
portrayal of Jesus' sexual longings in the 1988 film The Last Temptation of
Christ, Martin Scorsese faced a few pickets but certainly no threats to his
life. In the political arena, Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza published
books on the very most delicate American topic, the issue of differing
racial abilities, and neither had to go into hiding as a result.

In contrast, blasphemy against Islam leads not only to -threats on the life
of Salman Rushdie, but to actual murder - and not just in places like Egypt
and Bangladesh. At least one such execution has taken place on American
soil. Rashad Khalifa, an Egyptian biochemist living in Tucson, Arizona,
analyzed the Koran by computer and concluded from some other complex
numerology that the final two verses of the ninth chapter do not belong in
the holy book. This insight eventually prompted him to declare himself a
prophet, a very serious offense in Islam (which holds Muhammad to be the
last of the prophets). Some months later, on January 31, 1990, unknown
assailants - presumably orthodox Muslims angered by his teachings - stabbed
Khalifa to death. While the case remains unsolved, it sent a clear and
chilling message: Even in the United States, deviancy leads to death.

In this context, Ibn Warraq's claim of the right to disagree with Islamic
tenets is a shock. And all the more so when he claims even the Westerner's
right to do so disrespectfully! "This book is first and foremost an
assertion of my right to criticize everything and anything in Islam - even
to blaspheme, to make errors, to satirize, and mock." Why I am Not a Muslim
does have a mocking quality, to be sure, but it is also a serious and
thought-provoking book. It calls not for a wall of silence, much less a
Rushdie-like fatwa on the author's life, but. for an equally compelling
response from a believing Muslim.

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