Friday, October 26, 2007

The Great Islamofascism Debate

We are officially in the middle of Islamofascism Awareness Week. Organized by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Islamofascism Awareness Week is designed to raise popular concern over the threat posed by radical Islam. The event has proved to be somewhat controversial, with critics especially vocal about the accuracy and fairness of the word "Islamofascism" itself.

Walter Skold at Freadom has an interesting series of posts on that very topic. In one, he quotes Christopher Hitchens making the case for the validity of the term Islamofascism at Slate. Hitchens does so by describing the numerous features shared by both Islamism and Fascism:

I think yes. The most obvious points of comparison would be these: Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. ("Death to the intellect! Long live death!" as Gen. Francisco Franco's sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined "humiliations" and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression—especially to the repression of any sexual "deviance"—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.


This makes it permissible, it seems to me, to mention the two phenomena in the same breath and to suggest that they constitute comparable threats to civilization and civilized values. There is one final point of comparison, one that is in some ways encouraging. Both these totalitarian systems of thought evidently suffer from a death wish. It is surely not an accident that both of them stress suicidal tactics and sacrificial ends, just as both of them would obviously rather see the destruction of their own societies than any compromise with infidels or any dilution of the joys of absolute doctrinal orthodoxy. Thus, while we have a duty to oppose and destroy these and any similar totalitarian movements, we can also be fairly sure that they will play an unconscious part in arranging for their own destruction, as well.

Hitchens is right to point out these similarities. Earlier this week, Raymond Ibrahim noted the chilling parallels between Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf and the writings of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Distinguished scholar of Fascism Walter Laqueur has also noted the commonalities between the two ideologies:

How helpful is the “Islamofascism” label at the present time with regard to the radical Islamists? There are striking parallels—the populism, the anti Westernism, the antiliberalism, the antisemitism, its aggressive, expansive, anti humanist character, the interpretation of Islam as both a religion and a totalitarian political-social order which provides answers to all problems of the contemporary world. It could be argued that while it lacks a Fuehrer or a Duce, the supreme clerical leader (such as Khomeini) fulfills a similar role and while there is no political party which has a monopoly, the mosque fulfills a similar function as far as the mobilization of the masses and their indoctrination is concerned.

Yet, while recognizing the similarities, Laqueur rejects the term "Islamofascism":

But at the same time there are differences that should not be overlooked. Fascism was an European phenomenon, dictatorships outside Europe (such as for instance the Japanese regime in the thirties and forties) were bound to develop on different lines according to historical tradition and political conditions. The age of fascism came to an end in 1945. Since then there has been neo-fascism and neo-Nazism which also differ in certain respects from its historical predecessors and models. Radical Islamism could be interpreted as a post fascist movement. But such a label tends to exaggerate the role of its European predecessor and to downplay the specific homegrown, in other words, the Islamist elements. Hitler did not engage in Jihad and he did note want to impose anything like the sharia.

In addition to Laqueur, noted historians such as Martin Kramer and Michael Burleigh also reject the term "Islamofascism" even while pointing out the same parallels Laqueur does.

While I'm far from being a noted historian, as Walter noticed I too refrain from using the word "Islamofascism". It's not that there aren't similarities between Islamism and Fascism, it's just that conflating the two concepts sheds more heat than light. Beyond the theoretical problems described by Laqueur and other scholars, the major issue is that Islamofascism has become a polemical rather than an analytical term.

The key to defeating our adversary lies in clearly labeling and understanding the threat we face. Islamism, which accurately describes that enemy as a combination of modern totalitarianism and Islamic extremism, best provides the analytical clarity we need.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Harry Potter Banned in Massachusetts

Courtesy of Fox News, the Boston Globe reports that a Catholic school in Massachusetts has removed the Harry Potter series from its library. According to the Globe, St. Joseph's School in Wakefield banned the books on the grounds that they condone witchcraft and sorcery. As you might expect, many of the students aren't happy:

"The sixth grade reads an average of 7.5 books each with many students in double digits," says a note on the class page. "Of course, Harry Potter was a popular choice."

But last month, students found that their favorite series had "disapparated" from the school library, after St. Joseph's pastor, the Rev. Ron Barker, removed the books, declaring that the themes of witchcraft and sorcery were inappropriate for a Catholic school.

"He said that he thought most children were strong enough to resist the temptation," said one mother who asked that her name not be used because she did not want her family to be singled out. "But he said it's his job to protect the weak and the strong."

As a private school, St. Joseph's can remove any books it chooses from its library. Still, its hard to overstate the silliness of this decision. I've never understood the bizarre belief that reading Harry Potter will turn a child into a budding witch. By that standard, we should pull Tolkien's books and any other fantasy novels as well.

Ironically, as the Globe points out, the Catholic Church has not expressed any concerns about the Harry Potter series, and even rated this summer's film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as "appropriate for adults and adolescents."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Second Thought, Go Ahead and Try This at Home

Norm Geras reports that he has resolved to his satisfaction the last numerical discrepancy in his self-cataloged book collection. Sadly, he has now begun to worry that "there could be a different kind of discrepancy".

My considered professional advice to Norm is to declare victory and walk away. Some questions are simply best left unanswered.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Bad Idea in Italy

BoingBoing reports that the Italian government has proposed a law that would force all bloggers in that country to register with the government and even pay taxes on their blog. You expect this sort of ridiculous assault on free expression from China, not from a western democracy like Italy. The Great Firewall is bad enough; we don't need Hadrian's Firewall to go with it.

(Link via Instapundit)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Don't Try This at Home

It's a Saturday night, so I'll leave you with a slight change of pace.

Librarians have known for decades about the perils involved in cataloging and organizing collections. Norm Geras has recently discovered these carefully guarded secrets while trying to catalog his personal book collection.

As a special bonus , Annoyed Librarian links to the story of two decidedly unhip British "librarians".

Friday, October 19, 2007

Islam vs. Islamists

This Saturday, at 9:00 PM EDT, Fox News Channel will be showing the documentary Islam vs. Islamists. Originally made as part of PBS's America at a Crossroads series, Islam vs. Islamists documents the struggle faced by moderate and reformist Muslims who wish to speak out against Islamist violence and intolerance. The film became the center of controversy earlier this year after PBS refused to air it. The Fox News showing is the first time the documentary will be shown in its entirety to a national audience.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Interview with Khaled Hosseini

Saturday's Opinion Journal had a fascinating interview with Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. If you're a fan of Hosseini's work, or just interested in Afghanistan, you'll want to give it a read.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

China's "Harmonious Society"

On Monday, China's ruling Communist Party opened its 17th Party Congress. Held every five years, the party congresses are important symbolic events where changes of leadership and/or policy are often announced. They are also where the new party Central Committee is elected, which in turn will select the Politburo. The Party Congress is one of the Chinese Leninist party-state's essential rituals, as it was in the Soviet Union.

The Christian Science Monitor reports on one thing the Chinese Communists are doing to ensure that this year's event goes smoothly:

As China's ruling Communist Party holds its most important conclave in five years, the government has launched an unusually harsh crackdown on potential troublemakers, say Chinese and international human rights groups.

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of petitioners, democracy activists, religious figures, and human rights workers have been abducted, imprisoned, or confined to their homes over the past six weeks, according to rights monitors.

"This definitely seems to be the worst in years," says Phelim Kine, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It is much, much more comprehensive and wide-ranging" than earlier sweeps.

The Monitor gives a disturbing example of just how Beijing is maintaining peace and social harmony:

That is what Li Heping, a dapper young lawyer who has made a name for himself defending dissidents, says he believes happened to him on Sept. 29.

After leaving his office in the company of one of the policemen who has been shadowing him for months, he says, he was forced into a car by four men in civilian clothes, who covered his head with a piece of cloth and drove him to an unknown destination.

In what appeared to be a basement, he says he was beaten unconscious by men armed with tire irons and electric cattle prods. He was then released in the middle of the night in woods outside Beijing with a warning to leave the capital and give up his law practice.

"The government says it wants a harmonious society, but what happened to me was a slap in the face for the rule of law," Mr. Li says. "The trouble is that when people demand that the government respect their rights, and the government cannot do that, then they are seen as enemies."

Yes, nothing epitomizes a "harmonious society" quite like beating a dissident with a tire iron.

RSF's Annual Press Freedom Survey

Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has released its annual report and ranking of press freedom around the world. In case you're curious, the United States placed 48th out of 169 nations studied. You can read a summary on the RSF web site, where you can also get the full report in PDF. In the meantime, here's the key part of the summary. Please note the Americas' lone representative among the worst press offenders:

Eritrea has replaced North Korea in last place in an index measuring the level of press freedom in 169 countries throughout the world that is published today by Reporters Without Borders for the sixth year running.

“There is nothing surprising about this,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Even if we are not aware of all the press freedom violations in North Korea and Turkmenistan, which are second and third from last, Eritrea deserves to be at the bottom. The privately-owned press has been banished by the authoritarian President Issaias Afeworki and the few journalists who dare to criticise the regime are thrown in prison. We know that four of them have died in detention and we have every reason to fear that others will suffer the same fate.”

Outside Europe - in which the top 14 countries are located - no region of the world has been spared censorship or violence towards journalists.

Of the 20 countries at the bottom of the index, seven are Asian (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, China, Burma, and North Korea), five are African (Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea), four are in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Palestinian Territories and Iran), three are former Soviet republics (Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and one is in the Americas (Cuba).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Debating the Armenian Genocide Resolution

Stephen Denney is again posting at his blog Banned Books and Other Forms of Censorship. He's put up a typically thoughtful post defending the proposed congressional resolution that condemns the First World War genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. I respectfully disagree with Stephen that the resolution is a good idea, and have laid out my argument in his comments. Give the post a read, and decide for yourself.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wrapping Up Banned Authors Week

Alright, so it was actually more like Banned Authors Week and a half. Still, I hope I've been able to show that the Islamist proclivity for murdering authors and other intellectuals who offend them is both widespread and longstanding. It extends far beyond Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, and the Danish Cartoonists. Islamism's war on intellectual freedom and those who would exercise it is truly global in scope and has been going on for decades. Unfortunately, given the time constraints on my blogging, I was barely able to scratch the surface of this phenomenon.

Still, there are several overall trends that are apparent in the examples I described. One obvious commonality is the use of the apostasy doctrine to not only discredit Muslim freethinkers, but to outright sanction their murder. A second is the role of so-called "moderate" Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Brotherhood does not generally engage in murdering "apostates", it is more than happy to incite others to do it for them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Islamist censorship has hindered the development of critical thinking and genuine reform in much of the Muslim world, thus helping pave the way for the climate of anti-American conspiracy theories and extremist ideology that fuels jihadist terrorism.

To get a sense of just how widespread Islamist censorship is, read these articles by Zyed Krichen and Dr. Koenraad Elst. In the meantime, I leave you with an apropos quote from George Bernard Shaw:

Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It Has Happened Here: Islamist Censorship in America

BECK: And everybody is crying out, where are those Muslim voices? You and people like you are in so much danger. How much -- how much does fear play a role in silencing the voices of Islam?

MANJI: Huge. And fear of many things. Fear not just of being ostracized in your community, but obviously fear of violence, as well.

You know, Glenn, I speak at university campuses right across not just North America, but around the world. And invariably, young Muslims come up to me afterwards to whisper thank you in my ear. And when I ask them, why are you whispering? They say to me, "Irshad, you know, you have the luxury of being able to walk away from this campus two hours from now. I don`t, and I don`t want to be stalked for supporting your views." And if they`re women, a lot of them say, "I don`t want to be raped for supporting your views."

So this is happening in America,
and I don`t want to suggest, Glenn. Let me just be clear. I don`t want to suggest that every Muslim feels this kind of fear. But every Muslim does know that, if you take on the most mangled aspects of our faith today, you will be subject to such a vitriolic smear campaign that it will bring shame and dishonor upon your family. So there is huge pressure to say nothing.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Irshad Manji, Interviewed on the Glenn Beck Show, CNN Headline News, February 9, 2007.

In a September 13 post, liberal blogger and author Glenn Greenwald mocked the concerns expressed by many over violent Islamist censorship:

Mark Steyn wrote a best-selling book warning that Europe was being destroyed by primitive, fast-breeding Muslims. Robert Spencer has now written at least six books attacking Islam, with titles such as "The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion," "Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World's Fastest-Growing Faith," and "Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West." Steyn and Spencer are anything but in seclusion. And I missed the news reports about the bombings of bookstores carrying those tracts.

Countless politicians have devoted their public careers to crusades against the Islamic world. Rick Santorum's new mission in life is to convince Americans that "Islamic fascism" is the greatest threat ever. David Horowitz declared October 22-26 "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week." Ann Coulter calls Muslims "ragheads" and threatens them with violence.

In Greenwald's view, concern over Islamist censorship is merely a pretext for hysterical warmongering and anti-Muslim bigotry. It is only his woeful ignorance of Islamism and its history that allows him to make this argument.

The main point that Greenwald overlooks in his rush to obliterate whole barns worth of straw men is the fact that violent Islamist censorship has already occurred in America. It is ironic that he would speak derisively of the "bombings of bookstores" when in 1989 two Berkeley, California bookstores were firebombed for carrying Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. As recently as last year, Borders and Waldenbooks refused to stock a magazine that featured the Danish Mohammed cartoons. (They later carried an issue of Harper's that published the cartoons.) The threat of Islamists bombing bookstores may seem imaginary to Greenwald, but the management of Borders thought it was worth taking seriously.

Greenwald mentions Robert Spencer and notes that he is "anything but in seclusion.". This is true. However, Spencer has received a number of death threats from Islamists, as he has fully documented on his blog Jihad Watch. He is not the only anti-Islamist American writer confronting this danger. Investigative journalist Steven Emerson received numerous death threats following the release of his documentary Jihad in America.

Still, though, Greenwald has a valid point: for the most part, Americans who say critical or harsh things about Islam can usually do so without fear of violence. Thankfully, there has yet to be a Theo Van Gogh type incident, where a non-Muslim was murdered for what he or she said about Islam, here in the U.S.

Unfortunately, this does not apply to Muslim dissidents and freethinkers who live in America. While not quite as endangered as those in Europe or the Middle East, Muslim "apostates" in the United States are indeed subject to intimidation and violence. Sadly, this has even extended to murder.

In January 1990, an Egyptian born Muslim named Rashid Khalifa was murdered in Tucson, Arizona. Khalifa was the founder of a highly unorthodox interpretation of Islam, and a group of Saudi clerics had declared him an apostate the previous year, thus sanctioning his killing. The murder is believed to have been committed by radical Islamists possibly tied to al Qaeda.

In 2001, a Pakistani-American scholar named Khalid Duran wrote an introductory book about Islam called Children of Abraham. After the pro-Islamist Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) condemned Duran's book as anti-Muslim (without having seen it), an Islamist leader in Jordan named Sheikh ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu Zant proclaimed Duran an apostate. In an article for the Winter 2002 Middle East Quarterly, Duran bluntly described his predicament:

The inflammatory language used by Nihad Awad, CAIR's executive director, to vilify my book, was bound to incite reactions like that of Abu Zant. Put differently, the accusations and the language used by CAIR in its statements, especially those in Arabic, could not but result in calls for violence against me. And so I find myself, the author of a book written to promote a wider understanding of Islam, under a death threat and in need of protection. CAIR has put my life in peril. Its actions are the culmination of a campaign meant to intimidate and silence not only me, but any Muslim in America who would speak out in favor of freedom, tolerance, and dialogue.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Thankfully, the threats against Khalid Duran have never been acted on. However, considering the fate of Rashid Khalifa, they must be taken seriously. This also applies to the threats received by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. An October 4 New York Times article confirms that she has received "credible death threats in the United States" since moving here in 2006. In May of this year, the Imam of a mosque in Johnstown Pennsylvania was forced to resign after saying that Hirsi Ali deserved to be killed for her harsh criticisms of Islam.

Unfortunately, death threats against relatively well-known individuals are merely symptomatic of a broader climate of intimidation directed at those American Muslims who would speak out against Islamists. In May, copies of two Urdu-language newspapers based in New York were systematically destroyed and editors of both papers threatened after they ran articles that referenced Israel and/or were written by Jews. Late last year, a Muslim in Tulsa, Oklahoma named Jamal Miftah was expelled from his mosque after writing an op-ed piece condemning al Qaeda and Islamist extremism. After the story produced a public outcry, Miftah was invited back. Finally, as the Irshad Manji quote at the top of this post illustrates, even in the U.S. many young Muslims who would like to express reformist views stay silent out of fear.

Glenn Greenwald might choose to dismiss concerns over Islamist censorship as hysterical exaggeration of "imaginary threats". Unfortunately, to American Muslim freethinkers and reformers, there is nothing imaginary about it.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

"Those who fight us with the pen shall be fought with the sword": The GIA's War on Algerian Intellectuals

Before there was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, there was Antar Zouabri.

In late 1991, an Islamist party called the FIS won free parliamentary elections in Algeria. That country's military, fearing with some justification that this marked the end of democracy, not the beginning, voided the election. The result was a horrific civil war starting in 1992 between radical Islamists and the Algerian state. This war would last nearly a decade and claim over 100,000 lives. The Algerian military behaved quite brutally and committed numerous atrocities. However, even the worst government excesses were surpassed by the utter barbarism of the main Algerian jihadist organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). In the words of Judith Miller, the GIA was "Algeria's own Khmer Rouge".

If the GIA was the Khmer Rouge, then Antar Zouabri was their Pol Pot. He became Emir of the group in July 1996. Even before his ascension the GIA had developed a well earned reputation for ruthlessness. Zouabri, however, like Zarqawi in Iraq, was to take the GIA's murderous struggle to a truly barbarous extreme.

Under his leadership, the organization declared that anyone who did not support the GIA was an apostate, and thus could be murdered with impunity. In effect, Zouabri and the GIA declared takfir (excommunicated) all of Algerian society. The GIA went on to indiscriminately slaughter tens of thousands of men, women and children. Whole villages were wiped out.

Eventually, the GIA's horrific excesses became such that even other jihadists turned against them. At the urging of Osama bin Laden, members of the GIA split away to form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The GIA became little more than a small band of hunted fanatics. In early 2002, Antar Zouabri was tracked down and killed by Algerian security forces.

Even before Zouabri's rise to prominence, however, the GIA had committed itself to systematically exterminating those it deemed to be apostates. Secular writers and intellectuals, especially those who condemned the Islamists, were among their primary targets. The GIA openly justified this campaign with the statement that "those who fight us with the pen shall be fought with the sword."

This is exactly what the GIA did. In a July 2006 article, Tunisian writer Zyed Krichen listed the number of Algerian intellectuals murdered in 1993 alone:

...This was a very bloody year for writers, journalists, academics, and artists [in Algeria]. The victims, most of them murdered by Islamist activists, include Ruptures magazine writer and editor Taher Djaout; sociologist Djilali Liabès; Beaux-Arts [College] head Ahmed Asselah; sociologist M'hamed Boukhobza; Bab-Ezzouar University head Salah Djebaïli; poet and writer Youssef Sebti; playwright and stage director Abdelkader Alloula; psychiatrist Mahfoudh Boucebci, national education superintendent Salah Chouaki; playwright Izzedine Medjoubi; pediatrician Dilalli Belkhanchir; economist Abderahmane Faredeheb; and journalists Ferhat Cherkit, Youssef Fathallah, Lamine Lagoui, Ziane Farrah, Abdelhamid Benmenni, Rabah Zenati, Saad Bakhtaoui, and Abderrahmane Chergou..., and the list is far from complete...

Sadly, this was just the beginning. According to Judith Miller in her book God has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East, 18 Algerian journalists were murdered in 1994 and 40 the following year. (p.169) It wasn't only journalists. The GIA killed a number of prominent musicians as well. To fanatical Islamists like Zouabri, music was an "un-Islamic" vice to be eradicated.

A 1995 report from Human Rights Watch sheds some light on the full extent of the GIA's war against any form of apostasy or unbelief:

The GIA opposed "any dialogue, truce or reconciliation" with the regime. It issued death threats against broad categories of people including journalists, women who did not wear headscarves, foreigners who did not leave Algeria, butchers who did not lower their prices during the holy month of Ramadhan, proprietors of cinemas, and vendors of such "forbidden" products as musical cassettes, French newspapers, and tobacco. It claimed responsibility for a wave of car bombings in October, and for the bombs that killed three in a June 29 demonstration in Algiers.

The GIA also declared war on the public school system. In August it ordered the closure of all high schools and universities and declared that elementary and middle schools could remain open only if they: segregated students by gender; eliminated the teaching of music, French, and, for girls, physical education; and required headscarves for women staff and students past the age of puberty.

The effect of GIA's literally murderous campaign against all forms of "un-Islamic" expression continues to be felt down to the present day. Cultural and intellectual life in Algeria has barely begun to recover.

Sadly, the danger has not yet passed. The GSPC lives on, and has even officially declared itself a branch of al Qaeda. In March 2006 it threatened the Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, and periodically issues death threats against Algerian writers and intellectuals as well.

To borrow Judith Miller's analogy, the GIA really was the Khmer Rouge of Islamism. Just like the Cambodian Maoists, the Algerian jihadists carried their particular vision of totalitarian social engineering to its logical (or illogical) extreme. By seeking to murderously purge their society of all forms of apostasy and immorality, the GIA reduced Islamism to its pure totalitarian essence.

Killing the Islamic Gandhi: The Death of Mahmoud Muhammed Taha

In May, via Pajamas Media, I came across a blogger called Varifrank who asked a simple yet telling question: where is the Islamic Gandhi?

His point was that there is a perceived lack of Muslim figures who argue for an Islam based on pluralism, tolerance and non-violence. Varifrank was wrong. There have been such individuals. One man, in particular, can plausibly be said to have been an "Islamic Gandhi". His name was Mahmoud Muhammed Taha. A scholar and religious figure, Taha had the moral and intellectual courage to confront the negative aspects of the Islamic tradition, and to advocate for a reformed Islam compatible with democracy and the 20th century. Sadly, he was to be eventually put to death for his efforts.

Mahmoud Muhammed Taha lived in the Sudan. Born about 1910, Taha was an engineer who in 1945 founded a political movement called the Republican Party. After two periods of imprisonment and spending three years in seclusion, by 1951 Taha had formulated his vision of Islam.

George Packer wrote a superb article about Taha in the September 11, 2006 New Yorker. He offers the following profile of Taha as a man and a teacher:

Taha’s reputation and importance far exceeded his actual following, which never amounted to more than a few thousand intensely devoted Sudanese: the stories of overwhelming personal transformation that I heard from Naim, Osman, and other Republican Brothers were apparently common among his adherents. (Taha adapted the name of his old political party for his new spiritual movement; he was wary of substituting Islamist slogans for critical thinking.) He received visitors at his house in Omdurman, northwest of Khartoum, at all hours, engaging in a kind of continuous seminar in which he was unmistakably the instructor—Republican Brothers still call him Ustazh, or “revered teacher”—but one who welcomed argument. “He would listen with utmost respect,” a follower named Omer el-Garrai told me. “I never saw him frustrated, I never saw him angry, I never heard him shout.” Naim recalled, “Taha could not transmit his religious enlightenment to us by talking about it. We would see the fruit of it by his personal life style, in his attitudes. His honesty, his intellectual vigor, his serenity, his charisma—those are the things that we can observe, and from them I understood that this is someone who had a transformative religious experience.” Taha lived simply, urging his followers to do the same, and even today Republican Brothers are known for their lack of show in dress and in wedding ceremonies. An aura of saintliness hangs over stories I heard about Taha in Sudan, and, as with Gandhi, to whom he is sometimes compared, there’s an unappealingly remote quality to his moral example. A man named Anour Hassan recalled that when Taha’s twelve-year-old son vanished in the Blue Nile, in 1954, Taha calmly told people who wanted to continue looking for the boy, “No, he’s gone to a kinder father than I am.”

At the same time as Taha and his Republican Brothers offered Sudanese Muslims an Islam of tolerance and pluralism, a somewhat different vision of Islam was in the ascendance. This was the totalitarian intolerance of Islamism, and its main advocate was the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood was the first truly Islamist movement, combining traditional forms of Islamic extremism with 20th century ideology and methods of political mobilization.

As was the case elsewhere in the Islamic world, condemning reformist interpretations of Islam as apostasy was central to the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood's drive for power. Taha and his followers soon became a prime target of these efforts. In Packer's words: "Taha was condemned for apostasy by Sudanese and Egyptian clerics, his movement was under constant attack from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, and his public appearances were banned by the government."

The culmination of the struggle between Taha and the Islamists came in 1983. In that year, Sudanese dictator Jaafar al-Nimeiri, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, imposed Islamic Sharia law on the country. Floggings and amputations became common, and the Christian and animist southern parts of the country were further alienated from the regime.

Watching his faith twisted into a tool of barbarous repression was too much for Taha. He was imprisoned for a year and a half just to prevent him from speaking out. Upon his release in late 1984, he refused to remain silent. Undoubtedly knowing what the consequences would be, Taha spoke out nonetheless:

Soon after Taha was released, he distributed a leaflet, on Christmas Day, 1984, titled “Either This or the Flood.” “It is futile for anyone to claim that a Christian person is not adversely affected by the implementation of sharia,” he wrote. “It is not enough for a citizen today merely to enjoy freedom of worship. He is entitled to the full rights of a citizen in total equality with all other citizens. The rights of southern citizens in their country are not provided for in sharia but rather in Islam at the level of fundamental Koranic revelation.”

The Nimeiri regime and Muslim Brotherhood decided to rid themselves of Taha and his unwelcome views once and for all. Taha was rearrested and charged with apostasy, a capital crime in Sudan and many other Muslim countries. After refusing to repudiate his ideas, Mahmoud Muhammed Taha was hanged on January 18, 1985. Packer's description of the execution includes this chilling line:

In the instant that the trapdoor opened and Taha’s body fell through, the crowd began to scream, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Islam huwa al-hall! ”—“God is great! Islam is the solution!”—the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the hanging, a number of leading Republican Brothers were forced to publicly renounce his ideas, in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. Taha's books were, according to Packer, "burned in public bonfires." Taha's Republican Brotherhood was effectively ended as a political and intellectual movement.

It is important not to romanticize Taha. For one thing, Taha was not a secularist; he was a committed Muslim who did not believe that faith and politics could or should be kept separate. There was also an eccentric quality to him and his followers that limited their appeal. Packer offers a fitting epitaph to Taha and his movement:

What’s truly remarkable about Taha is that he existed at all. In the midst of a gathering storm of Islamist extremism, he articulated a message of liberal reform that was rigorous, coherent, and courageous. His vision asked Muslims to abandon fourteen hundred years of accepted dogma in favor of a radical and demanding new methodology that would set them free from the burdens of traditional jurisprudence...Taha’s message requires of Muslims such an intellectual leap that those who actually made it—as opposed to those who merely admired Taha or were interested in him—took on the quality of cult members, with their white garments, street-corner sermons, and egalitarian marriage contracts. Small wonder that Taha failed to create a durable mass movement. In “Quest for Divinity,” a new and generally sympathetic study of Taha, to be published this fall, Professor Mohamed A. Mahmoud, of Tufts University, writes, “The outcome of this culture of guardianship and total intellectual dependency was a movement with impoverished inner intellectual and spiritual resources, intrinsically incapable of surviving Taha’s death.”

Packer then asks a logical and telling question:

Why did the Sudanese state, the religious establishment, and the Islamist hard-liners consider the leader of such a small movement worth killing? Perhaps because, as Khalid el-Haj, a retired school administrator in Rufaa, who first met Taha in the early sixties, told me, “They are afraid of the ideas, not the numbers. They know that the ideas are from inside Islam and they cannot face it.”

(Emphasis added-DD; Italics added 10-8-07)

As they did with Farag Foda and numerous other reformers and dissidents, the Islamists murdered Mahmoud Muhammed Taha because they had no answer for his ideas. As a totalitarian ideology, Islamism must silence its critics through murder or other means of repression because it simply cannot stand up to critical scrutiny. This is its ultimate weakness.

Throughout his essay, Packer compares Mahmoud Muhammed Taha to the famed Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Like Taha, Qutb was hanged by a repressive regime after refusing to renounce his ideas. However, unlike Taha, Qutb is known throughout the world. His 1964 book Milestones is considered the Communist Manifesto of Salafist-jihadism. Unlike Taha, who stood for pluralism and tolerance, Qutb demanded the worldwide imposition of Islamist totalitarianism by means of violent jihad. He was the ideological forefather of al Qaeda.

Whatever the flaws of Taha and his ideas, how much better would the world be if his vision of Islam was known worldwide, while Qutb's totalitarian vision lay buried in obscurity?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Banned Authors Week: The Jihad Against Scandinavian Cartoonists

Things are not going well for the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda. A tribal revolt backed by American forces has expelled it from its former stronghold of Anbar Province. The same thing is starting to happen in other parts of the country, as both Sunni tribes and non-Salafist insurgents turn on the organization. Just a few days ago, a top al Qaeda leader named Abu Usama al-Tunisi was killed in Iraq. Found with his body was a letter containing a desperate plea for assistance.

On September 14, al Qaeda responded to this deteriorating situation by trotting out an audiotape statement from "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi", the mythical figurehead of its Iraqi front organization. As you would expect, the statement contained numerous denunciations of other Iraqi insurgent groups for their betrayal. However, al Qaeda's pseudonymous leader also discussed some other matters. With al Qaeda in Iraq on the brink of disaster, "al-Baghdadi" took the time to threaten the life (pdf) of a Swedish cartoonist. Here is the relevant passage:

“Others who had previously claimed to be neutral also have attacked the Muslims. An excellent example of this is the degenerate crusader country of Sweden, where they published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed portrayed as a dog...We reserve the right to punish those who committed the crime...[Additionally], on this day forward, we call for the killing of the cartoon artist Lars who committed these despicable acts against our Prophet Mohammed. We announce a reward of $100,000 for anyone who kills that infidel criminal. The reward shall be $150,000 for anyone who beheads him as well. We also will give $50,000 to anyone who kills the chief editor of that newspaper. O’ Muslims, you shall seek this reward, ask for forgiveness, and kill these two infidels…”

(Emphasis added-DD)

On Monday, September 17, Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist threatened by al Qaeda, was taken into protective custody by authorities in his native country. What did he do to "merit" a $100,000 bounty on his head? This September 18 piece from Der Spiegel explains:

The flap began on Aug. 19 when a local newspaper, Nerikes Allehanda, published Vilks' caricature depicting a dog with Muhammad's face. The image is doubly insulting for conservative Islamists because they consider dogs to be impure, and Islam generally shuns graphic depictions of the prophet. The paper decided to print the image as a show of free speech after a number of art galleries decided not to exhibit it.

Still, why would jihadists in Iraq, with more than enough to worry about in their own backyard, put a bounty on a non-Muslim cartoonist living in Sweden? The answer lies in the radical Islamist quest to murderously silence any form of "blasphemous" expression, regardless of who creates it or where it happens. The same reaction occurred the last time a Scandinavian newspaper ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the famous 2005 drawings published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Just as they have called for Vilks' murder, so al Qaeda and its allies have issued numerous death threats against the editors and cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten.

The most prominent threat against the Danish cartoonists came from Osama bin Laden himself, in an audiotape released on April 24, 2006. In his remarks, the Emir of al Qaeda demanded that those involved in publishing the cartoons be handed over (pdf) to his organization for "trial":

“So our stance toward these mockers of our Prophet, peace be upon him, those who insulted him in those drawings, is that we demand that their government hand them over to us, for them to be judged according to the Law of Allah, as long as they are saying that it is freedom of expression and the government is not responsible, and that instead the responsibility falls on the newspaper itself. This request of ours is from the category of treating in kind, and we say to you that if you have forgotten, let us remind you that when you announced that Usama bin Ladin was accused of striking at American interests, you issued a Security Council resolution which was passed unanimously, declaring the extradition of Usama to be mandatory, despite no evidence being provided. Therefore, extradite to us those who have been proven to have committed this act.”

As the SITE Institute has documented, bin Laden's was just one of many such threats expressed by both prominent jihadists and posters on extremist web sites. The calls to murder the Danish "blasphemers" have continued to the present day. On August 31, the following was posted on an Islamist web site (based in Minnesota, disturbingly enough):

"Some Muslims have put the affair of the Danish [cartoons] behind them and have completely forgotten it... I have reopened this issue in order to irritate the infidel Danes, and to remind them that the affair is not over and that the brigades of the martyrdom seekers are on their way.

"[My] goal is to urge [my Muslim] brothers to put down their names [so as to indicate] that the affair is not over, and that they will soon set out to carry out blessed operations in Denmark. Please put down your names in order to strike fear in the hearts of the Danish people.

"I take upon myself the honorable [task] of being the first martyrdom seeker to crush the strongholds of heresy in Denmark.

"[Signed] Abu Al-Bara Al-Dosari. Place of residence: the secret state of Al-Qaeda, from which we will set forth to crush the heretic [regimes]."

Some might argue that this is just talk, but unfortunately jihadists have shown a disturbing proclivity to follow through on their death threats. As the Associated Press reported on September 4, Denmark has emerged as a desirable al Qaeda target, in large part because of the Mohammed cartoons. Just this week, it was revealed in court that a group of radicalized Danish Muslims considered staging a car bomb attack on the home of Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose.

As for Lars Vilks, he seems to have taken things remarkably in stride. Vilks refuses to back down, and has even discussed a rather bizarre plan to create a musical based on the controversy. To their credit, other Swedish media outlets have expressed their solidarity and demanded that free expression be protected in the face of al Qaeda's barbarous threats.

Still, Vilks received a chilling reminder of the danger he now faces while participating in a September 18 panel discussion. The Associated Press has the details:

During a question-and-answer session, a bearded man wearing a knitted skullcap walked up to a podium on the stage and delivered what appeared to be a threat against Vilks.

"I hope that your fate will be a lesson for you others," the man said in broken Swedish, drawing an angry reaction from a majority of the crowd, who booed, whistled and shouted at the man to get off the stage.

The man, who didn't give his name or identify the group he was representing, left the auditorium with an entourage of about 10 people and security guards following closely behind.

The two Scandinavian cartoon controversies are important not just as test cases for defending free expression, but for the insight they offer into the murderous totalitarian worldview of the jihadists. For one thing, it should be abundantly clear that there can be no appeasing an enemy who believes that offensive cartoons provide sufficient pretext for engaging in violence and destruction. It should also be obvious that al Qaeda and its allies regard their murderous campaign against intellectual freedom as an integral part of their efforts to create a totalitarian Islamist Caliphate.

Perhaps most importantly, the Scandinavian cartoon threats show that radical Islamists are no longer content with crushing apostasy and blasphemy in Muslim lands. This process started in 1989 with Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. By this action, the Iranian leader claimed the right to kill apostates anywhere in the world.

Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose, in an interview in the Fall 2007 Middle East Quarterly, has said that he didn't worry about the Rushdie example when he commissioned the cartoons. After all, unlike Rushdie, neither Rose nor any of the cartoonists are Muslim. What he didn't anticipate was that the Islamists, and not just Salafist-jihadists like al Qaeda, would seize on the cartoons as a pretext for extending their ban on "blasphemous" expression to cover non-Muslims living in non-Muslim countries. The Islamist reaction to the Scandinavian Mohammed cartoons represents the logical next step in the globalization of Islamist censorship. If they succeed in their efforts, banning offensive drawings will just be the beginning.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"No blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer."

Some of you may already be familiar with the latest Scandinavian Mohammed cartoon controversy. I'll have something on it tomorrow. In the meantime, Paul Marshall has a terrific essay pointing out that this is just the latest example of how Islamists use charges of blasphemy to suppress free expression:

Of course, these are not the only threats in repressive states' arsenals. In Egypt activists and critics have been imprisoned for forgery and damaging Egypt's image abroad. Saudi Arabia and Iran use a host of restrictive measures. But blasphemy charges are a potent weapon and are used systematically to silence and destroy religious minorities, authors and journalists and democracy activists. As the late Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, and whose novel Children of Gebelawi was banned in Egypt for blasphemy, put it: "no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer."

Repressive laws, supplemented and reinforced by terrorists, vigilantes and mob violence, are a fundamental barrier to open discussion and dissent, and so to democracy and free societies, within the Muslim world. When politics and religion are intertwined, there can be no political freedom without religious freedom, including the right to criticize religious ideas. Hence, removing legal bans on blasphemy and 'insulting Islam' is vital to protecting an open debate that could lead to other reforms.

I found this essay via Greg at Dhimmi Watch who bizarrely condemned this piece as politically correct because it didn't offer a blanket condemnation of Islam and Muslims. Jihad Watch and Dhimmi Watch are good news sources, but I think I'll take the serious work of Mr. Marshall over the simple minded reductionism that usually passes for analysis at those two sites.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Remembering Steven Vincent

As I am devoting this week to remembering authors murdered by Islamists, this seems like an appropriate time to honor the memory of a brilliant and courageous writer named Steven Vincent. Steven was a New York art critic who was so moved by 9/11 that he decided to travel to post-Saddam Iraq and write about what he saw. The result was a terrific book called In the Red Zone that sheds light on many of the difficulties we have faced in that country. Steven also wrote a number of magazine and newspaper articles, and maintained an excellent blog.

I should mention that I have a personal connection here. After I linked to his blog during the early days of this site, Steven was kind enough to return the favor and even approvingly cited one of my posts once. I was both grateful and humbled that a terrific well known writer like Steven would take pity on a geeky amateur like myself.

In the Summer of 2005, Steven returned to Iraq. He went to the southern city of Basra, where he pulled no punches in exposing the malevolent role being played by Iranian-backed Islamist militias. His willingness to intercede on behalf of his female Iraqi translator was another act of courage that further angered the local Islamist thugs. On August 2, 2005, Steven Vincent was abducted and murdered in Basra.

Stephen Browne recently wrote a great essay about Steven for FrontPage Magazine. It summarizes Steven's career better than anything I can come up with. I hope you will read it. In the meantime, I can only try to do my part to help keep alive the memory of Steven's courage and idealism.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Reflections on Ahmadinejad at Columbia

It has now been a week since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's much hyped appearance at Columbia University. As expected, Ahmadinejad tried to pose as a peace-loving moderate, but was simply too dogmatic and fanatical to pull it off. The best example was his ridiculous remark that "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals". B. Daniel Blatt and Brian Whitaker have exposed the absurdity of this comment, especially in light of the Iranian regime's barbarous treatment of gays. In addition, Ahmadinejad once again flirted with Holocaust denial and 9/11 trutherism, a position guaranteed to appeal only to the radical fringe. So bad was Ahmadinejad's performance that even many Iranians aren't buying his regime's efforts to spin the speech as a symbolic victory.

In reading the transcript of Ahmadinejad's speech, however, it is another comment that most stands out. It is a line from the very beginning of his address:

Oh, God, hasten the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers and those to attest to his rightfulness.

According to Shia theology, the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam, is an eschatological figure destined to return from hiding and herald the worldwide triumph of Shia Islam. This belief in the Mahdi and his imminent return lies at the heart of Ahmadinejad's fanatical Islamist vision.

Both Ahmadinejad and his religious and ideological mentor, Ayatollah Mohammed Tagi Mesbah-Yazdi, have stated that simply waiting for the Mahdi's return isn't enough: Muslims must actively lay the groundwork for his coming. In a May 2007 analysis, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) noted one way in which Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi plan to facilitate the Mahdi's return:

In a 2006 speech marking the Mahdi’s birthday, Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi emphasized the importance of fighting heresy, which, in his opinion, is delaying the coming of the Mahdi: “...Our noblest duty is to strive to reduce oppression, to be more [stringent] in our implementation of Islamic law... and to weaken the control of oppressive and tyrannical regimes over the oppressed. These [actions] can [hasten] the return of the Hidden Imam... If we wish to expedite the Mahdi’s coming, we must remove any obstacles [delaying his return]. What are the obstacles delaying the appearance of the Mahdi? [They are] the [heretical] denial of the blessing [conferred] on society by the presence of the Imam, [as well as] ingratitude, insubordination, and objections [to the doctrine of Mahdism]. If we want to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, we must eliminate these obstacles. We must strive to instate greater justice, ensure a [more stringent] implementation of Islamic law, [bring] the people to take greater interest in the faith and its directives, [establish] the religious laws as the dominant [values] of society, [ensure] that religious faith be taken as a consensus at conferences, and limit the [control of the oppressors, i.e. of the Western powers] over the oppressed throughout the world - both Muslim and non-Muslim. [This is what we must do] in order to prepare the ground for the Mahdi’s coming. Thus, the greatest obligation of those awaiting the appearance of the Mahdi is fighting heresy and global arrogance.” [22]

(Emphasis added-DD)

Ahmadinejad has amply demonstrated his commitment to fighting heresy since assuming the presidency in 2005. Among other things, he has overseen the banning of thousands of books, spearheaded an effort to crush academic freedom in Iranian universities, and initiated the most intense crackdown on "un-Islamic" women's fashion in over a decade.

On the one hand, it is helpful that Ahmadinejad was afforded the opportunity to make a fool of himself before a global audience. The fact remains, however, that Columbia decided to show its commitment to academic freedom by inviting a speaker whose goal is a world where free thought and inquiry have been eliminated. To be fair, Columbia President Lee Bollinger did make some of these points in his justifiably scathing introduction of Ahmadinejad. Still, as I wrote before the speech, I would be more impressed if Columbia decided to give American conservatives and the U.S. military the same right of free expression it accorded an Iranian fanatic.

John Leo made this same point about Columbia's free speech double standard in an excellent post at Minding the Campus. I'll give him the last word:

Several people, myself included, suggested that if Bollinger is as interested in free speech as he keeps saying he is, then he should reschedule the Minutemen and introduce them himself, with enough security around to discourage the reappearance of last year's stormtroopers in training.

A few weeks ago, it looked as though Columbia was about to make a rare lurch in the direction of free speech. Students re-invited the two Minutemen, but after these proposed speakers bought plane tickets, Columbia's pro-censorship DNA re-asserted itself and the two men were once again disinvited. Not a peep out of Bollinger.

One of Columbia's favorite tricks is to cancel a speaker, or reduce the size of the audience, on grounds that violence might break out. Last fall most of a large crowd that gathered to hear former PLO terrorist-turned-anti-Jihadist Walid Shoebat was turned away over securities worries. Only Columbia students and 20 guests got in. The same thing happened to Dinesh D'Souza, myself and several other speakers in 1999. A large crowd, including many from other New York campuses, had tickets, but the administration (this was a pre-Bollinger year) ruled that only Columbia students could attend. This was not the deal that had been agreed on, but Columbia was adamant. Rather than speak to a tiny remnant on campus, the speakers withdrew to a park nearby. As I spoke, one student shouted "Ha-ha. We're inside. You're out here," an excellent six-word explanation of how Columbia's robust free-speech tradition actually works.