On the meaning of Easter

Last week, while going through my old notes on Muslim reaction to the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, I came across this:

Referring to the Qur’an surah 5: ayah 33, an imam delivering a sermon at a mosque in Cape Town challenges his congregation: “Did you know Islam allows you to crucify people? Hmm? Did you know that? How many of you know that? Come on, tell me. Put up your hand. How many of you know that Islam says you can crucify a man?”

The relevant part of the ayah that the imam was referring to reads, “The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on the opposite sides, or be exiled from the land,” (5:33).

So, an imam in a mosque told his congregation that Islam allows them to crucify a man and provides the exact spot in the Qur’an that allows this, homing in repeatedly on the word “crucified.”

Then came the Easter weekend and with it Muslim terrorist organisations outdoing one another with their horrific bombings. In the glare of all this, it may have escaped your notice that on Good Friday, ISIS crucified a priest. Did they “corrupt” the Qur’an? Where they “extreme” in their interpretation? Did they “hijack” the text? Is it possible that “crucify” doesn’t mean what we all, including ISIS, understand it to mean, but that, in fact, it’s something altogether gentler and nothing to do with nails hammered through living flesh? Perhaps, perhaps. But that same Qur’an also exhorts believers meting out punishments to “Let not compassion move you,” (24:2) and “Those with him [Muhammad] are hard against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves,” (48:29).

Well, as we are constantly told that the Qur’an is not responsible for the terrorism perpetrated by Muslim groups, and, in fact, that such terrorists are not Muslim, then what Qur’an is it that speaks of crucifixion, if not the same Qur’an that all Muslims revere? Is the Qur’an not the perfect and unalterable word of Allah? And if ISIS, by crucifying the priest, is simply complying with the perfect and unalterable word of Allah, how is the word of Allah not implicated in the crucifixion? How is the Qur’an not responsible?

“Even if it’s true, it’s a total non-starter”

I’ve come across this sort of mantra from my earliest activist days in the 1970s. It does not surprise me to have encountered it again today here on FtB. I want to deal with this by first sketching a little hypothetical scenario (actually, not so hypothetical).

The police arrive at the scene to find a black man covered in blood holding a kitchen knife while leaning over the victim’s body. A thorough forensic investigation later reveals the victim had, indeed, died of multiple stab wounds and that the man found leaning over the body had murdered the victim using the knife he was found holding.

The next day, two newspapers carry the following headlines: “Prime suspect in kitchen knife slaying charged with first degree murder” (Paper A); “Black man is murderer!” (Paper B). Following the Paper B report, racists start rallying against blacks and the most vocal racist political party gains enough support to win a seat in the legislature.

Recriminations start flying about the correctness or otherwise of finding the perpetrator guilty, many arguing that a consequence of finding him guilty is that a racist partly now sits in the legislature. This could, nay, should, have been prevented by denying the guilt of the perpetrator, or preferable, not investigating the crime at all. It is further implied that it was irresponsible on the part of the investigators to pursue the investigation once they knew that the suspect was guilty because to reveal such truth would be to prove the racists correct.

There is a position on the left that would make the truth hostage to political convenience in this way. This is totalitarian ideology at work. We see it in crimes small and large. We see it in religiously-motivated terrorism. A group of people is directly motivated by the Qur’an to commit a gross act of mass murder. A thorough forensic investigation reveals the killers, indeed, to have been motivated by the Qur’an. One paper reports “Terrorists were motivated by the Qur’an.” Another paper reports, “Terrorists were Muslim!” The next day Donald Trump receives a major boost.

There are many who would maintain that when the truth serves the purposes of our adversaries, such truth should, in the first instance, be denied, regardless of evidence to the contrary. This denial of the truth is justified because, “Even if it’s true, it’s a total non-starter,” — a total non-starter for what? The utter poverty and dishonesty of such thinking lie in the idea that the truth is what we need to know to keep one step ahead of our adversaries. And the truth will change from day to day, depending on what we need to know at the time.

This is how Stalinism worked. Indeed, this is how scripture works — remember the Apocrypha? Remember the Satanic Verses? The treachery in such thinking lies in that instead of associating the investigators with the search for truth, it associates them with abuse of the truth. It equates acknowledging the truth with affirming the abusers of truth. The only way that it can fight Donald Trump and Geert Wilders is by abusing the truth just as Donald Trump and Geert Wilders do. Indeed, we are asked to set truth aside and engage, instead, in propaganda. Dr Goebbels come back; Islam needs you!

The art of philosophy has been around for a very long time, and it should not be beyond us to differentiate between truth and the abuse of truth. If the truth is abused, then we have to deal with the abusers of truth, not abuse the truth ourselves. That, indeed, would be a total non-starter.

Why I am not an apostate

“I’ve just run over a Coloured.”

Thus stammered the distraught driver after his train hit a pedestrian who had been crossing the track. The driver, clearly in shock, was running back along the train to where the victim lay, presumably dead or dying. I remember the huge, glazed eyes and contorted mouth on the driver’s white face. He was an Afrikaner, a “Boer,” a “Blanke” — and he had just run over a “Coloured”. It was not even that he saw his victim as Coloured before he saw him as a human being; the two were simply inseparably intertwined. Given that this was 1960s South Africa, the victim, in all likelihood, saw himself that way, too.

The Apartheid system named one of them “Coloured” (mixed race) and the other “Blanke” (White). Well, actually, no. Some people, who chose to name themselves Blanke, decided that the driver is one of them and should be called Blanke, while the man bleeding beside the track be called Coloured. They made it up and even had a name for that special way of naming people: Apartheid. Everyone, once so named — Venda, Xhosa, South Sotho, Cape Coloured, Other Indian, White, Other Coloured, etc. — had to, and did, call themselves as they had been named. They were what they were told they were…

…until Black Consciousness hit in the early 70s and the more socially-aware and politically-active Coloureds started calling themselves “Black”, the first step in reclaiming power over the self. In colonial Africa, by contrast, the English and French names that missionaries assigned to their flocks, far from being rejected, were generally pre-emptively adopted in that colonised Africans gave their own children two names, one African (for African use) and one English or French (for missionary convenience). Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a talk entitled The Islamic Golden Age: Naming Rights, explores the power to name things. So many names for new things or concepts in science, e.g., algebra, chemistry, zero, Aldebaran (and so many other stars), alcohol, zenith, etc., but also in areas such as music, textiles and cuisine, derive from an original Arabic name assigned by (presumably) a Muslim at a time when Islam walked in step with human progress, accompanied the advancement of civilisation, and enjoyed world prominence. It was a great age, and it is an age long gone.

Today, Islam once more enjoys world prominence, and once again it is contributing Arabic names to things or concepts in many languages: Hadith, surah, Ramadan, hajj, Shari’a, hijab, halal, jihad, haram, kafir, etc. These are no longer scientific words, though. None of these are words of progress. Islam’s contribution to modern lexicon consists of words of prescription, compulsion, prohibition, restriction, exclusion, oppression and punishment. None of these concepts are new to the world, but Islam adds a distinctly retrograde twist to their modern forms that makes their distinction deserving of an Islamic-derived, and hence Arabic, name. In other words, Islam’s contributions to the world today are directly anti-human, anti-freedom and pointedly anti-civilisation and unmistakably Islamic. The darkest star in this gloomy new firmament, the pièce de résistance, splashed across the world’s media on Valentine’s Day in 1989, has to be the word Fatwa.

So powerful was the shockwave set off by an Iranian walking relic’s call to what he saw as his billion-strong sleeper cell to activate and murder someone on the other side of the planet, that the word fatwa has come to mean any arbitrary call or instruction to a nation or other large group to do harm to someone or some group. After that, every two-bit Islamic cleric who fancied himself wanted to issue a fatwa, and why not — it’s instant glory from the easiest mob to whip into a killing frenzy.

The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie triggered heated discussions of the religious crime of “apostasy”, in this case a Muslim’s renunciation of Islam. So, Islamic law imposes itself on someone who isn’t even a Muslim, someone who has already placed himself beyond Islamic “jurisdiction”, if one where, for sake of argument, to entertain such an absurd notion (more on this in another post). This point may be academic, but it is just to highlight how much credence we give to religion without thinking.

I left Islam, indeed religion, when I was twenty-two, at the end of a long departure that started at sixteen during the Yom Kippur War, when in school we prayed to God to bring victory to Israel and in mosque to that same God to bring victory to the Muslims. I am not an apostate and never saw myself as one. Quite apart from my denial that any religion has any jurisdiction over me, to accept the name “apostate” is to accept that Islam has the power to name me. That I most certainly deny. I am not even an atheist. To call myself an atheist means that I do not believe in the existence of a supernatural being responsible for all that exists. The problem with that is that for me to not believe in something, something has to be there for me to not believe in. One cannot not believe in something that isn’t there; one can only believe in something that isn’t there. And if it were there, then there’d be no need to believe in it. So, by the way, the very fact that there has to be belief in God is all the proof one needs that there can be no such thing. To call myself an atheist would be to accept parameters set for me by religion, and by the presumption of God’s existence. At twenty-two, I decided that the existence or non-existence of God was an irrelevance to me. That question might be of interest to others, but it was of no interest to me and I felt no need to define myself in reference to it.

Today, however, thirty-six years on, with the onslaught that Islam has launched on our hard-won freedoms, human rights, mutual respect and civilisational standards, and the cowering of so many in the face of that onslaught, it is not enough merely to walk away from Islam, I have to oppose it. I have to oppose the Qur’an, oppose Shari’a and most definitely oppose God. So I make my one and only ever concession to Islam: I am, indeed, an “enemy of Allah”.

…and fuck your fatwa!


Welcome to Muslim literary critique

(I took ill on 18 March and forgot to post this)

Today is the anniversary of the assault on a writer in Durban. Her assailants smashed a brick into her face. Her family subsequently pressured her into a mental hospital. Her husband couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t simply recant and put the whole thing behind them. Welcome to the world of Muslim literary critique.

Zainub Priya Dala, author of What about Meera, had “offended Muslims” by praising writer Salman Rushdie at a literary gathering earlier. Rushdie, as it happened, had his own anniversary just a month before, of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death fatwa against him on Valentine’s Day in 1989. Welcome to the world of Muslim literary critique.

And it was from Dala’s Durban that South Africa’s own Ayatollah Khomeini, Ahmed Deedat, a supremely tedious old fool who described himself as “qualified to speak on The Satanic Verses,” had begged the Apartheid censors (“They are reasonable people,” explained Deedat) to ban The Satanic Verses in South Africa. Those “reasonable people” further obliged him by banning Rushdie from entering the country. Of these accomplishments, and of grovelling before his Apartheid overlords, Deedat openly boasted. Religion has a long history of jumping into bed with satanic regimes. Welcome to Muslim literary critique.

Barbarism with benefits

In an interview* with Graeme Wood published a year ago, British firebrand ISIS preacher, Anjem Choudary, responded to widespread Western revulsion at Shari’a with the complaint that if we saw the complete picture, it’d all make sense and we’d accept Shari’a. Stonings, beheading, amputations, lashings, slavery and rape are not all there is to Shari’a, pleads Choudary. You’ll be relieved to learn that “the whole package” includes free housing, food and clothing for all. In other words, Shari’a is not just barbarism; it is barbarism with benefits. Even Scandinavia couldn’t manage benefits like that.

I don’t know about you, but somehow knowing the whole package still leaves me a little queasy, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps that’s because my hand’s been amputated.


* Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic, March 2015,http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

Please stop calling it ‘suicide attacks’

Once again, Muslim terrorists are in the news, having committed another series of mass killings, this time in Brussels. Of course there are many cases in history of attacks that acknowledge unavoidable death in the act, and many of these are justifiably called ‘suicide attacks’. It is, however, extremely unhelpful to use this term in reference to Muslim terrorists. Allah does not command his believers to go out and commit suicide. He commands them to kill his enemies. The point of so-called “martyrdom missions” is, first and foremost, to kill as many “enemies of Allah”* as possible. If the terrorist happens to die in the act of such killing, then they have guaranteed access to paradise, no questions asked. So, if your means of killing the greatest number possible also kills you, then you’ve performed a glorious act, indeed.

The term “suicide bomber” also implies craziness on the part of the bomber and thereby shields the Qur’an from its culpability in the act. This, unfortunately, is the hard truth that moderate Muslims, ever-so-nice non-Muslims and Western policy-makers will not face up to. So we continue to talk about suicide attacks and the attacks just keep coming. Meanwhile the Qur’an, the fountainhead of all the poison in the first place, sits pretty.

By the way, there are other ways of getting a free pass into Heaven, like dying in a mosque during Ramadan (I haven’t actually checked this. I just remember being taught it in madrassa when I was little).


* The victims are not “random”, as is often suggested. The Qur’an specifically identifies anyone who does not follow the Qur’an to the letter as enemies of Allah, and orders that they be killed — so right there, you’ve got a holy book that’s a terrorist manual. And those who adhere properly to that manual (e.g., ISIS, Boko Haram, etc.) recognise the enormity of their task: all 200 million Shi’a (the latter’s obsession with martyrdom, apparently, doesn’t get them off the hook); all moderate Muslims (we are told this is the vast majority of 1.7 billion); all soft enforcers of the Shari’a (like the Saudis); all non-Muslims (except Christians and Jews, who may avoid death by submitting to Muslim overlordship). Not for nothing does Al-Baghdadi sigh of his heavy responsibility: how is he supposed to get all this killing done? I’m sure we all feel for the man.

My rehabilitation of pigs

I’ve been staring at this pig for some time, studying every detail of its body, its every movement, every sway of its belly, every twitch of its ears, every flip of its snout. I am surprised that I feel envious of its long eyelashes. Today, I am going to touch this pig.

It must have been 2000, a great year for grand gestures and cataclysmic events. Leaning with my folded arms on a low wall about to break my final taboo, the feeble northern England sun bore witness. The gesture would be too simple, too ordinary for anyone to notice, but it would be profoundly significant to me. From as early as I could remember, I had heard that pigs were dirty and forbidden — not just dirty in the way that I, as a child, got dirty during the day and washed myself clean at night, no. This was a different kind of dirty altogether. Pigs were so dirty that none of our books had pictures of them, we had no piggy banks and we never spoke the word, inside the house or outside. Once we really understood, right in our gut and in our dreams, just how unspeakably dirty a pig was, we learnt that Christians ate them.

I am going to touch a pig today. My rehabilitation of this humble creature began in the winter of 1988. Coming out of the bitter cold into the loud warmth of the student café was always an occasion. Your friends greeted you with the boisterous camaraderie for which Glasgow was famous. But that day there was more. Mixed into the aroma of fresh coffee was another smell, altogether disarming. My friends said it was the bacon frying. Bacon curled up on one half of a grill, while eggs fried on the other, and a very long line of students waited patiently for the two to be put together and served to them. I joined the queue before any “mechanisms” could kick in. Scottish bacon fryers work fast and pretty soon I rejoined my friends, bacon-and-egg bap in one hand, steaming black coffee in the other.

My friends sat back and simply enjoyed my discovering quite the most incredible taste I had ever experienced. I made many different sounds and gestures, all of which confirmed that bacon and eggs was definitely one of the delights of Heaven, right up there with milk and honey and virgins. This was Christianity’s best-kept secret. It must’ve been them who had put Muslims up to despising pigs in the first place! Then I thought of my upbringing. “If my dad could see me now…” I finally said to my friends between mouthfuls. Only then, already well into the act, did the significance of the moment really hit home. I’d broken the last of the Great Muslim Taboos I’d been brought up with. Free at last, free at last.

So here I am, leaning on a Yorkshire stone wall, finally having come full circle to introduce myself to the real, live version of the thing that I’d never set eyes on in Cape Town, and that I’d tasted for the first time two years ago on a cold winter’s morning in Glasgow, and it is turning out to be much harder than I had thought. The pig is right here up against the wall in front of me. I just have to reach down and I would touch its back. I thought that I’d shaken off the pig thing in that student café years ago, but it’s taking an awful lot of concerted will to fight something that I’d supposedly vanquished. Then I notice a pigeon pecking into the pig’s faeces and I almost lose it. I stumble over to a corner and retch so much that people come over to check I’m OK. “I’m fine. Thank you,”—retch!

I go back to the wall determined to defy the hidden landmines that my parents, madrassa and imams had left behind in my psyche, and that I only became aware of today. I am going to touch that pig and I am going to do it today. I find the pig still there, lounging against the wall as if saying, “Take your time. Whenever you’re ready. I’m not going anywhere today.” On its way to the pig’s back, it feels as if my index finger is penetrating a force-field, the final invisible defensive wall of my Muslimhood. But I finally puncture through and for the briefest instant, the tip of my finger makes direct physical contact with the next worse thing to Shaitan himself.

What strikes me is not a lightning bolt from Heaven, but the surprising texture of the pig’s skin. I always thought of pigs as soft and squidgy, like oversized marshmallows, but its skin is rough and hard. Disappointed, I realise I have to revisit my preconceived notions of pigs. Later, reprocessing the experience, I think of my high school friend who was from a farm, and his explaining how a pig is slaughtered. It was not by cutting the jugular, as I’d seen done with sheep on the second Eid. Instead, the writhing, fighting pig is forced onto its back while four strong men hold it by the legs. A fifth man pushes a thin metal rod through its heart, finally ending the animal’s awful squealing. I remember admiring that: a pig didn’t just submit, like a sheep.

Let me say some things about migrants

Following the organised and coordinated mass rapes of women by gangs of Muslim men in Cologne and several other European cities at New Year, much has been written and said about the dishonesty and cowardice surrounding much of the discussions. I will not go into that here. I just want to highlight three points about migrants that often get mangled in all this.

  1. Migrants are a financial net gain to an economy, not a drain on it, as often assumed
  2. Refugees are often determined, highly-resilient people
  3. Migrants do not leave their norms and values behind when the flee to a new land

There. I’ve said it and it’s out in the open. So now let me elaborate.

  1. Racists and xenophobes often howl that migrants are a drain on national resources. This is not the case. Given that, in most cases, migrants move from a society with a lower standard of living to one with a higher standard, while their consumption patterns remain unchanged, i.e., they work longer hours than the “natives” and consume (and discard) less. $1,000 invested in a migrant will go a lot further than if it were invested in a non-migrant, assuming a level playing field.
  1. By the time a refugee finally arrives at his or her destination, they could well have been living by their wits for the better part of a year, sneaking across ten or more borders undetected and making their way across whole continents evading authorities and predators (both human and animal), finding food and shelter and staying healthy. The people who make it through to the other end will have had life experiences that the locals couldn’t even imagine. We’re talking here about a calibre of human who, had they not been a refugee, would, in all likelihood, have ended up in some influential position in society. These are the very people great nations are made of.
  1. I once had a job teaching English to asylum-seekers in the UK. They were from Cameroon, Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. One day one of my students (the only Iranian) suggested the following discussion topic: “What would you do if your child told you he or she was gay?” The class erupted in a near-riot. Every single one of my students had fled persecution and death in their own countries. Every single one of them, except the Iranian, complained that we did not persecute and kill gays in the UK. Once they’d calmed down and the discussion actually got underway, some said they’d have nothing to do with those children. Most said they’d kill them. One, the quietest, most petite woman in the class (hijab and all), said, “I’d take them on holiday to Africa and have them killed there.”

What ISIS we really want: A response to Graeme Wood

The March 2015 issue of The Altantic carried a brilliant piece by Graeme Wood entitled What ISIS really wants[1]. In it he offers a well-researched and well-reasoned exposition of that organisation and the ideology of its members and supporters, taking in both misconceptions entertained by Western policy-makers and illusions maintained by mainstream Muslims, through interviews with significant Western ISIS supporters and at least one major critic of Islam. It is hard to find fault with Wood’s many insights, but I will pick him up on a few points that I consider central to the feasibility of his eventual proposition for destroying ISIS.*

Some say that ISIS is just another terrorist organisation,[2] while others say its like nothing we’ve ever seen[3]. Wood characterises ISIS as akin to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians (or, for that matter, Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Shoko Asahara). I agree with Wood’s characterisation of ISIS, but would go further and call it the ultimate doomsday super-cult. Broadly, doomsday cults come in two flavours: some prepare for an imminent end huddled together and isolated from the world (they may all kill themselves at the first sign of the imagined final moment), leaving the condemned outside to the wrath of God; while others actively work to bring about the complete destruction of the world and everything in it, including themselves, for they will rise again in a cleansed and purified world. ISIS belongs to the latter.

As much as the barbarism of ISIS outrages us, and as satisfying as we find it to call them names, we cannot escape the necessity of correctly charactering this organisation, if we are to have any hope of thwarting its programme. This is not to be taken lightly, because far from ISIS being irrational, psychopathic madmen, they are, in fact, highly rational and meticulously calculating, fuelled by a conviction beyond the reach of either ethics or humanity.

Loosely, to be rational means to think and act in a manner consistent with achieving a particular end, whatever that end might be. Ultimately, what ISIS really wants, is the real question here, as Graeme Wood so piercingly recognises. What ISIS really wants is the faithful fulfilment of the project “revealed” in the Qur’an, in the manner stipulated in the Qur’an. The very first claim the Qur’an makes for itself, after all, is, “This is the book about which there is no doubt,” (2:2).

If the Qur’an, in its full retrospective horror, is the place where ISIS stands, then moving civilisation back to the seventh century, whatever we may think of it, is an entirely rational project. Wood explains, “much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilisation to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse,” (my emph.). To have “no doubt,” means to accept the Qur’an in full and to the letter.

For this to be feasible for twenty-first century Muslims, they must necessarily adopt a seventh-century ideology and seventh-century norms. This means a wilful rejection of all post seventh-century ethical and cultural development. It is the inability of moderate Muslims to do this that keeps them beyond the reach of ISIS. In short, in ISIS we are dealing with the earliest and most primitive of mediaeval minds.

Quite rationally, then, ISIS rejects all post-seventh century ethical, social and cultural development as innovation beyond what the Qur’an, God’s perfect and final word, commands or approves. Islam is the final religion and the Qur’an Allah’s final word. Allah is perfect and perfection cannot be improved upon. Wood writes, “Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy.” On this all Muslims agree. ISIS (and other true believers) tease out the implications of this in light of “This is the book of which there is no doubt.” The unavoidable conclusion is that “to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection,” as Wood says in comment on ISIS’s readiness to murder 200 million Shia, a supposed “innovation on the Quran.”

Quite rationally too, however, ISIS has no qualms about supplementing the sword with the very latest in twenty-first century technology, as the Qur’anic command to kill all unbelievers who do not submit to Muslim overlordship is unlikely to be accomplished without the Internet and nuclear weapons backing up the mu’athinun and the sword (let no-one accuse ISIS of blind literalism)!

Horror at ubiquitous cruelty and inhumanity is alien to the mediaeval mind. Their actions and decisions are logical in that, while they are not consistent with twenty-first century circumstances, they are consistent with seventh-century circumstances. The ideology, actions and logic of ISIS form a complete and impervious self-referential system. A skilled ISIS rhetorician can be as watertight in argument as one in any other system, as Wood found to his apparent surprise.

To be fair to Wood, he is writing about ISIS, but it behoves him to take a harder look at the text that inspires both ISIS and the Muslims it rejects. Why do not more — not to say ‘all’ — Muslims support ISIS, if they all draw inspiration from the same perfect book? The Qur’an does not permit any interpretation. According to the Qur’an, all reform, of whatever stripe, is apostasy. Shari’a is not an “extremist interpretation” of Islam; it is Islam. To move the focus of concern to arguments over interpretation is to allow the fox to escape. But honestly examining the Qur’an, the scripture from which all Muslims claim to take guidance and from which only ISIS unequivocally and unashamedly does, is a step too far for most moderate Muslims. Why this should be so is a question that Wood should at least raise, if not answer. I say more on this below.

I take issue with Wood that Quietist Salafism presents an alternative to ISIS. The absoluteness of the Qur’an, especially as reinforced by the innovation (no less) of abrogation (naskh)[4] that presumes later verses to supersede earlier ones that they contradict, renders Quietist Salafism effectively no more than an extreme form of moderate Islam. The point is not whether it forms an alternative pole of attraction to Muslims who may be inclined towards extremism. The point is that the Qur’an can be just as easily used against Quietist Salafism as it can against any other form of moderate Islam. Only by highly-selective reading can the endless commands to oppress in the name of Allah, punish in the name of Allah, wage war in the name of Allah, and kill in the name of Allah be ignored. If you claim allegiance to the Qur’an, then the Qur’an demands total submission from you.

“Submission,” in the sense of “Islam,” is not mere deference or consultation in the contemporary sense; but yielding, surrender, compliance and self-abasement as pertaining to slavery. In other words, submission is meant in the ancient and early-mediaeval sense, when slavery was the prevailing social order. It is not for no reason that the Qur’an is to be recited, rather than read. Of the 1.2 to 1.7 billion (claims vary) Muslims, the only ones who submit to the Qur’an in the manner the Qur’an commands, is ISIS. ISIS dispenses with Quietist Salafism with the same ease and contempt as it does with Shi’ism, “moderate Islam” or anything else that deviates in the slightest from the literal letter the Qur’an.

This is a conclusion that Wood himself ought to arrive at with ease, especially given his access to Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel. Wood, quoting Haykel, asserts that Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” and neglect “what their religion has historically and legally required.” I’m not sure I agree with Haykel’s laying the blame for what I call Muslim Delusionism (for it is truly a movement) at the door of an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition,” much as I share his impatience with that tradition. In the embarrassed, politically-correct, cotton-candy views of moderate Muslims I see, instead, a struggle between faith and humanity, two forces that are mutually exclusive. A Muslim with a conscience is an inherently uncomfortable creature, for continued claim to the name “Muslim” necessarily requires a “cotton-candy view of their own religion.”

I see two parallel struggles unfolding: the war against ISIS; and a struggle for the conscience of moderate Muslims. So far, moderate Muslims have been their own worst enemy, claiming that “extremist” have “hijacked” Islam and “distorted” the texts. I am in agreement with Haykel, who regards such views as “preposterous, sustainable only through wilful ignorance,” in Wood’s words. The humanity in moderate Muslims wants to absolve their precious Qur’an, their pristine Islam and their perfect Prophet. Unfortunately, “These guys [ISIS] have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” says Haykel. The inconvenient, nay, devastating truth is that “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition.” According to Haykel, ISIS “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.” This, unfortunately, is true.

How else are we to explain the phenomenon of ISIS defections, but as a struggle between faith and humanity within the breasts of such ISIS recruits? Quoting an anonymous ISIS report, Wood relates that, “Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”

Those recruits who still retain a semblance of their humanity will find it increasingly difficult to conceal a growing revulsion at what they’re witnessing and a deepening disgust at their own culpability. Not all will comfortably rape the umpteenth young mother who’d just witnessed her pre-pubescent daughter being raped. At some point, scoring another goal with an apostate’s severed head becomes not quite so enjoyable anymore. The unrelenting and utter barbarity that ISIS fighters are subjected to must, at least in some (and perhaps more than just a few), rekindle what little remained of their humanity when they opted for ISIS. Once inside ISIS, the wonder and magnificence of full-blown Shari’a is not necessarily as romantic to the twenty-first century jihadi as he (and sometimes she) had so energetically proselytised while still in the twenty-first century. But ISIS-held territory may not be the ideal place to start voicing your doubts.

There is perhaps room for a distinction between ISIS’s Western recruits and those from more hard-core Islamic backgrounds, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. Those who have grown up exposed to at least as much human values as Islamic values might find it harder to keep up the bravado in the face of the daily slaughter of innocents. Exactly how high the pile of child corpses needs to be before it begins to corrupt belief will depend on the individual believer. Who knows? Even the unassailable Anjem Choudary, should he ever attain his strived-for Shari’a, might discover that Shari’a might not, after all, be “right for all time.” None of this is intended to detract from the power of faith to make monsters of believers, and to sustain nihilistic drives all the way to the seventy-two virgins, no matter what. Given what we know of much of non-ISIS Islam across vast swathes of north Africa and Asia, we can be fairly confident that most of the organisation’s recruits from that part of the world are very much at home within it.

But what are we to make of the conservative Muslim woman recruited to ISIS online? Of course she has plenty of privacy. Private access to a computer and a high level of computer literacy, suggest a middle class woman. To apply her considerable skills and unrestricted access to the outside world to locking women into seventh-century social and ethical conditions requires that she be aWestern Muslim woman. Only a Muslim woman brought up under conditions where she is legally and socially free, shielded from the quotidian horrors of full-blown Shari’a or other primitive social norms, dealing with the divergent tugs of an unresolved identity crisis, and ignorant of or idealising the Qur’an, can think it desirable to spend her energies in this way. It is not uncommon for such women to credit Islam with their relative freedom, rather than the social equality and human rights under which they practise it.[5] When Wood describes such women as “physically isolated in their homes,” he offers an irrelevance that is also misleading. It casts such women in the same light as those subject to the restrictions of Shari’a. The broken, pathetic shadows that exemplify the Shari’a ideal are hardly in a position to arrange their own physical safety, let alone arrange secret passage for jihadis to Syria.

Such privileged Western support for ISIS is, of course, not restricted to women. Western Muslim men, if they are serious about following the Shari’a, may have heard the screams and cries of their own wives, sisters or daughters, and seen the blood and bruises appear all over them as they beat them or witnessed them beaten. They may be smug in their steadfastness and confident that Allah is satisfied with them. They may swagger down Western streets in packs and block pavements with ostentatious displays of piety. The Anjem Choudarys of this world do not stick to the obscurity of homes or niqabs, like their womenfolk. They swim without restraint in the ocean of freedom and human rights, boasting openly about their contempt for those freedoms and human rights.

When Wood says that, “The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population,” referring to the likes of Choudary, this is misleading. The Islamic State’s ideology exerts no sway over them at all. ISIS’s ideology is already their own ideology and they’ve been patiently waiting for ISIS to come along. For them, life has no hypocrisies or inconsistencies. It is all very simple.

It is those for whom life is an uncomfortable mess of “hypocrisies and inconsistencies”, those who have not found a workable arrangement of deceit and pretence, for whom ISIS might appear to offer a stable home. I say, “might,” because it is by no means certain that they will resolve their inner struggles the ISIS way. This is where the bluster of Choudary and his ilk finish the job, for they understand the male sense of self and have their sophistry, red herrings, non sequiturs, track-jumping and other tricks of the tongue down pat.

Even Wood was impressed, too impressed, as shown by the following trick that slipped right by him: Choudary describes a quid pro quo involving the leader of ISIS: “The caliph is required to implement Sharia. …In return, the caliph commands obedience,” (my emph.). Let’s look at this. Who requires the “caliph” to implement the Shari’a? Allah, of course; not Muslims. Who, in return, has to obey the caliph? Not Allah, of course, but every Muslim. If Wood did see this trick of the tongue, and he thought it imprudent to confront Choudary with it, he would certainly have written about it. What comes across, perhaps unfairly, is that Choudary and his friends’ slick articulacy had overawed Wood. He confesses, “These men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.” They are not “froth-spewing maniacs,” says Wood. Of course they’re not. They are meant to impress precisely people like Wood, Western opinion-makers.

Wood argues, quite rightly, in my opinion, that ISIS is a “religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted,” the aim being to “help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal”. In other words, feed it what it needs to persevere, but deny it what it needs to sustain itself. “Properly contained,” Wood writes, “The Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor.” So far, so good. Wood correctly places the dots, but then fails to connect them, leading him to conclude: “As [ISIS] stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive.”

I do not share Wood’s confidence in the power of evidence to sway the religious, let alone ISIS. It is more likely that that “excessive zeal,” as he puts it, will drive increasing numbers to the defence of their precious and long-awaited “caliphate”. His prediction that, “As more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited,” falls prey to the same mistake as that with which he charges Western policy-makers, viz., imagining that the ISIS ideologue thinks in the same way as his Western adversaries. ISIS doesn’t attract recruits because it offers five-star comforts; it does so because it practises Shari’a exactly as set out in the Qur’an and acts to realise the promise the Qur’an makes to Muslims. If anything, harsh conditions only affirm the religious in their commitment (you don’t need to be a fundamentalist for that). When Wood imagines a jihadist thinking, “No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like,” and supposedly being put off by it, he fails to add that most significant of affirming punctuations: “Allahu akbar!”

Wood correctly assesses ISIS as “Ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succour if it stays true to the Prophetic model.” Driving ISIS into Dabiq and then throwing a ring of steel around it without ever attacking it seems to me the most likely way of achieving the self-immolation of ISIS, not because conditions within will worsen, but because the next stage in God’s plan will be frustrated. To attack ISIS and destroy it in Dabiq would simply advance God’s plan to he next stage: ISIS in Jerusalem, regardless of the cost to ISIS. If the great Battle of Dabiq never happens, they’re stuck. For as Wood himself put it, “God has preordained the near-destruction of his people anyway.”[6] The best way to destroy ISIS is to not destroy ISIS, but to leave that task up to their own mediaeval minds to accomplish. That means understanding how the mediaeval mind works.

On this note, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to prevent Western-based ISIS supporters (not their children[7]) from travelling to Syria to join up[8]. Indeed, it might be worth considering offering free passage to anyone wanting to emigrate to ISIS. Once they go, they forfeit all right of return, save through a very strict and lengthy quarantine programme. None wanting to miss out on the big day, all ISIS fighters will eventually end up in Dabiq, which is exactly where they are to be contained.

That Choudary and others like him have had their passports confiscated is a victory for them, not a defeat, as the British authorities imagine. I have no doubt that that is exactly what their firebrand public utterances were aimed to achieve. They owe no allegiance to Britain whatsoever. In their eyes those passports are worthless. Being confined to the UK may appear like a setback for them, but ISIS’s aim is to take over the world, and they scoff at sissy stuff like flying planes into skyscrapers. Highly-articulate operatives in key positions in Western countries are all part of so-called offensive jihad and I don’t think Western security authorities are anywhere near serious enough in dealing with it. You cannot win if you insist on playing draughts while your opponent is playing chess. By this I do not mean that the West has to become repressive; I mean that it has to enter the religious mind and manipulate it, rather than rely on reason and logic that presume ethics and humanity, none of which means anything to ISIS.

In some ways Wood himself ducks the issue, trying to have it both ways. He asserts that, “It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” This comes after he had already declared the Islamic State, “Islamic. Very Islamic,” and his source, Bernard Haykel, had already described ISIS practises as directly based on the texts of the Koran and the Hadith.

How can it be exculpatory to lay blame where blame is due? He goes on to assert, strangely, that, “The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose.” Firstly, whom are they on the hook to? They answer to no-one but Allah. Secondly, the religion is Islam and Islam means submission to the will of Allah. The will of Allah is expressed in the Qur’an, as perfect as perfect can be. Submission (Islam, i.e., the religion) allows no interpretation. It is an all-or-nothing religion. When Haykel says of ISIS vis-à-vis other Muslims, “These guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” he is only saying that they all pledge allegiance to the same scripture. But it is ISIS’s absolute adherence to that scripture, as opposed to others’ greater or lesser departure from it, that gives it greater legitimacy, from the standpoint of the Qur’an, than others who call themselves Muslim.

Wood then goes on to consider the opposite: “And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive.” Denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic is misleading and dishonest. Wood has just expended many column-inches showing that the Islamic State is, in his words, “Islamic. Very Islamic.” There’s something bizarrely convoluted going on here.

Another of Wood’s weaknesses is his contention that “Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly.” Whether this would be out of deference or presumed non-qualification is not clear. Either way, as an ex-Muslim, I do not agree. Wood has shown himself more capable than most Muslims in understanding Islamism, ISIS and the motivations of Western jihadis, and certainly more honest than most Muslims who care to wade into these waters. Many Muslims take offence at non-Muslims commenting in any way on practising Islam “properly”, dismissing them as unqualified by virtue of being non-Muslim. They fail to qualify not because they cannot possibly know enough about Islam (they often know much more than the average Muslim), but because they shouldn’t be meddling in matters that do not concern them[9].

It looks suspiciously as if Wood’s head has led him further than his gut will let him go, and that at the end he needed to roll back the implications of his own findings. Wood ought to realise that the notion that there can be “no doubt” is not confined to the Qur’an, and that Muslims, even Western Muslims, are steeped in a stubborn tradition of uncriticality. It is virtually impossible to say anything critical of anything about Islam without bringing Muslim opprobrium down upon yourself. A few minutes into what passes for “debate” amongst the 50-cent army of Muslim spokespersons that have invaded the Western media and fora, quickly reveals that the habit of stamping out dissent continues as a strategy of deliberately talking over whoever says anything against Islam. The object is not to persuade, but to stop others from persuading. Persuasion is beneath Islam — submit, or else; it is the final religion, basta![10]

Of course the counterpoint to the whole Islamist project, and that Wood doesn’t mention, is the explosion in the numbers leaving Islam in Muslim countries. Millions (including Arabic speakers) are, for the first time in their lives, actually reading the Qur’an, and with exposure to universal human values having eroded the effects of their stifling madrassa educations and oppressive social norms, are rejecting the Qur’an and Islam as fundamentally anti-human, a gross embarrassment that none other than ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, et alia, are helping to bring to light. It was al-Qaida’s justification of 9/11 on the bases of passages from the Qur’an that set Ayaan Hirsi Ali on her way to atheism. She is far from unique.

Millions reject the notion that they were born Muslim. They assert, instead, that they were made into Muslims in a process over which they had no control, just as they had no control over which parents conceived them. So on what basis can Islam claim any prerogative over them at all, except the mediaeval social construct of submissive personal dependence? The Enlightenment and capitalism comprehensively dismantled the social order they see fighting for its life in their Muslim societies, and that still lives on in the pages of the Qur’an and in the dreams of those who would see the world subjected to it. So when Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, (that Wood quotes) admits, “We do not even understand the idea [of ISIS],” what he should say is, “We do not even understand the mind that sustains the idea [of ISIS].” That mind is not the mind of the free autonomous individual — the social construct bequeathed us by the revolutions that made the modern world and now sustain it — but the mind that precedes it, the mediaeval mind, the mind that sustained slavery and inhumanity, and had to give way to our world.

Graeme Wood’s critical contribution to the debate, not only on ISIS, but also more importantly on Islam, marks an important standard against which journalism can be benchmarked. There is, of course, a rapidly-growing academic and think-tank corpus examining the ISIS/ISIL/Daesh (Daish) phenomenon, as a quick search on Google Scholar will attest. Woods himself refers to the then work-in-progress on ISIS’s “apocalyptic thought” by Will McCants of the Brookings Institution[11]. We ought to be grateful to Woods for setting the bar so high for a profession notorious for reducing crucial world-historical questions to either the sensational or the banal. I, for one, look forward to his next “take”.


* This essay was first published here.


[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2016].

[2] See, e.g., Jonathan Powell, Negotiate with ISIS, The Atlantic, 7 Dec 2015http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/negotiate-with-isis/419157/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2016].

[3] See, e.g., H.A. Hellyer, Why ISIS cannot be negotiated with, The Atlantic, 10 Jan 2016 http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/what-to-do-about-isis-negotiations/423432/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2016].

[4] The way that Muslims during the early years of Islam contorted themselves over the Qur’an’s contradictory verses was a foretaste of today’s spectacular acrobatics to justify the Qur’an’s utterances on women.

[5] How often are we not treated to the ludicrous spectacle of a confident, highly-articulate London female voice accompanying a lively pair of eyes peeking through a slit in a niqab. No prizes for spotting the incongruity!

[6] Wood himself points out that, “They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.”

[7] This will both protect the children, and also settle the question of whether their wives are committed jihadis themselves, or merely obeying their husbands, as all good Muslim women are commanded to do. Look upon it as something Solomon might have done under the circumstances.

[8] Thankfully, as Wood points out, “most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad.”

[9] There are easy ways around that: use the passive voice: “Islam may be properly practised by taking care… etc.,” and throw in some citations to deal with lingering concerns; otherwise simply invoke freedom of speech.

[10] Wood makes further a mistake that is still all too common: the presumption that when someone is brought up to adhere to a certain religion, he or she belongs to that religion; that that religion somehow has jurisdiction over them. He does not mention having challenged any of his jihadi interlocutors on the notion that, “All Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.” To the Choudarys of this world, there is no such thing as freedom of religion. There is only religious obligation. If you have had the misfortune to be born to Muslim parents, you were born in original submission.

[11] William McCants, ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, 2015, St. Martin’s Press. At time of writing, I have not yet had the opportunity to consult this book.

My only disagreement with Ayaan

The reason Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the only Islamic reformer worth engaging in debate is because she’s an atheist. If she were a Muslim, then her interest would not be in reforming Islam, but in defending it — the fundamental problem of all Muslim Islamic reformers. Volumes have been written on the indefensibility of Islam and I shall not add to that copious corpus now. However, it does beg the question of why Ayaan should have any interest in reforming Islam at all.*

It seems to me that Ayaan’s confidence in an “Islamic Reformation” flows from a basic misreading of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation occurred at a time when the autonomous individual was still a nascent social construct and still far from the basic social unit it was later to become. The existing, though by then highly-unstable, social order of personal dependence still held sway in Christendom, indeed, all over the world. Although Catholicism, the ideology crafted to sustain Christendom’s social relations of personal dependence, was being dismantled, the autonomous individual was still confined to very small and isolated pockets of society, the cities, meaning that religion, as a social force, could not yet be dispensed with. The new ideology of Protestantism, though centred on the concept of individual autonomy, was nevertheless still a religion and still dominated all avenues of life.

The situation facing Islam today is by no means analogous to that faced by Christianity at the time of the Reformation. Not only has the autonomous individual matured, it has, in a process hugely accelerated by global connectedness and interaction, infiltrated all Muslim societies and cut the ground from beneath the feet of their tenacious mediaeval social relations of personal dependence, sustained as they have been till now, by Islam. Not only is there no need for an “Islamic Reformation,” such a reformation would an anachronism, an ahistorical event, indeed, a retrograde development. The same social relations that make religion in the West a private matter of personal choice, and hence socially irrelevant, have been bubbling up from underground in Muslim societies. The millions coming to universal consciousness in the Muslim world understand 21st-c reality and their place within it in a far more comprehensive way than did Martin Luther’s 16th-c flock. Bangladeshi bloggers are not interested in reforming Islam, they want freedom from religion altogether. The same with the literate, globalised citizenry in Iran, Egypt, Indonesia and every other country where Islam still holds sway.

We waste our time arguing over which verses of the Qur’an should be scrapped and which retained. Only Western Muslims, seemingly locked in a permanent identity crisis, could want to reform Islam. They need something that will not embarrass them when they exercise their freedom of religion. Because the autonomous individual is now universally the basic social unit, religion has had it’s time. Islam had managed to hang on for one and a half millennia because of the imperviousness of those societies to the autonomous individual. The cracks have been showing for some time, but with the Arab Spring the dam has burst…



*  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic: Why Islam needs a Reformation now, Harper, EPub edn. April 2015.