Haroon Moghul. Called, by Robert Spencer, the “Alfred Rosenberg” of Islam; by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a possible “Medina Muslim.”
Author of six New York Times bestselling books, all presumably his. TV personality. Commentator. Entrepreneur.
If you cannot afford an attorney
Haroon: Hi. I’m calling to see if you’ll be carrying Glenn Beck’s new book, It IS About Islam. It’s being released tomorrow.
Strand Bookstore: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. (Embarrassed gasp for air.) Hold please. (Sounds of clicking; customers nearby.) It seems we have a copy.
It IS About Islam: Exposing the Truth About ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran, and the Caliphate Glenn Beck Threshold Editions (August 18, 2015)
Strand: It could be a review copy returned to us. Would you like it on hold, so someone else doesn’t—(fails to suppress laughter)—buy it first?
Haroon: Yeah, uh, sure, because it’s for, a, like a friend. Of which I have many.
Strand: We’ll need your friend’s name and credit card.
That Islam is not, like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, a “great religion,” but a toxic death cult; that Muslims can only be peaceful “moderates” who work to reform their toxic death cult, or menacing “Islamists” who love their toxic death cult; that this conclusion is grounded in extensive interviews with numerous Muslims and significant travel through Muslim communities (which are actually zero, and none, respectively); that a book making no original contribution to the existing literature should nevertheless be published, because f–k trees; that it’s not unseemly for the world’s most militarily powerful nation to be scared of the world’s most impoverished nations; that an argument that Islam is more violent than anything else can be established by noting only those instances of violence in which Muslims do the killing, because comparative claims do not call for comparative analysis, or even, I don’t know, evidence.
Few people can make universal literacy seem like a dubious achievement, but Glenn Beck has done it. There’s nothing in this book that hasn’t been published before in another volume from the “we don’t hate Muslims, we just hate Islam” section of your local bookstore. I’m not even sure why this qualifies as an original work and not public domain. But here it is.
Beck alleges that all Muslims are either “moderates” or “Islamists.” Moderates are the Muslims he likes, who work to reform a religion that is fundamentally defective.
I asked Rula Jebreal—an author, journalist, award-winning filmmaker and frequent television commentator—to help. She said we are frequently “blind to the diversity and nuances within Islam,” and that those who offer us sweeping generalizations about Islam and Muslims aren’t just wrong, but are doing us a disservice: they offer “no approach to defeating extremism.”
Jebreal believes these folks are “putting forward their own favorite Muslims as the solution, even when they have no credibility or weight against extremism.” His favorite Muslims are the ones who denounce Islam. Which is Islamism.
Who are the “Islamists” in Beck’s schema? They are Muslims who don’t believe the existence of Islam in the world is a problem that needs to be solved. Most experts—people who believe that, before saying something, you should know something about that topic—define Islamists entirely differently, and don’t confuse them for jihadists. Or Islam.
I turned to Shadi Hamid to help me through this, not only because Hamid is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Center on Middle East Policy, but because he’s the author of the widely praised study of Islamist movements, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. Hamid did not mince words: “To conflate Islamists and jihadists seems almost an analytical crime.” As he put it, “Islamists believe that Islam and Islamic law should play a central role in public life, and organize around those goals in the public arena. Jihadists believe the creation of an Islamic state or caliphate is possible only through the waging of war against both Muslim and non-Muslim targets.”
“Islamists,” Hamid went on, believe in “gradualism,” meaning that they work slowly, peacefully and often democratically, towards their desired outcome. The current Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who are in any real analysis Islamists (not jihadists, as Beck alleges), have shown a “willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones.” Hamid explained: “The vast majority of Islamists are not jihadists.” Not only that, but “jihadists, in particular ISIS, consider mainstream Islamists to be unbelievers.”
What Beck has done is like confusing socialists for Stalinists. Sure, some of the goals, the rhetoric and the intentions are similar, but, seriously? The former are willing to work within the system, even if sometimes to significantly transform it, and can therefore be voted for or against, engaged with or debated, while the former is just looking to kill you. And me.
Most Muslims—easily the majority, I’d argue—are neither Islamists nor jihadists. They don’t want the Islamization of the state, or the conquest of territory. American Muslims, specifically, don’t fall into these political categories nearly at all. We’re more likely to be—gasp!—Democrats, or Republicans. Actually, mostly Democrats. (See also: Ben Carson.)
So why do some people keep confusing these very different categories? And assuming American Muslims are all potentially ISIS fighters? “Many of the people and politicians who make sweeping generalizations about Islamists have never actually had a proper conversation with a real-life Islamist. We don’t have to like Islamists, but we do have to understand them.” Hamid concluded: “That requires talking to them.”
I should add that Hamid later asked what motivated our exchange. I mentioned Beck’s book, and he responded: “When I heard he wrote a book about Islam, I was a bit dumbfounded. That’s like me writing a book about Confucianism.” He then dropped the mic.
Leading the witness
Beck isn’t just an Islamophobe. He’s compelling evidence that Islamophobia is, as Gil Anidjar argued in Semites: Race, Religion, Literature, an extension of anti-Jewish bias to new targets (without necessarily abandoning the old ones). How embarrassing then that some Muslim and Jewish communities have become safe harbor for those with some of the worst views of the other.
In 2013, I went to Jerusalem to study with the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was not an interfaith program but an educational program offering American Muslims the chance to experience the same curriculum Hartman has provided to Jewish and Christian leaders. But because of what happened, and continues to happen, to Palestinians—their displacement through a colonial project, and ongoing occupation and dispossession—just my agreeing to participate was extremely difficult.
I returned from the program properly ambivalent. On the one hand, having seen firsthand the deteriorating and harrowing conditions Palestinians are subjected to, and the increasingly pervasive structures of the occupation, I was more convinced than ever that a one-state solution was the only realistic and peaceable option. But I also grew to see how academic and cultural boycotts were not only frequently unhelpful, but actually harmful. Not only because of my positive experiences studying with Israeli academics. But also because of how some Americans (including American Muslims) responded to my going.
Most were respectful, even enthusiastic. Some were respectfully critical. Others were openly astonished. They perceived my willingness to sit down, listen and learn with scholars whose perspectives and political orientation were, admittedly, very dissimilar from mine, as at best cooptation, and at worst a kind of treason. But some of these critics happily and frequently traveled to Muslim-majority countries with odious human rights records, took money from those governments, and not just for foundations or grants but their entire salaries, while objecting to my travel to Israel.
That may not be anti-Semitism. It may just be Muslim chauvinism. Either way it was surprisingly bold in its hypocrisy and problematic as a strategy. Having spent years combatting and challenging anti-Muslim bigotry, I could not now in good conscience sit idle in the face of anti-Semitism. There is a difference between substantive criticism of Islam and bigotry. Likewise, there is a difference between substantive criticism of Judaism and bigotry. Beck has not only erased that border, he couldn’t find it if you built a wall over it, which he then walked into and banged his head against.
Beck claims Islam is uniquely, essentially and perpetually violent. In fact, however, he only demonstrated that some Muslims, and some Islamic causes, are extremely violent. In order to make his argument, he’d have to demonstrate that all other religions, ideologies and cultures are not historically prone to similar kinds of brutality as Islam. But of course he does no such thing, hoping instead that you’re too stupid to notice (or, perhaps, equally stupid?). When it comes to Islam, this kind of disingenuousness is remarkably common. Though I don’t claim it is exclusive to Islam.
When Ben Carson said he doesn’t believe Muslims should be President, he explained that this was because Muslims believe Shariah law must be paramount; Carson confuses all Muslims for some extremist groups. Who said Islamism is Islam (or the plausible interpretation of Islam), and that it isn’t, for example, a very recent, very modern, very problematic interpretation of Islam—one most Muslims likely do not adhere to? It’s not dissimilar to how some anti-Semites, Muslims included among them, confuse the actions of Israel for the mandates of Judaism. They might argue then that all Zionisms are equal—that Peter Beinart is Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira—which is what Beck does to Islam. Conflation, confusion, and collective judgment.
I’m not saying this because I want to be politically correct.
I’m saying this because I want to be correct.
Pleading the fifth
Anti-Semites and Islamophobes sample the worst instances of their other’s actions, mostly without context, and never subject their own tradition to the bad faith with which they approve others’. As such, they’ve not really proved anything: They’ve done a comparative analysis without the comparative part. Real analysis produces nuance, sophistication, shadings, implications, demands to hold others accountable—with demands to hold ourselves accountable.
As I read Beck’s book, all I could think was: This is like early-stage Nazi propaganda. Don’t believe me? I’ve called Beck as a witness against himself, using a find-and-replace exercise. I selected some of Beck’s more odious passages, swapped out only the most critical words—“Muslim world” became “Israel,” and “Islamism” became “Zionism”—and the end result is, well, read for yourself:
- “There are, however, moderate Jews—and while I know this comes off as being overly politically correct, it’s not an exaggeration to say they are our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends and our family members. They are the reformers who seek to make Judaism compatible with our individual liberties and freedoms and with a twenty-first century society.”
Well, many people probably think and say that about Beck and his supporters, but he hasn’t evolved to a point where he can understand irony.
- “Zionism cannot coexist with freedom in any meaningful way. Votes may be held, and constitutions may be written, but societies that insist on a truly Jewish foundation for their political authority do not allow for straying from what’s demanded by the Torah and the Talmud.”
All Zionism? Or some kinds of Zionism? Beck never distinguishes Islamisms, either. ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the same as Tunisia’s Nahda Party, which won a plurality in Tunisia’s first democratic election, governed in a coalition, subsequently lost its plurality in the next election and peacefully stepped aside. In both cases, the majority of Tunisians—overwhelmingly Muslim—voted for other parties, not the Islamists.
Beck would have you think they’re not really Muslim, or too stupid to understand a religion whose primary sacred language they speak and read and write in, and he does not, because he cannot.
- “We’ve allowed political correctness, fear, and simple ignorance to mask basic truths about Israel. These truths need to be confronted in order to defend ourselves, our families, and our country … We hear lies about Israel nearly every day, in nearly every place, in nearly every manner. They usually originate with elites in the media, in Washington, D.C., and in Hollywood.”
It is rather amazing that only two words in the above passage have been changed. There’s a reason why the Netanyahu administration’s preferred partners in the United States do not have the support of the majority of American Jews. Like American Muslims, they see right-wing racism up close and personal, and run far, far away in the other direction.
- “There’s no question that evil does exist. But it has a name: Zionism. Saying that Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism is like saying that a particular cut of beef has nothing to do with a cow. They are inexorably linked; one grows inside the other. There are plenty of ways to practice Judaism—and plenty of choices in cuts of steak—but they all come from the same place.”
Are you comfortable with this kind of rhetoric?