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Spencer and the ‘true Islam’

Robert Spencer opens this post by denying that he claims any one version of Islam to be ‘the true embodiment of the religion’.

“Moderate” Muslim clerics are as free as their “extremist” counterparts to claim that their version of Islam is the “true” one — however, they have never mounted an effective refutation to jihadist exegesis, or blunted the ability of jihadists to make recruits among peaceful Muslims by claiming that their version of Islam is the true one.

The use of quotation marks in that sentence is interesting.  They serve both to call the moderation of liberals into question and to imply that extremists are in fact not extreme at all, but normative.  In other words, Spencer simultaneously denies that he seeks to define Islam – and gives the reader a pretty strong idea which version of Islam he thinks is ‘true’.  Although he asserts that ‘jihadist exegesis’ has never been effectively refuted, there are in fact many critiques of violent extremism (from an Islamic perspective) to choose from.

This is not to say that all those who oppose violent extremism are moderate, let alone liberal.  For example it is quite possible to oppose terrorism (leaving aside the fact that terrorism is a contested term) and yet still support, at least in theory, the death penalty for apostasy and homosexuality.

But Spencer doesn’t simply overstate, implicitly, the support of Islam/Muslims for violence and terrorism.  The focus of his post is a fatwa which surely reflects the views of only a tiny minority of Muslims worldwide.  Kenyan cleric Abubaker Shariff Ahmed has sought to justify the Westgate massacre :

“It’s our innocents for your innocents. It was justified. As per the Koran, as per the religion of Islam, Westgate was 100 percent justified,” the Muslim cleric said of the attack that left at least 67 dead, among them women and children cut down by machine gun fire or grenades.

Makaburi asserted that no real Muslims died in the upmarket, part-Israeli-owned mall.

“How come a Muslim is at a shopping mall instead of being at a mosque?”

If Spencer can devote his time and attention to an Islamic perspective which is clearly an extreme outlier, why, if he really doesn’t have a view on what is the true or false interpretation of Islam, can he not also acknowledge some other Muslim outliers, for example the ‘liberal extremists’:

But something was different. While mingling over hors d’oeuvres, they discussed how to change Islam’s future. A woman spoke about fighting terrorism; she had married outside the Islamic faith, which is forbidden for a Muslim woman. A Pakistani man mentioned his plans to meet friends for drinks, despite the faith’s ban on alcohol.

In a corner of the room, an imam in a long gray tunic counseled a young Muslim with a vexing spiritual conflict: being gay and Muslim. The imam, also gay and in a relationship, could easily sympathize with the youth’s difficulties.

But when it comes to liberal Muslims, even if he can’t find anything  much to criticise them for (though he did manage to think up some reason for placing Quilliam beyond the pale recently) Spencer is always quick to emphasise how very unrepresentative they are of mainstream Muslim opinion.

That point does not emerge so clearly in his account of Abubaker Sharriff Ahmed.

It’s important to tackle chillingly illiberal views, and take a stand when others refuse to recognize the problem.  But with his focus on the very most extreme opinions/actions, on the one hand, and on largely irrelevant trivia (like chess set jihad) on the other, combined with his failure to acknowledge possible Muslim allies against extremism, Robert Spencer isn’t part of the solution.