Voices
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Islamo-ignorance

We can't defeat an enemy when we don't know why he's fighting

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

Robert Spencer is used to being called an Islamophobe. And when the noted director of Jihad Watch travels to a speaking engagement, he has the bodyguards to prove that he takes his critics seriously. In 2006 lieutenants of Osama bin Laden named him in what amounted to a fatwa, calling on him, President Bush, and others to join Islam or die. Other death threats arrive by email, he told WORLD recently, and matter-of-factly.

But his most noted attacker of late is the now-dead former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In her posthumous book Reconciliation, released last month, she spent a page venting against the popular blogger and author of seven books on Islam, who she said "uses the Internet to spread misinformation and hatred of Islam." This she said of an at-times soft-spoken Catholic whose grandparents were forced from Turkey for refusing to convert to Islam, in a book she completed just as her jihadist assassin was strapping on his bomb vest.

"You're kidding," Spencer said in an email when I asked him about her remarks. "I hadn't heard of this before." When Spencer looked up the passage, he discovered that where Bhutto had quoted him from one of his books, she quoted a passage that was actually written by Ibn Warraq (Spencer edited the book). Warraq, like Bhutto, is Pakistani and, like Spencer, is a noted (and also death-threatened) critic of Islamic teaching.

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As charges and threats against him have mounted since his best-selling, post-9/11 Islam Unveiled, Spencer is a little defensive. "It is not hateful or bigoted to tell the truth," he contends. True, but for most of us, criticism of Islam has become white noise, and any discussion of moderate vs. radical Islam, jihadists vs. peaceful Muslims leaves us dazed and confused. Bring the boys home, make it go away, we say.

Spencer has a more workable idea: "We can't defeat an enemy when we don't even know why he is fighting, what he wants, or what will bring him to stop fighting." So about a year ago he took on a much-needed public service project. He decided to go through the Quran verse by verse, line by line, discussing it in context, he emphasizes, and showing what Muslim commentators say about the various passages. "No one will thus be able to say with any accuracy that I am ignoring peaceful sections or misstating how such passages are understood by Muslims," he says.

And so "Blogging the Quran" (with inspiration from Slate's "Blogging the Bible") was born. And every week Spencer faithfully posts successive commentary on about 40 verses from the Quran-making extensive use of Muslim commentaries and interpretations so that any student "will understand any given passage, and what its import might be for non-Muslims." Spencer stresses that you need a Quran for this study (and in his introduction, linked through jihadwatch.org, gives not only recommendations on the best English translation, but also hyperlinks to Quranic texts along the way).

For an average person like me, this is almost too easy. I can learn in Sura 3 not only the well-recited shame Allah casts on Christians and Jews who refuse to convert to Islam; I can learn the context preceding it, as Muhammad recasts the entire pedigree of Jesus. Who wouldn't want to be armed with such a study when faced everywhere in Christendom-and at the behest of leading scholars from Biola to Yale and in between-with the potent axiom that we Christians and Muslims worship the same God? In fact, this guided reading makes clear, our differences are past striking.

Our common workaday ignorance of Islam is shameful. Consider (a) "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost," (b) our war in the heart of Islamic civilization has cost us half a trillion dollars, not to mention thousands of lives, and (c) Muslims the world over too are grappling with the violent nature of their religion.

Even Spencer, who has studied the Quran for 30 years, says he has learned something from the project: "That the jihadists are even more Quran-centric than I had previously thought, and that we continue to ignore what the Quran has to tell us about what they're doing and why only at our own peril."

If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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