This essay is not an argument for some religion other than Islam. There is something of the Randian in me, and I believe that religious faith, with its rejection of reason, is inherently harmful. In an ideal world, there would be no religious faith, but only religion in the form of traditions, codes of behaviour, philosophical sensibilities and so forth. Those who find such a world hard to envision should reecall the many religions throughout history, from Judaism to Shinto and Roman paganism, whereof faith was a much less central component than it is of, say, Christianity. Yet whereas some religions are worth preserving in such a modified form, others should be completely abandoned. This article is about one such doctrine: Islam.
Now, the moment one criticises Islam, one runs the risk of being smeared as a bigot. Just think of Ben Affleck’s infamous attack on Sam Harris, whose disparagement of the religion he found, or pretended to find, “racist.” Why this absurd level of sensitivity? Part of the problem is the categorisation of religions as fundamentally distinct from all other belief systems. One is not, say, Anglophobic for criticizing Fabianism, but one is, supposedly, bigoted for finding fault with Islam. Why? Because religion is an immutable characteristic, an integral part of a person’s identity. It isn’t really, of course — or if it is, then so is political belief, and we’re back where we started. Sure, religion is generally inherited from one’s parents, but so is political belief. Sure, a person’s political beliefs can change, but so can his religious convictions. One study has found that “of the approximately 4.2 million persons from countries characterised by Islam who live in Germany, only about half rate themselves as religious.” This also raises the question whether all those respondents from Islamic backgrounds who had decided that Islam was not good enough for them were, by Ben Affleck’s logic, racist against themselves.
The notion that religion should always be treated with more sympathy and less judgment than worldviews of other kinds deserves to be flatly rejected. I do reject it. If you were raised as a Muslim or a communist, I don’t think that continuing to be one makes you a bad person. If you convert to Islam or communism (or Mormonism, or fascism, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith) at an age when you ought to be mentally mature, that is an immoral act.
Another reason for the equation of criticisms of Islam with hateful attacks against Muslims is the perception that all the culture of Muslim-majority countries can be reduced to Islam. This is, of course, patently false — were it not, Christian Arabs would have nothing in common with their Muslim compatriots. In truth, the Islamic religion is a historical mistake which has crippled and hamstrung these countries for many centuries, and their populations have more of an interest than anyone else in leaving this stifling creed behind.
Time and again, the people most committed to these countries’ freedom, dignity and national consciousness have been among their least religious denizens, and time and again Islam has been an obstacle to the achievement of these goals. The great Atatürk, creator of modern Turkey, and his Kemalist brethren are the best example of this pattern. On page 44 of the compendium Medeni Bilgiler, the matchless statesman writes:
“Turks were a great nation even before they accepted the religion of Islam. After accepting this religion, this religion did not [cause ]either the Arabs, nor [the] Persians […] of the same religion, nor others to unite with the Turks and form a nation. On the contrary, the national ties of the Turkish nation loosened; it numbed national feelings and national excitement. This was very natural. Because the purpose of the religion brought by the Prophet Muhammad was a policy of the ummah, which is above all nationalities and covers the whole.”
To be clear, I do not speak Turkish. I have translated the passage through Google Translate and edited it to make the wording less redundant and ungrammatical. Still, the implication in the second part of the passage is clear: the religion of Mohammad is inherently, not just occasionally, corrosive to national sentiment.
Likewise, in Algeria, it was the comparatively secular National Liberation Front that freed the country from French colonialism, only to find itself battling the Islamist Armed Islamic Group during the decade-long Algerian Civil War. For a very personal account of said war, see the memoir Contre-espionnage algérien: Notre guerre contre les Islamistes.
Consider also the case of Chechnya. The Chechen Atatürk, the architect and leader of the mountainous land’s independence movement during the 1990s, was Dzokhar Dudayev, a figure of grand vision and towering intellect. Since the Chechen case is here being adduced merely as an example, this is not the place for a detailed investigation of the man’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. Let us therefore take account mainly of one scholar’s opinion, which accords with all the evidence I have seen.
According to political scientist Aleksey Malashenko, a leading expert in the politics of historically Islamic regions, “Dudayev did not consider himself an ardent Muslim believer. In fact, he could not have been one because of his upbringing, way of life and professional occupation.” Indeed, the decision by “Dudayev and his associates” to emphasise the Islamic factor in their war for independence was a calculated one, as they came to believe “that appeals for a holy war were capable of uniting the nation.” Even this calculation seems to have been merely a response to a historical accident: as Malashenko notes, “the Chechen conflict began amid a general ‘Islamic renaissance’ on the territory of the former USSR.”
Consider, also, the previous history of Chechen resistance to Russian domination. Although the two centuries before the twentieth saw Islam function as the main ideological basis for Chechen warring against Russia, certain combants’ programme “of establishing an Islamic state” sowed discord among the indigenous population. Moreover, in service to this religious agenda, “Sheikh Mansur […] destroyed whole villages which dared to disobey him.” Later, during the Soviet period, the communists sometimes suppressed the locals’ Islam and, at other times, used it to control Chechens for their own ends: “the government flirted with the Muslims, pitting them against the anti-Soviet Cossack movement (as in the 1920s).”
Possibly the most striking passage in Malashenko’s paper is this:
“Unlike their ethnic mountain peoples’ solidarity, Islam was not a decisive factor for the Chechens’ survival in an alien environment. Much more effective was their adherence to national traditions, such as the custom of burying their dead at all costs in their native land.”
To sum up: the use of Islam as a basis for the region’s struggle for independence led to infighting on the level of mass atrocities; the religion was instrumentalized by the Soviets to control the Chechens, and when times were toughest, Islam failed where nationalism succeeded in preserving the Chechen community.
In the years since the Chechen rebels were defeated in 1996, religion has again been used to subjugate their people. In 2007, it was reported that Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladimir Putin’s proxy ruler of Chechnya, was “promoting a brand of ethno-territorial nationalism that is based largely on popular Islam” and imposing religious behaviour on his population, for instance by “requiring that all women employed in the state sector, and all female school and university students, wear the hijab.” In other words, he was attempting to define Chechen national sentiment in terms of Islam, a creed whose expressions and institutions he would control.
In an interview from 1996, Dudayev sounds downright despondent about Chechnya’s turn towards the religion of Mohammad: “[The Russians] have forced us to take the way of Islam even if we were not properly prepared to embrace Islamic values. Now we could succumb to a perverted form of Islam, which might be dangerous to the West.” Sure, he is not explicitly lamenting Islamisation as such, merely stating that the Chechens were not ready for it. But does anyone actually think along such lines? I doubt anyone can show me a devout European or American politico who wants to see his country embrace Christian values at some point in the future, but not yet.
How can I, some pompous Westerner, have the arrogance to call on other countries to relinquish the religion to which they have historically adhered? Firstly, I reserve the right to judge anyone and anything, for any reason. Secondly, I have already named Western religions which I think should also disappear entirely. Thirdly, this objection ignores the fact that Islam was forced onto those countries by violence in the first place. Even modern-day Saudi Arabia, the religion’s birthplace, was brutalised into accepting Mohammedanism, as Muslim tradition proudly admits. Military historian Raymond Ibrahim chronicles much of Islam’s gory expansion in his expansive volume Sword and Scimitar. Why did the Berbers, for instance, convert to Islam? Because the Arabs had been massacring and enslaving them for being “infidels,” of course. One seventh-century scribe’s comment on Mohammad, which Ibrahim quotes early in the book, keeps coming back to mind as one reads further: “He is deceiving. For do prophets come with sword and chariot?”
If the nations of the world that to-day are dominated by Islam throw off its yoke, one might ask, will they have any culture left? The question is ridiculous, for the grandest parts of their heritage are non-Islamic. Think of Omar Khayyam, the twelfth-century poet and polymath who did so much to advance algebra and conducted an “outstandingly accurate” measurement of the length of a year. Having lived in Khorasan, Bukhara, Samarkand and Isfahan, he was practically an Eastern Erasmus, a historical figure shared by Persia, Turkey and Central Asia.
He was also, as many have speculated based on his poetry, likely an atheist or agnostic. This would only have been appropriate, as Khayyam hailed from Iran, one of the clearest examples of a country that had been, to recycle Atatürk’s phrase, “a great nation even before [it] accepted the religion of Islam.” One analysis that leans relatively heavily towards deeming Khayyam to have been a believer is the entry on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The authors cite the great Persian scholar’s philosophical treatises, in which he defends certain religious ideas, and interpret those verses he wrote which suggest an attitude of scepticism or agnosticism as reflecting merely his emotional experiences of the world around him, rather than what he believed on an intellectual level. This interpretation seems highly dubious, as the same article quotes the following lines from Khayyam’s pen:
“The secrets which my book of love has bred,
Cannot be told for fear of loss of head;
Since none is fit to learn, or cares to know,
’Tis better all my thoughts remain unsaid.”
Against this backdrop, given the conflict between what Khayyam explicitly wrote on religious matters in his treatises and what he subtly implied in his poems, it seems much likelier that the latter reflects his true convictions, whereas the former was written to protect himself, or simply as an intellectual exercise. Even if Khayyam truly believed all he wrote in the treatises, there is little, if anything, the authors attribute to him which implies a religious belief beyond deism. Meanwhile, the article acknowledges that “Khayyam challenged religious doctrines, alluded to the hypocrisy of the clergy, [and] cast doubt on almost every facet of religious belief.”
Moreover, even these commentators see fit to observe:
“It is noteworthy that Khayyam’s philosophical treatises were written in the Peripatetic tradition at a time when philosophy in general and rationalism in particular were under attack by orthodox Muslim jurists — so much that Khayyam had to defend himself against the charge of ‘being a philosopher.’”
More broadly, the main effect that Mohammad’s creed had on Khayyam was to trip him up and hold him back. The polymath’s powerful patron, Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, was assassinated by a member of a rival Islamic sect, whereupon the mathematical maestro fell out of favor with the royal court. J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson write:
“Funding to run the Observatory [where he worked] ceased and Khayyam’s calendar reform was put on hold. Khayyam also came under attack from the orthodox Muslims who felt that Khayyam’s questioning mind did not conform to the faith. He wrote in […] the Rubaiyat[, the collection of his quatrains] :
‘Indeed, the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my Credit in Men’s Eye much wrong:
Have drowned my Honour in a shallow cup,
And sold my reputation for a Song.’”
According to various online sources, though I have been unable to locate the source of this claim, Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked “that he would never forgive Christianity for taking [Blaise] Pascal.” The great iconoclast, it seems, was not a little distraught to see such a brilliant mathematician waste his exceptional brainpower on Christian apologetics. To speak similarly of what Islam appears to have done to Khayyam, forcing him to veil his true thoughts and squander time and energy fending off religious attacks, would be entirely justified.
There are many other examples of cultural achievements produced within Islamised nations, but in fairly un-Islamic veins. Hugh Fitzgerald, for instance, provides a list of poets from Islamically dominated societies who wrote about romance, courtship and sensuality:
“in the very distant past, there were poets in Dar al-Islam who had something to say on these matters. Many were Persians: Hafiz, Sa’adi, Omar Khayyam[…]. Arabic-language poets as well, but in even more distant days. Pre-Islamic [d]ays, for example, or possibly not pre-Islamic at all, depending on when you date the Mu’allaqat[…]. [L]et’s add […] Al-Billanubi, […] or Al-Tubi […] but I won’t mention Abu Nuwas[…]”
This article is in large part directed at those still in the grip of the unfortunate doctrine we have been discussing. All religions I know are false, but some are at least beneficial, and worth preserving when cleansed of the toxin of religious faith. I cannot say the same for the teachings of Islam. I know of no significantly large variant of the religion that does not suffer from the same rotten core. Even Sufism, which has been so romanticised in the West, does not fit the bill. Religious scholar Robert Spencer argues:
“Contrary to popular belief, the Sufis do not reject violent jihad. Their towering figure, al-Ghazali, taught it, and Sufis have been at the vanguard of the Chechen jihad. Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn gave birth to Hamas and Al-Qaeda, was strongly influenced by Sufism.”
He goes on. Before, by the way, you lob some ad hominem argument at the much-maligned name Robert Spencer and his publication Jihad Watch, you should at least check whether your accusation is addressed in the FAQs on its website.
Of course, most people born into this religion are perfectly decent. So are most people born into communism. Both creeds belong on the ash heap of history. For centuries, a deplorably large portion of mankind has dwelt beneath the whip and jackboot of Islam. It has not made its lives better. “Muslim-majority nations[…] are typically reluctantly immune to democracy,” concludes one extensive study. Nor is the economic weakness typical of countries and communities possessed by Islam surprising. Another study found “that Christian religions are more positively associated with attitudes conducive to economic growth, while religious Muslims are the most anti-market” of the religious groups examined. Islam also made people more willing to trust governments than Christianity did (how is that working out for, say, the Middle East?) and, of the religions studied, showed the least “negative impact on the willingness to cheat on taxes.” Furthermore, “Protestants, Catholics, and Hindus want more private ownership, while Muslims want significantly less private ownership[ and] are strongly against competition.” In other words, Islam’s teachings are poison to economies.
Faced with Islam’s long record of failure to improve quality of life, what remains to its apologists but saber-rattling militaristic triumphalism? The Turkish pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah, in a fit of downright antediluvian savagery, yammers: “With their pure Ahl as-Sunnah beliefs that they did not contaminate with philosophy, Turks became the most powerful state in the world and buried the Byzantine Empire in history.” It would be excessive here to reiterate Raymond Ibrahim’s explanation, in Sword and Scimitar, of the combination of historical happenstance and the earlier weakening of the Byzantine Empire that allowed the armies of Islam to roll over it, beginning its centuries-long demise. A different point he makes is more pertinent: the Turks were already a nation of skilled warriors before they accepted Islam, as were the Arabs and Berbers. It is not that Islam made nations better at warfare, but rather that its doctrine appealed to warlike peoples in the first place. And how effective, in the many centuries since, have Islamic radicals been in war compared to their (more) secular compatriots? We have already mentioned the great commanders Atatürk and Dudayev, and the National Liberation Front, which fought a successful insurgency against the French and later thwarted an Islamist insurgency against itself. We may also recall the unbelievably unpopular Afghan communist government, which nonetheless outlasted the Soviet Union despite the best efforts of the mujahideen it faced. Then there are the Chechen Kadyrovites, who have proved to be just about the least capable forces on the Russian side of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and other similar examples.
When will the people of the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and other regions turn their backs on the historical mistake of Islam? Perhaps sooner than we think. Two people who should know write: “given the public’s long experience with theocratic rule, Iran has perhaps become the most secular Muslim nation in the Middle East, Turkey included.” When the mullahs’ sclerotic regime finally collapses, one can only guess how free Iranians — possibly ninety million of them — will talk about Islam and what trends that could inspire abroad. Perhaps we will yet see those long-subjugated nations of the East and South shake off the shackles of their spiritual enslavement.