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Living with Islam

Begin with Western strength and confidence in our principles.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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We absolutely should not give any more money to the Egyptian military, thinking that it is somehow a check on the religious. It isn’t. What has happened in Turkey under the semi-Islamist Justice and Development party over 10 years is probably happening in Egypt much more quickly: The military and security establishments are surrendering to the new, people-backed power, the Brotherhood. It’s just stupid to feed the organization’s military muscle, to tempt it (or the Salafists waiting in the wings) to use its U.S.-supplied weaponry against the Egyptian people or Israel. We want to keep the Brotherhood focused on its internal challenges, both economic and moral. The Brothers most certainly will not be America’s friends or allies, but it is through them—not Egypt’s Westernized nationalists and liberals—that we are likely to see emerge the most effective opponents of the jihadists who live to kill Americans.

The Obama administration appears to sense that more anti-Muslim video provocations might be coming down the path. That’s wise—not because anti-Muslim zealots are everywhere (though there are a lot of them) but because fundamentalism is the intellectual currency of the Arab world. Islamic militants are going to keep challenging us, as our ideas and culture keep challenging them. And we would be wise to hold our ground, which is not what happened at the embassy in Cairo, where tweets and Internet statements, still up at this writing, bent over backwards to deplore offensive characterizations of Islam. For fundamentalists, the definition of what is offensive covers much, if not most, of Western culture.

Monty Python’s brilliant Life of Brian, which was deeply offensive to some Christians, is, really, at the center of who we are as Westerners: Through deduction, induction, and merciless wit, we question everything. Don’t we really want to see Muslims, especially in the Middle East, have the religious self-confidence and tolerance to make the Life of Muhammad? After the publication of Khomeini’s death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Rowan Atkinson, one of the great comedic geniuses of the West, put a Khomeini skit on Not the Nine O’Clock News, a TV series that mocked everything. The silent and stern ayatollah was suddenly confronted by a beautiful nude blonde who wrapped herself around him. His eyes wandered. The Iranians protested; British officialdom apologized.

Is that what America has come to? We have a sensitive secretary of state (who probably loved every moment of Life of Brian) apologizing for something that denigrates Islam? A little more than 30 years ago, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, who are now among the greatest scholars of Islam, wrote a book called Hagarism, which posited that Islam could well have been originally a Jewish messianic movement. The same year, another world-class scholar, at the University of London, John Wansbrough, wrote Quranic Studies, an extraordinarily erudite (and difficult) book arguing that the Muslim holy book could not have been written by one man, that it was the product of several men over a period of centuries.

Imagine if these books had been published after The Satanic Verses and some provocative fundamentalist had decided to take issue. It’s impossible to imagine anything more “denigrating to Islam” than authors who argue that the prophet Muhammad didn’t exist, the Koran wasn’t “revealed,” and Islam’s founding fathers were really Jews on the march. Would Hillary Clinton apologize for their outrageous writings? How in the world do Muslims develop freer, more liberal societies, where women can flourish, if we always allow the most dogmatic to win the debate? In a globalized world, they are in our business and we are in theirs.

We obviously should stand our ground, because we want to live in societies where comedians and scholars can address any subject they want. But most of all, we should hold firm so that Muslims can pass through the gauntlet of modernity faster and less bloodied than we did. It’s a very long road from where the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is now to a Muslim society sufficiently self-confident that it does not strike out with violence. But Muslims are unlikely to get there if the center of “global civilization” loses its nerve.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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