My first criticism of Islam

My first criticism of Islam

(Rough translation of an article published in Dutch in the digital magazine De Bron, 3 March 2014.)

Just a quarter century ago, I published my first article criticizing Islam. It described the history of the death sentence by Ayatollah Khomeini on the writer Salman Rushdie, a case that had erupted half a year earlier in India with a ban on his newly published book The Satanic Verses. My text appeared on the first pages of the Dutch-language Communist weekly Toestanden (now defunct) on 3 March 1989, and was the reason for lectures at the Brussels and Sint -Niklaas sections of the Communist Masereel Foundation. At that time the Left was anti-religion, and so it welcomed criticism of Islam.

Stories born from ulterior motives

That fact itself refutes a lot of talk about myself that comes to my attention. Sometimes we are told that “September 11, 2001 brought a wave of Islam-bashing.” Since the perpetrators of the attacks in Washington and New York expressly invoked Islam, it seems only natural that people held Islam against the light, some in a scholarly and others in a less sophisticated way. But that has nothing to do with me, and the explanatory value for my own contribution to the criticism of Islam is zero point zero.

I wrote twelve years earlier about Islam, and the primary reason for this was a meeting in Varanasi in 1988 with a family of refugees from Bangladesh, who after intense persuasion told me with great difficulty the story of their persecution by their Muslim neighbors. (This is how you can recognize the genuine refugees; by contrast, asylum seekers thumping their chests upon entry about how they had been tortured, dish up a rehearsed story.) Incidentally, these were refugees as dark-skinned as their neighbors, and their “Islamophobia” had nothing to do with “racism.” If ever someone throws the “racism” clincher at me, he is ipso facto guilty of libel, and since racism in Belgium is legally an offence, he is also guilty of defamation — itself a criminal offence.

Since the ’90s, criticism of Islam in Flanders also entails the automatic association with the “VB” (formerly Vlaams Blok, “Flemish Bloc”, since 2004 Vlaams Belang, “Flemish Interest”). In fact, it took more than three years after my first and several following articles before that party even invited me to give a lecture. They probably had read my guest columns in the Gazet van Antwerpen, such as “Moordwapens en dooddoeners” (“Murder weapons and knock-down arguments”), on the precedent behaviour of the Prophet in the murders or executions of writers critical of Islam. In any case, the initiative was only of a few party tenors against the general party-line: this was still anti-foreigner, sometimes with Islam thrown in as an exotic marker, without any fundamental criticism of Islam.

On the contrary, at that time, the Nationalist Students’ Union led by current VB MP Bart Laeremans, invited Afghan Islamic fighters to give their account of their “freedom struggle” against the Soviets. As late as 1996, party chairman Frank Van Hecke said that to him, Buddhism was as foreign as Islam and he opposed it just as much. Only at the end of the 90s, there was a distinct bend in the party-line towards criticism of Islam. Even then there were party members, especially the nostalgics of damals (“back then”, i.e. before 1945), who saw Islam as an ally against the Jewish danger and against moral decadence; in 1992 this stand was still the dominant one.

The text of my lecture became the core of my later book De islam voor ongelovigen (“Islam for unbelievers”, 1997), which the many Islam apologists in our society have never even tried to refute. Or, well, there was a feeble one-sentence attempt by “honorary Palestinian” Lucas Catherine, who opined that quotations from the Quran don’t really matter because “the Quran is already an old book”; I invite him to go and repeat this blasphemy in a mosque full of Muslims. All the commentators who had actually read my text, both on the VB side (Marc Joris) and on the Left (Patrick Stouthuysen, Lucas Catherine) noted that my pro-assimilation position was diametrically opposed to the then party line, which was pro “return policy” and proposed a separate educational system for foreigners.

However, till today, any expression of criticism of Islam in Flanders, no matter how scientific, automatically evokes cries of “VB!” This comes from people so dull that they can’t think beyond party slogans, and really assume that this is where scholars get their ideas from. Still, in far-away India, Meera Nanda and Sanjay Subramaniam have insisted on displaying their fishwife nature by quoting this rhetoric as Gospel.

Absurd is also the latest contraption of a “moderate Muslim”, who disdainfully called Geert Wilders my “guru”. Clearly he hadn’t read any of my writings on Islam and its sources, though that didn’t stop him from venting his opinion, nor from being parroted by a compliant bourgeoisie. Apologists of Islam are indeed typically “under-informed but over-opinionated.”

However, even without ever opening a book, he could have known that he was telling nonsense: I wrote about the Islam problem in 1989, some 15 years before Wilders left his party, the liberal VVD, and gradually started to emerge as a controversial critic of Islam. The politicians go to consult the scholars, not vice versa. Wilders has been duly informed by Islam experts, especially by Islamologist Prof. Hans Jansen and the American-Lebanese post-2001 Islam analyst Robert Spencer. Since then, he develops a political line vis-à-vis the Islam problem that is much better informed than the multiculturalist line of his opponents;  but still only a simplified version of what Islam experts have developed.

The ideological landscape since then

The 90s were marked by a radical shift of the Left toward Islam. At first, liberals were anti-religious and anti-conservative, but a few years later they turned friends of Islam so that they managed to defend obscurantist practices such as the veil and even female circumcision. The whole panoply of leftist dominance in academia and the media, leftist rhetorical power and leftist hatred was pressed into the service of Islam. An illustration of this evolution was the fatwa Yves Desmet (editor of the Flemish leftist tabloid De Morgen) issued against Islam expert Professor Urbain Vermeulen. Universities that used to nominate its academic personal purely on merit, so that at least some “Orientalists” turned out to be critics of Islam, now base their recruitment policies on ideological conformity and give in to the anti-anti-Islamic attitudes of the dominant groups in society.

The most striking phenomenon is the systematic and persistent dishonesty of the Islamophile camp. One example is the recent series of articles on “racism” in the former quality broadsheet De Standaard, which thoroughly and deliberately made ​​an amalgam between racism and criticism of Islam, now mistermed “Islamophobia”. This is a militant Islamic term, literally declaring criticism of Islam a mental illness and effectively criminalizing it. A less elitist medium could perhaps resort to a plea of ignorance, but the Standaard owes it to its standing to spurn this explanation. The only explanation that remains then, is bad faith.

So-called moderate Muslims, sensitive to the negative publicity effect of radical Islam, adopt the discourse of the leftist Islamophiles. They claim to know of a “real, moderate Islam”, different from “fanatical Islam” or “Islamism”. This “real” Islam, invented by the media (but which authorities like Recep Tayyip Erdogan have called non-existent), should serve as a first line of defence for the true, orthodox Islam.

Many progressives, sensing the hostile mood towards Islam in the population, have tried to come across as progressive and critical, but at the same time channel the existing criticism towards targets other than Islam.

That Taslima Nasrin has been persecuted in Bangladesh since 1993, was not due to her feminist commitment, as our media claimed, but to her plea against the violent persecution of the Hindu minority in December 1992, which most of her vocal sympathizers at the time of her European award stubbornly concealed or distorted. Currently Annemie Struyf is inviting some attention for the problem of female circumcision through her documentary, but the VRT (Flemish TV broadcaster) diverted  its reportage to non-Islamic Africa, while the vast majority of affected women are Muslim. Moreover, virtually all cases of female genital mutilation outside of Africa, of which the count goes into the millions and is still rising (Yemen, Kurdistan, Indonesia and other countries, not to mention some fast-growing immigrant communities in Europe), have only come about as the handiwork of Islam. It is hypocritical to show female circumcision without addressing the problem of Islam. So this is my final opinion on the officially propagated Islamophilia: a mixture of ignorance and hypocrisy.

In all the slander and ostracism encountered, a funny consolation was the condescending attitude of Islamophiliac intellectuals, who prefer politically suitable fairytales to scholarship. From their crass ignorance about the core doctrine of Islam, they take on airs of superiority towards the fact-faithful simplicity of true scholars of Islam. We are said not to understand the “true ” Islam, it is all a matter of poverty and imperialism, we would be obsessively busy with the ancient founding texts of Islam while every sensible person “knows” that militant Islam is but a recent invention. They are like children who address adults compassionately, patiently explaining the true story of Sinterklaas (in the low countries, a Saint who brings toys for the children through the chimneys): “Those toys near the chimney on 6 December, some say that they were put there by our parents. Don’t believe that story, though, for they were put there by Sinterklaas.”

And now …

Life is short, but longer than necessary to fathom Islam, which is a simple subject. I still read about the history of Islam on occasion, but actually this doctrine and its application offer me no intellectual challenge anymore. That does not mean it has lost my interest, but our knowledge of Islam is quite sufficient for basing action on. I remain available for formulating a policy regarding Islam based upon scientific knowledge, not the fairytales and taboos of the current policies. But about Islam as a doctrine that motivates the actions of Muslims over the centuries, there is nothing new to understand anymore. There remain many people to convince, but mostly they have already heard the facts and simply decided to remain deaf to them. You can take a horse to the river but you cannot force it to drink. Some people are simply happier in their delusions, and only a rough collision with reality will be able to help them.

I discovered the problem of Islam, as a problem, shortly after I arrived in 1988 in the Indian city of Varanasi. I actually wanted to immerse myself in Hindu-Buddhist thought, but then I decided that the current inter-religious relations formed a more pressing concern. In my life, the study of Islam has been a temporary detour. In recent years I have found the way back to my first love. To her, I want to give the best of myself in the years that remain to me.

Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.