Again peaceful Muslims have reared their ugly, barbaric head, murdering four American diplomats including the ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, in a rampage against the U.S. embassy in Benghazi supposedly in retaliation against a movie which paints a portrait of the founder of Islam, the "prophet" Muhammad, in a negative light. The film, which this writer hasn't seen nor the 14 minute trailer, purportedly presents Muhammad, among other things, as a womanizer, child abuser and a ruthless murderer. We don't know the absolute truth about what sort of human being he was, because of the "serious scholarly controversies" about Islam. An ex-Muslim, Ibn Warraq, critiqued his former religion, Islam, and wrote several books, indicating why he is no longer a Muslim, and why the authenticity of the Qur'an is in question.
More than one hundred years ago Western scholars began to investigate the origins of Islam, using the highest standards of objective historical scholarship of the time. Their aim was to determine what could be known about Muhammad and the rise of early Islam quite apart from the pious and totally unobjective traditions preserved by the Muslim religious community. In some ways this research was inspired by a similar investigation of Christianity made famous by Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus. Today, although much has been learned about early Christianity, little comparable progress has been made in the field of Islamic Studies. Here objective historical research has long been severely handicapped both by the resistance of Muslim societies to Western analysis of their sacred traditions and by the apologetic approaches of many Western scholars, who have compromised their investigations for fear of offending Muslim sensitivities.Some sites show that the barbaric murderer which the movie depicts as the true Muhammad is historically accurate-even if they do have their own agenda. We don't know for certain. But there is one thing we do know: attacking the U.S. Embassy and murdering an ambassador and U.S. Diplomats is an act of war. It doesn't matter what excuses are used to explain it--an insulting film about Muhammad and the Qur'an does not justify murder and terrorism. Rather, it is an exercise in free speech. By this murderous attack, the perpetrators prove the point: they are what they do: barbaric, vicious, intolerant and evil. And president Obama's response has been tepid, at best. Where is the outrage? Where is a declaration of retaliation against an act of war? Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has asked the question and stated the answer-brilliantly, as usual, comparing the Arab response to an insulting film to the Mormons' response to the musical The Book of Mormon. Did our president even respond by defending the freedom of speech?
It is in this context that Ibn Warraq presents this anthology of the best studies of Muhammad and early Islam ranging from the very beginnings of Islamic Studies in the nineteenth century to contemporary research. In his introductory essay, Warraq makes it clear that some very serious scholarly controversies lie at the heart of Islam. First, the Koran itself, the Muslim sacred scripture and the foundation of Islamic culture, is called into question as the basis for objective historical knowledge of Muhammad. Some scholars have also questioned the reliability of most of the other early Arabic documents that supposedly attest to events in the life of Muhammad and his followers. Was the Koran really dictated by Muhammad? Was it actually compiled earlier than a hundred years after the Prophet's death? How much of Muslim sacred tradition, in the light of objective historical analysis, must be dismissed as unreliable hearsay? Were the motives of the first Muslim conquerers during the Jihad truly religious in nature or largely mercenary? These disturbing questions, long suppressed throughout the history of Islamic scholarship, are here raised again in these erudite and thoroughly researched essays by noted scholars, including C. H. Becker, Herbert Berg, Lawrence I. Conrad, G. R. Hawting, Arthur Jeffret, Judith Koren and Y. D. Nevo, Henry Lammens, Ibn Rawandi, Ernest Renan, Andrew Rippin, and Joseph Schacht.
A defense would also point out that an Islamic world that insists on a measure of religious respect needs also to offer that respect in turn. When Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi—the closest thing Sunni Islam has to a pope—praises Hitler for exacting "divine punishment" on the Jews, that respect isn't exactly apparent. Nor has it been especially apparent in the waves of Islamist-instigated pogroms that have swept Egypt's Coptic community in recent years.Simply put, Islam is showing itself to be a lousy religion, a lousy culture with lousy values. And our president is deferring to it. I know who I'm not voting for this coming Novermber.
Finally, it need be said that the whole purpose of free speech is to protect unpopular, heretical, vulgar and stupid views. So far, the Obama administration's approach to free speech is that it's fine so long as it's cheap and exacts no political price. This is free speech as pizza.
President Obama came to office promising that he would start a new conversation with the Muslim world, one that lectured less and listened more. After nearly four years of listening, we can now hear more clearly where the U.S. stands in the estimation of that world: equally despised but considerably less feared. Just imagine what four more years of instinctive deference will do.