This easy-to-read volume of essays, each originally published in the journal of Catholic culture, Annals Australasia, is an important caveat to the simplistic notion that Islam is a religion of peace and that Islamist terrorists are not ‘true Muslims’. For more than half a century, the author, a priest, has been a close student of Islam and the cultures of the Middle East, and has published translations of Arab history plus monographs on Middle Arabic. Few Australians have been more deeply intellectually immersed in Middle Eastern Muslim culture and are more qualified to assess political Islam and then explain it to a wider public.
Father Paul Stenhouse is profoundly sympathetic to those Muslims trying to redeem their faith from the grip of ‘death to the infidel’ theology, but far from certain that this humane re-interpretation is likely to prevail without much upheaval first. In part, this is because of the clumsiness of Western diplomacy that makes common cause with extremists, such as the Afghan Mujahideen, for instance, for immediate advantage against Soviet Russia, only to spawn al-Qaeda in the longer term. His book is a plea for greater understanding of the diversity of Islam, as well as for caution in imagining that there can be Western-driven change for the better any time soon.
It goes almost without saying that most contemporary commentary on Islamist terrorism assumes that the West must really be to blame for it. Stenhouse is trenchantly critical of recent Western policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria (somewhat too critical, in my view) but squarely faces the historical truth that Islam has almost always spread by conquest and that the overwhelmingly dominant strains of Islam (even now) see no separation between religion and politics and have no concept of minority rights.
Muslim rage, he points out, has almost nothing to do with the crusades, which only began half a millennium after Jerusalem was first lost to the Muslims. After 400 years of supposedly ‘peaceful’ coexistence between Christians and their Muslim rulers, the 700 Catholic bishops of North Africa had been reduced to just five by 1050. Mohammed might well have been, to the Muslim faithful, the prophet of God; but it was by military conquest that he established his authority. It was clearly laid down in his lifetime that the alternative to converting to Islam (which means ‘submission’ in Arabic) was death, or permanent subservience plus the payment of higher taxes. It’s probably true that, in some instances, the peoples subject to Muslim invasion preferred Islamic conquest to the sometimes even more brutal and despotic Byzantine and Persian regimes of the time; nonetheless, within a century of Mohammed’s death, the sword had carried Islam beyond the Pyrenees and to the gates of Constantinople.
Charles Martel may have beaten back the Moorish armies at Tours in southern France in 732 but for another three centuries, until the beginning of the crusades in the 11th century, Italy was subject to raids and partial Muslim conquest; and a Turkish army laid siege to Vienna as late as 1683. Irredentist Islamist leaders, such as Turkey’s ‘new sultan’, Recep Erdogan, have forgotten none of this even if almost every Westerner has.
As Stenhouse sees it, the problem is the disconnect between the Mohammed of Mecca, who was the genial prophet of persuasion; and the Mohammed of Medina – the place to which he subsequently fled after a dispute – who was the militant prophet of compulsion. Unfortunately for subsequent history, all of Mohammed’s recorded sayings are the inspired word of God; and the later Medina period has set the tone for all that’s followed. If you like, it’s the reverse of Christianity, where a later and much-more-genial New Testament supplemented and often enough supplanted the unforgiving Old one. As well, especially for the majority Sunni Muslims, there’s no interpretive authority, equivalent to the Pope, or even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who can rule conclusively on which parts of the Muslim scripture apply literally, and which only figuratively to the modern world.
Stenhouse is an admirer of Mohamed Taha, a former imam in Omdurman and Muslim reformer, who said that the irenic Meccan texts should now take priority over the harsher Medina ones that had served their purpose. For drawing this distinction, he was executed in 1985. This is the fate of almost everyone who dares to question, in a Muslim country, the ‘death to the infidel’ orthodoxy that’s generally accepted even by peaceful Muslims who wouldn’t dream themselves of killing in the name of God.
In Stenhouse’s judgment, the best that can be said of Islam is not that ‘death to the infidel’ is contrary to Muslim teaching; just that it’s not commanded by it: hence the falsehood, repeatedly asserted by Western leaders, invariably after the latest atrocity, that Islam is really a ‘religion of peace’. It may be a religion of peace, but it is certainly not necessarily so; and those Muslims who assert that it is, indeed, a religion of peace, at least in the Middle East, are at serious risk of being killed by their co-religionists. To Stenhouse, it is the duty of thoughtful Muslims, in relatively safe countries such as Australia, to do everything they can to cleanse Islam of violence; and it’s the duty of the rest of us to give them every reasonable encouragement.
Father Stenhouse died last month, just a few weeks after this book was published, and a few days after he’d prepared what would turn out to be the last issue of Annals, the magazine he’d edited since 1964. Writers die, but their writings never do; and while they continue to be read the writer lives on, at least in spirit. After three decades of friendship, I owed him this review; to encourage others to get to know, albeit posthumously, a wonderful man, a fine teacher, and a friend of The Spectator Australia.
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