• Women
  • October 10, 2008
  • 30 minutes read

Robert Spencer’s Obsession With Islam: What Would Jesus Do?

Robert Spencer’s Obsession With Islam:  What Would Jesus Do?


I recently issued a statement regarding my appearance in the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War With the West”.  Here is the full statement:

“Sadly, it would seem that I have allowed myself to be used. I gave an interview to the makers of “obsession” wherein I explained the meaning of Jihad, and its misuse by extremists. I understood that the film would be used objectively, focusing on fanatics who seek to spread violence. I am aware that there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that says it is not about Islam in general, but only about extremist interpretations.

“But the material from some of the speakers gives the lie to the disclaimer: many of them are not experts, or have used the mantle of academic qualifications to purvey hate. That their alarmist drivel should be mixed with my whittled down interview proves that the intent of the film is not to educate, but to mislead. The free distribution of the film to voters in particular districts shows the political chicanery that is the motive, and the secrecy about the financing of the distribution only underlines the evil intent in circulating this vile piece of propaganda.

“Evidence seems to indicate the involvement of Aish ha-Torah in this dishonest enterprise. I find that particularly distressing, because any Jewish organization ought to realize what the film seeks to do: they demonize an entire community to the point where a government takes action to further beleaguer its citizens and resident aliens simply because of their religious identity. This bigotry over religion and identity is precisely what caused the Shoah — and it is sad that those who ought to have learned what hate can engender should seek to imitate Nazi propagandism.

“Yet — for all the nefarious intent of the distributors of the film — I must also accept culpability for allowing myself to be so used. I still oppose many of the traditional interpretations of Islam—but that has nothing to do with the film Obsession. I cannot stand by silently and allow my participation in such satanic demonization of innocents. I apologize to my fellow Muslims for appearing in such a film. I apologize to my Jewish teachers and friends– who have warned me time and again about falling into such a situation—for not heeding their counsel. And I expect now that those who support the film will make me their target. But again: I am no diplomat, and I love a good fight. I am obsessed with the truth. Let’s get it on. “

As I said in the statement, I expected that those who support the film would make me their target.  This is exactly what has happened.  Robert Spencer in an article on his Jihad Watch site has tried to accept my challenge, but his scholarship is lacking.  In this article he seeks to misguide, manipulate, and twist the argument around.  This is not the first time that I have had to correct Spencer’s distortions. 

This time around he raises the red-herring and disproven nonsense about Muhammad marrying his daughter-in-law–and here, either Spencer is a bigger ignoramus than I think, or he has once again resorted to prevarication.  It is difficult to figure out where he is coming from.  The issue of whether or not an adopted son like Zaid is technically Muhammad’s son could be answered by any first week student of Islamic law.  Perhaps Spencer should go reattend Professor Carl Ernst’s classes and get some deprogramming from a bona-fide expert on Islam.

Spencer insinuates that I am not a moderate. Perhaps he is right. Let me set something straight.  These labels: radical, moderate, liberal are set up by whom? And to describe whom? As long as I am attacking certain traditional Islamic beliefs, I am a moderate? And when I defend Islam I become a radical? Well here is something Spencer and his satanic cabal ought to know: I care not about your labels, I care about the truth. And it would seem that every single person, every single organization that seeks to fulfil the duty of setting the story straight is demonized. SO I say to Spencer, who pretends to be a scholar on Islam–peddle your hate, while you remain rejected and despised by those in scholarship. I have often quoted the words attributed to Jesus “by their fruits ye shall know them”–and you are a classical example of a bad fruit seeking to spoil the rest in the basket.

Now as far as me not saying anything when Obsession was aired on Fox, perhaps I am not in the loop as I ought to be, but you see, this business of searching the channels for who is peddling hate is not something I do normally. I have another job, thankfully. Perhaps I ought to have spoken up. Perhaps I have waited too long. Perhaps for once Spencer is right. I ought to have distanced myself sooner from this nonsense.

There seems to be some sort of jealousy in the way Spencer writes about how I speak to audiences, and he keeps focusing on Jewish audiences. I wonder….is it because that many of them chose to ignore him and his hateful trash?  So here is a bone to chomp on, Mr. Spencer. I hold to those opinions in public and in private.  I do feel that there are radical Muslims out there who would cause havoc. I do hold that there are Judeophobic hadith. And I do not for a minute doubt the verses in the Qur’an that speak of the Jews not following what they were supposed to do: and here is whey you miss my message, for your perception is thwarted by bigotry.  My agenda is to show the Muslims that Israel is a legitimate state, and one ought not to try to use scripture against it. If you knew any Arabic at all, you would understand the strength of my argument. But because you are so ignorant, you forget that one does not have to look to the Qur’an to find out about broken covenants. This is not some baseless charge created by the QUr’an; in fact, the BIble–of which you also pretend knowledge–is replete with mention of such, as for example in Leviticus 18:25-28) Perhaps sometime when you are not so busy peddling hate, you will take time to read it.

This issue of Judeophobia is an issue that Spencer has raised before and that I have answered in a symposium on Front Page.  This is what I said at that time regarding this issue:

The Qur’an respects certain groups of Jews, and seems to think certain other groups (of Jews) are not observing Judaism. In fact, many scholars, among them Goitein, Lazarus-Yafeh, feel that the Qur’anic positions often reflect disputes between Jewish groups. Others such as Menachem Kister et al have shown that the Jewish tradition(s) tremendously influenced Islam, and as such a lot of the imagery of the Qur’an is based on Judaic paradigms.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many Jewish oral traditions have not reached us, but a familiarity with them is assumed in the Qur’an.

Thirdly, the aspect of the Qur’an “picking” on certain groups of Jews is not something peculiar to Islam–every new religion establishes its “correctness” by pointing out the perceived problems of older established religions.  Judaism, according to the Torah, talks of the older religions and other peoples in horrible terms, and we have the story of the Moabites as a single example.  Christianity does the same, with Jesus likening his own people to swine and dogs (Matthew 7:6, 2 Peter 2:22 ).

Fourthly, the Qur’an is primarily an oral document, put together in a way unlike a scriptural text. And so, unlike a book, wherein there must be cohesion between a page and its preceding and subsequent pages, this is not an elemental aspect of the Qur’an. It jumps from topic to topic, and one set of verses can cover several topics…the connection between the topics requires familiarity with the contents of the entire document, which is why memorization is such a cherished prerequisite for exegesis.  Having outlined these few basics, let us take each part of the question

How can I say that the Qur’an respects the Jews: let us examine: Q2:47, Q2:62, Q3:33, 5:20: those verses certainly do respect the Jews, in fact, telling them that they are entitled to the kingdom of heaven. The Qur’an refers to the Torah as a book of light (Q5:44)–and the foregoing are only a few examples of the respect of Judaism and its Scripture.

On the issue of falsehood, such as in Q3:71: based on what I have explained, how can we say that this is for ALL Jews? And is the Qur’an saying something that Jews did not say about themselves? Let us examine Jeremiah 8:8, Deut 31:29. The Qur’an was quite familiar with these charges made by Jewish groups against each other, and simply used the arguments. For distortion, as in Q4:46, the same argument applies. The discussions in the Talmud often focus on how words are to be construed…so again, this is not something peculiar to the Qur’an.

On the aspect of the Jews being cursed by Allah: Once again, not ALL, but those who committed certain transgressions. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, do we not find such references to those whom God can and does curse? Does Jewish tradition not teach that the reason why the Jews have suffered so much is because they have transgressed against the covenant? Are there not Jews who teach–whether rightly or wrongly is besides the point–that even the Shoah is because of God’s displeasure with them?  And according the Christian testament did Jesus not address words of rejection and anger towards the Jews? And if Jesus, a Jew could do this, I don’t think we can argue if David could.

Allah turning Jews into apes and swine. Let us examine the phraseology of the verses that are referred to in the question:

5:60: This is in polemic, simply addressed to those who were making fun of Islamic beliefs. The story of God transforming those with whom he is angry is a well-known motif in midrashic work:  check tractate sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud wherein some of those who attempted to build the tower of Babel were transformed into apes.  While I have not come across a mention of transformation to swine, I would hazard a guess by saying that given that with which the pig is associated in Judaism, it could have been an oral tradition known to Arab Judaism. Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 puts the pig as the example of hypocrisy: it looks kosher by outward appearance, but its actions are not kosher (it does not chew the cud). Considering the date of redaction of this document–circa 5th century–as well as the Matthew7:6 verse presented earlier, the pig image for those who disobey seem part of the general area concept rather than just Qur’anic.

On the verses in 2:65 and 7:166, the structure of the verses clearly show Jewish provenance: “And you know well those who transgressed among you on the matter of the Sabbath…: Muslims do not observe a Sabbath, and so those being addressed are clearly Jews. Next it says “you know well” showing that the Q is presupposing knowledge of a tradition known to the Jews. Also, it says “those who transgressed among you” showing not ALL transgressed…and so the verse is an indictment not of all Jews, but of those who violated the Sabbath.  7:166 elucidates the nature of the transgression: that of netting fish on a Saturday.

The Sambatyon narratives in Jewish lore add credence to the provenance that I have suggested: Jewish oral tradition. Let us not forget that the importation of Jewish lore was so well-accepted among Muslims that a specific genre of literature was coined for this “isra’iliyaat”–and only later did this literature become frowned upon. As Kister has shown, it was accepted among early exegetes. And the medieval Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, has stated in his Muqaddimah, that when the pre-Islamic Arabs wanted to know anything about the past, they went to the Jews. Q 21:7, 16:43 seems to support this. When we see charges in the Qur’an that identifies certain Jews therefore, in many cases we have to examine Jewish sources for provenance.

All of this being said, I am aware that many Muslim preachers use the verses in a manner that is totally wrong, demonizing all Jews. And I have offended some of those preachers by pointing out that one of Muhammad’s wives was Jewish–safiyyah bint Huyayy–and if Muslims are to believe the Jews are descended from apes and swine, then Muhammad was married to a descendant of such creatures. Of course this is unacceptable to Muslim sensibilities.

You asked about a faithful Muslim and what conclusion s/he is supposed to reach from these verses: your choice of wording is significant, and points the problem out. “faithful” is often seen as a substitute for “discerning”…the average faithful Muslim will follow the imam’s interpretation–which is generally influenced by current anti-Jewish polemic, or by medieval exegesis which bought into demonization of Jews as an entire group. A discerning Muslim will hopefully see the verses in context the way I have.

Here is something that Spencer might consider next time he chooses to pray to the Creator—while ranting and raving about Islamic radicalism and the threat it presents.  Spencer should examine himself and his agenda and motivation closely.  The danger to this country presented by radical Islamists is an overt one and is being confronted.  Spencer, on the other hand, turns a blind eye to the extremists who are not Muslim who would see this country turned into a theocracy that imprisons people simply because they are Muslim.  And, hatemongering such as Spencer’s writings, or in films such as Obsession may provide justification to these other extremists. 

I rarely respond to such nonsense, and am only responding now because those who keep an eye on things have forwarded Spencer’s material to me asking if I wished to respond.  As I noted on my website, I consider arguments from people who know their stuff.  Here is what I said in the statement on my site:

I have been bombarded with several queries regarding my “discussion” on frontpagemag.com, and the subsequent inimical webpostings on Jihadwatch etc. Most of the queries have addressed my apparent silence in the face of attacks on my position regarding Islamic reformation, and my alleged lack of coming to terms with certain aspects of Islamic “truths.”

I consider myself a scholar and therefore prefer to engage in discussion where facts, rather than fictions and prejudgments are presented. When therefore I am told that the pope apologised for the Crusades, or that Jihad only means war, or that I have to accept interpretations of the Quran that non-Muslims (with no good intentions or knowledge of Islam) seek to force upon me, I see a certain agendum developing: one that is based on hate, and I refuse to be part of such an intellectual crime.

There are certain stereotypes that extremists try to sell to the public: that all Arab countries are racist, closed to free discussion. I can only state that from my experience, I have encountered racism, anti-semitism, as well as free discussion in Arab countries–the same as I have encountered in the U.S. Indeed the hateful material that I have seen on the internet has come largely NOT from the Arabs and Muslims (although they are not free from blame), but rather from hatemongers based right here in the United States.

One always has to ask the question Cui Bono? My position on the State of Israel has understandably gained the attention of many activists. The interests of some of these activists, however, as is manifest, have not been out of goodwill–rather they seek to get me to join them in their Islamophobia, Arabophobia, and latent Judeophobia. How can I view it otherwise when an evangelist proselytizer wants to tell me that all Muslims must belong to one of four sects–this means then that the Zaidis, the Ismailis, the Shias, the Ahmadis–to name just a few–are not Muslims? It means too that I-despite my declarations–am not Muslim, for I chose to identify with none of the medieval sectarian movments..I simply say that I am a Muslim.

In a discussion on Islam, I am told to “go back to my country.” This presupposes that all Muslims are aliens–forgetting that the first Muslims in America were slaves–who did not come here out of their own free will. My position on Israel is free from any hidden motive: it is based on my reading of the Qur’an, one that I must admit places me at odds with many of my coreligionists. I certainly do not support Israel so that the in-gathering of the Jews can fulfill the parousia, and they be converted to Christianity. This to me is latent anti-semitism. Nor do I support a Jewish land in Israel so that I can convert Jews to Islam. This would be latent Judeophobia.

I have also been informed that I am now portrayed as a Jihadist by some since I refuse to apologise for Jihad in the Qur’an. I certainly refuse to apologise for Jihad–which is a defensive war fought against those who declare war on Islam. That many Muslim regimes have confused Jihad and War is something that I admit to–but their crime is their own, and I do not have to apologize for that–no more than I expect every Christian to apologize to every Muslim and every Jew for the crimes committed in the name of Jesus during the crusades.

I am also now informed that there is one website wherein I am quoted out of context. I am vilified for saying that I oppose Christian missionary activity in Saudi Arabia. This somehow has been taken to mean that I oppose democracy, women’s rights etc. I don’t see the connection: I think Saudi Arabia is a sovereign country, and has the right, in fact, the duty to its citizens to keep them from missionary activity if it so chooses. In the same article I mentioned that I am against both Muslim and Christian missionary activity–and this has been taken to suggest that I want the US to become a Muslim nation. Again, I don’t see the connection. And I don’t know of concerted Muslim missionary activity here in the US, except probably among the Nation of Islam’s followers–who concentrate on the Black community. The Nation of Islam is made up of Americans, not immigrants, and their activity is their business.

What is particularly painful to me is that people who portray themselves as followers of religion should seek to shamelessly misquote and lie, eschewing all ethics in their calumny, because I do not agree with them. But as Jesus is supposed to have said: Ye shall know them by their fruits. (Matt 7.16).

I choose not to respond personally to certain slurs and insults because the error in the first place was mine: a professor of religion should not seek learned discussion with those whose views are clouded by faith. Fortunately for me, I am in the United States where, despite the actions of a miniscule few, this country happens to be a haven where, for the most part, the freedom of speech is something sacred. This does not give me the right to purvey hate on the internet, or to engage in ad-hominem exchanges which say more about the people that sling them rather than those against whom their venom is directed. If anyone wishes to have up-front, honest dialogue with me, with no hidden agenda or malice aforethought, I welcome this. Even if we disagree, at least, I would like to think that we can do so while granting respect to each other. At least we can live, if not in harmony, at least in a coexistence of tolerance.

Spencer seeks to hoodwink his readers by talking of Jihad being war…and that idea, rather obviously, is not accepted by scholars of Islam (Muslim and non-Muslim). I am not even going to get into detailing that I do not deny that there are some Muslims who attempt to warp the meaning into that…but throughout Islamic history, there have always been scholars who have harkened to the true meaning. What I try to do is to ensure that my religion, my scripture is not derailed by those within the faith. I can do little about those from outside, whose own claim to scholarship is belied by a simple examination of the focus of their studies. Perhaps what Spencer ought to do is examine the history of his own religion, and then come to the table prepared for a debate. 

There, Mr. Spencer, I have given you enough to respond to in your usual poison-pen tirades.  Many years ago I questioned your scholarship, and I still do so today.  You claim to want to debate, and hope that perhaps in entertaining you, I will somehow give credence to your nonsense. I work in the academic milieu for the most part Mr. Spencer, and my peers publish my articles in reviewed journals. Look at the comments on the answers to the challenge you posted: this is the ilk to which you pander–the vilest, most filthy form of hate.  I guess it irks you that your “scholarship” is not accepted among people of conscience and discernment. Perhaps, instead of knowledge, you rely on faith to argue against Islam and anyone who is a Muslim. Since you are such an upstanding crusader, I wonder: what would Jesus do in this situation?