Robert Spencer, Director of JihadWatch, and Marvin Hutchens, cofounder of ThreatsWatch, debate on approaches to Muslim reform within the counterterrorism community. Moderated by guest host Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Vice President of Research, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
TAPE: CUT ONE - PRESIDENT BUSH :32
“Today our world is at war with violent extremists who seek to tear the fabric of our society and stop the advance of freedom in Muslim societies around the world. They attack holy sites, destroy mosques and minarets, and kill innocent men, women and children, including Muslims who do not share their radical views. They believe that by spreading chaos and violence they can frustrate the desire of Muslims to live in freedom and peace. We say to them you don’t represent Muslims, you do not represent Islam and you will not succeed.”
NICK GRACE: It’s the week of December 24, 2007, and for the next 30 minutes we’ll take you to the front lines of the long war.
SASHA ECKSTEIN: From Washington, this is Sasha Eckstein.
GRACE: And I’m Nick Grace. This is Global Crisis Watch.
TAPE: CUT TWO - ADAM GADAHN :07
“This is our religion. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem but don’t tell me that you’re the true Muslim and I’m the extremist.”
TAPE: CUT THREE - SHAHZED TANWEER :05
“We are more than 100% committed to the cause of Islam. We love death the way you love life.”
TAPE: CUT FOUR - NOORDIN MOHAMMED TOP :15
“Our enemies are the United States, Australia, Britain and Italy. Those who are trying to capture Muslim clerics and mujahideen fighters will always be our enemy. You are the targets of our next attack.”
TAPE: CUT FIVE - ADAM GADAHN :26
“Anyone who pays any attention to the messages of the leaders of the Jihad will know that they have been consistent in inviting the Americans and other unbelievers to Islam, and impressing upon them that they want the best for them, and making it clear to all that we have no choice but to fight those who fight us, and that were the matters in our hands we would prefer that all Americans and other unbelievers end their aggression, abandon unbelief and accept the truth.”
DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I’d like to welcome everyone to this special Christmas edition of Global Crisis Watch. I’m your guest host Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and today we’re privileged to offer you a very interesting discussion about Islamic theology and approaches to Muslim reform within the counterterrorism field. I am joined by two guests. First, there’s Robert Spencer, the author of New York Times’ best sellers The Truth About Mohammed and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), and, most recently, A Religion of Peace. He is the director of JihadWatch, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. With me also is Marvin Hutchens, a cofounder of ThreatsWatch and the Center for Threat Awareness, where he serves on the Board of Directors. Marvin served in the U.S. Marines Corps for 6 years and was also a practicing Muslim for 6 years. Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining me. I think it’s safe to say that you represent two divergent views and approaches to Muslim theology and Islamic reform. There’s a clear lack of informed discussion about these issues in the public sphere and I hope that today’s discussion will be educational for our listeners. Robert, I would like to start with you. I’m going to begin with a quote from The Truth about Mohammed in which you say, “So what was Mohammed really like? The question becomes more pressing every day for if he was indeed a man of peace one may reasonably hope that his example would become the lynchpin of reform efforts in the Islamic world. But if the Jihad terrorists are correct in invoking his example then Muslim reformers will need to initiate a respectful but searching reevaluation of the place Mohammed occupies within Islam - a vastly more difficult undertaking.” You have a large body of work detailing your conclusions about Mohammed’s life and what the original Islamic sources hold. For the uninitiated, Robert, would you be able to briefly detail what your conclusions about him have been?”
ROBERT SPENCER: Certainly, Daveed, and I want to underscore that these conclusions are not strictly speaking my own. What I did in the Truth about Mohammed was outline the elements of Mohammed’s life that are in the earliest Islamic sources available for his life and that are most often pointed to by Jihadists themselves to justify their actions. For example, Mohammed is routinely portrayed by Usama bin Laden, by al-Zawahiri, by others as a warrior who led offensive warfare against the unbelievers and in doing so gave an example to his followers. After the Battle of Badr, the first great victory for the Muslims in Islamic history, Mohammed beheaded - or had beheaded - some of his enemies and in the book I show that Abu Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, actually pointed to Mohammed’s beheading of his enemies after the Battle of Badr as a justification for his own beheading of Nicholas Berg, which of course became infamous a few years ago all around the world. Now, the point is that Mohammed as a warrior and Mohammed as a religious leader who taught his followers to offer nonbelievers conversion, subjugation or warfare is not my construct or my invention but is rather a deeply-rooted idea of Mohammed that has abundant justification within the earliest Islamic texts. And so peaceful Muslims who sincerely want to establish a framework for peaceful coexistence as equals on an indefinite basis with unbelievers without working ultimately to impose Islam or Islamic law upon them, they need to confront these elements of Islamic teaching and tradition and formulate some non-literal way that they can be understood such that their capacity for violence is limited.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: So essentially what you are saying is that you look to the original sources, try to determine what the best interpretation is, and put that case forward because if reformers, for example, cannot confront that case then they’re going to have trouble establishing reform?
SPENCER: Well, not the best interpretation, Daveed, just the Jihadist interpretation. And that’s what it is and all it is. I’ve never said theirs is a true Islam or a best Islam or a proper Islam but there’s no doubt that the Jihadists make copious use of the Islamic texts and the traditions of Mohammed. And so that is something that definitely needs to be confronted by reform-minded Muslims if there’s going to be any reform. You can’t reform what you won’t admit needs reforming.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Now turning to you, Marvin, you and your colleague at ThreatsWatch Steve Schippert recently had a debate of sorts with Robert stemming from a symposium at FrontPage Magazine that both Steve and Robert participated in about Iran’s vice list. In the symposium, Robert argued that many of the restrictions imposed in Iran stem from the original sources of Islamic law and Steve took exception, in particular, to Robert’s contribution, arguing that it alienated Muslims. You agreed on ThreatsWatch, and you wrote, “My experience is that Steve’s approach and his understanding is much more conducive to including Muslims in the fight against the various evils born of particular interpretations of the letter of Islam’s sacred texts.” How do you think that Robert’s approach to this problem undermines Muslim moderates?
MARVIN HUTCHENS: Well, off the top of my head I would say that the greatest risk in the way Mr. Spencer handles this issue is founded in the fact that he’s pointing to the original text and how the Jihadi use it as opposed to the original text and the alternative views and understandings that, what some would call, fictitious moderate Muslims use. The Muslims that I have known in my life and that you’ve known and that aren’t participating in the Jihadi movement, they don’t see things the same way - the use of Mohammed’s life for them becomes a moral and a principled matter, not necessarily the implications of how is it implemented in Shari’a or countering the West and our foreign policy matters and that sort of thing. When we look at, for instance, the beheading and Zarqawi using that text as his basis for doing it, he’s absolutely correct that historically that did happen and that he turns around and uses it as his impetus. But it’s wrong for him to do it. It’s morally wrong, it’s principally wrong, and I would say that it’s Islamically wrong for him to do it that way. He is not the Prophet and he was not following the same guidelines that the Prophet had at the time.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: So you think that Robert should be devoting more attention to what alternative views of Islam are rather than focusing in on the Jihadist interpretation?
HUTCHENS: Yeah, and as I told him earlier today in a brief call, I think there’s a value in enabling Muslims who offer counter-views, additional support for countering the Jihadi. The Jihadi have specific aspects of their faith, if you will, that violate what every other Muslim is living like. And —
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: So, all right, we have these two contrasting views at the outset. One thing I want to get to when talking to the issue of alienation, Robert and I want to give you a chance to answer this, is as you said you’re putting forward the Jihadist interpretation and you don’t make a claim to be putting forward the true interpretation. A lot of people though interpret your writing as putting forward a true interpretation of Islam. Your biography of Mohammed is entitled “The Truth about Mohammed: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.” You and I, Robert, have a mutual friend - I don’t want to say his full name but we’ll call him Larry G. from Southern California - who’s a great admirer of your work and he and I were in a seminar together back in August. At one point he was citing to your work and prefaced his comments, saying, ‘Robert Spencer argues that Islam, itself, is the problem.’ I find that a lot of people interpret your work that way. So a couple of parts to this question: Where do you think that people - why do you think that people are misinterpreting your work and in what way would you like to offer a correction to this perception?
SPENCER: Well, there are a lot of nuances there that need to be brought out. I mean, in a certain sense when we have a global movement of Jihad terrorists who are explicitly, repeatedly and in great detail justifying their actions according to core texts and teachings of Islam - and texts and teachings that are affirmed by mainstream Islamic teachers and Islamic schools of jurisprudence throughout history - then I don’t think that it’s absolutely false to say that elements of Islam are the problem. I wouldn’t say that Islam straight-out is the problem but certainly I think it’s a species of denial to act as if Islam has nothing to do with this or that there’s nothing you need to look at within Islam. And there are elements of Islam that - after all, all the major schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the Shiites also, teach that it is part of the responsibility of Muslims to wage war against unbelievers and subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law. Does this mean that every Muslim teaches these things, believes these things, even is aware of these teachings? Absolutely not. There is within Islam, as much as there is within other religious traditions, a spectrum of belief, knowledge and fervor among all of the adherents who use the label for themselves of Muslim. But this doesn’t change the context of the teaching. And so I don’t think it’s really a matter of whether what I’m writing is being misinterpreted or not. I choose my words very carefully. And so in all cases, the idea of the title, “The Truth about Mohammed,” is just that. That this - I went back to the earliest Islamic sources and brought out what they say about Mohammed. Every biography of Mohammed that has ever been written in human history in the 1400 years since he walked the Earth has based itself on the same sources that I used for this book and so the idea that these things are not an accurate view of Mohammed, well there really isn’t anything else to go on. Now the question then becomes what do we do about that example? How does one understand the Koranic designation of Mohammed as an example of conduct, as the supreme example of human behavior as it calls him in Chapter 33, verse 21? But the content of his life is not really in dispute.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Now one thing I’ve noticed in debates about Islamic reform is that often when people write about Islamic reform or talk about ways to produce Islamic reform they don’t deal with the earliest sources. Turning to you for a second, Marvin, do you think that it’s necessary to grapple with these sources in trying to determine whether Islamic reform is feasible, how it can come about, and other theological matters that impact on the global war on terror?
HUTCHENS: Absolutely. I think that you - that we, as people who are trying to offer advice on these issues and inform the public, clearly have to address the issues but where I would part ways would be how we do it and in the conclusions that we draw. I know that Mr. Spencer doesn’t believe that he draws conclusions but his choice was to pair the earliest texts with the Jihadiyun and their words. It wasn’t to compare it to your local neighborhood imam and the words he uses, the message that he portrays, and to present a true Mohammed for people that doesn’t represent terror.
SPENCER: The problem here is that the local imam is not the one that we are concerned about when we’re talking about the problem of terrorism and of the problem of Islamic supremicism in the larger sense. The problem is precisely the one that I zeroed in on, that people like Zarqawi can and do point to aspects of Mohammed’s life and career to justify their actions. And so, see, it would be all very well to focus on these wonderful peaceful folks who are doing wonderful work in the world and I commend them. But this is like saying if I have a heart attack, going to the doctor and the doctor tells me, ‘Well, really you should feel fine because your lungs are fine and your brain is functioning properly and everything, all your - none of your bones are broken and so on.’ Well, yeah, but I am having a heart attack and so really what we need to do when there is a member of the body that is ill is focus on that member and not on the healthy ones.
SPENCER: And so this is the situation here, that the Jihadists are appealing to these texts and teachings of Islam, appealing to peaceful Muslims and making recruits.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Right, so the case that you’re making is that we —
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Need to understand what the Jihadists are saying because otherwise we won’t understand the strengths of their arguments. Now —
SPENCER: They’re making recruits among peaceful Muslims by appealing to these texts.
SPENCER: We have to understand how they’re doing it if we’re going to counter it.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Getting back to Marvin now, what do you think is gained, then, by focusing in on what the imam down the street or what peaceful Muslims are saying as opposed to what Jihadists are saying because this gets to the heart of what I think of what your approach would be as opposed to Spencer’s.
HUTCHENS: The primary gain that I see is that they counter that argument much more effectively than we can and while it’s important that we inform our policymakers and the like on the threat and what the jihadiya, as a movement, looks like, having the local imams informed and capable of arguing against it, empowering them to take the message that counters the Jihadis message out to their people makes a higher likelihood of success in gaining allies.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: But when you say they counter the message much more effectively, that varies from time to time, right? There are some imams who will counter the message effectively and others won’t be as effective, right?
HUTCHENS: I would go as far as to say that right now one of our primary issues in this war of ideas, if you will, although blood and lives are lost, is that we have imams around the world who are doing us a great disservice and Muslims a great disservice by adding to the message, providing the little tiny clues needed to make that Jihadi’s message a little more resonant for them rather than doing the things we would prefer them doing, which is making it harder for someone to make the leap to that sort of - that variety of -
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: But under your approach though is Robert’s approach something that just shouldn’t be done? Should we not analyze these Islamic texts in the light of what Jihadists say or are you arguing -
HUTCHENS: No -
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Well, what are you arguing for?
HUTCHENS: I believe that we absolutely need to expose what they say. It’s whether or not they, in the case of this particular book for instance, whether or not The Truth about Mohammed comes out directly from what the Jihadis say. What it’s saying is that it’s the truth about how the Jihadists see Mohammed but it’s not necessarily the Mohammed that the rest of the Islamic world sees. And -
SPENCER: Did you actually read the book?
SPENCER: You’ve read The Truth about Mohammed?
HUTCHENS: Yes -
HUTCHENS: And I’ve just recently read your last book -
SPENCER: Well, I would with respect take issue to the characterization. I certainly did, as I explained a little while ago, concentrate on elements that the Jihadis use but it is nonetheless everything that is in there is material that really - that no Muslim who believes in the reliability of the orthodox sources would dispute as a matter of fact.
HUTCHENS: But it’s not a question of whether or not they would dispute the particulars of what he did. It’s how it’s applied to being a Muslim. What was the example for it. And when you give a basis of here’s what the Jihadis think, that that is a basis for - this is how you should act based on that - that’s one perspective. The perspective that I think is lacking is what would a normal Muslim, a non-murderous bastard, want to make out of that.
SPENCER: (Laughing) Well, that’s absolutely true. I agree 100%. That’s what we need to see and here again I don’t see it coming from the peaceful Muslims. I don’t see them offering any kind of large-scale counter. I’ve seen many treatments of Mohammed by peaceful Muslims that actually gloss over, minimize, deny the elements of his life that the Jihadists use but I haven’t seen any that actually counter the Jihadist interpretation. And I think that without that kind of countering, the Jihadists will continue to make recruits on the basis of their interpretation since it doesn’t even have a response. And that’s where, you know, you were saying before the local imams are best equipped to respond, I’m all for that. I’d love to see that. I’m not seeing that in any detailed way.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Now, to turn to you now, Marvin, do you think that the Jihadist interpretation of Islam is a pure distortion or do you think that the arguments they are making - I know that you do not agree with their arguments as an interpretation of the faith - but do you think they are making legitimate arguments of the kind that could sway rational people?
HUTCHENS: Yeah, I think they can persuade rational people. They can take people away from what would be an otherwise reason to life and turn them into, you know, the words I used before unfortunately.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: And part of that, you would say, is that there is strength to their theological arguments. These aren’t just inductive arguments but there is a reason they are logically seductive.
HUTCHENS: Given the number of Muslims who don’t understand the faith itself at its core, don’t understand the Koran as Mr. Spencer has talked about and in his books, and don’t understand the technical details behind the Sunnah, it’s very easy for them to be manipulated. And then you take ideas such as Tawheed and you twist them just the slightest little bit to make it from being a oneness to a sovereignty aspect and it becomes very easy for people to be convinced that their duty to God is to do these things.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Now, an approach that’s opposite to Robert’s in, for example, The Truth about Mohammed, is that of Karen Armstrong, who wrote her own biography of Mohammed in which she wrote, for example - and Robert quotes this in his book - that Mohammed eventually “abjured violence and pursued a daring, inspired policy of nonviolence that was worthy of Gandhi.” One of the things that Karen Armstrong, for example, seems to do is match her perception of Mohammed up with the more moderate perception. She has a very - almost as though she is making Mohammed a 20th Century liberal such as herself. Do you think that there’s also a harm to this kind of approach where in distinction with how you frame Spencer where you’re framing him as matching up Mohammed’s life to the Jihadists interpretation, Armstrong seems to avoid some of the hard questions. Do you think this is also a harmful approach even if you don’t think they’re of equal harm?
HUTCHENS: Yeah, I do, I think she’s adding to one of the things that Mr. Spencer talks about in his latest book, the errors of our moral relativism at this point. She paints a picture that allows people to see Mohammed as Gandhi. You don’t have to be a history major to understand that that is not the case.
HUTCHENS: But we live in a world where people will believe her and policy decisions will be made based on that. It’s very dangerous. I don’t know that —
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: So final question for you, Marvin, before turning back to Robert because we have to unfortunately wrap up the debate. I’d like to ask you then - so your contention in the end would be that there is at least some approach - some value - to Robert Spencer’s approach in that he’s at least confronting a lot of the hard questions that often do not get asked in this debate - even if you disagree with it on the whole.
HUTCHENS: I would agree with that and I have told him that earlier today. I think there is value in it. I hope that going forward we find a way to enhance what he’s doing and add to it, and that he’ll find some value in what we’re doing likewise. I think in the end we are all trying to achieve the same thing. Unfortunately, some of our readers take things in directions we don’t intend on occasion.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Now, Robert, I’d like to give you a chance to add your own finishing thoughts to this debate/discussion.
SPENCER: Well, really, my contention is the same all the way through. I appreciate Mr. Hutchens’ kind words and I do look forward to looking for ways that we can work together. We all are working for the same goal. I don’t believe that you can fix a problem you don’t admit is broken and that’s the underlying philosophy behind all of my work in dealing with the Islamic texts. I don’t believe sincere Muslim reformers can reform something they don’t admit needs reforming and that’s why I point out the content of those texts.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Gentlemen, I’d like to thank you both very much for taking part in tonight’s debate. I thought you both made excellent contributions. And I’d like to thank the Global Crisis Watch audience for tuning in with us for this special Christmas episode. I’d like to ask you all to stay tuned because coming right up will be a post-debate wrap-up.