Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Convert or Die?

Islam prohibits forced conversions. Except when it doesn't.
by Michael Isenberg.

No claim about Islam is more likely to start an argument than the one that Muslims spread their religion by telling conquered peoples, “Convert or die.” It’s right up there with “Jihad is Holy War.”

As with most such debates, the truth is complicated.

Strictly speaking, forced conversion to Islam violates Muslim law, the Shari’ah. In the words of the Quran, “There is no compulsion in religion (2:256).”

Rather than force unbelievers to apostatize, scripture tells Muslims,

Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, nor follow the Religion of Truth, or of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax (jizyah) in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection (9:29).

In other words, Islam does not tell unbelievers, “Convert or die.” It tells them, “Convert, live under our rule as second class citizens, or die.” While technically that is not forced conversion, I submit it’s not any better.

In any case, just because a thing is prohibited by law doesn’t mean it never happens. Forced conversions were rare in Islamic history. But they did occur.

Sometimes they were at the hands of a rogue leader and eventually cooler heads prevailed. That was the case in 1198 when the ruler of Yemen, al-Malik al-Mu’izz Isma’il, declared himself the caliph—leader of all the Muslims—and ordered forced conversions of Jews and Christians. Those who refused were beheaded. Three years later, al-Malik was murdered by his own troops and the converts went back to their old religions.

But in other cases, conversion was at the hands of rulers who to this day are among the most cherished and revered figures in Islam. Saladin (who incidentally was the uncle of al-Malik) is known in the West for his chivalry toward Richard the Lion-Hearted. But he wasn’t so chivalrous after the ass-whooping he inflicted on Crusader forces in the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Templars and Hospitallers taken prisoner were ordered to convert. Many refused. Saladin’s secretary Imad ad-Din, who was there, wrote what happened next:

Saladin ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair.

Two hundred knights were massacred. Observe that the “devout men” and “scholars,” who were the authorities responsible for enforcing the Shari’ah in general and the laws against forced conversions in particular, enthusiastically participated.

My last example is from the year 1148, during the conquest of Morocco by the Almohads, a fanatical sect that rebelled against their rulers, the Almoravids. They thought the Almoravids were soft on the enforcement of Shari’ah. We have an unusually detailed and personal account, thanks to a letter found in the cache of documents known as the Cairo Geniza. As refugees streamed from Morocco into Egypt, one Jewish merchant, Solomon b. Abu Zikri Judah, recounted to his father the news they brought from the town of Sijilmasa, which was where their family was from:

You certainly wish to know the news from the Maghreb [Morocco], the ears who hear about it will tingle [Jeremiah 19:4]. The travelers have arrived, among them groups of Jews, who were present at the event. They reported that ‘Abd al-Mu’min the Susi attacked the [Almoravid] amir Tashfin in Wahran [Oran], besieged him, annihilated his army, killed him, and crucified his body. Then ‘Abd al-Mu’min conquered Tilmaan [Tlemcen] and killed everyone in the town, except those who apostatized. When the news arrived in Sijilmasa, the population revolted against the amir, declared themselves in public as opponents of the murabitun [Almoravids], drove them out of town, and sent messengers to ‘Abd al-Mu’min surrendering to him. After he entered Sijilmasa, he assembled the Jews and asked them to apostatize. Negotiations went on for seven months, during all of which they fasted and prayed. After this a new amir arrived and demanded their conversion. They refused, and a hundred and fifty Jews were killed, sanctifying the name of God:

          The Rock—his deeds are without blemish and all his ways are justice [Deuteronomy 32:4].

          Blessed be the true judge, whose judgments are just and true.

          The King’s word has power; who may say to him, “What are you doing? [Ecclesiastes 8:4].

The others apostatized; the first of the apostates was Joseph b. ‘Imran, the judge of Sijilmasa. Because of this I lament and wail, etc. [Micah 1:8].

Before ‘Abd al-Mu’min entered Sijilmasa, when the population rose against the Almoravids, a number of Jews, about two hundred, took refuge in the city’s fortress. Among them were Mar Ya’qub and Abbud, my paternal uncles, Mar Judah b. Farhun and [???]. They are now in Der’a after everything they had was taken from them. What happened to them afterward we do not know.

Of all the countries of the Almoravids there remained in the hands of the dissenters only Der’a and Miknasa (Meknes). As to the congregations of the West, because of our sins, they all perished; there has not remained a single one described as a Jew between Bijaya [Bougie] and the Gate [street] of Gibraltar, they either apostatized or were killed. And on the day I am writing this letter news has arrived that BIjaya has been taken…

At ‘Abd al-Mu’min’s conquest of Fez 100,000 persons were killed and at that of Marrakesh 120,000. Take notice of this. This is not hearsay but a report of people who were present at the events. Take notice.

The translator, S.D. Goitein, comments that the last two numbers are probably exaggerated. A horrific series of events nevertheless.

As for ‘Abd al-Mu’min and the Almohads, they went on to complete their overthrow of the Almoravids and extend their bigoted, Islamist rule over much of Spain and half of North Africa. Their dynasty would last over a hundred years, and destroy the vibrant culture that once flourished in Muslim Spain. Take notice.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Porn Stache

The Pensacola Shooter: Portrait of an Islamic Terrorist.
by Michael Isenberg.

Before I dive into the main topic of today’s blog, the motivation of Islamic terrorist Muhammad al-Shamrani, let’s take a moment to remember the three brave sailors he murdered during a shooting spree at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola last Friday:

  • Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, from St. Petersburg, FL, was looking forward to his birthday and graduation from flight school next week. “Unfortunately, none of that is gonna happen,” his cousin Ashley Williams said.
  • Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, from Richmond Hill, GA was one of seven children. According to his father, “When Cameron graduated bootcamp, the grin on his face said it all. ‘Look at me, Dad, I’m going to be just like you…’ To have the opportunity to earn his wings as a Navy Airman made him proud. And we, too, were so incredibly proud.”
  • Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, AL, escaped, wounded from the classroom building where the shooting took place and alerted first responders before expiring. In a Facebook post, his brother Adam Watson wrote, “He died a hero and we are beyond proud, but there is a hole in our hearts that can never be filled.”

    In a statement, Capt. Tim Kinsella, commander NAS Pensacola said, “We feel the loss profoundly and grieve with the family and friends of the deceased. The Sailors that lost their lives in the line of duty and showed exceptional heroism and bravery in the face of evil. When confronted, they didn’t run from danger; they ran towards it and saved lives. If not for their actions, and the actions of the Naval Security Force that were the first responders on the scene, this incident could have been far worse.”

    Another race hath been,
    and other palms are won.


    What would make a scumbag like Muhammad al-Shamrani destroy three such beloved individuals, cutting them down in their youth? Of course, such questions come up every time there’s an Islamic terror attack. One of the key points of contention is whether the terrorist was motivated by something inherent in Islam itself—Bernard Lewis’s “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis—or whether it was a response to something that was done to the Muslim world by the West in general and the United States in particular.

    In the case of al-Shamrani, we have an opportunity to see into the workings of his mind thanks to a Twitter account widely believed to be his. This is despite the best efforts of Twitter, which suspended the account shortly after it was identified. I wish they wouldn’t do that. The social media posts of terrorists and shooters are of great help to the public in coming to terms with tragic events, and a crucial tool for journalists and bloggers. Fortunately, in this case, some quick thinking individual archived the account to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine about twenty minutes before Twitter dropped the axe. Twenty or so tweets were saved.

    Needless to say, piecing together someone’s psyche from less than two dozen tweets requires a certain amount of detective work, reading between the lines of what he’s tweeting, and making inferences based on who he’s tweeting. But I’ll share with you what I found, and as always, I encourage you to make up your own mind.

    Shamrani’s “final testament”—his last tweet, posted shortly before the attack—has been widely reported in the media.

    It clearly supports the “Resentment against the West” school of thought, with its mentions of Guantanamo, US bombings, and support for Israel. Many pundits consider the last line over on the right to be particularly significant because of the apparent influence of Osama bin Laden: “You will not be safe until we live it in reality pleastain [sic], and American troops get out of our lands.”

    Other tweets back up the “Resentment against the West” theory, with particular emphasis on US policy regarding Israel. Al-Shamrani retweeted a post from Palestinian Activist Hanady Halwani purporting to show brutality by Israeli security forces against a Muslim boy on the Temple Mount (I ran it by an Israeli friend who didn’t see anything in the video to make him doubt its authenticity).

    More significantly, al-Shamrani’s last tweet before his “final testament” was a link to a video of a speech by Donald Trump in which the US president officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It’s highly significant that the Pensacola shooting occurred on the two-year anniversary of that speech.

    Without a doubt, US policy in general, and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem in particular, played a significant role in al-Shamrani’s motive.

    Let me be clear: The US was right to give Israel the same right the world gives every other country: to choose its own capital. US policy should not be dictated by some dirtbag going on a shooting spree because he doesn’t like it. But at the same time, we bury our heads in the sand if we don’t confront the dirtbag’s motives objectively.

    In any case, there is also a great deal in al-Shamrani’s Twitter account to suggest he is motivated by fundamentalist Islam as much as by the policies of the US. He is undoubtedly a dedicated Muslim, posting quotes from the Quran and a photo of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Of course those are things any Muslim might post, and don’t necessarily mean that he had been radicalized. On that point, al-Shamrani’s profile quotation is enlightening:

    The quotation is from the Hadith—the collected sayings of Muhammad and his Companions. My first reaction to it was that it was innocuous enough. Surely every religion teaches its followers to think of themselves as part of the “body” of worshippers. But then Stephen England, author of the Shadow Warriors series of terrorism thrillers, pointed out to me that this particular hadith is popular with recruiters for radical Islam. England researched radicalization for his novel Embrace the Fire. He explained to me that the message is “sure, your life isn't half bad, and your family has it decent. . .but what about everyone else? And if you don't care about what's happening to them, are you really a part of the body after all?” Indeed, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had ties to three of the 9/11 terrorists, as well as the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, cited the hadith in a sermon he preached on this theme.

    Also notable in al-Shamrani’s Twitter feed is who he chooses to retweet and quote, individuals who may have had some influence on him. Abd’ul-Aziz al-Tarefe and Hakim al-Mutairi in particular stand out in this regard. Both are prominent Islamists—believers in Muslim supremacy and the replacement of secular law with shari’ah.

    According to Islam21C.com, Al-Tarefe is a graduate of the college of Sharīʿah at Imaam Muḥammad b. Sa`ud University in Riyadh. He served as a researcher in the Saudi Ministry of Islam until he fell afoul of the authorities. The Washington Examiner reported that his name surfaced in the bin Laden files captured at Abottabad as one of a “younger generation” of Saudi clerics who “proved to be more amenable to al Qaeda’s cause” than their predecessors.

    To give you an idea of what kind of guy al-Tarefe is, here’s a video of him arguing that it is permissible to steal from nations that do not have a “treaties” with Islam [i.e., they haven’t submitted]. It is therefore okay to make purchases using stolen Israeli credit card numbers.

    Al-Tarefe is the author of a number of books, including Words of Wisdom which is available in English on archive.org. The first page contains the ominous words, “Islam only increases, it does not decrease,” and this is followed by numerous calls for jihad throughout the book. From context, it is clear he is referring to armed conflict with the unbeliever, and not the “internal struggle” we so often hear about from apologists for Islam.

    The Jerusalem Post reported that al-Tarefe was arrested in 2016 over his opposition to the Saudi government’s move to eliminate the authority of the shari’ah police, the so-called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The shari’ah police were one of the worst and most hated excesses of Saudi Arabia’s medieval-style theocracy. I wrote previously about some of their powers: “to enforce hours of prayer, smash bottles of alcohol, eject men from malls where women are shopping, shame women for wearing make-up, and break up gatherings of public lute playing.” These powers were stripped in recent reforms, and it was these reforms that al-Tarefe opposed. Al-Tarefe was subsequently acquitted of the charges against him, according to Islam21C.com.

    Like Abd’ul-Aziz al-Tarefe, Hakim al-Mutairi has vast influence on Twitter, with 1.1 million followers. According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Al-Mutairi is often described as an unusually charismatic person who is able to gain admirers and friends quickly.” During the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he escaped to Saudi Arabia with a group of other Kuwaiti Salafists. Energized by contact with their Saudi counterparts, they returned to Kuwait after The First Gulf War and launched a more politically active form of Salafism. Al-Mutairi eventually started the Umma Party whose goals, again according to the Carnegie Endowment are “to establish an Islamic society, remove foreign troops from the Gulf region, implement Islamic law, and support political pluralism.” Al-Mutairi has also been active in raising funds for jihadist rebel groups in Syria.

    [Full disclosure: al-Shamrani’s retweet of al-Mutairi came from here, so unlike the Wayback archive tweets, I cannot verify its origin.]

    So what's the bottom line? Was al-Shamrani motivated by anger at US policy, or by a philosophy of Islamic supremacy and jihad? Clearly the evidence of his Twitter feed shows that both were in play.

    But there was also one more factor in the mix, one that didn't come from al-Shamrani's Twitter account. From The New York Times:

    As the F.B.I. continues to conduct interviews with everyone at the Pensacola Naval Air Station who may have had contact with the gunman, identified as Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a new report emerged that the Saudi trainee filed a formal complaint earlier this year against one of his instructors, who left him “infuriated” in class by tagging him with a derogatory nickname.

    The complaint, quoted in a communication circulated among people connected to the flight training, said that the instructor referred to Lieutenant Alshamrani as “Porn Stash” in front of about 10 other aviation students, embarrassing and angering him.

    “I was infuriated as to why he would say that in front of the class,” the Saudi trainee wrote in his complaint, as quoted in the summary…

    Lieutenant Alshamrani reported that the confrontation came at the end of a meteorology class, when the instructor, James Day, asked whether students had any questions before he dismissed them.

    The instructor then turned to Lieutenant Alshamrani and asked whether he had any questions, addressing him as “Porn Stash” — spelled that way in the complaint — in an apparent reference to the mustache of a porn actor.

    “Laughing, he continued to ask, ‘What? Have you not seen a porn star before?’” the lieutenant wrote in his complaint, according to the summary.

    That a grown man would be so “infuriated” by a joke about his mustache (and one with some truth in it!), and that he would find himself helpless to stand up for himself, so that he would file a formal complaint, indicates a serious inferiority complex. And this too is a motive for terror. As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim World.

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photo credit(s): New York Times

  • Tuesday, December 3, 2019

    A Thousand Years of Aptitude

    Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age by S. Frederick Starr.
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg.

    The title of S. Frederick Starr’s 2013 book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age incorporates two controversial ideas: first, that Central Asia ever had a Golden Age, and second, that it was lost. Granted, these are controversial with two distinct group of people. More about that in a moment.

    In his sprawling tour de force, Starr, the founding chairman of John Hopkins’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, covers some thousand years of the history of Central Asia, a region roughly corresponding to modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and eastern Iran (Khorasan). Starr argues that for the first five hundred years or so, starting with the time of the Muslim conquests (although the roots go back further), the region experienced a cultural flowering that led the world in astronomy, medicine, philosophy, poetry, architecture, craftsmanship, and a host of other fields. But around the year 1100, the Muslim world turned its back on the sciences, and Central Asia went into a long decline.

    My Right-of-Center friends find controversy in the claim that there ever was a Golden Age in Central Asia or any other part of the Muslim world (For a discussion of whether there was a Golden Age in Muslim Spain, see my series Did the Islamic Golden Age in Spain really happen? A Debate). On this point, Starr presents abundant evidence that they’re wrong. We meet a colorful cast of thinkers, writers, builders, and experimenters. They were far too numerous to do justice to here, but a few names stand out, Renaissance men centuries before the European Renaissance.

    Of course, first and foremost is my personal favorite, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)—astronomer, mathematician, poet, scholar of shari'ah, and lover of wine. But since I’ve already written a few words about him elsewhere, I’ll use this space to talk about some of the other lamps of the Central Asian Enlightenment instead.

    Muhammad ar-Razi (854-925), for example, known in the West as Rhazes. A dedicated physician, his influence extended far beyond the Muslim world—his book on measles and smallpox (he was the first ever to distinguish the two) saw forty European editions from 1475 to 1866. I previously shared an amusing story about his ingenious but risky cure for an emir’s arthritis.

    Rhazes also indulged in some theological speculations, and my Right-of-Center friends will find some vindication in the fact that he wasn’t a very good Muslim in this department. The Quran, in a number of places (e.g. 11:13, 17:88), challenges anyone who is skeptical that it is really the word of Allah to write a book like it. Rhazes went on a tirade about that. “By God, what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanations. Then you say: ‘Produce something like it?’”

    Then there was Abu Rayhan Biruni (973-1050), who during a less than stellar career as a diplomat managed to become the leading astronomer of his time. He invented specific gravity, wrote an encyclopedia of India, and calculated the circumference of the earth to within eleven miles of the modern value. Given its size, and that only two-fifths of it had been accounted for, he didn’t believe that all the rest could be ocean. He hypothesized that there must be another continent somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Granted, Starr probably went too far in subtitling that discussion “Biruni Discovers America.”

    At a time when most scientists believed that the earth was the immovable center of the universe, Biruni made considerable strides in developing a theory of a sun-centered solar system with a rotating earth. On that point, he engaged in a heated and occasionally insulting correspondence with the granddaddy of the Central Asian Enlightenment, Abu Ali ibn Sina (980-1037), better known in the West as Avicenna.

    Avicenna spent his days as a physician and a government official, and his nights writing books and drinking wine (another not very good Muslim). His encyclopedic Canon of Medicine was the handbook of the physician’s art in both Europe and Asia for centuries. But his life wasn’t all bureaucracy and scholarship. He had declined the invitation of the thuggish Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna to join his court, and therefore had to spend some years on the lam, during which he had many narrow escapes.

    While he kept his distance from Mahmud, Avicenna did accept the patronage of numerous other rulers. Indeed, all of these monster minds benefited from the generosity of sultans and viziers, who built glittering courts where they collected intellectuals and craftsmen the way squirrels collect nuts. They provided the instruments and books needed—some of their libraries stretched into the tens of thousands of volumes. Perhaps more important, they provided the company of like-minded people, to supply the back and forth that’s so crucial to scientific discovery.

    If the Right is dubious that there was ever a Central Asian Enlightenment, the Left is dubious that it was ever “lost.” Indeed, some critics—Sonja Brentjes, for example, from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Sciences—drag out the tired old accusation that the claim is racist. Well, history is what it is, and it's not racist to establish the truth about it. Nevertheless, it is definitely much harder to establish the absence of something than its presence. Which is what Starr sets out to do in the last hundred pages or so of Lost Enlightenment.

    The turning point, he argues (as have many others, including me), was the publication of The Incoherence of the Philosophers by the religious hardliner Abu Hamid Ghazali around 1095. In it, Ghazali argued that scientists and philosophers were at best useless—they couldn’t prove the great truths of the Muslim religion—and at worst heretical, deserving of execution. But then, how could it be otherwise? The whole scientific enterprise was based on the earlier ideas of Greeks and Indians—unbelievers in Islam.

    Ghazali’s book was hugely influential. After it came out, kings still built glittering courts and stocked them with craftsmen, poets, and scholars of shari’ah (Muslim law). The buildings were more spectacular than ever. “No art surpasses architecture in its appeal to dictators.” But philosophers and scientists were noticeably absent. And when they did appear—the astronomers Nasir ad-Din Tusi and Ulugh Beg, for example—it just wasn’t the same. “Something important has been lost.” Starr hypothesizes it was the Greek and Indian ideas, the grains of sand that produced the pearls of culture, now anathema, thanks to Ghazali. Whatever the reason, the spark was gone. The Muslim world had so little interest in spreading new ideas that the first book printed by a Muslim using movable type would not be published until 300 years after Gutenberg.

    I did have one criticism of Lost Enlightenment. I noticed several errors in Starr’s discussion of the Seljuq period (1037-1153)—the period with which I’m most familiar because of my own writing. They were minor in nature—names and dates that were incorrect—and never detracted from the main points. But still.

    To his credit, in addition to laying out his arguments that the Central Asian Enlightenment became lost after flourishing for so many centuries, and the reasons that happened, Starr systematically addresses the arguments against his hypothesis. But in the end, he admits it’s not worth spending too much time on. “We feel little need to discover the cause of a nonagenarian’s death.” We can learn far more that it useful for own times by discovering how it lasted so long.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. Starring Omar Khayyam and Abu Hamid Ghazali, it is available on Amazon.com

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photo credit(s): Princeton University Press