Response to Michael Gove’s review of Surrender

Michael Gove’s review of my book Surrender in the June issue of Standpoint began by describing it as “a passionate, fluent, compelling, arresting and troubling work with many virtues. And one great flaw.”

That flaw, according to Gove, is that my “critique” extends “beyond Islamist extremism, and its appeasers, to the whole of Islam itself.”  Disputing my argument that “there is no such thing as a moderate or liberal Islam,” and that the moderation or liberalism of individual Muslims “is not an attribute of the brand of Islam to which they officially subscribe” but is rather a matter of personally held views that diverge from Islamic orthodoxy, Gove cites Sufism, which he describes as “explicitly moderate in theology and practice,” adding that Sufis “totally” oppose Sharia.

First of all, this is both a generalization and an overstatement.  Read up on Sufism and you will continually run across statements such as these: “The Shari`ah is of fundamental importance to the Sufi path” (Fariduddien Rice) and “Sufism is the ethics of Koran, the spiritual state of the Messenger, and the refined manners of the Shari’ah.” (Mahmud Es’ad Cosan), and ”The tariqah [‘way’] and the haqiqah[‘reality’] for which the Sufis are known, are subservient to the Shari`ah” (Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi).  The more an individual Sufi deviates from Sharia, the more he risks being branded an apostate, the punishment for which in Islam, of course, is death.

Gove might have mentioned Ahmadi Muslims, who do indeed have a more moderate theology than other Muslims – but it is precisely because of this moderation that they are officially considered non-Muslims in virtually the entire Muslim world, where they are subject to intense harassment and persecution.

Gove says that if “most Sufis, and other moderates including traditionalist Shias,” are remarkably closemouthed about their opposition to Sharia – if, as he puts it, they “do not get involved in politics” – it is “because they are quietists and wish to see a properly liberal separation between throne and altar.”  Let me get this straight: all these devout Muslims supposedly oppose Islamic law and reject those who would impose it on Britain, but choose not to say so (except, apparently, to Gove) because they believe in the separation of politics and religion?  I’m sorry, but this makes no sense whatsoever.

Finally, as examples of “Muslims — pious, believing, sincere and faithful Muslims — who detest fundamentalism and disagree with the ideology of Islamism, who reject the worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood and Tariq Ramadan, who regard Sayyid Qutb and Jamaat-i-Islami with disdain” – and who are therefore “the natural allies of all those of us who want to defend liberal values from extremists” – Gove lists Ed Husain, Tarek Heggy, Taj Hargey, Khurshid Ahmed, the Sufi Muslim Council, and Reza Aslan, saying that they “are all liberal Muslims whose lifestyles and worldviews are threatened by extremism just as much as mine or Bawer’s.”

Now, whether there are self-identified Muslims who are also outspoken liberals is not a matter of dispute between Gove and me.  Irshad Manji, the Canadian lesbian who seeks (many would say quixotically) to reform Islam radically through the practice of ijtihad – the reinterpretation of the Koran – is a prominent example.  But Manji proves my point, not Gove’s: while she apparently has supporters among young people who were born into Islam and who are desperate to escape sharia’s stranglehold, there does not yet exist a strain of Islam or a single influential imam on the planet that would accept her or them as legitimate Muslims.

Indeed, unless Manji succeeds in helping to engineer the kind of radical reinterpretation that she seeks, Muslims will – even in the view of authorities such as the European Fatwa Council (which is routinely represented in the European media as moderate) – be bound by their faith to accept every word of their holy book as the inerrant word of Allah, and thus to accept (for example) that men have the right to beat their wives, that homosexuals should be executed, that a man is entitled to have four wives, that women’s rights should be far more restricted than men’s, and so forth.

In any event, among the well-known Muslim activists who are sometimes described as liberals, Manji stands nearly alone in her genuine liberalism, and her willingness to acknowledge that there is indeed something seriously wrong with Islam as it is currently understood by its recognized theological authorities and the mass of its adherents.  The list of names Gove serves up inadvertently proves this point.  Take Ed Husain – who, as head of the Sufi Quilliam Foundation and a self-declared former Islamist, is now supposedly a model of Sufi moderation, gentleness, and mysticism.  But this new, improved Husain has in fact said such things as the following: “Israel is not an ordinary country: it is built by children of Holocaust survivors, forcing themselves on Arab land over Palestinian dead bodies.”  As Melanie Phillips observed in January of this year: “If Ed Husain were really interested in de-radicalising Britain’s Muslims, he would tell them that they have been fed a diet of incendiary lies and blood libels about Israel and the Jews, and that justice demands they are taught instead the truth. But instead, he has now adopted the very narrative and rhetoric that are driving Muslims to mass murder.”

As for Reza Aslan, he responded to the Danish Muhammed cartoons by insisting that “freedom of the press cannot excuse the promotion of noxious stereotypes” and that “in any democratic society freedom of the press must be properly balanced with civic responsibility.”  He was “enraged by the publication of these cartoons,” he wrote in Salon in 2006, “because they fly in the face of the tireless efforts…to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord….We in the West want Muslim leaders to condemn the racial and religious prejudices that are so widespread in the Muslim world. Let us lead by example.”  In other words, the long-established right in the free West to parody and mock everyone and everything should be restricted when it comes to parody and mockery that offends Muslims.

That’s not all.  Aslan routinely whitewashes Islamic history, pretending that the problems which plague Islam are only recent and are largely, if not entirely, the fault of Western colonialism; he rejects the idea that Osama bin Laden’s terrorism has any basis in religion; he heaps praise on groups like CAIR, ignoring their extremist connections, and (Gove to the contrary) has warm words for the Muslim Brotherhood.  In a debate with Aslan, Manji summed up his position tidily:  “Moderates denounce terror but they deny that Islam has anything to do with this terror.”  Manji recognizes the insufficiency of Aslan’s brand of “moderation” and the need for drastic reform that “reinterprets the violent passages of the Koran.”


Then there’s Hargey, who, last January, on the BBC debate program The Big Questions, furiously denied that Hamas is a terrorist organization: “How come one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter?”  In reply to a question about Hamas deliberately targeting an Israeli school, Hargey insisted: “We have to take in mind that Hamas is a democratically elected party and they are the government in Palestine.   And targeting Hamas is basically targeting the whole Palestinian people.”  As for Hamas’s determination to destroy Israel, Hargey said: “We talk about Islamism, we talk about Hamas, but we don’t talk about Zionism…it is a political ideology…to be anti-Israeli is not to be anti-Semitic.”  For good measure, he then proceeded to equate Israel with Nazi Germany and Gaza with the Warsaw ghetto.

As for the other names on Gove’s list, I know little about the Sufi Muslim Council, though what I have read about it seems relatively positive, as these things go, and Tarek Heggy appears to be an admirable figure.  Yet neither the Council nor Heggy appears to share Manji’s willingness to acknowledge the need for radical Islamic reform.  One critic faults Heggy, for example, for not “go[ing] far enough” because he attributes “the spread of the mentality of fanaticism…predominantly to tribalism” instead of acknowledging its foundation in Islam.  Similarly, Khurshid Ahmed, in his comments on British government efforts to track down and arrest domestic terrorists, has tended to emphasize his supposed concerns about police “overreaction” and Muslim “backlash” and to downplay terrorism’s religious roots.

These, then, are the people Gove adduces to prove that there indeed exists a strain of Islam in the world today that can fairly be described as liberal.  Of course, even if these individuals were all as genuinely liberal as Irshad Manji, it would prove no such thing.  As it is, the fact that these names are apparently the best Gove can come up with only underscores the point I make in Surrender and that Gove so vigorously disputes: that there is indeed a problem with Islam as such, and that it does no good to pretend otherwise.