Monday, July 28, 2008

The Challenge of Islam Part II

By Mordechai Nisan

2nd part of 2

          The Mystery of the Muslim Culture Code

The hard fiber of Islamic faith and proud Muslim identity has defied any disruption or erosion when in contact with other peoples or religions. And it is this formidable fact that will always be the springboard for challenging and threatening the Western world, and Israel. Forums in search of Arab/non-Arab cultural coexistence and Islamic/Christian/Jewish ecumenical religious dialogue confront the obdurate Muslims, proud and impenetrable. All cultures, but Islam emphatically, are incommunicable to the outsider. There is a certain concealed Muslim/Arab mental domain (batiniyya) that a stranger cannot enter. It is closed cultural territory, while housing a defiant and mendacious well of subtle seduction and deception. Carleton S. Coon, noteworthy anthropologist of the Middle East, had once remarked that among the Arabs “two kinds of personality are at play: that which your man presents to the outside world and that which is known to his kin.”8

A few examples can illustrate the dexterous political practice of Muslim stratagems.

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam himself, carried out a paradigmatic ruse by numbing his Quraysh opponents when agreeing to the Hudaybiyya Agreement in 628, only to nullify it when he felt powerful enough less than two years later and overwhelmed his adversaries.

The story is told of the Muslim Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya in the latter part of the seventh-century who, with great patience and dexterity, trapped a Byzantine Christian and took revenge for an insult he had much earlier administered to a Muslim.9 Richard Burton, that insightful British traveler to the Muslim Orient in the mid-19th century, hid his travel itinerary from his friends, recalling the advice of an Arab proverb: “Conceal Thy Tenets, Thy Treasure, and thy Traveling.”10

In the contemporary political arena, the culture-code is no less relevantly subtle and effective. In 1990, Saddam Hussein told Husni Mubarak that Iraq’s contentions and claims against Kuwait would be resolved without resort to force. A few days after the conversation, Kuwait was conquered and occupied by Saddam’s army. In 1993, Yasser Arafat promised Yitzhak Rabin to amend the PLO covenant so that it would not contradict the peace process codified with the signing of the Oslo Accords. Despite Arafat’s political theatrics performed in front of President Clinton in Gaza in 1998, the covenant was never nullified as the Palestinians acquired territories and weaponry to enable them to engage in incessant terrorism against Israel. Approximately 850 Israelis had been murdered by Palestinian terrorism from the beginning of Intifada al-Aqsa in October 2000 and until three years later, by late September 2003.

The Arab/Muslim art of rhetorical deceit remains incomprehensible to most Americans,  even Israelis, and certainly collaborative Europeans. When Muslims offer peace to an adversary, explained Majid Khadduri, this is typically “a device to achieve certain objectives, since the state of permanent war was the normal relationship between Islam and other nations”.11 Indeed, when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, the Al-Azhar Islamic University of Cairo penned - undoubtedly with Sadat’s approval if not command – a traditional religious judgment (fatwa) to justify this otherwise politically unthinkable act. The Islamic scholars merely listed the concrete benefits accruing to the Muslim and Arab peoples from this agreement, with no reference to the ideal of peace. No less a sophisticated ruse was the argument proposed by Egyptian thinker Muhammad Sid Ahmed who, in his book, When the Guns Fall Silent, in 1974, explained that peace with Israel is acceptable because in the process, Zionism will dissolve.  

Saudi Arabian kings and princes have cultivated Washington political elites and administrations while pursuing their Wahhabi Islamic version of religious-cum-terrorist campaign in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Wahhabism, an 18th century doctrinaire and violent Arabian movement, provides the contemporary religious leitmotif for the Saudi regime and its global Islamic outreach. This includes extensive mosque construction and university endowment chairs in Islamic Studies in many Western countries. 

This religious expansionism constitutes in itself a certain defiance of the values and universality of Western civilization. But more “Wahhabist” yet is Saudi funding of Palestinian terrorism and Syrian arms purchases, though the oil-rich desert kingdom continues to feign friendship for the United States.  

September 11, moreover, was very much a Saudi production. Fifteen of the 19 active terrorist attackers were Saudi nationals while Al-Qa’ida, headed by Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi citizen, was financed by the Saudis over many years. This is true also for the Afghani Taliban regime which provided sanctuary to bin Laden and his murderers.

Yet Washington, naively or otherwise, historically accommodated Riyadh’s central role in the global spread of militant Islam.

A remarkable sense of superiority is at the root of Muslim self-confidence and mastery boldly displayed over history. The fantastic story of Wilfrid Thesiger, a mythic European who discovered Arabia with his Bedouin companions in the mid-20th century, offers a personal narrative to express the point. His Bedouin friends recognized that Thesiger, among his other positive qualities, was able to tirelessly withstand the desert challenge. But, in the end, they considered themselves better than him in just one way, saying: “in that we were Muslims”.12

That is the religious heart of the entire matter.

 War is War, and Peace Too

We now draw the logical conclusion that it is futile and demeaning to engage in any political dialogue or discussion, negotiations or agreements of any kind with the Arabs. It confuses, drains human energy, and is highly dishonorable. To take seriously Arab peace offers, when they are nothing but wile in action, is a self-inflicted humiliation. 

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah floated his “peace initiative” in March 2002 as a call for normalization with Israel. But before the ink was dry on the paper, the word “normalization” was removed, and the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” was validated by explicit reference to United Nations Resolution 194 from December 11, 1948. Thus, coopting international legitimacy and combining it with the rhetoric of peace-making becomes a lethal concoction in the armory of Arab diplomacy. To flood Israel with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees is the Arab formula for peace with Israel. This is of course a peace without Israel. For others to politically shun the Arabs will convey that their masquerade of manipulation is exposed and finished.

The Muslims’ assault world-wide cannot be expected to die a natural death. Believing their religion to be dictated from Allah on high is not as innocuous as it may sound to other monotheists and believers in revelation.  For the Muslims, we are learning, really take their religion seriously. They cull their determination and fire from a source that is exempt from outside influence or interference. At home, in Arab countries, the Muslim fanatics confront repressive state regimes which block their advance to power. This is the case in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria. Foiled and frustrated from grabbing power in the Middle East, as scholar and commentator Fouad Ajami explained, the Muslim terrorists seek with evermore venom to vent their hated for the West on the turf of infidel Christianity itself.

The vocabulary of our era resonates with Islam and its references. We speak of Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad; Israel contends with the Intifada whose shahid martyrs glorify the Palestinian struggle; Ayatollah Khoumeini and Sheikh Nasrallah are on our lips; and even nominal terms like a fatwa (legal decision) and hijab (woman’s veil) fill the public atmosphere. Arafat’s Muqat’aa Ramallah headquarters assumed the glory of a Palestinian stalingrad in the face of Israel’s siege. The Islamic century has made non-Muslims anxious for the future.

Yet remember, that when confronted by a resolute foe, Muslims often withdraw and founder in fear. Their Bedouin heritage has trained them to exploit weakness, but to pull back from confrontation or any real trial of strength. A “hit-and-run” strategy is the perfect Bedouin mode of action; it is also at the core of Palestinian terrorism the last 50 years.

The daring Swiss explorer of Arabia, John Burckhardt, wrote in 1831 that Bedouin stealth is as real as is Bedouin hospitality: there is no contradiction in these traditional desert qualities.13 Much of Muslim-Arab success in the early history of Islam was facilitated  by the enemy surrendering rather than facing the Muslims in battle. The city of Mecca  succumbed to Muhammad in 630, Iran collapsed in the face of Arab armies in the early 640s, Spain was penetrated with ease in 711. Damascus, a Byzantine city, was an exception and resisted the Muslim assaults in 636-37 only to open its gates in the end. Much of Europe today has capitulated, while posing as the repository of democracy, tolerance, and human rights.

The Muslims are masters of bluff and bullying, no less of blackmail and threat, in overwhelming a bamboozled adversary. But when faced in battle, as we saw in Iraq in 1991 and in some Palestinian towns in 2002, the Muslims virtually capitulate.  In the spring of 2003, US forces overran much of Iraq with relative military ease; but the typical culture-bound Arab response of terrorism was not long in coming.

Classical, legal, and imperial Islam divides the world by a religious conception: between the Domain of Islam (Dar al-Islam), where the Muslims rule and Islam officiates, and the Domain of War (Dar al-Harb), where the Muslims are subject to foreign rule until effectively expediting the ultimate triumph of Islam. This mental construct is embedded in the minds of Muslims who pray in mosques in Jersey City and Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Beirut,  London and Marseilles. Where Muslims reside, they must rule. If Islam will dominate the land of Israel and the lands of Christendom, then the world will more and more become Dar al-Islam. Peace will then be the result of conquest.

It was King David who insightfully implied in Psalm 120 that when the Jews speak of peace with the Ishmaelites, the latter’s Arab/Muslim descendants will respond with a call for war. This realization can be a cause for despondency and trepidation. But that same Ishmael, born of Hagar, Abraham’s maid servant, while defined as a “wild man”, must be confronted by all his protagonists (yado bakol ve-yad kol bo, Genesis 16:12). Is not the Biblical narrative a real-life description of the civilizational clash and challenge in our times?

Mordechai Nisan

 Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.




1. M.M. Qureshi, Landmarks of Jihad, Lahore: Kasmiri Bazar, 1971, points out in the Introduction that the goal of jihad is to break the enemy’s will and to get him to accept Muslim supremacy.


2. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Vol. I, Ch. III, Section, 31,  Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 473.


3. See Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, London: Penguin, 1988.


4. Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979, pp. 33-37.


5. Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, London: Associated University Presses, 1985, p. 58.


6. See Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of The Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century, London: Longman, 1996.


7. Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1979.


8. In Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976, p. 105.


9. Mas’udi, The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids, London and NY: Kegan Paul, pp. 320-324.


10. Sir Richard F. Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Volume One, New York: Dover, 1964 (orig. 1855), p. 140.


11. Majid Khadduri, The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybani’s Siyar, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966, pp. 53-54.


12. Michael Asher, Thesiger: A Biography, London: Penguin, 1995, p. 261.


13. John Lewis Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, vol. 1, London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1967, p. 157.


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