Sword Swallowing to Oblivion

A review of Robert Spencer's Religion of Peace?-Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't, Regnery, 2007, 246 pp.

This past December, 2006, a British radiologist, and the executive director of the Sword Swallowers Association International published a fascinating survey which evaluated, "information on the practices and associated ill-effects of sword swallowing." The respondent sword swallowers typically required extended daily practice for months or years to appropriately desensitize their gag reflex,
...sometimes by repeatedly putting fingers down the throat, but other objects are used including spoons, paint brushes, knitting needles, and plastic tubes before the swallower commonly progresses to a bent wire coat hanger. The performer must then learn to align a sword with the upper esophageal sphincter with the neck hyper-extended.
Not surprisingly, such "desensitization" training does not spare sword swallowers from the predictable hazards of their chosen profession, including serious morbidities -- perforations of the pharynx or esophagus and associated neck abscess or aspiration, pneumothorax, pleurisy, pericarditis, and intestinal bleeding, ranging from melena (frankly bloody stools), to blood-transfusion-requiring hematemesis (vomiting blood)-and even death.

Robert Spencer's sobering new book, Religion of Peace? reveals how the prevailing multicultural orthodoxy in the West -- rooted in self-hatred, uncritical, blanket pacifism, and complacency -- negates the profound differences between Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilization, obfuscating the existential threat posed by Islam's enduring, central institution: the jihad. This corrosive mentality is disseminated by the avatars of immoral equivalence, "elite" sword swallowers for jihadism who have foisted their own self-destructive desensitization to this genocidal institution upon a general public, sadly ill-informed about Islamic doctrine and history.

Throughout the first four chapters, Spencer analyzes a spate of books that appeared in 2006 -- whose authors were oblivious to reams of daily, concrete evidence, and reason -- which warned not about the real global progress of Shari'a (both violently and non-violently imposed), but the supposed imminent threat of Christian theocracy in the United States, and the export overseas of this religious zealotry by a modern "Crusading" military adventurism.

Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy was prototypical of this genre which, by waves of the hand, dismissed obvious foreign and domestic threats of jihad terrorism while ignoring altogether cultural jihadism -- the aggressive, if transiently "peaceful" methods of Islamic dawa -- and their long term implications for truly theocratic, i.e., Islamic rule, including, within the West. Phillips insists that the post 9/11 incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq were merely, "the war whoops of militant Protestantism...," the apotheosis of a "biblically stirred foreign policy," willing to use force to achieve its ultimate end: broader Christian missionary activity in the Islamic Middle East, another shameful Crusade.

Spencer eviscerates Phillips' "analysis" of George Bush's October 2001 speech (outlining the President's proposed military response to the cataclysmic attacks of 9/11), which epitomizes the counterfactual, and bizarre, if not frankly paranoid argumentation of the "Christian-ist conspiracy" mongering authors. Despite the fact that Bush had refrained from invoking religious language-in stark contrast to Osama bin Laden-Phillips,

...resorted to claiming that the president used "double coding," through which he "signaled attentive Bible readers that he shared their private scriptural invocations -- using phrases from the revelation of St. John (6:15-17, about the wrath of the lamb) and Isaiah (about evildoers hiding in caves and the lonely paths of the godless)." Never mind that Bush never used the words wrath or lamb, and never mind that bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives actually do hide in caves. Why let the truth get in the way of a great theory?
As Spencer continues, he exposes the full-blown preposterous absurdity of Phillips' putative "insights", which, depressingly, enjoy rather broad acceptance, regardless of well-established contradictory facts, including: the Sharia-based Afghan and Iraqi constitutions; the plight of unassuming Afghan Muslim "apostate to Christianity" Abdul Rahman; the ongoing tragic destruction of the ancient Assyrian Christian community in Iraq, accelerated since the US invasion, as perpetrated by Sunni and Shi'ite Arab Muslims, as well as Muslim Kurds, and taking place within a larger overall context of the attrition of all the indigenous Christian communities of the Islamic Middle East oppressed by resurgent jihadism, beginning after World War I, and increased since the culmination of the Western European colonial era, following World War II.
He [Phillips] describes Bush as an "evangelical Christian missionary, " influenced by "heady talk about bringing liberty and freedom to new shores." But maybe, just maybe, Bush's real mission was not biblical at all, but an attempt to defend America from a second September 1, and he was seeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the replacing of their tyrannies with democracies as part of this effort. Phillips and his ilk certainly have to stretch to portray Bush's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a Christian missionary enterprise; the constitutions of both contries give a privileged place to Islam, and the Bush administration has taken no special measures to halt the persecution of Christians in post-Saddam Iraq.

...the constitution of the new, post-Taliban Afghani regime stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Abdul Rahman's case showed that Islam's traditional classification of apostasy as a capital crime would be included in this. The prophet Muhammad regarded apostasy from Islam as a supreme evil, and one of the main reasons the punishment is so severe is because apostates were once Muslims but "turn renegade." Muhammad decreed that no Muslim could be put to death except for murder, unlawful sexual intercourse, and apostasy. He said flatly: "Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him." This is still the position of all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, although there is some disagreement over whether the law applies only to men. Thus it was not at all surprising that the Afghan government, constituted so that no law could be made that contradicted Islamic law, put Abdul Rahman on trial. Yet Western analysts seem to have trouble grasping the import of Rahman's case...After an international firestorm, Abdul Rahman was released, and asked for asylum in Italy, which was swiftly granted. However, the Islamic law provision in the Afghani constitution remains today. But if this episode made anything clear, it was that the Bush administration had no interest whatsoever in defending the rights of a Christian prisoner in an Islamic state. American officials did nothing, after all, to prevent the approval of the constitution, despite its stipulation about Islamic law. If the American incursion into Afghanistan represented a modern-day Crusade or an exercise in evangelical Christian wish fulfillment, it was a singularly inept one.

In Iraq, likewise, the dire predicament of Christians facing jihadist persecution after the fall of Saddam Hussein demonstrated this point. If spreading Christianity was what Bush was after, he was doing a decidedly poor job of it...In Iraq, half the nation's prewar 700,000 Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein...Christian communities throughout the Middle East that date back to the dawn of Christianity are decreasing so much that they are on the verge of disappearing from the area altogether...Overall the Middle Eastern Christian population has dropped from 20 percent in 1900 to less than 2 percent today.
Spencer completes the first third of his book by highlighting another commonplace immoral equivalence espoused by assorted non-Muslim and Muslim apologists for Islam: comparing Pat Robertson and other Christian evangelical leaders, "despite the fact that they have killed no one and have no organization equivalent to Al Qaeda," and the handful of abortion clinic bombers, or murderers of physicians who perform abortions, to the legions of mass murdering global jihadists. The author contrasts the unequivocal, powerful denunciations of such isolated attacks on abortion clinics and their personnel, made by all major mainstream Christian denominations and their leaders, to the equivocal, elusive, and vaguely worded statements by Islamic organizations or religious bodies, and their clerical elites-domestic and international-who consistently refuse to condemn by name major Muslim entities responsible for heinous acts of murderous jihad terrorism, including Hamas, Hizbollah, and even Al Qaeda.

The remainder of this engaging, essential, and remarkably compendious work illuminates the profound theological (and philosophical) differences between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, and civilizations. With the same erudition, wit, and lucid, didactic presentation style characteristic of his previous books, Spencer adduces convincing contemporary and historical evidence to support the following main arguments:
  • Based upon its earliest inception by Muhammad -- an unabashed 7th century military and political leader, the antithesis of the pacifist proselytizer Jesus -- through the present, jihad has been central to the thought and writings of prominent Muslim theologians and jurists. The precepts and regulations elucidated in the 7th through 9th centuries are immutable in the Muslim theological-juridical system, and they have remained essentially unchallenged by the majority of contemporary Muslims. The jihad is intrinsic to the sacred Muslim texts, including the divine Koranic revelation -- "the uncreated word of Allah". The Old Testament sanctions the Israelites conquest of Canaan -- a limited domain -- it does not sanction a permanent war to submit all the nations of humanity to a uniform code of religious law. Similarly, the tactics of warfare are described in the Old Testament, unlike the Koran, in very circumscribed and specific contexts. Moreover, while the Old Testament clearly condemns certain inhumane practices of paganism, it never invoked an eternal war against all of the world's pagan peoples, as, for example enjoined by Koran 9:5.
  • In opposition to the Judeo-Christian conception of God as a God of reason, the Koran (5:64) makes clear that Allah's hand is unfettered -- he was not bound to govern the universe according to consistent and observable laws -- which has had profound implications for the (arrested) development of the natural sciences in Islamic societies, and Islamic ethics.
    • Spencer cites Professor Rodney Stark's observation that Islam lacks "a conception of God appropriate to underwrite the rise of science...Allah is not presented as a lawful creator, but is conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes in the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah's freedom to act." Not surprisingly leading historians and sociologists of science have concluded "...it is indisputable" that modern science -- an organized, empirically directed effort to explain natural phenomena through theory construction and testing -- that modern science "emerged in the seventeenth century in Western Europe and nowhere else".
    • Moreover, even notions about supposed Islamic contributions to pre-modern science and philosophy -- fostered by the triumphalism of the jihad conquests -- are purely mythical. Despite taking credit for the invention of algebra, the Arabs did no more than copy the treatises of Diophantus of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth century. The numerals commonly referred to as Arabic, and the system of notation which bears the same name, derive from Hindustan. The Arabs themselves called arithmetic "Indian reckoning," and geometry "Indian science" (hendesya). Arab knowledge of botany was obtained either from the treatises of Dioscorides, or from Hindu and Persian works. In chemistry, or rather alchemy, they were the pupils of the Alexandrian school. Djeber and Rhazes, the latter an Islamized Persian, did no more than copy the works of Alexandrian Hermetism. There is the same absence of invention regarding medicine. Greek physicians, from the third century of the Christian era, made their way into Persia, where they founded a celebrated school which soon became the rival of Alexandria. But earlier it was especially at Alexandria that Greek medicine emerged from empiricism and assumed a truly scientific character. Aaron, a Christian priest who lived at Alexandria in the seventh century, compiled and translated into Syriac the treatises of Galen, under the name of Pandects of Medicine. This Syriac version was translated into Arabic in 685, becoming a major source used by Arab physicians, most notably Serapion, Avicenna, Albucasis, and Averroes-whose own Koullyat is merely a translation of Galen.  Rhazes best known work, the Kanoun, is a compilation of the treatises of Galen, from the Syriac versions.  And the Arabs left the doctrines of Aristotle (and of the Jewish and Christian philosophers) just as they were transmitted to them by various non-Muslims-reproduced, but neither invented nor improved.
    • Finally, the unique persistence of chattel slavery in Islamic societies, and both the brutal oppression of Muslim women (including widespread polygamy, wife beating, honor killings, and clitorectomy/genital mutilation), and non-Muslim minorities, are living testimony to the continued failed paradigm of "Islamic ethics", as sanctioned by the Shari'a-a seemingly immutable obstacle to modern conceptions of human rights, which evolved exclusively in Judeo-Christian societies.
Sword swallowers -- even when not suffering serious morbidity or death from their weird, dangerous vocation -- are prone to throat soreness,  "sword throats", if their performances are oft-repeated. Abstinence from swallowing is the mainstay of treatment. The same therapy -- complete abstinence -- should be applied to contemporary sword swallowers for jihadism, so that they and the larger public who celebrate their performances finally awaken to the existential dangers posed by desensitization to the global jihad, and gag, collectively. Because, as Robert Spencer warns, it is indeed,
...but to state fact-a fact that many Muslims cheerfully and proudly avow. Christianity is a religion of peace, and it is a religion without a jihadist movement. Islam is a religion of the sword and there are, by even the most conservative estimates, more than one hundred million active jihadists seeking to impose sharia not only in the Islamic world, but in Europe and ultimately in the United States. And they will succeed, in time, if Westerners continue to delude themselves that Western civilization is uniquely responsible for the evil in the world, that Christianity is just as inherently violent as Islam, that all cultures are equal in their capacity to inspire magnanimity, nobility, generosity, and greatness of soul. This is a suicidal myth.

Whether one believes in Christianity or not, it is necessary now for all lovers of authentic freedom to acknowledge their debt to the Judeo-Christian West, to the Judeo-Christian assumptions that built Europe and the United States, and to acknowledge that this great civilization is imperiled and worth defending.
Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad  (Prometheus, 2005) and the forthcoming The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism  " (Prometheus, November, 2007)
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