Catastrophe in the Middle East and terror raids at home have once more dragged Islam to the surface of the public consciousness, where it has been greeted with all the usual fear and hysteria. At the furthest end of the spectrum we have attacks on veiled women, the vandalism of mosques and the invasion of a school by a knife-wielding maniac. These people, who regard Muslims as the worst of the worst, seem to consider any ugliness on their own part justified. Unconsciously, they echo the attitude of Gubiert of Nogent, a twelfth century ‘biographer’ of Muhammad, who justified repeating popular myths and slander about the Prophet on the basis that ‘it is safe to speak evil of one whose malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken’. In other words, when it comes to Muslims, you can leave your principles in the drawer.
And it seems that the first principle set aside by critics of Islam is that of rational inquiry. Hence, Bill Maher confidently declares that female circumcision is a ‘Muslim problem’. Fortunately, in that discussion, academic and public Muslim Reza Aslan was on hand to point out that female circumcision is equally prevalent in Christian-majority African countries. Maher could have easily discovered this himself, but he didn’t bother. Similarly, Jacquie Lambie could have made the most cursory investigation of Sharia law before declaring that terrorism is one of its constituent elements. Again, presumably it didn’t even occur to her to do so.
Again and again, we see that ignorance is the rule rather than the exception for commentary on Islam. Take Andrew Bolt’s recent article, ‘Islam’s violent tendencies’, in which he refers to ‘Islam’s sacred texts – the Koran and Hadith’. Of course the Koran is a text – and in Muslim belief, the greatest of texts – but the hadith are not. The hadith are the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet, some of which are accorded more weight than others. It is the role of religious scholars to determine which can be relied upon. Many hadith collections exist, but the hadith themselves do not form a ‘text’ alongside the Quran. This distinction is meaningless to Bolt, although without it, he cannot begin to understand Islamic law. Instead, he can only revert to received opinion – in this case, taking the supporters of the Islamic State at their word when they claim their actions have a religious justification. Again, a basic theological matter that Bolt could have cleared up with thirty seconds of research. Sadly, his blunt refusal to even attempt to understand characterises nearly all the negative commentary on Islam.
But perhaps Bolt never stood a chance. Even some of the greatest Western minds tend to suffer a few palpitations when Islam is concerned. Consider legendary Christian apologist Blaise Pascal, who writes ‘whereas Mahomet tried to preserve his book by forbidding anyone to read it, Moses tried to preserve his by ordering everyone to read it’. That any prophet concerned with spreading their religion would seek to prevent people reading its sacred text is self-evidently ridiculous – but Pascal, one of the cleverest people who has ever lived, swallowed this nonsense without thinking twice. The instinctive narrow-mindedness persisted throughout the Enlightenment. Working from a bad French translation of the Quran, Voltaire writes: ‘The Koran is a rhapsody, without connection, without order, and without art. This tedious book is, nevertheless, said to be a very fine production, at least by the Arabs, who assert that it is written with an elegance and purity that no later work has equalled.’ Thus the art which escapes the French language is no art at all, and the order discerned by the Arabs is only Arab superstition. To Voltaire’s credit, in the same work he dismisses some of the more ridiculous rumours spread about Islam by medieval writers – even if, ultimately, the hero of objectivity prefers to retreat to a safe belief in his own infallible judgment.
Still, Pascal and Voltaire wrote during periods in which European conceptions of Islam were almost totally polluted by centuries of zealous propaganda (although Voltaire is much less innocent, as his knowledge was better than most). It is in the work of GK Chesterton that the eagerness to remain in ignorance about Islam reaches its apotheosis. Chesterton wrote that Islam
affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet.
Of course, in Muslim belief, Muhammad is far from solitary, being the last in a line of messengers including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and countless others. This is as basic to Islam as the Resurrection is to Christianity; but Chesterton prefers to extrapolate from the Muslim belief in the Oneness of God a parallel belief in the oneness of prophethood. Having invented this ‘Muslim’ doctrine, he blames it for the rise of the Mahdi.
Chesterton thus knows nothing about Islam, but he at least has the subtlety to wear his ignorance as a badge of pride:
I do not know much about Mohammed or Mohammedanism. I do not take the Koran to bed with me every night. But, if I did on some one particular night, there is one sense at least in which I know what I should not find there. I apprehend that I should not find the work abounding in strong encouragements to the worship of idols …
Why, indeed, should he take the Quran to bed? He’s already figured out its contents, without reading a single ayat.
It is Chesterton’s eager ignorance which we now see replicated time and time again. Maher, Bolt and Lambie: if they have a shred of honesty in them, they will admit to knowing next to nothing about Islam. But paradoxically – and Chesterton always appreciated a good paradox – it is that lack of knowledge which confirms their absolute entitlement to speak, once and for all, the truth of Islam. Only in the absence of knowledge can such certainty arise. Like Chesterton, they decline to learn because they already know. And it is the very act of learning – learning, for instance, the perfectly simple difference between the Quran and the hadith – which would destroy that knowledge.
It is thus pointless to denounce Lambie as an imbecile or Bolt as a bigot without recognising them as scions of a venerable Western tradition of Islamophobia. Of course we need more Muslim voices, even if those voices are often ignored and sidelined. Equally, however, all commenters on Islam need to be held to a basic level of knowledge. In this respect, Lambie was checked by Barry Cassidy, and Maher by Reza Aslan. But the whole weight of the discourse is pushing against learning, against education, towards comfortable, monolithic stereotypes. And that it has been pushing this way for so long makes the direction all the harder to reverse.