Why are Intellectuals so Clueless about Islamism?

In 2016, a Danish team of journalists conducted a series of undercover visits to Danish mosques. Pretending to be a devout Muslim, and using a hidden camera, a mole asked Muslim leaders across eight Danish mosques how to respond to a series of domestic problems. Strikingly, the mole was told to commit welfare fraud, to accept domestic violence, that she would have to accept the sexual advances of her husband at any time, and that stoning to death is the proper Islamic punishment for female infidelity.

The program caused a stir of controversy, far too vast for us to cover all of it here. In this video, we will merely cover a recent criticism by four ethnically white university researchers who purport to find fault with the documentary.

First, the researchers comment on an incident in which the mole asks the imam Abu Bilal what she should do about her violent husband. The imam tells her not to go to the police; that her husband taking a second wife is not a valid reason for her to file for divorce; that she will not be allowed to live alone if she does seek separation; and that, as a separated Muslim woman, her only option will be to become the second wife of a much older man.

The university faculty defend the imam by saying that a part of his counselling that was omitted in the final documentary. In their eyes, this omitted segment has the imam say what any Western couples’ counsellor would say. So what does he say? Well, the imam asks the woman why the husband is hitting her. He wants to know if the wife has been in error to provoke it. It is unknown what kind of couples’ counsellors the researchers are seeing, but they might want to ask for their money back.

Then the researchers claim that the whole premise of the interview is distorted, since the imam does not say that the mole cannot get a divorce, only that doing so wouldn’t be advisable. However, divorce in the context in which the imam is speaking does not carry the same connotations as divorce in a Western context: What the imam is speaking of is khula, which is the Islamic separation arrangement for females. For males, the appropriate variant is talaq, which refers to the man’s right to disavow his wife at any time and for whatever reason. However, women are not the equals of men in this regard. To achieve their variant of divorce, they must have the permission of their husband, or of a council of Islamic scholars, and are then obligated to pay back their dowry to the husband. Being subjected to domestic violence does not change these terms – the woman must still wait to be granted khula by her husband or by a council of Islamic scholars who are usually all men. So the imam is not saying that the mole has the option of getting divorced; he is saying that she can get khula, which is not the same thing.

Another point of contention raised by the researchers is that a clip reveals the same imam talking about stoning to death as the proper penalty for female adultery. The researchers interject that the imam is really talking about stoning as a metaphorical practice, just like how Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount talked about cutting off one’s hands if they lead one into sin.

So how metaphorically is the imam speaking here? Well, we have already seen that on the subject of khula, the imam advised the woman in accordance with mainstream sharia practice. And just like khula is practiced in the Islamic world, so stoning to death is practiced in 15 countries across the Islamic world. And if we look to Denmark, according to the newest report on what imams believe and practice, only one imam of those covered by the report agreed that Islamic punishments can be understood figuratively. That imam is from the Ahmadiyya denomination, which no other schools of Islam in Denmark accept as true Muslims, and which are persecuted as heretics by other Muslims across the Islamic world. In that same report, an Arab imam says that stoning women to death is a sad thing but that it nevertheless has to be done. Another imam, a Pakistani, says that the first rule of interpreting Islamic punishments is that one must always read passages as concretely as possible and that the prophet himself implemented stoning as a punishment. Since Muhammed himself condoned the practice and understood it literally, others cannot argue that it should be understood figuratively.

So why is all of this important? Well, as we said in our “How to Think About Minorities” video, Muslim communities are not one bloc. Within the Muslim communities, there is a minority who believe in secularism, Western values and human rights and who want to escape the stranglehold of the dominant sharia conservatives within their group. By attempting to legitimize the behavior of the radical imam and others like him, the Western university researchers are no doubt thinking that they are ‘helping’ Muslims as a whole. But in fact, they are crushing the liberal minority within Muslim communities underfoot. This is also what the author of the aforementioned report, Tina Magaard, found on the basis of hundreds of hours spent talking to Muslims in Denmark.

So how could the four university researchers be so ignorant? To answer that question we must turn to the work of another researcher, Ulla Thomsen, who in 2012 conducted a review of the academic literature that university faculty are generally expected to read on the subject of Islam.

For one thing, Thomsen found that the books and academic articles contained no mention of Islamism, terrorism, elevated Muslim crime levels compared to other minorities, support for sharia values, hostility towards non-Muslims, no-go zones, riots, or assaults on police, firefighters, social workers and paramedics. None of these things were mentioned in the academic literature on Islam in Denmark that is standard reading for university faculty and researchers.

Instead, the problems with Muslim migrants were explained with reference to the ruthless exploitativeness of capitalism and the racism of ethnic Danes. As opposed to the report we just mentioned, little to no actual evidence was used in the literature. Instead, the writers referred to other writers who also believe that the problems are caused by capitalism and the racism of white people. Several of the writers whose word was taken as if they were neutral authorities on the matter are avowed Marxists.

Thomsen also conducted a count of the examples used in a prominent Danish work on Muslim migration to Denmark in order to see who was cast as the victim and who was cast as the oppressor. In 100% of the cases, the Muslims were presented as victims and ethnic Danes as the oppressors.

Finally, and most damningly, Thomsen presented an evaluation of the articles and books written by these professors at the top of the academic food chain. The evaluations were given by people studying to be elementary school teachers, social workers, and teaching assistants. Among these people, who actually had to interact with Muslims on a daily basis, dissatisfaction with the academic books and articles was overwhelming. Specifically, the biggest gripe of the students was that the theory they were taught by the academic researchers did not match the reality they encountered in practice.

So while on the face of it, it can seem odd that four university researchers with fancy academic titles could be so misguided and that a few journalists and a mole with a hidden camera could uncover what they could not, the whole situation becomes a little less strange when you consider that most of the researchers probably have very little actual experience with Muslim migrants and the problems that unfold every day in day care centers, elementary schools, with social workers, with the police, and so on. Many of them are theorizing in a closed loop in which they are mostly reading and commenting on the work of other researchers who again are theorizing on the basis of more theory. When they do talk to Muslim leaders, it is usually in the form of polite intercultural dialogue, seeking consensus. Of course this approach is not going to reveal the undesirable sides of the Muslim community.

If one looks at similar instances of intercultural dialogue throughout Europe, it is actually not so surprising that intellectuals are utterly clueless while practical men are more on the money. In 2003, the soon-to-be French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the Swiss-born Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan partook in a televised debate. Prior to the debate, Ramadan had been hailed by scores of intellectuals across Europe as a “bold reformer” and moderate Muslim by whose hands we would soon see the advert of a secular “Euro Islam.” Yet what happened in the exchange was that Sarkozy – an utterly practical man of reality – was apparently the first European interlocutor with the audacity to truly pressure Ramadan on what he really meant. Although he was repeatedly pressured to condemn stoning, Ramadan could not bring himself to do so. Instead he spoke of a “moratorium,” about the need to discuss things, about the necessity of a pedagogical posture and so on and so forth – but he could not bring himself to unevouvically renounce stoning.

Ramadan tried to obfuscate and speak around Sarkozy’s demands, but Sarkozy remained implacable: Stoning a woman is monstrous, so there is no need to have a debate. If you cannot bring yourself to renounce it, that fact is hugely telling of your moral standpoint in and of itself.

Ramadan’s standing in the eyes of mainstream European society has never quite been the same since. The extraordinary thing here isn’t really that Ramadan could not bring himself to denounce stoning, or that Sarkozy kept pressuring him until it was revealed that Ramadan could not do so. No, the really telling fact is that prior to this debate, Ramadan had spoken to scores of university intellectuals for years on end, and almost none of them had detected that something was amiss. Like the Danish university researchers who felt that imams advocating domestic violence had simply been misrepresented, intellectuals who pursue intercultural dialogue with Muslim leaders usually come away from the conversation believing what they want to believe. When one is too polite to really pressure imams on whether they truly condemn stoning, flogging, polyandry, and so on, precarious illusions about Islamists being moderate Muslims are preserved, and Muslim power figures can go on oppressing women, homosexuals, and adherents of Western, liberal values within their own communities. With the intellectuals having failed in their role as educators on Islam, the true scope of Islamism within Western Muslim communities is left for more reality-bound journalists and politicians without fancy academic titles to uncover.