Books on Islam is a saturated market, an editor friend of mine told a few months ago. At the time I though she might be right. I had only recently read a couple of works that, for want of a better description, read like second rate Bruce Bawers. Maudlin and self-absorbed, these books (which shall remain nameless) tell us more about the authors than they do about radical Islam. Former boyfriends, Holland in the Springtime, and hints that the Pulitzer Prize went to the wrong author, are punctuated with references to female genital mutilation, terrorist acts, and hook-handed radical preachers.
It is as if one were wandering around an Impressionist exhibition only to discover someone has scribbled images of Palestinian terrorists in thick black marker pen all over the Monets. Yes, the juxtapositions is jarring, but the average person living in the West is assaulted by contradictory messages every day, whether on the stream of billboard adverts he passes on the way to work or in an evening’s television-watching. Consequently, such books fail to shock, and, indeed, to force us to see the crisis of the West as an existential threat. Our jaded culture, and cultural relativism, allows us to believe that the graffiti might be the real art. And one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter anyway. So what’s the problem?
It’s this kind of cultural relativism, and cultural suicidal tendencies, that Rebecca Bynum confronts in Allah Is Dead: Why Islam is not a Religion (New English Review Press). At 152 pages, this work is slimmer than those like the aforementioned, but it is denser and far more challenging. Few, if any, will agree with everything that is said. But this book was not written to be agreed with. It was written to shake things up, and push the reader outside of his comfort zone. An engaged mind is more important to Bynum than a nodding head.
Western culture is in sharp focus throughout Allah Is Dead. Sometimes a crack in the dam of the West is spotlighted – from promiscuous notions of equality to churches that want to rethink Christ so as not to offend Muslims. At other times it is contrasted with Islam. As such, Allah Is Dead is in the vein of Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera, and, to a certain extent, Eric Voegelin’s Science, Politics and Gnosticism. But the pace is different.
More complex, more academic, more confrontational, drawing on the Bible, Tocqueville, and Milton, as well as contemporary intellectuals, reading Bynum’s work is like taking a white-knuckle ride with Jesus, drag racing against Islam and Western sell-outs, and slamming into any car with a politically correct bumper sticker. There are plenty of those on the road, it turns out. But there are no pleasant side roads to lead us from the ghettos, on fire with rioting, to that cozy wine bar off the Champs-Elysees. All escape roots are blocked. For Bynum, there is no Wahabi, Shiite, Sunni, or Sufi Islam. There is only Islam. People like me who insist on differentiating between Islam and Islamism are sissy learner-drivers who need to get off the road – I paraphrase, but you get the picture.
Bynum’s work is provocative from the first page – actually, the cover. As she was undoubtedly aware, few people would worry about reading a book in public with a title as, say, The God Delusion or God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Exchange “Allah” for “God” and “Islam” for “religion” and one is liable to feel considerably more nervous. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” fails to get a reaction, but a title like Allah Is Dead will, as we know, will send shockwaves through the “equalities”-educated class. We can already hear liberals howling “racism” and “Islamophobia”, although “God is dead” would not provoke even a single charge of self-loathing or Christio-phobia. Why? And how did it come to this?
Throughout Allah Is Dead, we are forced to face why the West appears so effete in confronting Islam, not to mention its own pathologies. Bynum makes a number of keen observations about the situation in which we find ourselves. Our perceptions of religion, spirituality, and politics are all critiqued.
Having thrown out Christianity, Bynum says
[M]oderns are left with no outlet for their natural, inborn religious impulse and so religion soon reverts back to magic and charms as we see so prominently displayed in the “New Age” movement, or the religious impulse may continue to revert even further to fetishism and taboo as in Islam. (p. 17)
Voegelin noted the rise of neo-paganism in pre-Nazi Germany (it was, at that point, far-Right, although, today, neo-paganism is today mostly Left-wing and pacifistic). The notion that Islam and the New Age might exhibit similar tendencies (particularly “fetishism”) is, I think, a new idea, but one well worth contemplating. Even leaving aside the nature of Islam, clearly, as a minority religion attracting primarily White female converts, in Britain at least, it is clearly appealing as a kind of “alternative” religion. (Perhaps unorthodox spiritual beliefs, widely held, act as a receptacle for more virulent and intolerant ones.)
Toward the end of the book, Bynum observes that many in the modern West have “turn[ed] on the faith which sustained [their] ancestors for centuries and label religious individuals ‘crazy’” (p. 137.) The “latest effort to destroy God is also a religious act, though [it is] unrecognized as such”, she says.
If we consider that spirituality is, for many people, concretized in a (political) multiculturalism that embraces all of the religions as expressions of a universal truth, Bynum’s assertion appears to be accurate, although perhaps it is not always “unrecognized”. In the political multicultural worldview, morality is represented through “anti-racist” and anti-religious-hatred legislation that often appear to be used or misused to attack the established culture and religion. Take, for example, the case of the Christian evangelists who were threatened for arrest for preaching from the Bible in a “Muslim area” in Britain.
“Many people”, Bynum says, “fear a resurgent Christianity as much or more than they fear a resurgent Islam” (p. 53). Apparently so. She notes the words of one theologian who did not wish to offend Muslims by claiming to believe in the Lordship of Jesus. “The definition of God”, she tells us, “goes to the very core of this struggle, for it in turn defines the nature of civilization. The question is: shall we allow Christ to define himself as the historical record of his life and teachings indicate, or shall we allow Muslims to define him for us as Isa, the ‘Palestinian Muslim,’ divorced from Judaism, with no historical foundation for this assertion whatsoever?”
This phenomenon is of crucial importance, especially in relation to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic militancy. Like the Palestinians, the Nazis also remade Jesus in their image – in the latter case, as a Germanic hero who rejected the Jews. But the notion of Jesus as a Palestinian “freedom fighter” is far more innocuous, and regurgitated by fashionable Left-wing students in the West.
Bynum contrasts Mohammed with Jesus, noting that the latter “did not repudiate the Jewish scriptures”. (The Koran portrays Islam as the authentic Abrahamic faith and Judaism and Christianity as corruptions or “schisms” of Islam.) This, and Jesus’s “historical Jewishness” are essential components of Christianity, and, thus, of Western civilization, Bynum suggests. As such, she reasserts the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, the very notion of which we find attacked in the media for not including Islam as an “Abrahamic faith.”
Allah Is Dead takes aim at Christian leaders as well, especially the Archbishop of Canterbury (sometimes nicknames the “Grand Mufti of Canterbury”) for his speech in which he suggested that Britain accommodate some aspects of sharia. Speaking of the Archbishop and others of a similar mental ilk, Bynum tells us that “The history of the decline and fall of Eastern Christianity is filled with such well-meaning fools” (p. 61). Nevertheless, Bynum is also rightly perturbed by the secularization and misuse of Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek, which has transformed the sentiment into a fetish for cultural masochism.
Hence, if Bynum sees Islam as a politics, she is no less scathing about the fusion of Christianity and politics in the West. Unusually – and refreshing in her consistency – she objects not only to those on the Left (such as the Archbishop of Canterbury) but to those Churches in the US which have allied themselves with the Republican Party. “Both sides, to a greater or lesser extent”, she says, “have abandoned the primary mission of religion, and the care and fostering of individual spiritual growth” (p. 84) Some of these churches even indulge in a form of “disguised voodoo” (p. 85), soliciting donations with the promise that it will be returned several times over – miraculously.
The West is hollowing itself out from the inside, confusing politics with religion, and even belief with unbelief. Atheists, not Christian students, she observes, are the most likely group on campus to believe in the paranormal (the embrace of Islam by socialists is undoubtedly another example of this confusion). “This unconscious manifestation of a religious drive is difficult to locate let alone criticize”, she says, “So rather than benefiting from honest criticism, religion is manifesting itself as an unexamined force which is changing our world in ways we do not fathom” (p. 87). Taken as a whole, Bynum’s argument suggests that this “unconscious manifestation” is acting as the perfect receptacle for Islam.
Certainly the tradition of critiquing scripture and belief, inherent to all profound religious tradition, is denied by the vogue for fetishizing religion. Like the primitive who believes that a spirit or god is literally present in his statues, so the West has come to believe that there is a format to religion – i.e., that it has a founder, holy book, a notion of God, heaven, etc. – that proves it valid. The actual teachings are irrelevant to the culturally relative. The widespread belief that the “holy book” of one religion is, by virtue of being regarded as a holy book by its devotees, the equivalent of another, shows a profound dumbing-down of the intellect. Does anyone belief that the books of Jacques Derrida are the equivalent of those of John Locke, simply because they are both works of philosophy? Or that one can understand the works of Goethe by studying those of Shakespeare, just because great literature deals with the same themes of life and death, relationships, sickness, and human emotions, etc.?
If an amorphous spirituality appears to have soaked through Western society, Bynum nonetheless diagnoses a certain insensitivity to the transcendent both in one aspect of the West and in Islam. (Such a contradiction might seem implausible if we were unaware of atheist believers in the paranormal and Marxist admirers of Islam.) “Like Western materialism there is no effort to differentiate the tangible and intangible in Islam”, she says. “Worship itself is brought down to the material level, being thought of as the equivalent of obedience to Islam [i.e., as sharia]” (p. 123). Later, in the final chapter, where she lays out why she believes that Islam is not a religion (at least as the West has traditionally understood it), she asserts that “Islamic rituals, as elaborate as they are, have little or no symbolic meaning beyond [emulating Mohammed]” (p. 147). Although I suspect that mystical Sufi Muslims in particular would reject Bynum’s diagnosis, it is certainly true that many Wahabis do seek to emulate Mohammed in every way, from wearing trousers of a particular length to the manner in which he cleans his teeth, although these do not have any symbolic value.
All in all, Allah Is Dead: Why Islam is not a Religion is a complex and challenging book, but one that tackles the crisis of the West and the Westward push of Islam thoughtfully and seriously. One is unlikely to agree with Bynum on everything – and perhaps one might even firmly disagree with her on some things – but this is, on balance, more of a positive than a negative. Far too many books are written to avoid controversy. In contrast, Bynum succeeds in making us think through our situation, and rethinking our response to it. This might prove uncomfortable at times, but it is also essential. Rebecca Bynum’s Allah Is Dead: Why Islam is not a Religion is available from Amazon.com or direct from the publisher (in the latter case, copies can be autographed on request, at no extra cost).