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Westerners identify readily with secular Muslims such as Ayaan Hirshi Ali, member of the Netherlands’ parliament and the late Theo van Gogh’s collaborator in a film attacking Islam’s treatment of women, or with the Canadian Irshad Manji, the lesbian “Muslim refusenik” who published The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. But they have something to learn from the letter that Mohammed B pinned with a knife to van Gogh’s corpse after he murdered him with knife and pistol on November 2.
The text can be found at FaithFreedom.org, along with commentary by informed readers.
“An Open Letter to Hirshi Ali” opens a window into the great theological conflict of our times. Most Western readers would stop after the first 10 lines, for it begins with paranoid Jew-hatred copied from Islamist websites and petty complaints about Ayaan Hirshi Ali’s immigration policy. But the core of the “Open Letter” is an admonition from a believing Muslim to an atheist apostate, with a unique exposition of the faith of radical Islam. Some secular critics wrongly claim that Islam is not a religion, but only a political ideology, a position I challenged in an August 10 essay (Islam: Religion or political ideology?). The “Open Letter” evinces not merely a religious position, but, however abhorrent, a profound religious sensibility.
Failure to confront Islam as a religion, I maintain, is the Achilles’ heel of Western strategy. Ayaan Hirshi Ali has my entire sympathy, but to her antagonists I accord the respect due to a lethal enemy. US conservatives applaud secular Muslims for being reasonable, but at the same time admire the religious impulse of the American Christians. One may argue, of course, that Americans should have a religion while Arabs should not, but the fact is that they do have a religion. Antagonistic modes of faith underlie the conflict between the West and the Islamic world. The assassin Mohammed B, by delivering this message attached to the corpse of a prominent figure in European culture, demands that we consider this antagonism in earnest.
The “Open Letter” begins execrably, with an anti-Jewish screed based on misquotes from rabbinical commentary, but soon enough comes to its core argument, namely the failure of secularism:
There is one certainty in the whole of existence; and that is that everything comes to an end.
A child born unto this world and fills this universe with its presence in the form of its first life’s cries, shall ultimately leave this world with its death cry.
A blade of grass sticking up its head from the dark earth and being caressed by the sunlight and fed by the descending rain, shall ultimately whither and turn to dust.
Death, Miss Hirshi Ali, is the common theme of all that exists. You, me and the rest of creation can not disconnect from this truth.
There shall be a Day where one soul can not help another soul. A Day with terrible tortures and torments. A Day where the injust shall force from their [tongues] horrible screams. Screams, Miss Hirshi Ali, that will cause shivers to roll down one’s spine; that will make hairs stand up from heads. People will be seen drunk with fear while they are not drunk. Fear shall fill the atmosphere on that Great Day.
The lines above might have appeared in a Sunday sermon by an old-fashioned American preacher. All religion responds to the inevitability of death, which means not merely individual death, but also the death of the cultural continuity that makes it possible for the individual to live on in memory. The “Open Letter” elaborates this theme with verses from the 81st Sura of the Koran, which portrays a Day of Judgment (stars fall, the sun is overthrown, hell is lighted, and so forth), and then continues:
You as unbelieving extremist of course won’t believe in the above described scene. For you the above is merely a made-up drama piece from a book like many. And yet, Miss Hirshi Ali, I would bet my life to claim that you are sweating with fear when you read this. You, as unbelieving fundamentalist, of course do not believe that a Supreme being controls the entire universe.
You do not believe that your heart, with which you cast away truth, has to ask permission from the Supreme being for every beat.
You do not believe that your tongue with which you deny the Guidance from the Supreme being is subject to his Laws.
You do not believe that life and death has been given you by this Supreme being.
Until this point, the “Open Letter” follows the conventional form of a believer’s admonition to an unbeliever, in terms familiar to Jew and Christian. But then the writer attaches a challenge born of existential despair: if you believe so firmly in your secular view of the world, are you happy to die for it?
If you really believe this, then the following challenge should be no problem for you. I challenge you with this letter to prove you are right. You don’t have to do much:
Miss Hirshi Ali: wish for death if you are really convinced you are right.
If you will not accept this challenge; know then that my master, the Most High, has unmasked you as an unjust one.
The writer invokes the 94th and 95th verses of the Koran’s 2nd Sura, addressed to false prophets:
[2.94] Say: If the future abode with Allah is specially for you to the exclusion of the people, then invoke death if you are truthful. [2.95] And they will never invoke it on account of what their hands have sent before, and Allah knows the unjust.
The “Open Letter” then concludes with a death threat to Ayaan Hirshi Ali:
“To prevent that I were to be accused of the same, I shall wish this wish [death] for you.”
If you are so convinced of your philosophy, asks the writer, why do you not wish for death? We jihadis, he implies, welcome death, and if your conviction is as strong as ours, you should do no less. Westerners should think twice before despising this line of reasoning. Socrates, after all, argued that the true philosopher should wish for death before he drank the hemlock, and he chose the hemlock over exile because he could exist as nothing other than an Athenian. I made this point in Socrates the destroyer (May 25), an essay that attracted virtually no readers because its conclusions are so unsettling. After the Peloponnesian War, which doomed Athenian culture, Socrates’ existential choice was rather more understandable.
The presentiment of death (Franz Rosenzweig’s phrase) haunts the Arab mind. A senescent culture that has fallen behind in every aspect of human endeavor – economic, scientific, cultural and military – faces absorption into the hostile world of globalization. As I wrote on August 10 (Islam: Religion or political ideology?):
Traditional society is the locus of the vast majority of the world’s billion Muslims. Global communications and the social freedoms embodied in the US system threaten the existence of these societies. For most of the world’s Muslims the United States is a menace, not a promise, threatening to dissolve the ties that bind child to parent, wife to husband, tribesman to chief, subject to ruler. Traditional society will not go mutely to its doom and join the Great Extinction of the Peoples, blotting out ancient cultures and destroying the memory of today’s generation. It will not permit the hundreds of millions of Muslims on the threshold of adulthood to pass into the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and lose the memory of their ancestors. On the contrary: it will turn the tables upon the corrupt metropolis, and in turn launch a war of conquest against it.
Radical Islam stems from despair in the face of cultural death; precisely for that reason it bespeaks a ghastly indifference toward individual death, analogous to the Mut der Verzweiflung, or courage borne of desperation, that impels the soldiers of a defeated army toward a final charge at the enemy cannon. Absolute certainty informs the faith of the assassin Mohammed B, but it is the certainty of cultural extinction that makes the death of the individual the supreme test of faith. Existential despair inspires the conclusion that better than defeat is to fight to the death. Peace is to be achieved when those who hold this view will have had the opportunity to do so (More killing, please!, June 12, 2003).