Censored and Bullied, Scholars Sanitize Islam

By David Frum

More than 200 people are dead, some two dozen churches and thousands of homes have been destroyed, and much of the Christian population of the Nigerian city of Kaduna driven into exile--all because of a single joke by a Nigerian journalist.

The joke was inspired by the controversy over the siting of this year's Miss World contest in Nigeria. Responding to Islamic extremists who denounced the contest, Isioma Daniel, the fashion writer for the Nigerian paper ThisDay, quipped in the paper's Nov. 16 edition that the prophet Muhammad would not have objected to the pageant; indeed, if he were alive, he would want the winner for his wife.

It is hard to understand what precisely was so objectionable about this remark. The Koran itself tells us that Muhammad had a lively appreciation of feminine beauty. On a visit one day to his adopted son Zaid, Muhammad was struck by the loveliness of Zaid's wife, Zainab. Soon afterward, Muhammad announced that he had a revelation from Allah: Zaid and Zainab must divorce--and Zainab must then remarry Muhammad. (The Clans, 33:37). The incident caused another of Muhammad's wives, Aisha, to observe: "I see your Allah quickly grants your desire." Muhammad possessed somewhere between 10 and 12 wives over his lifetime. Other Muslims were allowed no more than four, but Allah waived the restriction in Muhammad's unique case. (The Clans, 33:50).

Despite its Koranic background, Daniel's joke was interpreted as blasphemy. Mobs of outraged Muslim men attacked the offices of ThisDay in Kaduna and rampaged in the Nigerian capital city, Ajuba. The government of the Nigerian state of Zamfara issued a fatwa calling for the death of Daniel. The editor of the paper that published Daniel's article was arrested by Nigerian secret police and compelled by Nigeria's federal authorities to issue an abject apology.

Horrific as this violence is, we can reassure ourselves that it happened in a backward and far-away country--that it has no implications for those of us who live in the free and democratic West. But it does, it does.

Islamic law has for many years been stretching its reach into the West. The case of Salman Rushdie is the most notorious, but it is by no means unique.

Glance again at those stories I just told about the life of Muhammad. I bet you never heard them before. Since 9/11, the media of North America have done their utmost to educate their readers about Islam--its holidays and customs, its teachings and its traditions--and yet the most basic facts about the Muslim faith remain almost entirely unknown to most of us. These facts are hardly obscure, but they go unreported and undiscussed, as if we in the Western media--we who are so proud of our freedom and independence--feel bound by the same code that has now condemned Isioma Daniel.

Nor is it just the press that is intimidated: Western scholars live under the shadow of the fatwa as well. There is a small band of academics who study the history of Islam in the same questioning spirit and with the same scientific methods with which their colleagues study Christianity and Judaism. And they have found, as again their colleagues have done with Christianity and Judaism, that much of the traditional account of the origins of Islam cannot be true.

Large portions of the Koran, for example, appear to have been translated from Aramaic, the language of the Roman Middle East. That one fact suggests that the Koran was assembled after the Arabs erupted out of the Arabian peninsula in the 600s, rather than before, as tradition insisted. If so, the Muslim holy book would turn out to have been finished many years--possibly many hundreds of years--after the death of the Muslim prophet.

All very interesting. There is, however, one important way in which the work of scholars of Islam differs from that of scholars of Christianity and Judaism: which is that they must do that work in the face of constant intimidation and threat of attack.

When Bat Ye'or, an Egyptian-born historian of early Islam's wars of conquest, came to lecture at Washington's Georgetown University in October, her academic talk was shouted down by Muslim students. Not only were the students unpunished, but the organizers of the lecture apologized to them for the offence caused by permitting a scholar of world-wide reputation to speak uncensored about events that occurred 1,000 years ago and more.

The West is not Nigeria. Yet even in the West, some radical Muslim groups are demanding the same power over speech and thought that their Nigerian counterparts now exercise. This newspaper has been one of their favorite targets. The fate of Isioma Daniel reminds us how urgent it is to reject these demands and reassert our continuing belief in our Western principles of liberty--and how dangerous it would be to begin to surrender them.

This article appeared in the National Post (Canada) on November 30, 2002 and mirrored by American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research