Responding to Roobart

Note: Based on email dialouge with him, I have respect for Spencer and am primarily teasing with this post - my more important point, about the value of Spencer's work being obscured by his biases and the environment at his site, is the main point I want to make below).

In the continuing blog argument between Dean Esmay and Robert Spencer, Spencer attempts to demonstrate his erudition by signing his name in Arabic. Unfortunately, the result is more akin to Roobart Sbunsar. Not that the choir to which he preaches will notice; he could have signed his name "bebsi" and they'd still have applauded him for his scholarship.

Obviously Spencer's signature there was to try and validate his credentials as a supposedly objective analyst of Islam. However I think that the quote, which bears repeating:

Christianity and Judaism have well-developed traditions that reject literalism on things approved of in the Old Testament such as stoning adulterers and slavery.

(which by omission implies that Islam does not have such traditions) clearly suggests that Spencer's scholarship is founded on an a-priori bias. Not to mention his background, which suggests that he has a financial stake in his niche as an Islam-critic.

This is the same problem I have with the state of textual analysis of the origins of the Qur'an - most of it is premised and funded by those with a specific agenda rather than an independent sense of historical inquiry. So, like Jihadwatch and MEMRI, what could be a useful and respect-worthy project is tainted by the underlying bias. What I find most depressing about that is that these are resources that are needed by my community (muslim-Americans) to remain vigilant. But they are not taken seriously for the rather obvious reason that to make use of them, one has to first un-filter the prejudices of the hosts, and then wade through the morass of the Islamophobic commenters and supporters, to reach that nugget of informative value. This is a pointless slog that would deter Indiana Jones, let alone the average pious muslim.

Spencer also references Ibn Waraq's screed about why knowledge of Arabic is not needed to understand Islam; but Warraq's main argument is a numbers game. The fact is that the Qur'an is written in Arabic, and therefore to claim authoritively using the Qur'an as your basis that Islam is barbaric compared to the other Abrahamic faiths, requires knowledge of Arabic. As an example, lack of knowledge is what led so-called Muslimpundit to falsely argue that the Qur'an synonymizes the word jihad with the word qitaal (kill). For this, muslimpundit was accorded widespread respect in pro-war circles, at the expense of truth and his own self-declared faith. Bin Laden himself would applaud Muslimpundit's scholarship, surely.

Arabic is a fascinating language, and I have discussed the inherent problems of translation before.

So, amusement value of his Arabic literacy aside, there is some irony in Spencer's title of his post, "on assertions without evidence." I still have some respect for Spencer (after all, he is ultimately trying to defend his tribe, to which I also feel a sense of allegiance). The real debate is whether or not Spencer does more harm than good, and to that I think that what harm he does is a neccessary burden of free speech. Ultimately I don't think that direct attention should be paid to him, though a muslim blogger looking for a niche (and with more fortitude than I) would do the community a sincere service by reading LGF, Daniel Pipes, Spencer, and MEMRI weekly and providing factual re-summaries of the important things.

UPDATE: Robert Spencer emailed me to point out, fairly, that I neglected to mention explicitly that there is no letter "p" in Arabic. I alluded to this with my "bebsi" remark, btw. In actuality, Robert probably got as close to spelling his name in Arabic as can be reasonably expected, and deserves kudos for trying.

It should also be pointed out that the very fact that his own name cant be directly translated to Arabic letterings justifies Matoko's point, to which Robert took offense. Matoko seems to have typoed the name Al Azhar, and then got defensive when called on it. However her broader point was that:

"there are different clerics in all schools of shari'ia, that make different rulings. you are quoting a single source."

The minor troubles Spencer had with finding the right consonant and inferring the right vowel are symbolic of trying to interpret rulings, or even try to infer the position of an Islamic authority on the basis of a single ruling. Matoko herself also fell prey to the same when she argued that Azhar outlaws violent jihad. But she is more right than Robert is - as a whole, the institution does not sanction violent jihad, apart from the isolated opinions of some of its scholars.

UPDATE 2 (12/11/06) Robert was deeply offended by this post. I want to make clear that I do respect Robert's knowledge of Arabic. Since I originally wrote this post I have had numerous constructive email exchanges with him and I think he and I share the same goals, but differ on methodology (see this post I wrote at Dean Esmay's for more). At any rate, I would like to apologize to Robert for this post and any implication that his scholarship of the Arabic language is inadequate. I urge people who may disagree or take issue with Robert to treat him with respect and focus on factual areas of disagreement rather than indulge in cheap and easy name-calling and insults - he deserves basic decency and respect in a discussion as much as anyone else. That includes using his real name when referring to him.

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