The U.S. State Department has effectively sided with militant Islam by condemning the decision of newspapers in Denmark, Norway, and elsewhere in Europe to publish cartoon drawings depicting Muhammad, the founder of Islam. On February 3, State Department press officer Janelle Hironimus told reporters, “Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable. We call for tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices.”
Miss Hironimus and her bosses at Foggy Bottom are guilty of a colossal blunder. Their fault is fourfold: First, the cartoons in question did not incite any hatred, religious or ethnic. Muhammad telling suicide bombers arriving in heaven that he has ran out of virgins, or wearing a turban containing a bomb, is somewhat funny and mildly satirical.
Second, it is not the job of a foreign ministry to pass judgments on cultural matters or to set standards of “acceptability”; its job is to promote the country’s interests around the world. In this particular case, those interests entail siding with our fellow Westerners in defending freedom of speech against crude intimidation by our common enemies.
Third, the U.S. government did not comment when far worse cases of inciting religious and ethnic hatred occurred here in America—notably, when an NEA- funded “artist” submerged a crucifix in urine or when the Chicago Tribune published a cartoon in 1992 depicting “the Serbs” as a pig emerging from a latrine.
Fourth, if the State Department believes that it will earn some brownie points for America in the Muslim world by condemning Danish cartoons, it is merely repeating President Clinton’s Balkan folly of the 1990’s and Brzezinski’s Afghan blowback from a decade earlier.
While Danish artists have every right to draw and publish cartoons that mock Muhammad, and various appeasers who suggest otherwise deserve our studied contempt, the entire debate about those cartoons was based on flawed assumptions.
A figure as disturbing as the founder of Islam should not be gently made fun of
(the cartoons, I repeat, were quite innocuous), at least not until his remarkable career has been given a vigorous public treatment in the Western world. The trouble with those cartoons was not that they offended fervent Muslims—they are offended by our very existence—but that, by their placid humor, they humanized a man with a hugely problematic legacy and thereby offended the memory of untold millions of victims of jihad through the ages.
Ahmed Akkari, spokesman for the Muslim organizations of Denmark, said that Muslims all over the world want the “truth” about their prophet known to the rest of the world. “We want respect for Muhammad restored and we want him to be described as the man he really was in history,” he declared. I agree. Let us briefly examine Muhammad as “he really was in history,” relying solely on orthodox Islamic sources—the Koran and the hadith (recorded “traditions”). Those sources provide an account of uncertain historical accuracy, but that account is regarded as true by all faithful Muslims, and it provides the scriptural basis for the Muslim faith and Islamic law.
Muhammad was born around A.D. 570 in Mecca and started receiving “revelations,” verbal messages that he claimed came from Allah, when he was 40. They were first delivered in the tone of warnings and appeals rather than threats, but the Meccan leaders sneered at the audacity of this commoner who had no natural claim to authority. The initial humorous contempt for Muhammad’s claims eventually turned to indignation and enmity, forcing him to escape to Medina with a small band of followers in June 622. Significantly, just before leaving for Medina, Muhammad received his first revelations that allowed him to fight the Meccans (Sura 22:39-41).
Once he was physically secure in his new abode, Muhammad ordered armed raids against Meccan caravans passing near Medina on their way to Syria. An early raid, at Nakhla, took place in the sacred pagan month of Rajab, in which no Arab was permitted to raise arms in battle. Since both his foes and followers were likely to be scandalized by the violation of sacred trust, he received a revelation from Allah indicating that the raid enjoyed divine sanction (2:214). From that moment on, Muhammad abrogated the moral codes of pre-Islamic Arab traditions and scriptures whenever it suited him.
In 624, at Badr, his men killed over 40 Meccans in a single razzia, which fortified Muhammad’s power. Yet again, divine justification was required—this time, for ambushing and murdering his own kinsmen (3:123-125). Conveniently, Allah’s messages grew more bellicose: “I will instill terror into the hearts of the un- believers, Smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger tips of them” (8:12). The “messenger” gloated over the spectacle of his slain enemies and ordered the execution of several prisoners who had opposed him in Mecca. After Badr, in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, “Islam grew with blood.”
Muhammad began using the prospect of booty and ransom to recruit followers. This motive was so important that it merited a whole sura in the Koran; one fifth of the booty would belong to Muhammad (8:41). Once the loot was divided, it was time to relax: “Now enjoy what ye have won” (8:69). “Enjoy what you have won as lawful and good” (69:30-37). A tangible, X-rated paradise filled with virgins “untouched by man” (52:17-20, 55:56-77) and “fresh” pre-pubescent boys (52:24, 56:17, 76:19) awaited the “martyrs” immediately.
The simple preacher eventually morphed into a vengeful warlord, who jubilantly exclaimed that the spectacle of severed enemy heads pleased him better than “the choicest camel in Arabia.” Killing prisoners was divinely condoned by Allah (8:68). Fresh revelations described the unbelievers as “the worst animals” (8:55) and “the vilest of creatures” (98:6) undeserving of mercy. The enemies’ heads were to be cut off (47:4). Killing, enslaving, and robbing them was not only sanctioned but mandated.
When Muhammad returned in triumph from Badr to Medina, he proceeded to settle scores with his detractors, resorting to murder. His first victims were poets who dared mock him in verse: Asma bint Marwan, who nursed her youngest child while she was stabbed, and two Jews, Abu Afak (allegedly over 100 years old) and Kab Ashraf. They were guilty of verbal insults.
Muhammad next told his followers to “kill any Jew you can lay your hands on.” When six of his henchmen murdered Abu Rafi, an elderly Jew, in his sleep, Muhammad decided that the owner of the sword that still had traces of food on it was entitled to the credit, since Abu Rafi had just eaten his dinner before falling asleep, and the fatal slash had gone through his stomach.
Muhammad’s attack against the Jewish tribe of Banu-’l-Mustaliq came next. His followers kidnapped 500 of their women, and, the night after the battle, they staged an orgy of rape. His pogroms culminated in an attack on the last Jewish tribe in Medina, Banu Qurayzah. As many as 900 men were decapitated in a ditch, in front of their women and children. Allah praised Muhammad for the way “he struck terror into their hearts” (33:25). The women were subsequently raped. Muhammad chose as his concubine one Raihana bint Amr, whose father and husband were slaughtered before her eyes only hours earlier.
Allah’s messages concerning the “infidel” subsequently grew ever harsher: “Take him and fetter him and expose him to hell fire” (69:30-37). They “will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off” (5:33- 34). In this world, for the captured infidel, “We have prepared chains, yokes and a blazing fire” (76:4). In the hereafter, things get even worse: “garments of fire will be cut out for them, boiling fluid will be poured down their heads. Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted . . . And for them are hooked rods of iron” (22:19-22). One single Koranic verse, “the Verse of the Sword” (9:5), Islamic scholars agree, abrogates 124 earlier verses—the ones that are cited most regularly by Islam’s apologists to prove its tolerance and benevolence.
The image of a victorious leader, merciless with the defeated infidel and feared by his foes, worked wonders for Muhammad. On January 12, 630, he marched into Mecca in triumph, having violated the ten-year truce of Hudaybiyya signed two years before. Predictably, the violation was condoned by Allah (60:10). Ever since, the view of Islamic jurists has been that truces with the infidel could only be temporary and that their only permissible objective is to enable the Muslim side to gain strength for a new onslaught.
Muhammad’s progression from a marginalized outsider to a master of life and death produced a transformation of his personality in the decade preceding his death in 633. Allah was invoked as the authority supporting the prophet’s daily political objectives and his personal needs. Nowhere was this more obvious than when it came to his exaggerated sensuality. Contrary to his own regulations, he had at least 15 wives.
The youngest was Aisha, who was seven years old and “with the dolls” when Muhammad (44 years her senior) “married” her. Two years later, when she was 9 and he, 53, Muhammad consummated the liaison—i.e., raped the little girl. Some years later, he came up with a Koranic verse approving his nightly trysts with an Egyptian slave girl and admonishing his jealous wives for their objections to the practice (66:1-3). Allah’s revelation also enabled Muhammad to take his daughter-in-law Zainab as a wife when he lusted after her (36:37).
Many commands of the Koran and Muhammad’s actions and words recorded in the hadith are morally abhorrent and criminal by the standards of our time. But even in the context of seventh-century Arabia, they were often considered repugnant. Muhammad had to resort to “revelations” as a means of justifying his actions and suppressing the prevalent moral code of his own society. Attacking caravans in the holy month, taking up arms against his kinsmen, slaughtering prisoners, reserving the lion’s share of the booty, murdering people without provocation, violating treaties, and indulging his sensual passions—these actions were at odds with the moral standards of his Arab contemporaries. Only the ultimate authority could sanction it, and Allah duly obliged.
Muhammad’s practice and constant encouragement of bloodshed are unique in the history of religions. Allah’s order to “kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” is an injunction both powerful and unambiguous. The word genocide had not yet been coined when Muhammad conveyed Allah’s alleged dictum, “When we decide to destroy a population . . . then we destroy them utterly” (17:16- 17). Disobedient people “we utterly destroyed” (21:11).
That Islam sees the world as an open-ended conflict between the House of Peace (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), which must be conquered by jihad, is the most important bequest of Muhammad to history. The end of jihad is possible only when “justice and faith in Allah” prevail everywhere (2:193). Muhammad thus postulated the fundamental illegitimacy of the existence of a non-Muslim world. Muslims could contemplate tactical cease-fires but could never completely abandon their swords short of the unbelievers’ abject submission.
On its own admission, Islam stands or falls with the person of Muhammad, a deeply flawed man by the standards of his own society, as well as those of the Old and New Testaments, both of which he acknowledged as divine revelation—and even by the new law, of which he claimed to be the divinely appointed medium and custodian.
The problem of Islam, and the problem of the rest of the world with Islam, is not the remarkable career of Muhammad per se, as he was undoubtedly a “great man” in terms of his impact on human history. It is the religion’s claim that the words and acts of its prophet provide the universally valid standard of morality for all time and all men.
My judgment on Muhammad rests on the evidence of his followers and faithful admirers—and those who rage against the Danish cartoons can scarcely complain if, even on such evidence, the verdict of the civilized world goes against their “prophet.” That verdict, once it is passed—and it will be passed—will make the gentle mockery of Muhammad in those cartoons appear as inappropriate as it would be inappropriate today to lampoon Hitler for his out-of-wedlock liaison with Eva Braun, or for his inability to control flatulence.