The Challenge of Islam: Can We Face It? (1990), Sean Gabb

The Challenge of Islam:
Can We Face It?
A paper prepared for the post-graduate seminar
Dr Dennis O’Keeffe presiding
at the Polytechnic of North London
Tuesday the 16th January 1990

Note: I wrote this in January 1990, before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and before the collapse of Yugoslavia. In a sense, I can pride myself on the accuracy of my analysis. On the other hand, I still believed in the basic truth of newspaper reports, and had not yet developed my full hatred and suspicion of war. I still think I was right to see an emerging clash between the West and Islam, though I still do not believe in the wisdom or morality of our armed strategy as it emerged after 1990.


FOR MANY OF the peoples of eastern Europe, 1989 will probably turn out to have been as false a dawn as 1789 was for the French people. Already, the euphoric mood of last autumn is fading. Monstrous tyrannies have been overthrown, but there is still no food in the shops. The serfs have liberated themselves, but, so far from standing together as fellow citizens, are often coming to see each other as members of rival nationalities. We must certainly hope that bourgeois liberalism, within the next ten years, will triumph in all the lands between the Elbe and the Urals. But we must also expect that many of our hopes will be frustrated, and that issues that were last debated by western statesmen at the Versailles Conference will again take their place in the headlines.

Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that soviet communism is dead. As an ideology, it has just been declared as bankrupt as any could ever be. To be sure, its armed strength remains formidable, and making light of it could well be dangerous. But even this is of diminishing importance. Counting all the tanks and aeroplanes and missiles that are still pointed at us all can be frightening. But to ignore whether the will and ability exist to use any of these against us is to fear the glittering sword and armour and forget the starving knight.

For the British public, the Cold War is decidedly at an end. In a recent opinion poll conducted by Gallup for The Sunday Telegraph, only 17 per cent of those questioned believed that of all possible conflicts during the next ten years, one between east and west would be the likeliest.(1)

Yet the pity of all this is that the collapse of one great enemy may be followed without pause by the rise of another, In the same poll, 37 per cent were found to believe that the likeliest conflict would be between Islam and Christendom. Perhaps they are right. Undoubtedly, western civilisation is at least as alien to Moslems as it was to soviet communists, and is the cause of quite as much hatred.


Revealed to an audience of the humble, Christianity was from the first more concerned with personal salvation than with government. The Church evolved in an empire that already had a fully developed legal system^ and, when it triumphed, it had neither desire nor chance to work a legal revolution. In mediaeval Europe, law was based first on barbarian customs that often predated the adoption of Christianity, and then on the rediscovered Roman codes. In England, it was largely an internal growth, directed first by the common lawyers and then increasingly by legislation. Throughout the modern west, it has been based on various conceptions of the public good. There has never, therefore, been any such thing as “Christian law” in the obvious sense of the term.(2)

But there is an Islamic law, or sharia. In order of importance, it has four sources. First, there is the Koran, which is the record of what was revealed to Mohammed by God, speaking through the Archangel Gabriel, Its injunctions are absolutely binding on the faithful. Second, there is the sunna, or the practice of Mohammed, as understood from the hadith, or traditional stories of his sayings and doings. These are less holy than the Koran, being only what was observed of a particularly honoured man, and not the direct Word of God given at third hand. Also, there are nearly two million of them, and they often contradict one another. But they count, once any consistent doctrine can be divined from them on a particular issue, as reliable guides. Third, there is the ijima or consensus of opinion among the ulema, or learned Moalems. Fourth, there is qiyas, or a process of analogical reasoning by which, in the absence of any rule or precedent, a case is to be decided in a manner consistent with the existing body of law. In addition to these, we can be fairly certain that much law has been inherited from pre-Islamic Arabian custom, and from the near eastern societies that subsequently became Moslem.(3)

The main development of Islamic law came to an end in the eighth century with the Foundation of what remain the four traditional schools of legal interpretation. The task of all succeeding jurists was seen increasingly to consist as no more than the application and development of principles already laid down. Then, some time during the tenth century, there came what is known as “The Closure of the Gate of Interpretation”.(4) Since then, the exercise of itjihad – or independent judgment – has not, in theory, been permitted at all.

Islamic law differs from our own not only in its derivation, but also in its content. With us, despite what remains from the old regimes, and despite a great mass of socialist legislation during the present century, law is a means largely of protecting life and property. Among the Islamic lawyers, this has been an end only incidental to the main one, of ensuring conformity to the will of God. “The sacred law of Islam…” according to the great western scholar of the subject, Joseph Schacht, “is an all-embracing body of religious duties, the totality of Allah”s commands that regulate the life of every Muslim in all its aspects”.(5) Not surprisingly, any country where the government takes Islam seriously is invariably, in western terms, an exceptionally gloomy and repressive place.

Let us look at Saudi Arabia. Within the bounds set by Islamic law, the country is an absolute monarchy. It lacks even the pretence of representative institutions and freedom of the press. All public officers are appointed by the King, and are responsible in the final instance to him alone. No religion other than Islam is tolerated in public – not even the sale of crosses being allowed(6) – and anyone who is not a Moslem is made a victim of official discrimination.(7) All publications are subject to a searching, and what often strikes westerners as a frivolous, censorship. On the 13th of March, 1989, The Times was allowed on sale only after the censors had snipped out the relevant part of a photograph in which a lady was showing more of herself than was thought decent.(8) Women, indeed, are treated as inferior beings, and this treatment goes far beyond the close regulation of their dress by the police. They can be divorced at will(9). The range of employments open to them is restricted by law, and they can take none that involves contact with any man not related to them. They cannot drive cars. They cannot travel unaccompanied by a male relative.(10) Adultery and certain other sexual acts carry the death penalty.(11) The drinking of alcohol, while not absolutely prohibited, is discouraged. Tobacco is only grudgingly allowed. Gambling is forbidden.(12) Music and dance are frowned on.


Not surprisingly, even the less devout Moslems look on western civilisation with uncomprehending horror. They accept western technology and science, and envy western prosperity. But they largely reject the spirit of free inquiry, intellectual and practical, upon which the western ascendency rests. Yasrnin Alibhai, for example, has not only lived in England for several years, but also worked as a journalist for The New Statesman and Society. She is completely unable to understand how a nation with no taste for book burning and the murder of authors can be anything but a “moral chaos”.(13) But the most explicit rejections come from the younger theorists of the Iranian Revolution. Majid Anaraki, who spent several years in southern California, sees the west as

a collection of casinos, supermarkets and whore-houses linked together by endless highways passing through nowhere. All that money, all that effort all those resources that are wasted so that idiotic women and shallow men can prolong their lives…. You see ancient women who refuse to die at a normal time and who continue to paint themselves and crave youthful lovers right to the edge of the grave…. To eat tons of hamburgers and popcorn, to imbibe oceans of Coca-Cola and whisky, to watch hundreds of hours of stupid television, to copulate mechanically a few hundred times, to be on guard minute against being robbed, raped or murdered. That is the American way of life.(14)

Our civilisation is regarded as evil, and its destruction is taken as a sacred duty for reasons both defensive and offensive.


There can be no doubt that Khomeini was a firm anti-communist. But, unlike the timid monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, he saw quite clearly where the true threat to Islam lay. Throughout his reign, the Russians presented at least a potential threat to the northern borders of Iran, But this was as nothing to the actual ideological threat of the west, Marxism in Iran had converted its tens of thousands, and influenced its hundreds of thousands. But western civilisation – with its clothing fashions, its films, its music, its enshrinement of individual happiness, its secular knowledge – had captured its millions. There was a “Great Satan” devouring Islam; and its body was not communism, but the West; and its head was not Russia, but America, “We must break those pens” he wrote, “that teach people there is something other than divine law. We must smash those mouths that tell the people they are free to say whatever they please, regardless of right and wrong in accordance with the commands of the Almighty”.(15) On this reasoning, to carry the fight from Iran, or wherever, into the west, is the equivalent of turning from the periphery to the centre of an infection.


In one of his occasional attempts at humane argument, Khomeini justified a war of extirpation against the west on the following grounds:

If one allows the Infidels to continue playinq their role of Corruptors on Earth, their eventual moral punishment will be all the stronger. Thus, if we kill the Infidels in order to put a stop to their [corrupting] activities, we have indeed done them a service. For their eventual punishment will be less.(16)

For the most part, however, it is conversion to Islam that is desired of people in the west. Only those refusing to convert are to be slaughtered. In the first instance, all those areas of the world that were once Islamic, but have since been lost, are to be restored; and all those areas that contain sizeable Moslem minorities are to be Islamised. In 1982, a new map of the world was presented to Khomeini by the Cartological Society in Teheran. It was divided into three regions, distinguished by three colours. First, in green, came the House of Islam – this being the 41 member states of the Islamic Conference, together with soviet central Asia, southern Spain, Malta and Lampedusa, Albania, part of Yugoslavia, north eastern China, parts of Siam, Burma, the Phillipines, and most of Africa. The remaining areas, the red and black, were divided between communism and the west. But the final state of affairs is to be a totally Islamic world. No part whatever is to be left in the hands of the “Cross worshippers”, as the Christians are contemptuously termed. Moslems in Great Britain at the moment comprise barely three per cent of the population. Nonetheless, “[t]hose Moslems” says Dr Shabbir Akhtar of the Bradford Council of Mosques, “who find it intolerable to live in a United Kingdom contaminated with the Rushdie virus need to seriously consider the Islamic alternatives of emigration (hijira) to the House of Islam or a declaration of holy war (jihad) in the House of Rejection.(17) The latter may well seem a kind of hasty militancy that is out of the question, though, with Allah on one’s side, one is never in the minority. And England, like all else, belongs to Allah.(18)


Until recently, this claim would have been simply funny. For nearly a thousand years, Christian Europe stood both physically and spiritually in fear of its Islamic neighbours. In the year 732, pushing north from Spain, an Arab army of conquest invaded France as far as Poitiers. In 1683, a Turkish army laid siege to Vienna with every chance, it at first seemed, of success. In 1277, a prohibition was placed at the University of Paris on the teaching of certain doctrines suggested in the works of the Arab philosophers. But, during the three centuries from around 1680, that position was exactly reversed. The West moved forward, and Islam, where not actually regressing remained stationary, The old fears passed away,. Made quaint, they became the matter of escapist fiction. The western powers stood increasingly with regard to Islam as a strong man stands with regard to a blind cripple. While of great strategic importance, the Islamic world became a place more often fought over than with. That it might ever again seriously challenge the west was thought about as likely as that our domestic animals might combine against us. Today, however, the claim, if still not altogether likely, is no longer funny. The Islamic world can no longer be ignored.

It is too rich now to be ignored. In 1900, the middle east was valuable solely as a trade route between Europe and the orient. As of 1986, it contained just under 53 percent of the world’s known reserves of oil, and nearly 40 percent of its known reserves of natural gas.(19) It also contains an estimated 29.4 percent of the world’s known phosphate deposits.(20) The increased spending that these discoveries have made possible will, in all probability, vanish when all the minerals have been extracted, or when their value falls again. But, for the moment, the means are there to fund some very large arms purchases. Iraq and Iran between 1980 and 1988 fought a war that between them cost around $350,000 million.(21) Now they are at peace with each other, we may begin to wonder what their precise intentions are against the west.

The Iraqis have been hard at work on a missile programme that has put them roughly where the United States was thirty years ago. On the 6th December, 1989, they launched a three stage rocket into outer space.(22) This is worrying. But thirty years is a long time in weapon development, and we scarcely need worry that a missile is ever likely to have a crude nuclear warhead attached to it and be launched from Baghdad at London, or any other western city, with the least chance of its arriving. More worrying are the less ambitious, yet more practical schemes of the Iranians. They are spending part of their defence budget on developing plastic explosives that cannot be detected at airports.(23)

In terms of a war fought out on the battlefield, the west is unassailable. $350,000 million may be a lot of money. But, if required, any of the western powers on its own could match nearly a decade’s spending on both sides in a single year. A united west could match it ten or twenty times over. But a long and intensive terrorist war would be another matter. Would we be frightened into making ever more desperate concessions, until there were none left to make? Would we respond by giving up our liberties, one by one, for the sake of preserving our personal security from attack? The record so far in the west is not encouraging. And, in the Islamic world, there seems to be no shortage of terrorist recruits.

See the Iranian daily newspaper, Ettelaat, for the 30th January, 1982:

They were all volunteers. They were all aged 14 to 15 and 16 to 20. They were there to turn the minefield into a rose garden. They were blossoms in half-moon. They would rise before dawn, which is the time for roses to open up their petals. They would then run over the mines, creating a dust storm which roared like thunder. Eyes would then see nothing. Ears would then hear nothing.

And then the dust storm would settle silence would cover the fields. We could then see fragments of broken young bodies covering the plain: scraps of flesh and bones, some stuck to thorn bushes or pebbles. It was as if the sky had rained flesh and blood and pieces of broken bone on that field….

Some of the children, however, had found a way of keeping their bodies more or less intact at the time of their heroic end. They covered themselves with blankets before walking over the mines. Thus the bits and pieces that were left could be gathered together more easily for dispatch to the proud parents back home. They did this partly to facilitate the job of our recruiting officials, who needed bodies to show to other young ones, to incite them to take the same path to paradise.(24)

What answer have we to this?


1. The Sunday Telegraph, 31/12/89.

2. In 1698, the Scottish, then still an independent nation, founded their disastrous colony at Darien in Central America. “Having landed, the settlers elected a parliament, which proceeded to frame a code of laws, “The first article provided that the precepts, instructions, examples, commands and prohibitions expressed and contained in the Holy Scriptures should have the full force and effect of laws in New Caledonia, an enactment which proves that those who drew it up either did no know what the Holy Scriptures contained or did not know what a law meant” (T.B. Macaulay, History of England, chapter XXIV),

3. One instance of this latter tendency can be seen in the Islamic office of Muhtasib, responsible, among other things, for the supervision of markets. It derives from the Byzantine office of Agoronomos (see David Pearl, A Textbook of Islamic Law, (2nd edition), Croom Helm, London, 1987, p. 7.

4. Asaf A. A. Fyzee, Outlines of Muhammedan Law, Oxford University Press (New Delhi), 1974, p. 37

5. Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford University Press, 1964, opening sentence (quoted, Pearl, op.cit.,p.1.

6. Dilip Hiro, Inside the Middle East, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1982, p. 87

7. Non-Moslems (or dhimmis) are divided under Islamic law into two categories. First, there are the ahl-al kitab, or people of the Book – Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians et al. These are to be tolerated on payment of special taxes. Second, there are the harbi, or those who have many gods or no scriptures. These, having no scriptures, are not to be tolerated, but are to be offered conversion or death. The Hindoos are polytheists, but were found by the Moslem invaders of India too numerous to persecute, and so were designated ahl-al kitab.

8. The Times, 17/3/89.

9. The general outline of Islamic divorce law was summarised thus by the Privy Council:

It appears that by the Mohammedan law divorce may be made in either of two forms: Talak or Khoola.

A divorce by Talak is the mere arbitrary act of the husband, who may repudiate his wife at his own pleasure, with or without cause. But if he adopts that course he is liable to repay her dowry, or dyn-mohr, and, as it seems, to give up any jewels or paraphernalia belonging to her.

A divorce by Khoola is a divorce with the consent, and at the instance, of the wife, in which she gives or agrees to give a consideration to the husband for her release from the marriage tie. In such a case the terms of the bargain are a matter of arrangement between the husband and wife, and the wife may, as the consideration, release her dyn-mohr and other rights, or make any other agreement for the benefit of the husband. (Moonshee Buzul-ul Raheem v Luteefut-oon-Nissa (1861), cited Fyzee, op. cit., p. 164).

10. This emphasis on female modesty and seclusion is based on the Koran, xxiv, 31

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs [ie, eunuchs], or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments”.

11. Koran, XXIV, 29:

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, “” flog each of them with a hundred stripes: let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God….”. Here, the law prefers to follow one of the stricter hadith (of Obada bin Samit): “Fornication of a virgin with a virgin – 100 stripes and exile for a year, and one married with another married – 100 stripes and stoning to death. (quoted, Pearl, op. cit., p. 243).

12. Koran, II, 219:

They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: ‘In them is great sin, and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.

See also V. 94 et circa:

Satan’s Plan is but to excite enmity and hatred between you with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of God, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?

Anyone whose calculation of cost and benefit turns out otherwise in the former case, or answers “no” in the second, and who is caught, earns a public flogging . By analogy, this statement has been extended to other mood altering substances.

13. Yasmin Alibhai, “A Member No More”, Marxism Today, December, 1989.

14. From Motakhab Aser Nevasandegan Hezb Allah (A Selection of Works by Party of Allah Workers), Rasht, 1985(quoted by Amir Taheri in Holy Terror: The Inside Story of Islamic Terrorism, Hutchinson, London, 1987, p. 195).

15. Quoted in Ebadat va Khodsazi (Prayer and Self-Improvement), Mashhad, 1986, p. 45 (quoted from Taheri, op, cit, p, 204). See also Koran, V, 104-5: 0 ye who believe! ask not questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble…. Some people before you did ask such questions, and on that account lost their faith.”

16. Address in 1984 to fundamentalist militants on the birthday of Mohammed – Quoted, Taheri, op. cit., p.113.

17. Mohammed – or God, via the Archangel Gabriel – on jihad: “Those who believe and suffer exile and strive with might and main, in God’s cause, with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of God. They are the people who will achieve [salvation]” (Koran, IX, 20).

18. Quoted, “Out of Their Own Mouths”, Vanguard (a National Front publication), number 26, July/August, 1989 (my italics).

19. Source; British Petroleum, Statistical Review of World Energy, 1985, June 1986; World Oil and Gas 1985 – quoted: The Middle East, p.207

20. Charles C. Gurdon, “Natural Resources”, The Middle East, p. 676.

21. Amir Taheri, The Middle East Behind the Headlines, Hutchinson, London, 1988, pp. 198-199.

22. The Daily Telegraph, 8/12/89

23. The Daily Telegraph, 7/12/89

24. Quoted, Taheri (1987), p.157.

© 1989 – 2017, seangabb.

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