Over the past several years, the true meaning of the word “jihad” has become a subject of intense debate. Some say it primarily means an inner struggle, while others reject that definition and maintain that, historically, jihad has always meant “holy war,” and that this still holds true today. While participants in the Muslim Student Awareness Network’s Islamic Awareness Series last quarter preferred the former definition, Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes spoke at length on April 8 about why they believe the latter is a much more accurate definition. Spencer and Pipes were invited to speak at Stanford by Students for an Open Society, in an event co-sponsored by The Stanford Review and the Stanford College Republicans.
Having two prominent and controversial scholars of Islam speak together at Stanford was a rare occurrence that added greatly to the event, but also doubled the controversy surrounding it. Both Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes, despite their decades of experience with this topic, are still often dismissed as bigoted “Islamophobes” who know nothing about Islam. Spencer often retorts that this type of ad hominem attack is the only thing his opponents can throw at him, since they are unable to refute any of what he actually says in his books and lectures. Though such rhetoric was thrown around in the days leading up to the event, no overtly hostile students attended the event, and protests were limited to two students handing out flyers outside.
Spencer described the history of jihad from ancient times to the modern day, explaining that the definition of jihad as “inner struggle” originated in India in the 19th century in order to quell resistance against its British overlords. He pointed out, however, that calls for war against “unbelievers” are common in the Qur’an, and modern jihadists use these violent verses to recruit so-called “peaceful Muslims” who would otherwise have no interest in fighting and dying for their religion. Spencer stated that, until some sort of reformation in Islam eliminates or abrogates these verses, jihadists will continue to use them as proof that their vision of Islam is the only valid one.
Spencer also commented on the interesting situation in the world today in which those people who point out the hate speech of certain groups are themselves accused of hate speech. He gave the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ new film Fitna as a prominent example; the film simply presents particularly violent verses from the Qur’an and speeches by jihadists exhorting violence against non-Muslims. Why is it, Spencer asked, that Wilders is the one accused of hate speech while those who actually call for the death of innocent people get a free pass? Spencer knows this type of attack well, since he is often on the receiving end of them.
During the question and answer session, Dr. Pipes discussed the lack of objective research into the jihadist ideology by universities around the world. He mentioned the recent multi-million dollar donations by Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal to Georgetown, Harvard, and Oxford as just one cause of this dearth of unbiased inquiry. These large gifts are most harmful, Pipes explained, because of the message it sends to the universities that have not received such gifts: “you, too, can get this money if you, too, behave, and if you, too, don’t ask certain questions and don’t delve into certain topics.” The Middle East Studies Association, Spencer affirmed, is “completely dominated by people of a [certain] political outlook” who “have no interest in speaking about these things honestly.” It is this lack of honest discussion that makes people such as Spencer who are outside of academia especially important.
Perhaps the most important point of the lecture, which both Spencer and Pipes agreed upon, is that the jihadist ideology cannot be defeated if the West continues to explain it away as unimportant, allow obfuscation by certain groups to replace candid investigation of it, or ignore it entirely. Recognition of the threat that this ideology poses to Western civilization is essential if victory is ever to be attained.
Though Pipes’ and Spencer’s views on Islam are unpopular, to say the least, it is always important to hear from both sides of every issue. Radical Islam, despite its contentiousness, is no exception. Universities should be a place for open dialogue, not partisan politicking where unorthodox views are reflexively shot down and vilified as racist, xenophobic, or hateful. Calls for “tolerance” must be more than empty rhetoric.