After a week when Islam has been in the news because of its tendency towards violence and intolerance of free speech, Karen Armstrong has once again entered the lists on behalf of the religion, telling us in rather mawkish tones that our prejudices about Islam will actually be shaken by the British Museum’s exhibition on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lifetime. She tells us, eyes all agog, that
The ancient rituals of the hajj, which Arabs performed for centuries before Islam, have helped pilgrims to form habits of heart and mind that – pace the western stereotype – are non-violent and inclusive.
In the holy city of Mecca, violence of any kind was forbidden. From the moment they left home, pilgrims were not permitted to carry weapons, to swat an insect or speak an angry word, a discipline that introduced them to a new way of living.
Even supposing that it is true that violence of any kind was forbidden in the holy city, and that pilgrims were not permitted to carry weapons, or even, taking the prohibition of violence to absurd lengths, to swat an insect, it scarcely follows that this would be enough ”to form habits of heart and mind … that are non-violent and inclusive.” Habits develop only with long experience and constant repetition. To suppose that one trip to the holy city will embed these habits deeply in a personality is wishful thinking. A number of commenters on Armstrong’s piece in the Guardian have not been slow to point this out. Indeed, she has received scarcely any support for her exaggerated and unfounded notion of Islamic toleration and non-violence. As one writer, quoted by Ibn Warraq in his book Why I am not a Muslim, asks: “In short, Muhammad had to conquer, his followers liked to conquer, and his deity told him to conquer: do we need any more?” (122)
As this indicates, Armstrong seems simply unable to recognise that Islam is, and was, a particularly violent religion. As Ibn Warraq points out:
The totalitarian nature of Islam is nowhere more apparent than in the concept of jihad, the holy war, whose ultimate aim is to conquer the entire world and submit it to the one truth faith, to the law of Allah. … Jihad is a divine institution, enjoined specially for the purpose of advancing Islam. Muslims must strive, fight, and kill in the name of God. 
Why should Armstrong wish to conceal this from us? While all religions have a tendency towards violence, there is a violence at the heart of Islam that is actually prescribed by its holy books as a duty. This is uncommon. And to suppose that Mohammed himself, in riding into “enemy” territory without arms in order to make the Hajj, has somehow transformed him from the tribal brigand that he was into a shining example of peace and tolerance, will have to explain why the people he led, not long after his death, went on an imperialist spree of violence and mayhem, conquering and subjugating all their neighbours with ruthless precision, until only Islam was tolerated, whilst other religious believers were permitted to exist — where they were permitted to exist — only if they paid protection money to their Muslim overlords.
This is not to say that Christian Europe was a model of toleration. It wasn’t. However, to suggest, as Armstrong does, that the Christian Crusades were the outcome of intolerance and Christian belligerence towards Islam, at a time when Islam was more tolerant and more benign than Christianity, is a gross perversion of the facts. Armstrong says:
Ever since the Crusades, when Christians from western Europe were fighting holy wars against Muslims in the near east, western people have often perceived Islam as a violent and intolerant faith – even though when this prejudice took root Islam had a better record of tolerance than Christianity.
This is nonsense. By the time of the Crusades, not only had Islam conquered formerly Christian lands in the Levant and North Africa, Islam had also made several military incursions into Europe, into Spain in the West, into the Balkans in the East, and into Sicily in the South, and had there set up Muslim imperial rule in which Christians and Jews were strictly subordinate to Muslims, were required to pay the jizya tax (or protection money), and were not considered to be in any sense equal to Muslims, being required to show respect at all times to their Muslim rulers, refused the right to bear arms, to ride horses, to sit in the presence of a Muslim, to pass a Muslim in the street, and to be subject always to unpredictable violence directed towards them by Muslims who demanded their birthright: the right to seek booty and slaves from within the subject population, to destroy their places of worship, and to visit them with unpredictable violence and oppression. Nor should it be forgotten that for centuries, Muslim raiders invaded the European littoral, in quest of booty and slaves, of which well over a million are estimated to have been taken to be sold in the slave markets of the Mahgreb and Arabia (see Ibn Warraq’s Why the West is Best). The Crusades were, of course, not only a response to Muslim violence. They were an early expression of European growth and energy. But to see them as somehow unilateral expressions of violence is to pervert history.
Karen Armstrong also conspires to neglect to tell us of the subordination, subjection and oppression of women within Islam from the beginning, or the fact that not only Mohammed’s followers, but Mohammed himself, took, as by right, the women of slain Jews and others, and that, on one occasion, Mohammed consummated his “marriage” to one such woman taken as booty on the night of the very day upon which he is said to have killed her husband. She neglects to remind us that no other religion except Islam is permitted in the Arabian peninsula, and that no form of worship or sacred space is permitted in the peninsula save the worship of Islam and the sacred spaces of Islam. She neglects to tell us that Christians and Jews are emigrating from ancient communities in Iraq, Egypt, the Yemen, and elsewhere in the Islamic world, because of the threat from their Muslim neighbours, a threat that has been, throughout the centuries, the normal accompaniment of the life of religious minorities in Muslim lands. And while it is true that Christianity was dangerous to Jews, because Christianity at its heart has been anti-Jewish, Islam is intolerant, by its very nature, of any religion save the religion of Islam, since Mohammed is absurdly thought to have been the final prophet of god, and Islam the final religion, and the model of the perfect society.
What is worse, however, is that Armstrong tells us all this at a time when free expression has been dramatically limited by the actions of Muslims in very public ways, by terrorist threats at Queen Mary College in London, silly attempts to censor atheist and humanist groups at the London School of Economics, and threats on the life of Salman Rushdie should he attend a literary conference in Jaipur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The fact that these acts of violence and intolerance have received almost no public exposure, and no public censure, except for the eloquent pleas of Joan Smith in the Independent and of Nick Cohen in the Spectator, as well as from blogs and websites such as Butterflies and Wheels (in several posts) and Why Evolution is True, is a troubling sign that threats of violence are not only working, but that no one is particularly concerned that their freedoms are being abridged.
For Armstrong to suggest that “prejudices about Islam will be shaken” by the British Museum show about the Muslim practice of the Hajj is contemptible. First of all, the suggestion that opposition to Islam and questions about its compatibility with democratic institutions is only prejudice is ridiculous, given the evidence of the last few years; there are perfectly good reasons why we should doubt that Islam is compatible with democratic institutions, and therefore reasons other than mere prejudice to hold Islam up to severe and searching criticism.
Of course, the suggestion that immediately follows is that this is to ignore the many moderate or liberal Muslims who simply want to get on with their lives, and who integrate well into Western democratic societies. Nothing that I say is meant to condemn all Muslims, for, like any group of believers or unbelievers, Muslims are very diverse, and some pose no threat at all. But it does not follow that Islam does not. Islam is a religion with a political agenda. There is simply no reason to believe that political Islam is a perversion of an Islam which is in other regards perfectly conformable to democratic polity; for Islam contains not only a religion which may be practiced as well in a secular society as in one that is governed according to Islamic laws; it is also a system of laws which are intended to govern every action and relationship of Muslims in both their civil and their private lives. Not only is there no clear distinction within Islam between “church” and “state”; there is no clear distinction between public and private. And just as Roman Catholicism, given the power, quickly reverts to its lust for (civil) power over the law and the private conduct of individuals; so Islam will always, because of its sacred text, revert easily and quickly to the primitive purity in which the primacy of Islam over other religions, and its universal jurisdiction over all within the boundaries of territories designated (by extending the concept of the waqf or trust) as part of the Muslim waqf, that is, territory inalienably set apart as holy to Muslims, never to be governed or controlled by the infidel, will reassert itself.
Practically everything that Armstrong says in her latest piece of Muslim propaganda can be questioned. She says, for instance:
Clearly the Qur’an did not despise Jews and Christians; this affinity with “the people of the book” was also central to the Muslim cult of Mecca.
Of course, it depends entirely on what you mean by the word ‘despise’. I think the following would qualify as showing that the Koran regards Christians and Jews as despicable:
5.51: Believers, do not take Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends If anyone of you takes them for his friends, then he is surely one of them. God will not guide evil-doers.
5.56-64 O Believers, do not take as your friends the infidels or those who received the Scriptures before you and who scoff and jest at you reliigion, but fear God if you are believers. …
Why don’t their rabbis and doctors of law forbid them from uttering sinful words and eating unlawful food? Evil indeed are their works.
‘The hand of God is chained up,’ claim the Jews. there own hands shall be chained up — and they shall be cursed for saying such a thing.
9.29 Declare war upon those to whom the Scriptures were revealed but believe neither in God nor the Last Day, and who do not forbid that which God and His Apostle have forbidden, and who refuse to acknowledge the true religion until they pay the poll-tax without reservation and are totally subjugaged. [Why I am not a Muslim, 216]
And then there are those verses in the fifth Sura that speak about Christians and Jews being turned into monkeys and swine. Whether it follows from all this that the Koran despises Christians and Jews — as I think it does – it certainly indicates that the Koran does not think highly of them, and justifies their subjugation and exclusion. These verses do not display a high level of toleration for Christians or Jews. Nor does it seem clear that Armstrong is obviously correct when she says, ingratiatingly:
The Arabs had no conception of an exclusive religious tradition, so they were deeply shocked when they discovered that most Jews and Christians refused to consider them as part of the Abrahamic family.
This might win the plaudits of her Muslim readers, but is it true? The fact that the Jewish tribes of Medina (Yathrib) were prepared to accept Mohammed and his followers, after having left Mecca because of pagan intolerance there, indicates the toleration of the Jews. That those same Jews refused to convert and recognise Mohammed as a prophet is not a sign that the Jews were intolerant. All it shows is that they disagreed. Intolerance came in the form of Mohammed’s response to his failure to convert the Jews: he killed the men, and kept the women for himself and his followers. In one case, as I mentioned above, he took to wife a Jewish woman, and consummated, on the night of the day when he killed her Jewish husband, the “marriage”. Armstrong’s claims are, as usual, shallow, perverse and mostly false.