Get thee to a madrasa

From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Many academic commentators on September 11, anxious to exculpate Islam itself, announced that bin Ladin was not really a Muslim. Coming from a lot of professors who don’t profess Islam—and a few who do, but whose foreheads haven’t touched a mosque floor in years—it was a bit much. Actually, being a Muslim is a bit like being an Islam “expert”: the status is easy to acquire if you make a simple profession of faith, and you keep it regardless of whatever folly or evil you later perpetrate.

One person who has acquired the status of an Islam “expert” by means of osmosis is Karen Armstrong, a prolific British writer on comparative religion (and a former nun), who discovered Islam in the 1990s and wrote a biography of the Prophet Muhammad and a short history of Islam. Her books sell like rosaries in Rome, presumably because she already enjoys a reputation as a spiritual seeker. Armstrong’s argument seems to be that Islam is just about the best variety of monotheism, since it makes do without a church or a chosen people. Of course, it does have this problem of murderous fanatics who give it a bad name. But they aren’t authentic Muslims. “It would be as grave a mistake to see Usama bin Ladin as an authentic representative of Islam as to consider James Kopp, the alleged killer of an abortion provider in Buffalo, N.Y., a typical Christian.”13

Who, then, are the “authentic representatives” of Islam? Perhaps they are our Muslim allies, the enemies of bin Ladin. Sorry, it’s not them either. Here is Armstrong on CNN’s Q&A: “A lot of Muslims are laboring under highly undemocratic regimes, many of them, unfortunately, supported by the Western world—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria—countries that have rulers that are not Muslim, really, in any way.”14 In any way. One begins to get a sense that no Muslim really understands Islam with the same profundity and spirituality as … well, as Karen Armstrong.

So there you have it: a charge of apostasy against those Muslim rulers most supportive of the United States (including the sovereign of Mecca), made on CNN by an ex-nun and self-described “freelance monotheist.”15 And you thought you had heard everything.

13 Karen Armstrong, “The True, Peaceful Face of Islam,” Time Magazine, Oct. 1, 2001.
14 “Q & A with Zain Verje,” aired Dec. 5, 2001, at
15 Karen Armstrong, Through the Narrow Gate, rev. ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. xvi.