Interview with Robert Spencer: Explaining the Islamist Threat

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Interview with Robert Spencer: Explaining the Islamist Threat
Robert Spencer is author of several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), a New York Times bestseller.

American TFP member Richard Lyon interviewed Robert Spencer, a noted expert on Islamic affairs and author of several books. Mr. Lyon asked him to address the nature of Islam and the different strategies and tactics it uses in the West.

TFP:  Both as a specialist in Islam and as a Catholic, could you explain what are the principal differences between Islamism and Catholicism?

Robert Spencer:  Islam and Catholicism differ in their views of Jesus: Islam denies the divinity of Christ and His redemption. Islam regards Him as a Muslim prophet who taught Islam, but whose message was corrupted by His followers to create Christianity. In doing so, according to the Qur’an, they deified Him and began to teach that He was the Son of God and was crucified, when in reality He was a human prophet and was not crucified. (See Qur’an 9:30; 4:157, 5:112-116).

One of the myriad other ways in which Islam and Catholicism also differ fundamentally is in their views of the dignity of the human person. In Islam, there is a sharp dichotomy between believers, “the best of peoples” (Qur’an 3:110) and unbelievers, “the most vile of created beings” (Qur’an 98:6). Traditional Islam also denies the freedom of conscience, mandating death for apostates.

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TFP:  Nowadays everyone talks about jihad, but few know its precise meaning. What is the correct understanding of the term?

Robert Spencer:  Jihad in Arabic means struggle, and there are as many connotations of the word in Arabic as there are of “struggle” in English. However, the traditional, mainstream and primary Islamic understanding of jihad as a theological concept involves warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers. This idea is rooted in a cluster of Qur’anic verses that contain general and open-ended commands to fight non-Muslims, including:

  • “O ye who believe! Fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him” (9:123).
  • “O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, an evil refuge indeed” (9:73). The Arabic word translated here as “strive hard” is jahidi, a verbal form of the noun jihad.

The command applies first to fighting those who worship other gods besides Allah: “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.” (9:5). In plain English, this means that “idolaters” are to be killed, unless they convert to Islam and begin following Islamic laws such as paying alms (“the poor-due.”)

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However, Muslims must fight Jews and Christians as well, although the Qur’an recognizes that as “People of the Book” they have received genuine revelations from Allah: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [the special tax on non-Muslims] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).

The words mean what they appear to mean. The noted Qur’an commentator Ibn Juzayy says that Qur’an 9:29 is “a command to fight the People of the Book.” Another respected mainstream Qur’an commentary, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, notes that when 9:29 says that Muslims must fight against those who “follow not the Religion of Truth,” it means those who do not follow Islam, “which is firm and abrogates other deens [religions].”1

Opportune Clarifications on Islam

All four principal Sunni schools of jurisprudence, the Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali schools, agree on the importance of jihad warfare against non-Muslims who refuse to convert to Islam. Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996), a Maliki jurist, declared that “it is preferable not to begin hostilities with the enemy before having invited the latter to embrace the religion of Allah except where the enemy attacks first. They have the alternative of either converting to Islam or paying the poll tax (jizya), short of which war will be declared against them.”2 Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), a Hanbali jurist who is a favorite of bin Laden and other modern-day jihadists, explained that the aim of jihad was “that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”3

The other schools echo these teachings. The Hanafi school stipulates, “If the infidels, upon receiving the call [to convert to Islam], neither consent to it nor agree to pay capitation tax, it is then incumbent on the Muslims to call upon God for assistance, and to make war upon them . . . the Prophet, moreover, commands us so to do.”4 Likewise, the Shafi’i scholar Abu’l Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 1058) taught that once infidels refuse the invitation to convert to Islam, “war is waged against them and they are treated as those whom the call has reached.”5

In other words, “Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

A Hanafi legal manual explains that the fight against unbelievers can sometimes take non-violent forms: “Jihad in the language is exerting effort. In the understanding of the Sharia, it is exerting effort and energy in fighting fi sabeel lillah [in the path of Allah] by nafs [spiritual struggle], finance, tongue or another.”6 Indeed, in traditional Islam, jihad bil sayf (jihad with the sword) or combat (qitaal) is only one means of jihad. Other forms of jihad include jihad bil mal (waging jihad by means of one’s wealth); jihad bil lisan (waging jihad through persuasion); jihad bil yad (waging jihad by taking action, but not necessarily arms, against injustice).

But all these various forms of jihad — both violent and non-violent — are directed toward the same end: the Islamization of the world and the imposition of Islamic law over unbelieving societies. Majid Khadduri (1909-2007), an internationally renowned Iraqi scholar of Islamic law, explained in his 1955 book War and Peace in the Law of Islam that Islam had embedded within it an expansionist and supremacist imperative:

The Islamic state, whose principal function was to put God’s law into practice, sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world. It refused to recognize the coexistence of non-Muslim communities, except perhaps as subordinate entities, because by its very nature a universal state tolerates the existence of no other state than itself. . . . The jihad was therefore employed as an instrument for both the universalization of religion and the establishment of an imperial world state.7

Interview with Robert Spencer: Explaining the Islamist Threat

Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, quotes the twelfth century Maliki jurist Ibn Rushd: “Muslim jurists agreed that the purpose of fighting with the People of the Book . . . is one of two things: it is either their conversion to Islam or the payment of jizyah.” Nyazee concludes, “This leaves no doubt that the primary goal of the Muslim community, in the eyes of its jurists, is to spread the word of Allah through jihad, and the option of poll-tax [jizya] is to be exercised only after subjugation” of non-Muslims.8

But if this is so, why hasn’t the worldwide Islamic community been waging jihad on a large scale up until relatively recently? Writing in 1994, before the worldwide jihadist effort had reached the strength it enjoys today, Nyazee said it is only because it has not been able to do so: “The Muslim community may be considered to be passing through a period of truce. In its present state of weakness, there is nothing much it can do about it.”9

TFP:  In your most recent book Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs, you cover a little-known aspect of the Islamist offensive: psychological warfare, which is waged by Islamic pressure groups within our borders. Tell us something about this.

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Robert Spencer:  One of the most effective tactics employed by Islamic jihadists throughout the world is to intimidate their opponents into silence. Death threats, murders, acts of mass terrorism, beheadings broadcast over the Internet — all these actions are obviously useful to minimize resistance to the jihadists’ agenda. Naturally, the number of people who repudiate them becomes less significant when such dissidents are afraid to express their opposition in any way.

Threats of violence are indeed effective in silencing criticism of jihadists or even simple mockery of any aspect of Islam. Stealth jihadists, however, do not employ this approach. Groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim-American Society (MAS) have learned from the past mistakes of many U.S.-based Islamic leaders that aggressive public pronouncements and threats uttered against Islam’s perceived enemies bring unwelcome attention and undermine their pretensions of being mainstream civil rights organizations. So they’ve adopted a different strategy to silence critics of jihadism and Islamic supremacism: they label them as “bigots,” “hatemongers,” and “Islamophobes.”

In the U.S., playing the race card can in some ways be even more effective than death threats. If a U.S.-based Islamic group announced a death fatwa against an American writer, that group would be denounced in the media as “extremist” and possibly trigger a police investigation. But if the group cries “racism” against the same writer, liberal as well as conservative media figures hop to shun and denounce the accused “racist,” for bigotry and racism are the cardinal sins of the U.S. public square.

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Islamic groups in the U.S. skillfully play the race card against those who publicize uncomfortable truths about Islam: criticism of Islamic supremacist impulses or of the organizations themselves is frequently met with indignant cries of “racism.” These groups deliberately conflate race with religion, exploiting the fact that most Muslims in the country are either black or Arab and Pakistani immigrants. The fact that Islam is a religion and not a race is apparently irrelevant, and journalists never challenge these groups on their confusion of the two.

CAIR in particular has become expert at bandying about allegations of bigotry and racism to silence its critics or quash even fictional representations that it deems offensive to Muslims. In 2001, when Tom Clancy’s novel The Sum of All Fears was being made into a movie, CAIR launched a successful campaign to pressure the filmmakers into changing the Islamic terrorists of the story into some other kind of villain. (Ultimately they became neo-Nazis — apparently the Aryan Nations doesn’t have CAIR’s clout.) There can be little doubt that the filmmakers were simply bullied into making the change by the prospect of CAIR publicly denouncing them as racists. Film director Phil Alden Robinson wrote abjectly to CAIR, “I hope you will be reassured that I have no intention of promoting negative images of Muslims or Arabs, and I wish you the best in your continuing efforts to combat discrimination.”10 America got a dramatic reminder of the fact that there really are Islamic terrorists, and they’re not just the figments of bigoted imaginations, on September 11, 2001, but by then filming on The Sum of All Fears had already been completed.

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Islamic groups in the U.S. have employed the race card innumerable times in myriad contexts in order to intimidate and silence their opponents. To give credit where credit is due, it has proven to be an excellent strategy for deflecting attention from the reality of jihadist sentiments and jihadist activity among American Muslims. The stealth jihadists employ this kind of obfuscation to great effect. Their immediate goal is not to overpower America directly through combat, but rather to convince Americans that there is nothing at all to fear from Islamic theology, and that anyone who argues otherwise is an Islamophobe motivated solely by hate. With the population lulled into complacency, they can go about their work of forcing western “accommodation” to Islamic practices. This is meant to set the stage for Islam eventually to emerge supreme.

TFP:  How should Catholics react against this insidious Islamist offensive in America?

Robert Spencer:  The primary challenge that Catholics who are aware of the jihad threat is to convince their coreligionists that such a threat is indeed real. Many have been blinded to the threat by a widespread misunderstanding of the statements of the Second Vatican Council about Islam, and by the impression that Catholics and Muslims must make common cause on moral issues. While some limited cooperation may indeed be possible in the international arena, this fact should not render us unwilling to admit the facts about Islam’s supremacist agenda, which denies the very legitimacy of Christianity as a faith.

TFP:  Is there also an Islamist threat in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Holland?

Robert Spencer:  Yes, and it is far more advanced there than it is in America. The historian Bernard Lewis has said flatly that Europe will be Islamic by the end of this century. The results for Catholic civilization in Europe and its artifacts will be disastrous.

TFP:  You are also the author of a book, which deals with the Crusades: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), which was a New York Times bestseller. Since our magazine is honored to be called Crusade, tell us something about the role of the Crusades in the struggle against Islam, particularly what lessons they may provide for the struggle we must wage today.

Robert Spencer:  The Crusades were not acts of unprovoked aggression by Europe against the Islamic world, but a delayed response to centuries of Muslim aggression, which grew fiercer than ever in the eleventh century. These were wars for the recapture of Christian lands and the defense of Christians, not religious imperialism. Nor were the Crusades called in order to convert Muslims or anyone else to Christianity by force. The Crusaders did many things that cannot be excused, but in their conception they were defensive actions against an Islamic jihad that had by the time of the First Crusade overwhelmed half of Christendom.

Lessons for today? We need to summon our spiritual and cultural resources as well as our military resources in order to defeat the jihadist challenge.

Robert Reilly Deciphers Islam at the TFP Washington Bureau

ROBERT SPENCER is the director of Jihad Watch, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the author of eight books on Islam and jihad. Spencer is a weekly columnist for Human Events and FrontPage Magazine, and has led seminars on Islam and jihad for the United States Central Command, United States Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the U.S. intelligence community.

Mr. Spencer holds an MA in Religious Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has been studying Islamic theology, law, and history in depth since 1980.


  1. “Surat at-Tawba: Repentance, Tafsir.”
  2. Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, La Risala (Epitre sur les elements du dogme et de la loi de l’Islam selon le rite malikite.) Translated from Arabic by Leon Bercher. 5th ed. (Algiers, 1960), p. 165. Cited in Andrew G. Bostom, “Khaled Abou El Fadl: Reformer or Revisionist?,”
  3. Ibn Taymiyya, “Jihad,” in Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996), p. 49.
  4. Hidayah, vol. II. p. 140, quoted in Thomas P. Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam (W.H. Allen, 1895), “Jihad,” pp. 243-248.
  5. Abu’l Hasan al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah (The Laws of Islamic Governance) (Ta-Ha Publishers, 1996), p. 60.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955) p. 51.
  8. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Theories of Islamic Law: The Methodology of Ijtihad (The Other Press, 1994), pp. 251-252.
  9. Ibid., p. 253.
  10. Reihan Salam, “The Sum of All PC: Hollywood’s reverse racial profiling,” Slate, May 28, 2002.

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