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What an Islam expert isn't


Most Catholics will remember the hysterical opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque back in 2010. But what any may not realize is that one of the opposition’s principal organizers is considered by some influential Catholics to be the church’s chief expert on Islam.

Since the September 11 attacks, Robert Spencer has capitalized on the curiosity—and fear—that many Americans have about Muslims. While most of his sixteen books, including two New York Times bestsellers, attempt to convince all Americans that Islam is an inherently violent religion, Spencer has also authored books aimed at Catholics.

In 2003, he co-authored Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics with a Muslim convert to Christianity, Daniel Ali, and in 2007 he wrote A Religion of Peace: Why Christianity is and Islam Isn’t. His newest book for Catholics, Not Peace But a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam, was published earlier this year. In it, Spencer explicitly discourages dialogue and cooperation between Catholics and Muslims. The book’s cover features a curved sword, with the Arabic name of Muhammad inscribed on the blade, piercing a red cross. The first line of the introduction reads, “Can’t we all just get along? Maybe not. And if not, what then?”

He argues that Catholics and Muslims have virtually nothing in common, and falsely claims that Islam teaches that Christians should be persecuted. According to Spencer, Catholics put themselves in harm’s way by engaging in dialogue. Not only does this view place him in defiance of the Catholic Church’s teachings on dialogue and on Islam, it also reinforces the toxic belief that as Muslims as a group are a violent threat and should, at best, be avoided and, at worse, be opposed.

Praise for fear-mongering

Despite its anti-dialogical position and unvarnished attempt to instill in Catholics a fear of Muslims, Not Peace But a Sword has received praise in a review in the National Catholic Register. Father C. J. McCloskey, a well-known member of Opus Dei, wrote, that Spencer is “perhaps the foremost Catholic expert on Islam in our country.” McCloskey affirms the mistaken yet pervasive belief that “the Muslims hate us,” and writes, “at its worst, Islam is diabolical; at its best, it is a Christian heresy—not unlike Mormonism without the violence.”

Catholic apologists and others—many of whom have authored their own critical books on Islam—have endorsed Spencer’s work. Catholic television (EWTN) personality Fr. Mitch Pacwa wrote an introduction to Inside Islam, and former Boston College professor William Kilpatrick (Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West) wrote of Spencer’s most recent book, “A great many Catholics know only a Disney-fied version of Islam, and still cling to the dangerous illusion that Muslims and Christians share much in common. But as Robert Spencer ably demonstrates, beneath the surface similarities lies a deep and possibly unbridgeable gulf. This is must reading not only for Catholics but for all Christians.” Kirkpatrick’s book, as well as Spencer’s most recent one, was published by Catholic Answers, an organization responsible for publishing apologetic tracts and conservative voting guides.

Yet Spencer’s fans rarely note that he lacks any formal education about Islam. His academic background is in Christian theology. Even more problematic, he often engages in controversial anti-Islamic activism. Along with Pamela Geller, he led the xenophobic campaign against the Park 51 Islamic Center in Manhattan, which, thanks to both activists, became popularly known as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Spencer and Geller also co-founded Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which have been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-Muslim hate groups. Because of their fear-mongering, Spencer and Geller were banned from entering Britain earlier this year, when they attempted to attend a meeting of another anti-Muslim group, the English Defence League. His personal blog, Jihad Watch, consists of posts blaming Islam for violence around the world.

A dishonest look at history

In a December 10, 2012, interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, where he is a frequent guest, Spencer asserted that “traditional Islamic law does not allow for peaceful coexistence between believers and unbelievers.” In fact, during the Middle Ages, Muslim rulers granted protection to Christians and Jews received, exempted them from, military service, and allowed them to run their own religious communities in exchange for a yearly jizya tax. Christians, Jews, and Muslims not only lived together but collaborated in the massive libraries of Baghdad and Cordoba, Spain, where they advanced science, philosophy, and theology. (Check out the books House of Wisdom and A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain.) 

In trying to contrast Islam and Christianity in his newest book, Spencer provides a brief summary of the Crusades that is laughably fictional. “It may be useful to remember that the Crusades, for all their errors and excesses, were a defensive action after 450 years of unanswered Islamic aggression.” While its true atrocities occurred on both sides, calling the Crusades a “defensive” measure is absurd, given that they were Christian military campaigns that originated in Europe and attacked lands and people in the Middle East.

Need for a new authority

Despite his lack of academic credentials, his habit of spreading misinformation, and his predilection for fear-mongering, Spencer has been invited to give speeches for U.S. law enforcement, government officials, and Catholic institutions like the Franciscan University of Steubenville. In pursuing Catholic bookstores in Washington, D.C., where I live, I’ve noticed that Spencer’s books can often be found in the Islam section. (Nearby are often books by Scott Hahn, Peter Madrid, and William Kilpatrick, who praised Spencer’s latest book.)

Fortunately, many Catholics have realized that Spencer does not deserve to be called an expert on Islam. In March, the Diocese of Worchester, Massachusetts, canceled Spencer from their slate of speakers for a men’s event back. In Sacramento, the bishop canceled Spencer’s July speaking engagement and barred him from presenting on church property. The National Catholic Reporter also called attention to and challenged the Register’s positive review of his new book. Still, many Catholic institutions are welcoming Spencer, like Ave Maria Catholic radio station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is hosting an event called, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”

What the church needs are charitable, truthful authorities on Islam, who can bring their own experiences of the faith into their writing and speaking. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of such experts. A Christian View of Islam is a compilation of essays by Georgetown University professor of Catholic-Muslim relations, Tom Michel, SJ. With a PhD in Islamic Studies, Fr. Michel has worked in the Vatican’s interreligious affairs offices and has lived in many Muslim majority countries. Meg Funk, a Benedictine nun who wrote Islam Is: An Experience of Dialogue and Devotion, offers her own experience dialoguing with Muslims through a series of encounters sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She leads Monastic Interreligious Dialogue as its executive director. Funk wrote the book shortly after the Iraq war, intent on explaining the religion making headlines. George Dardess’s book Meeting Islam: A Guide for Catholics, explains core tenets and practices while offering a Catholic perspective. A number of books have also been published in recent years that focus on the medieval encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil and using it as a paradigm for contemporary Catholic-Muslim dialogue (see In the Spirit of St. Francis and the Sultan, also by Dardess, The Saint and the Sultan, and the DVD In the Footsteps of St. Francis and the Sultan.)

Though these authors often begin by addressing similarities of the two faiths, they don’t shy away from addressing the differences. Differences need not divide, they argue, but can provide mutual illumination. Dialogue with Muslim does not threaten one’s Catholic faith (or life!), as Spencer would have us believe, but instead it often strengthens one’s understanding of and connection to Catholicism.

That’s certainly been my experience. My time among the Muslim community during my years as a student at Georgetown strengthened my Catholic identity, which I had begun to lose despite (and maybe because of) my many years in Catholic school. Witnessing and often participating in Islam’s unique rites and learning about Islamic belief made me not only appreciate and find beauty in Islam, but also in my own faith. My recommitment to my faith did not result from an aversion to Islam, but rather from a love of Islam that sparked my curiosity to rediscover the beauty of the faith of my childhood.

Yes, my Muslim friends and I often spoke about our similarities, but the more important conversations were often about the hard differences. My dialogue partners and I came out of these conversations not feeling threatened or upset, but heartened by the fact that both views were bolstered by deep charity and love. The differences—which Spencer says are so great as to preclude cooperation—are actually a source of mutual learning and spiritual enrichment.

Writers like Spencer are sometimes louder than the less confrontational voices we need to hear, but real Catholic authorities on Islam carry out what the church asked of them in Nostra aetate, the Vatican II document on non-Christian religions. The church, it reads, “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

Instead of so-called experts who trade on fear, we need Catholics who echo the sentiment of Christian de Cherge, a Cistercian monk who devoted himself to living alongside Muslims in Algeria. Along with his community, he was murdered in 1996. Before his death, he wrote of his desire to “immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them.”

Inshallah, we too can learn that gaze.

Jordan Denari is a recent graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied Muslim-Christian relations. She is now conducting research in Amman, Jordan on a Fulbright grant.

About the Author

Jordan Denari is a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, a project to educate the public about Islamophobia. From 2013 to 2014, she researched the impact of Christian satellite television on Muslim-Christian relations in Jordan on a Fulbright research grant. 



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 Jordan, your attempt to demonstrate that Spencer isn't an "Islam expert" would be more compelling if the "experts" whose works you recommend were.     

The Amazon pages for the books by those you regard as "real Catholic authorities on Islam" are interesting.  Here's a quotation from the Foreword to Sr. Funk's book:  

"One of the insights shared in this book is that Islam owes much to its origins in Arabia."  p. xi.  

The Editorial Review from Publishers Weekly concludes with this information about Funk's notions of Islam:

"Does it foster violent fundamentalism? (Not necessarily.) Can women be considered equal partners to men? (Yes.) Can Islam be democratic? (Yes.) An afterword by her friend Shahid Athar, a Muslim American physician, gently corrects a couple of finer points, but thanks Funk for the deeply respectful attention she has given to Islam."


Deacon Dardess doesn't seem to be a scholar, either.  In a Customer Review we learn that Meeting Islam  has no index.


And, from a Customer Review of St. Francis and the Sultan:


". . . it is pure conjecture and fantasy. Words like "imagine," "guess," and, "we can't know for sure" are peppered throughout the text."


In an Editorial Review, Dardess's publisher admits that "He has a master s (sic) in theology but his doctorate is in literature."


Fr. Michel's book is not a scholarly treatment of Islam, either, but a collection of "Essays on Dialogue."  The first one is from 1991.    (The sample at Amazon does not go beyond the first essay.  Are the other essays more recent?)

The hubris of a non Muslim telling us what the true tenets of Islam are.Like it even matters.Like it should matter to non Muslims.What matters is what Muslims profess to believe -whether he[this non Muslim] considers them heretics or not.His hate filled dishonesty is reminiscent of the oft heard phrase"people who hate us" which truthfully [is code for] means "people we hate".

I have to wonder a little about the level of scholarship demonstrated by a guy who writes 12 books in 11 years, starting 15 years after his M.A. degree but -- more significantly? -- right after 9/11. I note that only one of his publishers qualifies, to an extent, as an academic publisher. His other books are mostly from the same publisher, who specializes in, well, this kind of book. His publishing record is more like a propagandist's thlan a scholar's.

Does anyone know if Spencer reads any Middle Eastern languages?

Of course, he is saying what a lot of people want to hear. If it makes them fear and hate someone, it must be true, eh?

The Koran, like the Bible, has apparently contradictory passages.  In Islam there is controversy about the interpretation of  the word "jihad".  Its literal meaning is "struggle".  It is ofen interpreted as a Muslim's inner struggle with himself, but in some contexts it seems to mean a duty to conquor infidels by physical force.  

It seems to me that until the Muslim theologians generally and publicly teach that there are serious problems of interpretation of "jihad", Islam is likely to continue to produce hot-headed radicals bent on violently suppressing all opposition both at home and abroad.

Granting all the great Muslim philosophical achievements in metaphysics and logic, so far as I know (which isn't, I grant you, a great deal) the Muslims have not been particularly interestedd in philosophy of language.  Would that they would give it more attention.  It might suggest some means to overcome some of the semantic problems of the theological meaning(s) of "jihad".   

Bill C. --

Thanks for the interview.  I wonder about the most basic differences between the Muslims and the Christians.  Our differences aren't just theological, they're legal.  Many, many Muslim laws are found in the Koran or they are derived from Muslim tradition (hadith) and so are considered unalterable.  Unfortunately they are often extremely different from Western laws, and I wonder whether our most intractable differences aren't matters of theology but, rather, of law.  

It is easy enough to just ignore some theological differences because they have little practical effect, e.g., the teachings on the Trinity and Heaven, but laws have so many practical ramifications that our legal differences can't be so easily ignored..  Already, as more and more Muslims are moving into the West we see disputes happening over conflicting laws.

I was fortunate to hear Archbishop Fitzgerald in Rome at the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas in 2005 before he was "shuffled off to Buffalo (2006)."

Those of us who heard him there and then (most of whom were not familiar at all with him or his role (President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) were impressed by his erudition and humble attitude.  It was obvious that he had an informed outlook and was not the kind who was trying to impress us with his superior skill and cunning.


Long ago in another much more youthful life I took several courses on the history of the Middle East.  That's as far as my expertise on the subject extends.

The most recent edition of Foreign Affairs has several articles I found of interest on the current state of affairs in that region.  One is a fairly extensive piece describing the author's opinions of the motives and means attached to Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  I believe the article's author has fairly extensive experience in the region.

Another article's focus in on the brutality being inflicted upon Christians in the region.  It is written by a fellow who is himself a Muslin and has on a number of occassions made clear his respect and love of much in Christianity.

I believe that Pope Francis emphasizes "mercy" for many reasons. One is that the concept of mercy is very Islamic (along with justice) and can serve as a bridge between Christianity and Islam.

A book entitled Law and Revolution by a Jewish Harvard Professor of Law throws some light on all this. The Revolution referred to is a papal revolution in the development of western law, whether English common law/case law codes of law or Napoleonic/inquisitional codes of law).

What was this revolution? It was a decision by a pope in the early 1000's to not go by the precdents in the Roman code of law summarized in the newly rediscovered (lost for centuries) Code of Justinian. The Code was found on land owned by the Papal States and as monarch the pope took possession. Fortunatel;y that pope was a scholar and had the code reviewed by a group of scholars to decide what to do about it.

They decided two big things: ... First, that the the principles behind the decisions and precedents in the Code should be distilled. Future legal decisions should be based primarily on these principles and the facts of a case, not by any particluar rule in the Code. They stated bluntly that they made this decision so that new and innovative decisions could be made as history evolved and brought up new situations. ... Scond, they decided to open the first university precisely to teach law but lso to revive the old Raman liberal arts. Graduates from these new universities went on to serve as the chief legal officers of kindoms and dukedoms. they recored all operative codes of law being used, then they rationalsized the leagal code based on legal principles as well as current practices.

Finally, here's my point in reagrd to islam. Some questions that might be asked of Shariah law:

1. Is a combination of mercy and juctice the underlying principle of Shariah law? Is the combination of justice and mercy the main message of the Qu-ran?

2. Is a Shariah law more merciful than any laws or customs preceding it? In other words, was the guiding intention to make the law more merciful as well as just?

3. Can a Shariah law be updated to better express a combination of mercy and justice relevant to modern societies, majority Muslim or not?

But thess are just thoughts of a non-schlar. No claims to any sort of expertise or wisdom. Just thoughts.

Thanks for this article. I know i am very late to comment.  But it may still be worth mentioning that one expert worth reading is Gilles Kepel 


see are write up on his work here





I notice you end the article calling on Catholics to echo the sentiments of Christian de Cherge. He was murdered by the Muslims he was reaching out to.

Christians are called to love those who hate us, and to reach out to them even at our own peril. But, you do exactly what Spencer says the liberals do, in your toward Christianity, you put blame on Christians for what you consider meanness toward Muslims, while completely ignoring what Muslims actually do and for the violence that Islam actually stands for.

The murder that Muslims commit is condoned not just in some communities of Islam but by the fundamental beliefs of Islam itself.

You can find examples of this throughout the book. No, I don't mean Spencer's book. Muhammad's book.

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