Dumb America and Smart Islam

A repeat but one that needs repeating

The New Oxonian

There is a common western–or perhaps typically western–misperception that the Islamic world is lost in a theological fantasy that does not permit it to exit the 12th century into the 21st.

When I wrote the introduction to Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim (which oddly, for its brief compass, received almost as much attention as the book itself) I tried to explain to non-historians why Islamic history is, so to speak,  backwards: a golden age only a few centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 that corresponded to the Christian “dark ages,” followed by a dark age of religious protectionism and dynastic quarrelling that corresponded to the European renaissance.  It’s an irony, of course, that religions thought to have so much in common did not run parallel tracks in terms of doctrinal development and intellectual achievement; but it is a fact that after the Renaissance  religious authority in the West…

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Love in Transoxiana

The first thing to know is that Transoxiana (Transoxania) is a western fiction: The name stuck in Western consciousness because of the exploits of Alexander the Great, who extended Greek culture into the region with his conquests of the 4th century BC. Transoxiana was the far north-eastern point of Hellenistic culture until the Arab invasion. During the Sassanid Empire (>7th century CE) it was often called Sogdiana, a provincial name taken from the Achaemenid Empire, and used to distinguish it from nearby Bactria. These now sound like names out of mythology. Perhaps they are, partly. But their purchase on the land, the culture, the people, and the cities is permanent.

Once upon a time this was a center of Arabic learning—in the so-called Sassanid period—due to the immense wealth the region derived from the silk road. The Arabs knew it simply as the “land beyond the river” (Ma wara’un-Nahr ) and its two great cities—Samarkand and Bukhara–attracted large numbers of well-off and educated Iranians to the area. (Their descendants are easy to spot. They are fair, often have startling blue eyes) Later still, between the 8th and 14th century Transoxiana flourished under successive Arab dynasties and then under the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors.


But that is history, mixed with mythology and characterized by loose geographical borders and the migratory patterns of mountain people who clung to their nomadic ways and cultures, away from the meccas of central Asian civilization. The later history of this area is a history of consolidation under the protective wing of Mother Russia, under the Czars, and under the Soviet Regime. East Europeans, Germans, and thousands of Russians entered or were enticed to the area creating an ethnic mix unlike anything you are likely to encounter anywhere else on earth.

When you leave China—which, recall, is essentially a one- family country since the end of Mongol rule—the Han of the Middle Kingdom–you leave the pleasant ennui of a pattern of physical and facial features that evolves from three thousand years of family business. Westerners are often accused of a kind of racial blindness when they say All Chinese look alike. Obviously this is not true at one level—especially if you are Chinese. Your uncle Harry looks different from your father, after all. But the fact is, one will never feel so foreign as one does in China, especially in a country that celebrates its cultural sameness in much the same way that mono-cultures have throughout history. “God made everyone different,” a Facebook poster says. “He got tired by the time he came to China.”

But to cross the border from far western China into Kyrgyzstan is to cross from mysterious Asia to a mystical Indo European world where Asian features, raven hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones and a severe intelligence blend with pale skin, auburn hair and blue eyes at every corner, in every shop and restaurant. If you know the fascinating history of the Silk Road, the trading route that traversed the mountain ranges and valleys of central Asia into China, you can easily imagine camels and horses and elephants along the way. Even in the 4th century BCE Alexander lost soldiers to the allure of the area, and began a long history of people toppling into the patchwork of khanates and kingdoms that would emerge as the modern nations of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. –stan, incidentally (meaning the place where one stays) has the same Indo European root, Persian *sta-, as its distant Germanic cousin, English (stand).

What ties everyone together here is language, which in Bishkek (and Kyrgyzstan, more generally) is Russian. Russian is spoken by everyone, all the time, as the principal means of communication. Following the pattern of many nations, the local language, a Turkic language, Kyrgyz is spoken by the rural population and by others, usually at home, who see it as an import symbol of national identity and independence. If you want to buy a shirt, or a hamburger, or a shot of vodka, or a massage, however, you will need to know Russian.

Which is okay, because after German I like Russian best. My taxicab Chinese and my reach-for-the-dictionary-Arabic have gotten me by. But Russian is a language worth knowing. It has more grammar than, well, a Russian bazaar has sausage. It has all the intricacy a linguist could desire: complex verbs, gendered nouns, weird plurals, case endings, idioms that seem to rise out of the sinew into the consciousness as easily as steam pours off water. Russian is a good language for pot-bellied bureaucrats with square jaws and also for slim, throaty beauties named Natalya. After French it is the best first language to speak if you want to speak sexy English or just sound like a person who needs to be taken seriously. I don’t think you can refuse someone with a Russian accent anything.


Bishkek, which used to be Frunze, is the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, which used to be the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, and an integral part of the Soviet Union, which is now the Russian Federation, sort of. After year five, Russian-speaking children in schools were given the choice of learning German or English, at least in city schools, and many chose English. Unlike China where even university students are immune to the dulcets of English and the general population totally unaware that their Han dialect isn’t universally apprehended, a lot of people in the central Asian capitals speak a little English. Some speak it well. I’m told there used to be a sizable German population in the city—now nowhere to be found, as a group, but their legacy is that a lot of Kyrgyz people know a little German as well.

Bishkek was once the greenest capital in central Asia and of all the former soviet republics. Taxi drivers will now wag their heads sadly and say, No. Not anymore. Now it’s (take your choice) Almaty (the capital of Kazakhstan) or Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan.

But Bishkek is undeniably special: it is very green. The streets drip with leafy trees, the city is dotted with parks and flowers are planted in every crevice. Behind this vernal cover there are interesting shops filled with clothes, fabrics, toys, books, and food. Bishkek has no tall buildings, unlike its competitors in the larger neighboring states. It is queenly and quiet and clean. The sidewalks are a jagged mess of original cement and decades of patches, but it gives them a kind of durability, as long as you’re not on your way home from a local watering hole at 1 AM and balance-challenged on your journey.


I fell in love with the city at first sight, and now every day I can hardly wait to get out into it.

Unlike east Asian cities, it has no obvious love for glitz or modernity. Unlike the soviet days, it seems full of plenty: produce and merchandise spill out onto sidewalks. There are no shortages, no sad faces, no empty stores—or not many. Compared to American cities I’ve seen in the last year, where whole malls are a spread of dead retail space, Bishkek is alive and happy. It’s packed with vegetables and fruit—and what fruit—enough for everyone to have a watermelon every day and the largest and most succulent white melon (not cantaloupe, which I hate) I have seen anywhere. I am not a melon fan, but I am being converted to the taste.

Whereas China counts success by the number of mobile phone stores that can be squashed into a city block, Bishkek is inadvertently varied, understated, sophisticated and eclectic: you can probably find what you want here, not always easily or at first shot, but the fun is in the looking and sometimes finding what you don’t want. I’ve bought sausage at Osh Bazaar, a lampshade at an IKEA rip off store that calls itself IKEA and uses its bags, done my grocery shopping at a Turkish market called Beta, and my electronics browsing at the old Soviet megastore called TSUM. I have stumbled into clean, modern dental offices by accident to pay my rent, and rented satellite (sputnik) TV that (notwithstanding occasional power outages) gets me 120 stations, 20 in English. Nineteen if I discount CNN, which truth to tell uses some other language that sounds like English but makes no sense.

There is something very French about Bishkek, but I keep shoving the analogy to the back of my analogy pile. It reminds me of the French (Catholic) sector of Beirut, (Ashrafieh) الأشرفية where I used to get coffee and pastries when I felt like making the slog over from Hamra where I lived. Bishkek is like that: a curity of cafes and bread and tea and delicious things, punctuated by interesting whisky (read: vodka) bars and restaurants of every conceivable taste and provenance.


I came here for a reason: the attraction was the American University of Central Asia, which in its brief twenty years has established itself as the premier university in central Asia, the only one of real quality, and one of the best examples of the American liberal arts tradition overseas.

AUCA has a student body of about 1500, students from all the ‘stans’ working—entirely in English– towards degrees in the classical subjects areas in alliance with Bard College, a potted ivy league liberal arts institution in New York State, about four hours away from my home in Ithaca.

I came with some reservations. To be cynical, the term “American” appended to the word “university” has become devalued by overuse. The original two—the American University of Cairo (1919) and the redoubtable American University of Beirut (1866) were founded as bold democratic experiments that clung tightly to the founding principles of liberal education, then sadly lacking in the Middle East.

The British had built schools and even organized a few external degree programmes with the University of London in their colonies, especially in Africa and India. Much later, just at the edge of the independence era after World War II, they created British-style universities in Africa. But as time would prove, these universities were almost unsustainable without injections of money and European “missionary” faculty, and only a few today have any reputable programmes. (I speak as a recurrent missionary faculty type.)
But the two original American universities grew and prospered and became real beacons of learning for the sons and daughters of the wealthy and well-educated classes of the region. Over the course of time they developed significant programs in medicine, law, the sciences and business. AUB, for instance, carried out a vigorous program to create a Palestinian intelligentsia who then went on to successful careers in academia and business. Their success was so great, in fact, that in the 1990s new “American” universities sprung up in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sharjah, and even Afghanistan and Iraq (Sulaimani). Some were funded by petrodollars but almost all were academically weak, their relevance and connection to the prototypes a simple matter of name-as-cash-value rather than vision.

The American University of Central Asia followed a completely different course: it grew organically from a kind of educational liberalization movement in Kyrgyzstan itself, a rebellion against soviet-style lockstep, lockjaw education. In 1991, as independence swept across Central Asian countries, the region advanced deliberately into a fast-changing world of free markets and democracy. This wave of change spurred new ideas in the educational system resulting in the establishment of the Kyrgyz-American School within the Kyrgyz State National University in Bishkek in 1993. The “school” experienced such dramatic growth over the next four years that it could no longer remain a dependent school within KSNU. In 1997, by a decree of the president of Kyrgyzstan, KAS became the American University in Kyrgyzstan and an independent international board was established as the governing body. The university was helped to achieve its goals by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros along with recurrent grants from USAID –the United States Agency for Industrial Development– which among its many unsung achievements helped to create the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) in Pakistan, one of South Asia’s most distinguished universities.

The American University became the American University of Central Asia by default: guided by a pioneering faculty and visionary leaders, students from thirty countries, most but not all from the Central Asia region, enrolled to study for degrees. The reputation grew. When I was at JFK Airport a month ago, a woman returning to Istanbul asked me where I was headed. To Bishkek, I said. Are you at AUCA?, she asked. It struck me as surprising. Yes, I said. Going to teach there. Excellent place she said. I smiled nervously.
But in this small university tucked away in the gray-brown former headquarters building of the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Republic (1938), the halls are filled with languages, and energy, and beauty and hope: the opening ceremonies awash in colorful displays of national dress and tradition and music. Students can study Russian Art History under the tutelage of the distinguished scholar, poet and translator Andrew Wachtel (who happens also to be the University president) or international politics at the region’s leading policy research organization the Tian Shan Centre.  Or do prehistoric archaeology in Naryn –or Islamic Civilization with R. Joseph Hoffmann. It is my favourite course. I love to teach it. I am privileged to teach it, especially here where one Tamburlaine rampaged and shouted, according to Marlowe, “Is it not passing fair to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis.”


Excuse the Wow. The place is not for everyone: Especially not for people who see the progress of culture as the next tall building, the next long bridge with the most LED lights. That is an entirely different Wow. It is the Dubai Wow, the Hong Kong Wow. The Bishkek Wow comes from the heart. It comes from the love of green places, the pursuit of excellence, and the splendid variety of humanity.

So as to AUCA and what it has to offer this complex place–I suppose when it comes down to it, the beauty of the American system is the beauty of the menu at a good diner: So much is on offer that it gets your tummy rumbling and your mouth watering. At least that is what it’s like here, in beautiful Bishkek, at AUCA.

A happy start to the new academic year to everyone who joins with me in the struggle to keep at bay the powers of darkness!

PS: I Love Omnia.

Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon

The New Oxonian

The never-ending story in New Testament studies is first, how the gospels came to be written down (and where, and when) and how they “relate” to each other. The long-suffering faithful have for centuries–since the process of vernacular Bible translation in the sixteenth century got its legs–been encouraged to believe that the canonical order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is also a chronological order.

The belief is somewhat flimsily supported in fairly early references by writers like Papias, whose reputation as a scholar was already challenged by the man who recorded his words, the fourth century writer Eusebius, and the heresy-fighting bishop, Irenaeus–the real father of giving names and legends to the gospels.

Students studying for divinity and graduate degrees across Europe and North America have learned for more than a century that the matter of who-wrote-what-first is endlessly fascinating. The average opinion in the most prestigious and hyperactive research…

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The Final Form of Islam?

The days of explaining away religious violence in Islam as the inevitable result of Western actions and attitudes towards Islam are over.

For two decades—ever since the two fatwas issued by Osama bin Laden against America in 1996 and 1998–there has been a populist movement within Islam, mainly (but not only) young, highly ideological, widespread beyond the Arab world, and fed by social media. September 11, 2001, was the first salvo and first success of this movement.

It was, as they say, a paradigmatic moment which radicals ignorantly believed did irreparable damage to the Western psyche. Radicalized Muslims now crave a second moment and will do nearly anything to make it happen. Like their predecessors who engineered the use of passenger jets as bombs, they believe in their own martyrdom and subscribe to a peculiar (but by no means insignificant) strain of Islamic thought that regards the taking of the lives of other Muslims and unbelievers as warranted by the higher aims of their faith.

The Islamic State cannot be defeated on the battlefield because there is no conventional battlefield. It cannot be exterminated, capitulated or controlled by “the West”. It will not listen to reason because it does not consider reason the arbiter of its actions. It is deadly and, to overuse the word that is now normally used to describe it, malignant.

Simply put, there is no cure for this kind of Islam but Islam itself because its purposes are not extrinsic to the body of belief and believers.  They are part of that body. It is one of several possible genetic developments that will determine the final form of Islam.

All religions develop these “final forms,” equivalent to a kind of cultural dormancy.  Some like the Roman mystery religions survived in this form for less than a thousand years; others, like gnosticism, for a much briefer period, due probably to their social practices and limited appeal. We are witnessing formal changes in Catholicism, Judaism and liberal Protestantism, which have been changing within a cultural cauldron for about five hundred years to achieve their present forms.

We are also witnessing some very interesting but distressing signs in Islam which unmistakably point to the possibility of regression and disintegration. I consider the possibility of Islamic disintegration (similar to what happened to dozens of religions over the millennia) a likely outcome unless something is done to right the course.

As Peter Berger and H. Richard Niebuhr–one a sociologist, the other a theologian–argued a half century ago, religions, even if they do not accommodate prevailing cultural patterns must adapt to them at least to the extent they provide constructive critique and counter-values. That, in effect, explains the successful adaptations of Catholicism and some protestant sects. Islam, on the other hand, has chosen a more belligerent and exclusive position which can only result in its eventual loss of influence and, eventually, its disintegration.

In fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the violence we are witnessing is part of that process, as thousands of educated and  promising members leave Islam and the tides of modernity leave the faith to those least able to deal with change and reinterpretation.

Westerners should recognize that that there have been equivalent rejectionist movements in other book religions, but we have to go back a long time to locate them. The assassins and sicarii and Kanna’im of first century Judaism and the followers of bar Kochba in the second, represented murderous threats to Romans stationed in Palestine (there may be an echo in John 18.10).

Sectors of the Anabaptist movement rejected secular authority and tried to establish a theocracy in Münster in the 16th century. These distant historical cases –which are not perfect analogues anyway—were settled by force: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (and its cordoning off in 135 CE) and the slaughter of Anabaptists by German armies in 1536. In both cases, eradication depended on military force and a circumscribed enemy willing to stand and fight.

But we are not living in the first or sixteenth century. And the influence and appeal of the Islamic State is much broader than the threats posed by militant Jews and early protestant extremists.

For one thing, its appeal is in an expansive vision of Islam that, it is asserted, corresponds to Muhammad’s plan for the religion. Never mind that the Prophet never left the Arabian peninsula or had much information about the wider world that the Muslim religion would come to dominate, or could have imagined in his wildest dreams the discovery of a new world some 700 years after his death—or that men would one day set foot on a moon that his followers believed he was able to split in half.

In the West, we tend to call this “jihadism” (or more generally Islamism), but in the mind of its advocates–its members and it cheerleaders—it is much more than that.

And here there is no analogy to be sought in any other religion. Judaism was a restrictive and (famously, even to the Romans) unfriendly faith that wanted nothing from its neighbors but to be left alone, and a commission for using Jerusalem as a trading outpost.

During the era historians call “Christendom”—the Middle Ages and early Renaissance—Christianity pursued an aggressive agenda of maintaining its interests but fell apart in the Reformation into squabbling religious and then economic and political fiefdoms that gave rise, finally, to nation states and the triumph of secular authority (the magistrate) over church power (the clerisy). The Christian religion was dis-empowered politically (sooner some places than others) from the seventeenth century onward, such that references to (eleventh century) Crusades in Islamic rhetoric are references to events most Christians know nothing about and draw no conclusions from. Wars that Muslims still regard as inconclusive or preliminary are totally missing from the memory bank of the modern educated Westerner: there is simply no meme there.

But jihadist Islam is not directly about Christianity as Christianity. It is about values which it mistakenly and often sloppily attributes to Christianity, the decadent West, imperial America, modern culture, and everything it thinks stands in contradiction to the Prophet’s teaching. Like bin Laden’s fatwas, it can use allusions to the Crusades to indicate it thinks there is “unfinished business” between Islam and the “Christian west”. But it has failed to notice that the west is no longer Christian; that there are Muslims living happily and peacefully in Britain, Germany, America and France, and that their war against modern ideas, innovations and convenience is not a war against sin and Satan but a war against living, thriving, changing culture.

The fact that the Islamic State is based on ignorance, fantasy and fallacy, however, does not lessen its danger. We have lots of examples of movements based on false premises that have succeeded in doing enormous damage to whole populations. In fact, it is difficult to point to a single genocidal movement in the history of the human race that was not based on the idea that the perpetrators were merely cleaning things up and making things right for the elect—the true believers; the racially superior; the pure ones.

What makes some purification groups more dangerous than others is that some are isolationist and some are not. Nazism was largely secular and pan-European. It was joined to the East by Japanese allies who had a similar ideal of Asian racial superiority which it wanted to superimpose on China and the Pacific islands. Both were expansionist and violent.

Many religious groups, ranging from Hellenistic (post second century CE) Judaism to modern Hutterites and cults like the Jonestown Adventists have been isolationist, though not all (witness modern political Israel) have been pacifist. Pacifism itself is often a strategy rather than an altruistic position towards war: some religious groups simply did not have the numbers or the power to wage a fight against a majority religious culture regardless how certain they were of their religious purity and correctness. Dozens of minority quasi-Islamic sects survived in this way, ranging from Iraqi Mandaens to Levantine Druze. Indeed, in the Islamic world, this is why Jewish and Christian minorities enjoyed certain rights according to the law of Dhimma in return for jizyah, the payment of a higher tax. The Islamic State has cast this ancient practice aside in favour of forced conversions and the murder of “dissenting” Muslims, preferring the raw interpretations of select jihadist verses to the settled practices of later Islamic states. However this position stands in stark contrast to the Islamic mainstream prohibition of imposing Islam in general or any particular form of Islam by compulsion or force.

ISIS, as a movement, is driven by a craven belief in the superiority of Islam to other religions combined with a xenophobic belief in the sub-humanity of the adherents of other religions. That belief, if it were isolated, might be harmless enough. But as an expansionist belief, tied to the idea of the Ummah or worldwide Islamic community, it is lethal. We can point to very few social movements with the possible exception of Stalinist-style Soviet Communism that have pursued their ends with such systematic violence. Like most totalitarian movements it has delusions of grandeur based on the exclusive authority of a single, infallible source which is itself above interpretation. Unlike Iranian Shi’ism, which is heavily invested in the authority of supreme religious teachers, It has no special need for religious opinion or experts except the ones its leaders choose to hear—all of them on the payroll of the “caliph” himself.

It is highly romanticized, in thinking of itself as the restoration of a pure and undivided Islamic oikoumene that did not exist even in the lifetime of the Prophet, nor of his successors. It depends on the illiteracy of its members and the prudential capitulation of less radical but sympathetic Sunni hangers-on, in Syria and now in Iraq. It cherry picks and reduces the verses of the Qur’an to a select few that serve as its official philosophy. And finally, like religious armies throughout time, it justifies even the most gruesome forms of violence by saying that the vengeance of armies and the hand of the executioner is guided by the will and wrath of Allah.

This monstrous development is what we are facing following the blunders of George W. Bush after 9-11 in Iraq and the ensuing Arab winter. –Entirely missing the point that Bashir Assad, Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein—however flawed, however wicked—were all that stood between ordinary Muslims and greater evils, now pouring in to fill the empty tanks.

The United States naively but assertively sided with every revolutionary ‘pro- democracy’ movement, as though the choices were as simple as between Colonial militias and British soldiers in 1776, then stepped back and wrung its hands when the “democracies” that emerged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya–were not modern constitutional democracies at all. It is no wonder that the insipid form, the odious form, the platitudinous form of American democracy is risible to God-obsessed religious warriors who have a much narrower definition of what government is all about.

The United States and its reluctant allies are now faced with performing their humiliating penance in front of a newly invigorated Iran, which could have provided wisdom, and Syria, which knew what was going on when the United States continued to call for the ouster of Bashir and while the vulcan members of Congress, the Lindsay-McCain tag team loudest of all, called for “arming the militants.” We now have at least a “suggestion” of what that policy would have meant if Mr Obama had followed through with the advice he got.

There is only one way to challenge the Islamic State and that is to challenge Islam. I have written here that the greatest single problem with modern Islam is its illiteracy: the fact that millions of smart Muslims are prepared to listen to ignorant and sometimes violent men, sometimes even to fight for them. To me, this is the inexplicable aspect of Islam—a dark hole in its spirit. Catholicism and, historically, Judaism have produced learned teachers and clergy (the word originally met someone who could read) who guided the much less learned laity. But in Islam, mathematicians, lawyers, poets and university postgraduate students are expected to heed the warnings and superstitions of illiterate imams who have never studied any book but the Qur’an and know no intellectual tradition except their own.

Islam needs its own reformation. It needs the sort of enlightenment that some of its earlier thinkers—men like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd—provided, before the caliphs swamped its intellectual tradition with dross and piety. Unfortunately, the current situation does not seem ripe to produce such a process. To the extent there are no significant university or research centers in the Islamic world, Islam itself is the reason.

Most of all, it needs what it does not have: an authority structure that can speak clearly and loudly when groups like ISIS threaten to demean and undermine the faith. Islam needs imams and teachers who can say without fear or injury that ISIS is corrupt: that there is no place in the religion for it–not in any of the schools of interpretation, not in its traditions, not in the hadith, and not in the holy book itself. It is the surest sign of the chaos that Islamic theology has become that men with no principled view of the faith can intimidate scholars by calling their interpretations heresy and when university lecturers in Islamic studies have to confront students corrupted by the last militant blog warning them about the heresies of their teachers.

I speak from experience: I have known such students. I have taught such students. I have watched them cower under the “authority” of Islamic chaplains of Quranic studies and Fiqh. I have been warned not to say anything to upset the “guys with beards” and having paid no attention to the warning I have managed to survive two death threats–one a close call in the final stages of planning my abduction.

Instead of permitting the leaders of ISIS to label everyone else a heretic, where are the authoritative voices of Muslim leaders that declare for everyone to hear that the era of the caliphs is over. That Islam is a faith, an expression of a belief in God and his sovereignty, and in the prophet who ended the brutality of the tribes and who called Allah compassionate and merciful: “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.”(Qur’an, 5:32). It is not necessary to mouth the trope “Islam means peace” when almost no one looking on is convinced by the statement. It would be enough for Islam to stand for learning: for discovery, and literature and scientific progress and justice as it is defined in modern contexts, not in medieval jurisprudence.

Until these voices are heard, or until they can be developed, ISIS is winning and Islam capitulates in its winning.