Gates of Vienna version

The impossibility of bridging the gap between Islam and the West
by Johannes J.G. Jansen

Utrecht Lecture 2008
Translated by VH

"Islam" is the name of a religion, and "the West" is the name of a region. At first sight it is therefore strange, if not impossible, to discuss how to bridge the contradictions between Islam and the West. You should not compare Islam with "the West" but with Christianity; at least both of them are religions. The West must then be compared with the Middle East, because those are both regions. Those who do so though, are really going wrong. Islam is spread over a much wider area than the Middle East; Islam now stretches from Pakistan to the Kanaleneiland [troubled immigrant neighborhood in Utrecht, the Netherlands]. And the West is not really Christian anymore, it is largely inhabited by modern unbelievers. However, the comparison of Islam with the West forms a sort of shorthand that is understood by any person of good will.

Contrasting "Islam versus the West" is about two cultures, one dominated by Islam, and in the past was originally located in the Middle East; the other mainly present in Europe and America and in the past was dominated by Christianity. This Euro-American culture is of course not uniform. You surely can not lump together all Westerners. But this polymorphic Western culture is the primary end product of America, Europe, the churches, and Christianity. It is a culture that is therefore related in countless ways to the explicit and implicit views of Christianity on people, society, and the world. The many modern disbelievers within this cultural area do not just believe in the God of Christianity. Their idea about what God, if he did exist, should be and do, is dictated by the notions of Christianity.

The Muslims, of course, do not have a uniform culture for the same reasons, but within the Islamic cultural area everyone, for example, is firmly convinced that no culture is closer to the true Islam than theirs. Also every Muslim would like to contribute to his local Islamic culture, so it develops in such way that the distance to true Islam becomes smaller. Writing and talking is making mistakes, that is why so terribly little is published by some faculties. But after this introduction to the shorthand skills of the art of comparison, I do dare to compare "Islam" and "the West".

It is about a pair that have been quite often engaged in war with each other. Lodged in everyone's memory is the rescue of Vienna in 1683. Also the Battle of Poitiers in central France in 732, where Charles Martel defeated an invading Arab army, has not been forgotten. But there are obviously lots more. Wasn't there also something about the Crusades, the Reconquista of Spain, and the Islamic Jihad?

Actually we would should address all these issues in detail, but then we'd be sitting here a for few years instead of a few hours. We have to limit ourselves to a few key issues. Well, one of those key issues is that the West lacks a good authoritative and generally shared theory about Islam. Conversely it is different. Islam does have a fairly common shared theory about the West and Christianity. Let's have a look at this Islamic theory.

The classical Islamic theory divides the world into two zones. One zone is called the "House of Islam," the other zone "the House of War". This basic idea is deeply rooted in the history of Islam and Islamic expansion. It is, by the way, not the Koran itself which already makes this distinction. The Koran though - as you know according to the Islam the literal word of God - does state that the Muslims owe it to Islam to take part in the war[1]. In Surah 9, verse 39 we read for example: "If thou dost not march out - He will punish you with painful punishment," illaa tanfiruu, yu'adhdhibukum 'adhaaban aliiman.

The Islamic texts that come after the Koran, the so called Traditions of Mohammed, tell that Mohammed shortly before his death in 632 sent letters to the sovereigns of the empires that bordered on the stateless Arab peninsula, namely the Emperor of the Roman Empire, the King of Persia, the Negus of Ethiopia and the Governor of Egypt. The oldest version of these letters that has been preserved, was not been written until about the year 750, and contained three lines. We also find this letter in the canonical collection of Traditions written by Al-Bukhari, which dates to about a century later. But by this time the letter contained eight lines. A modern researcher can only conclude from this that the stories about this letter have gradually emerged.[2]

Anyway, in this letter Mohammed is threatening his neighbors. The letter contains the memorable but ambiguous line aslim taslam, "if you surrender, you will not be killed", also translated as "if you are Muslim, you will be preserved". These letters are of course ancient history, but the Iranian head of state Ahmadinejad sent a similar letter to President Bush[3] and Osama bin Laden sent a handful of such letters both to America and to Europe[4]. Anyway, as the old stories about those letters of Mohammed have a historical basis, it is clear from the text of those letters that Mohammed himself has been dividing the world in two: a House of War and a House of Islam.

The fact that Islam divides the world into two, a house of war and a house of Islam, has received a peculiar general notoriety. The idea apparently possesses a macabre charm. Actually, everyone in the East or the West has heard of it. Moreover, it is obvious that this division is not an eccentric doctrine of Islamic fundamentalists. It is the general Islamic view. In later times, the theologians of Islam refined this division, and designated a third "house": the House of the Treaty, a term that lawyers started to use to describe areas which in exchange for paying tribute or on the basis of an agreement, need not to be confronted with war for a limited period, usually not more than ten years.

Modern unbelievers in the West know this theory but are not worried about it. This has at least two reasons. Public opinion in the West has forgotten a bit what war was like. War, may I remind you, means robbing, killing, raping, and making slaves of workers or taking slaves. Secondly, modern Western unbelievers consider all religious beliefs, including this one, as harmless delusions. The Western academic world is convinced that Islam is a peaceful religion and that this dichotomy in the House of War and House of Islam has no meaning.

Anyone who takes this division seriously does not belong in a university. Even the fact that Islam has strictly forbidden the use towards unbelievers of the antique - originating in the Middle East - greeting formula "Peace be with you," has not been able to persuade academic scholars to think differently.

It is therefore not at all so strange that most Westerners have forgotten what such a dichotomy could bring with it. If we had been thinking about that dichotomy in time, perhaps we would have understood that the Islamic acts of aggression against the West that took place in recent decades, have not been isolated incidents, but the result of a consistent theory that is as old as Islam itself. There is nothing radical in the present attacks against the West. It is simply the application of an old theory, albeit under changed, new circumstances.

From a politically correct point of view, three objections are raised now. The first is that only a small percentage of all Muslims took part in these attacks against the West. "The majority of Muslims has nothing to do with it, and can not be blamed for it." Literally speaking, of course this is true. But may I remind you of the German invasion of 1940 in the Netherlands?

We usually say that on May 10 "the Germans" invaded the Netherlands, but that was of course not so. Most Germans simply sat at home that morning, having breakfast, or possibly doing the dishes. Percentage-wise, the Germans that where involved in this raid was minimal. In the same way also a percentage of all Muslims participated in the attacks of Sept. 11, of July 7, or in Bali, or against my friend Theo van Gogh. Although, according to some sources on the Internet, it involves more than 12,000 large and small terror attacks since 9/11[5].

But that only a small percentage of all Germans, or all Muslims, have participated in acts of war does not mean that Germany, or Islam, have no responsibility for these acts of war. There can be no peace or a normalization emerging if this responsibility is not recognized, or in fact denied. Everyone knows how often Germany after 1945 has admitted and took responsibility for the German acts of war. You also know how often the Islam has admitted its responsibility for whatever. Well, I have bad news for you. The denial of history and the pretension nothing has happened will over time lead to disaster.

The second objection sounds unusually modern. "In this world of globalization, we can not stick to such a dichotomy. Everything and everyone is connected with each other. In its classic form that old Islamic dichotomy in a House of War and a House of Islam really belongs to the past. That dichotomy is simply no longer valid." Most Westerners and many Muslims will agree on that.

But there are exceptions. The prominent Muslim thinker Sayyid Qutb was executed in Cairo in 1966. His books are present in every Muslim bookstore. He has argued that in modern times Islam and non-Islam indeed have become intertwined with each other. Previously, non-Islam and Islam where both in time and in place clearly separated by boundaries. But today they exist alongside each other and in between each other. Islam and what Sayyid Qutb called the Jaahiliyya are forced to coexist. But, as Sayyid Qutb suggests, that may never lead to a peaceful coexistence.

Muslims are usually familiar with the term Jaahiliyya. In the belief system of Islam, Jaahiliyya is the word for the period of paganism and unregulated violence that preceded Islam. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, declared war on Jaahiliyya, and he triumphed. Sayyid Qutb now demands that all Muslims follow the example of Mohammed, and also pursue the struggle with Jaahiliyya by battling against the non-Islamic world that surrounds them now, and even penetrates their towns and villages, sometimes even their homes and families.

Mohammed died in 632. Sayyid Qutb calls the period from Mohammed until the 17th/18th century, the "first round" of the Islamic struggle against the Jaahiliyya. That first round, al-gawla al-uulaa[6], came to an end with the rescue of Vienna in 1683, when the Polish army forced the Turkish army to beat a shameful retreat.

Sayyid Qutb and his many followers[7] are convinced that the modern world gives Islam a new opportunity to beat the West. Jihad is now no longer executed by Muslim states against Western states; that would be too dangerous for Islamic states: think of the fate of Afghanistan or Iraq, or the results of the wars against Israel that the Arab countries pursued. The states have since the nineties been replaced by individuals like Osama bin Laden and non-state entities such as Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, and Hamas, who resumed the fight against the West on many fronts and with all imaginable methods. According to many people, this time it looks like the Muslims have a good chance of winning, and a third round will no longer be needed.

The third argument against the division of the world that Islam originally made sounds a little childish, but nevertheless is often raised. The objection reads something like this: "All right, Islam divides the world into a war zone and a Muslim area. Islam has a special word for the battle between these two zones: Jihad. But didn't Christians have the Crusades? Islam and Christianity are both equally bloodthirsty and warlike."

The moral and religious equivalence of the Jihad with the Crusades is, as you know, an essential doctrine of the multicultural ideology. Nevertheless, no matter how often even repeated, it is still nonsense. Why? Jihad existed for almost five centuries before the Christians for the first time came up with the idea of launching a crusade themselves[8]. Furthermore, the Crusades focused on a small piece of the world, namely the Holy Land. Jihad, however, focuses on the whole of Europe, Asia and Africa, and for some centuries America. These are big differences. To portray the Crusades as the equivalent of the Jihad, as the multiculturalists do, is a false presentation of the matter, an absurd distortion of history. It is like equating a cold with AIDS: both are viral diseases that lack appropriate curative drugs.

There is still something else to be added to this. When the Crusades were wrong, and time and again apologies have to be offered for the Crusades, or forgiveness asked, how much more wrong is the larger Islamic Jihad, for which I have never heard any apology?

But it's not only the history that is presented falsely by the multicultural specialists and their Muslim friends. The text of the Bible and the Koran are the victim of gross multicultural distortions. The multiculturals and their allies will tell you that both Bible and Koran are bloodthirsty and contain stories full of atrocities. That's a similarity. But the differences are bigger. The Bible describes specific atrocities, sometimes even looks forward to it, and hopes that God will keep giving the enemies of Israel a good licking. But that is something quite different from the Koran.

The Koran does not contain story after story like the Bible, but the Koran contains a few stories (which are often derived from the Bible) and dozens of calls - often very general in nature - to perform deadly violence. The best known call is "Kill them wherever you find them."[9] This is repeated three times within the Koranic text: it is clearly not a slip of the tongue. It is unfair to compare this with Ezekiel 33:11, where the prophet imagines that God says "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, nolo mortem impii, but rather that the wicked converts form its path, and lives." The difference with the prophet of Islam who imagines that God calls kill them, kill them could not be greater.

Unlike the Bible, the Koran contains a large number of generally worded calls for murder and manslaughter. There are Muslims who regard such passages as a license to kill. I need not to remind you the fate of Theo van Gogh. On the Internet there circulates a list of 164 calls to war to be found in the Koran. For such a short book, 164 is an incredible number. There is no such list of Bible passages. Believe me, if it was possible to establish such a list, it would have been made long ago. And then the Internet List is not even complete. Quran 9:30 for example, is omitted. At the end of that verse anyone is cursed who believes that Christ is the son of God. The curse expresses the wish that the accursed ones will be slain by God in the battle, qaatalahumullaah. I do not need to indicate here how many millions of people, mostly decent God-fearing people who are aware of nothing, are being threatened with murder and manslaughter because of this Koranic verse.

Arriving at this point, the allegations sometimes appear that I spread hate. I am sorry if anyone might think that. I want to remind you that in the Koran, hatred spatters the pages. I bring you bad news. But to say that I am the hatemonger is turning the thing around. If only the problem were with me, it would have been rapidly resolved.

A good discussion leader must now actually broaden the debate and point out that we always have talked about the Koran, and that Muslims are no vending machines who, like robots, execute what the Koran mandates. That is a valid point. The Protestant slogan sola scriptura, "by Scripture alone", has outside Protestantism little or no meaning. The authority of the Bible towards Christians functions differently from the authority of the Koran towards Muslims. We should not look to the Koran, but to the manuals of Sharia, in which the ideal behavior of a good Muslim is described. What do those manuals say? What, according to those widespread manuals, is the ideal behavior of a good Muslim in his contacts with non-Muslims?

It is tedious, but the news again is not good. The authoritative manuals may differ on small details, but they completely agree on a key point. It is the duty of a good Muslim to fight for what Muslims see as the truth, that means: Islam. The experts and manuals suggest that anyone who in any detail whatsoever rejects the rules of Sharia as described in the manuals, commits capital a crime against Islam by doing so. This has two dreadful consequences. Every Muslim ruler who does not fully apply the Sharia but also decrees its own laws, makes it an implicit criticism of the Sharia, and therefore, according to the experts, a capital offense of Islam. It is this simple reasoning that formed the background for the assassination of President Sadat in October 1982.

But there is another implication. Someone who engages in a debate about one aspect or another of Sharia also has a big chance of being accused of apostasy from Islam, again with all the consequences. Men or women who are affected by these accusations are often terribly haunted. This all contributes to an atmosphere of intellectual stagnation. Religious reforms under such a regime are as good as impossible.

At the same time, the rules of Sharia are humiliating for non-Muslims and women. No Western government would dare come up with the idea to deal with the Muslim minority according to the rules the Sharia gives for the treatment of non-Muslims. And rightly so. Sharia is a continuation of the Jihad, but by other means.

Whoever is not a Muslim might think it should be clear though that the Sharia is the work of humans, the result of centuries of mutual discussions among Islamic Scholars. Indeed, there have been Islamic thinkers who raised this idea, Shukri Mustafa for example, who was hanged in 1978 in Cairo. But the general prevailing view among Muslims is different.

Islam ascribes to Mohammed the expression that his governance will not agree on any aberration. After all, it would show rudeness if God allowed his chosen ones to take the wrong road. Under this reasoning any rule or regulation, once agreement about it has been reached, is widely regarded as God-given. With this the Sharia became more than the work of humans. Because of this the Sharia is as good as sacrosanct; it became sacred and inviolable. Man-made laws, in the eyes of the broad Muslim audience, may never compete with something as great as the Sharia.

It is precisely this point that makes visible the significant gap between the Western and Islamic ideology. In a Western society laws are made through various democratic processes and are more or less constantly adapted to changing circumstances. Laws in the West come from below. In the Islamic system which stems from the Sharia, laws do not come from below, but from above, and once accepted by competent religious experts, they are unchangeable. These two visions of the law cannot be harmonized. The laws are made by people and thus changeable and can be criticized, or they are not. After more than two millennia of man-made laws, it would not be a good idea for the West even partially to submit to an Islamic system of laws that are assumed to be of divine origin.

There is another unbridgeable difference of opinion between Islam and the West. Christianity looks at the world with a certain metaphysical na´vetÚ. The world simply exists; the observable world is for instance not a veil behind which true reality hides, as is the case in many Asian religions. The West sees the world as changeable by man. People may even improve the world. These are not provable, verifiable propositions. They are axiomatic points of belief. Modern science, after all, has convinced us that the combinations of molecules and atoms as by the observed naked eye, consist of emptiness and shells rather than massiveness. It is highly questionable whether the world indeed just exists, and is "real". But we just pretend day in day out that it is.

What is the official position of Islam on this issue? The Islamic theologians teach that God not only created the world but that he also permanently re-creates the world. In this constant process of transformation God is not bound - according to Islam - to any restriction or rule, not even for example the need to be fair or predictable. God is "free and powerful in the creation", and also in regeneration.

This seems a strange impractical question without much importance for practice, but this distinction between the West and Islam means that in the West there was a religious basis for the development of science and technology. The world was real anyhow, and simply existed, and even will tomorrow. Islamic thinkers, on the other hand, had in theory to take into account the possibility that tomorrow the world could be very different from today. For those who are working in engineering and science, that is discouraging.[10]

The West does not believe in unchangeable laws that are applied to a society, but in unvarying laws of nature. Islam on the contrary believes that laws that apply to society are fixed, but in terms of the laws of nature they are not so sure. It is tempting to see a connection with the distribution of Nobel Prizes. Nobel Prizes for science and technology have never ended up in the Islamic world. That looks like a confirmation of our suspicions about the unbridgeable complacency. Even with bridgeability it is not that good.

There is little choice other than to admit that since 9/11 Islam and the West are at war with each other. Who is going to win? Islam has the advantage that it knows what is happening. In Muslim eyes it is the old battle between the House of Islam and the House of War. The West has the disadvantage that it can not believe its eyes, and has great difficulty in admitting that something is going on. The West assumes that those who are attacked have not been friendly enough to those who attack. There must be a reason why the victim is attacked. Why do they hate America? That an attacker may have his own reasons to proceed to attack, reasons that are entirely separate from those who are attacked, does not come up to the average Westerner.

There is another factor that blinds the West: The Left has been unable to change the free, capitalist societies in the West. Islam also wants to change the society. The Left now hopes with the help of Islam to finally have success in changing society. It is questionable whether that is a realistic expectation. Islam does aim at social reforms, but Islam has a very different ideal of society than the European or American Left. When Khomeini came to power, as you may recall, he liquidated his wildly enthusiastic Leftist allies within a few months.

The Islamic strategy aims first to take in Europe, and strategically that is undoubtedly true. After Europe has fallen, Israel can not cost that much trouble, and America will readily follow after this. In order to conquer Europe it is also likely that remarkably little violence will be needed. The demographics do what they do, and the occasional assassination of a cartoonist, writer, or politician who makes bit too much trouble will do the rest.

The European elites are bending over backwards to comfort Islam, and are certainly not willing to become aware of the history of the expansion of Islam. Even with the CDA [Christian Democrats - a party in the current governing coalition] and the Christian Union [Christian Socialists - also a party in the current governing coalition] there is a peculiar reluctance to inform themselves about the history of the decline of Christianity under Islam. There cannot even a trainee at the party office being spared to do so.

At the same time, the ruling elite positions itself rock-hard against critics of Islam, who are if necessary, think of Gregorius Nekschot rousted from his bed by a platoon of mobile police units, but the same mobile units are not deployed to deal with misconduct by Muslims, because then all that matters is to do everything "to prevent worse happening".[11] The leaders of the Muslim communities couldn't wish for more. Under such circumstances, it is sufficient that the test of time does its useful work, and within a few decades everyone forgets why you should not become a Muslim.

Does one of the two parties deserve to win or lose the war? Is Western culture superior to the Islamic, or vice versa? The university spends numerous man-hours to prevent students from wanting to answer that question. From the perspective of a researcher all cultures are equal. But that question about the superiority of Islam or the West should not be answered from the perspective of an academic researcher who may or may not come to lay eggs in NOVA [leftist TV news program] or Pauw and Witteman [Leftist political interview TV program]. That question must be answered from the perspective of Western taxpayers. Those who pay their taxes to a government which in return has promised them where necessary to protect them against violence. It is desirable that both parties fulfill their obligations.

Is Islamic culture superior to its Western counterpart? It is almost unbelievable that societies that are incapable of providing their citizens with an operating sewage disposal system can be seen as equal to - or superior to - the West. The practice of dentistry alone should convince outsiders that the West is far superior.[12] And then there is the rest of medical science, and technology. But, as the Bible says somewhere: "The fastest does not always win the race." (Eccl. 9:11)

Ladies and Gentlemen! The end is near. Islamic tradition asserts that Mohammed said man Zafirtum bihi min rijaal al-yahuud, fa-qtuluuh, "Kill every male Jew that falls in your hands." A culture or religion that does not distance itself from statements of such bloodthirstiness can only hope to collect what it wishes on others. Who will win the battle? It looks good for Islam, but it's still a bit too early to start predicting.

Think later also, while raising your glass, of two absent friends, Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh. That they both, despite all their craziness, may be sheltering with the martyrs and saints beneath the throne of the Most High.


1. Koran 9:38-58 and 9:87.
2. Hans Jansen, De historische Mohammed: de verhalen uit Medina ["The historical Mohammed: the stories from Medina"], Amsterdam 2007, 257-58.
3. See Henryk M. Broder, Hurra, wir kapitulieren! Von der Lust am Einknicken ["Hurray, we are capitulating! About the lust to bend over backwards"], Berlin 2006, pp. 71-90 on the international political context of this letter, and the European reactions to it.
4. See Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, London/New York 2005.
6. Sayyid Qutb, Zilaal, iii, 1560, in the commentary on Sura 8.
7. Such as the influential Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who in an interview in January 9, 1998 talks again about the House of War, et cetera. Dr Al-Qaradawi is chairman of the 'mainstream' European Council of fatwa and Research.
8. The first crusade took place form 1096 till 1099. The Crusades ended with the fall of Acre in 1291. Jihad began in the years 620-630 and is still continuing.
9. Quran 2:191 (twice) and 4:89.
10. See, for example, the standard adopted by the authoritative Sunni Azhar University, by N.H.M. Keller, ed & transl., Reliance of the Traveler, p. 598: He who believes that things in themselves or by their own nature have any causal influence independent of the will of Allah has committed apostasy from Islam.
11. A not completely similar case that even so raises questions about the position and the independence of the police is the following incident: In mid-October 2008 the Amsterdam police refused to register the declaration of a Jewish young man who on October 15 at the Stadionplein [in Amsterdam] effectively was assaulted [and beaten up] by Moroccans in Amsterdam. Only after the intervention of the CIDI [Center for Information and Documentation on Israel] something happened. In early 2008, the police took every effort to stimulate the public to file complaints against the potentially critical Islam movie Fitna and its creator, and this while the film had not yet been published and the contents of the film was only known to the maker, and maybe not even that. There were even specially printed forms held ready for the Fitna-complaint, but that may have been a rumor, because such forms have not (yet?) come into the open.
12. Muslims know nevertheless in this debate to maintain courage to hold on by the persistent practice of comparing the non-Muslim world with the ideals of the Islamic world, many examples, for instance in Hans Jansen & Abdul-Jabbar van de Ven, Bombrieven ["Letter Bombs"], Amsterdam 2008; and, and on this website especially the section Games Muslims Play. The only proper course is to compare the practice with the practice, and the ideals with the ideals.