Let’s talk about Robert Spencer. As some of you know, Spencer has recently been invited by Stanford College Republicans to give a talk funded by Stanford on November 14 about the dangers of radical Islam. This has expectedly led to criticisms from other campus groups, often portraying Spencer as an Islamophobe who twists historical fact for a political agenda. His credentials are, truthfully, less than astounding: his formal area of study is Catholic history and all of his books have been published by fringe publishers and lack academic peer review. However, he has worked with the United States government and military on Islamic issues and has appeared on various news networks. Because of this, I decided to read some of his more recent books for myself.
Despite the rumors of Spencer’s Islamophobia, I was — daresay, pleasantly — surprised reading this book. Published in 2014, “Did Muhammad Exist?” exams and challenges the orthodox historiography and the historicity of the prophet. While orthodox historiography argues that the early Muslim conquests of the sixth and seventh centuries were done by a unified Muslim empire, Spencer claims that the theology of Islam only appeared after the conquests and the formation of empire. However, this is essentially all he does: despite the editorialized title, Spencer rarely challenges the actual existence of Muhammad. Furthermore, the actual historical argument is unconvincing, relying on minor documents that merely obscure the conventional narrative instead of disproving it. His claim is simply too large to support with the evidence he supplies. With its editorialized title and unconvincing arguments, the text is simply a weak attempt at a historical analysis.
If you can’t tell by the title, this book has a far more apparent agenda. Published in 2006, this text has three goals: to show the truth of the prophet’s life and actions, to explain how the prophet’s life influenced the development of Islam, and to advocate for these two discussions to influence our modern relationship with Islam. Like in “Did Muhammad Exist?” Spencer uses certain texts and documents to poke small holes in the orthodox historiography while failing to really reveal anything groundbreaking. Despite the editorialized title (a common trend with his works), this is not a biography of Muhammad. Instead, it’s merely an outline focusing on the more negative and controversial aspects of the prophet’s life without making any new developments in the historiography of Islam. The attempt to discuss America’s current involvement with the Middle East, however, is far more interesting: completely ignoring literally centuries of political, material, and religious developments, Spencer attempts to directly link Muhammad’s life and contemporary Islamic developments to the United States’ relationship with Islam and the Middle East today. This is an obvious example of bad historiography. While the events of the sixth century of course have influence on our modern cultures and politics, to draw a straight line between the two while not even mentioning anything that has happened in between is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous. Furthermore, it is poorly written and quite redundant: Spencer feels the need to repeat himself countless times over the text, perhaps making up for his lack of actual content.
If the previous two books were the entirety of Spencer’s bibliography, I’d be willing to agree that he is simply a bad historian instead of a bad historian with an overwhelming political agenda against Islam. This guide, however, makes it clear where his opinions on Islam lie: Spencer openly claims that Islam is a fundamentally violent religion and that both historic and modern conflicts of the West with Islam are justified responses. Written less like an academic text and more like a manifesto, this 2005 text is an addition to the “Politically Incorrect Guide” (or “P.I.G.”) series which includes gems such as the unapologetically unscientific “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design” and the Neo-Confederate “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.” Spencer’s addition fits in perfectly with this motley crew: though never explicitly false, this guide twists legitimate historiography and neglects to mention anything that would potentially harm his argument. For example, Spencer argues that Islam spreads through violence while Christianity spreads peaceful conversion. However, this section of the book (which does not contain a single citation, an all too common theme in this text) completely neglects to mention the enslavement and forced conversions of the native peoples of the Americas by Christians. Spencer also attempts to construct an intricate retelling of the Crusades. He claims that Christians were forced to defend themselves from an expanding Muslim empire — an exciting theory which has the potential to be groundbreaking historiography if only he supported it with any actual evidence. The question of the Crusades and their justifications is a large debates in Western historiographic tradition. Unfortunately, Spencer adds nothing to it. He oversimplifies the Crusades to a Muslim versus Christian conflict (a clear result of him trying to make a political statement about the two religions as a whole) while the actual contemporary political and religious milieu was far more nuanced. Spencer simply refuses to use the nuance necessary to perform historical research and relies on ham-handed oversimplifications and generalizations to make his point.
I could go on, but I won’t. The rest of his books follow the same pattern: pseudo-intellectual texts that add nothing to the current discussion (e.g. “A Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity is and Islam Isn’t”) alongside polemic manifestos with no academic or historical significance (e.g. “The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and its enemies)”). Spencer seems to be continuing this trend of manifesto-esque drivel with his upcoming book: “Confessions of an Islamophobe.” (Isn’t it a little odd that all this controversy is occurring right before Spencer’s book drops? Almost like he needs controversy to convince people to buy it, since no one would buy it based on merit and quality.)
It is painfully clear that Robert Spencer is only popular due to the topics of his books and not their quality. Because of this, I’d like to address Mr. Spencer directly, who, judging by his website, apparently has nothing better to do than read and rant about college newspapers. You severely lack academic credentials and have the historical nuance of an elephant. It is completely understandable why none of your texts have been academically peer reviewed and published, since they would be shot down in seconds. However, despite this, I must congratulate you on your success commodifying the anger and hate pervading this country with your manufactured controversies. It truly takes some form of talent to sell such shoddily written and poorly researched texts.
I also have a question for the Stanford College Republicans who actually bought Spencer’s snake oil: Why him? All religions including Islam should be discussed and criticized in an academic environment, and there are countless scholars and academics critical of modern Islam, some of whom were even raised in the religion and have firsthand experience with the negative aspects. You could have had your choice of any of them and held an insightful and respectful talk that actually contributes to the discussion of religion on campus. Yet, you elected to invite someone whose books add nothing besides generalizations and spite. Have you simply not read his books? Is this an attempt to be controversial instead of providing actual intellectual content? Do you seriously believe Robert Spencer is the best face for conservatism at Stanford? If so, go ahead. But don’t complain when no one takes you seriously.
Contact Ben Maldonado at bmaldona ‘at’ stanford.edu.