Radicals, Reformers, and Revivalists
Benjamin DeVan Monday, 26 March 2012
Joel C. Rosenberg (2009, 2011) Inside the Revolution: How the Followers of Jihad, Jefferson & Jesus Are Battling to Dominate the Middle East and Transform the World. Carol Stream: Tyndale House.
Joel C. Rosenberg is a Jewish convert to Christianity, a former Netanyahu staffer, and a multiple New York Times bestselling novelist who writes popular books about Islam and Muslims. While Rosenberg is known as "a go-to novelist for Christian political fiction," Inside the Revolution contains Rosenberg's most meticulous portrayal of real-life Muslims, and represents an important contribution to Evangelical-Muslim relations. Rosenberg demonstrates remarkable access to Jewish, Evangelical, and Muslim political, educational, and religious leaders, and distills extensive interviews with key figures from these groups. He also interacts with writings across the ideological spectrum from Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto to Jihad Watch activist Robert Spencer.
Drawing from his extensive research and first-hand knowledge, Rosenberg suggests there are three revolutions presently being fomented in Muslim-majority countries. The first is waged by Muslim Radicals, who aver, "Islam is the answer; jihad is the way" (2009, 21). The second is waged by the Muslim Reformers who contend that while Islam is the answer, (militant) jihad is not the way. The third is waged by the Revivalists—converts from Islam to Christianity, as well as other Christians living in Muslim-majority countries—who say, "Islam is not the answer, and Jihad is not the way. Jesus is the Way" (2009, 363).
Rosenberg pointedly and passionately accuses American political and media leaders of failing to study Radicals carefully and to take their professed motives and appeal to Islam seriously. Rosenberg cites approvingly John Esposito's and Dalia Mogahed's Gallup research, which shows that Radicals do not tend to be poor or uneducated, but rather "young, male, smart, college educated, technologically literate, highly mobile, deeply determined, and thus incredibly dangerous" (2009, 151-152).
Reformers include former Radicals who appeal directly to the Qur'an and Islamic principles to counter Radical ideologies. Rosenberg says sincere Reformers are "out there, but they don't get nearly enough attention or respect" (2009, italics in original, 215).
Politics is one front for the Reformers, who are committed to religious freedom and freedom of speech, "not just for men, but for women as well" (2009, 219, cf. 328). Tafsir (Qur'anic interpretation) is a second imperative. One example harking back to classical scholars like Ibn Kathir is that when the Qur'an brands Jews "monkeys" (Surahs 2:63-66, 5:59-60, 7:160-166), this applies only to idolatrous apostate Jews or Sabbath breakers "resisting Judaism" (2009, 234). Surah 2:63-66 is thus not applicable to all Jews, but only to Jews who defy the laws God gave them. Muslims should be incredibly respectful toward true Jews, since Moses was "one chosen...a prophet" (Surah 19:51), and the Qur'an affirms Jews and Christians who "hasten to do good deeds as if competing with one another...Whatever good they do, they will never be denied the reward of it" (Surah 3:113-114).
Revivalists in Rosenberg's taxonomy are not Muslims who want to "revive" expansionist Islam or its past military glories; rather, they are the beleaguered Christian minority in Muslim-majority countries. Rosenberg asserts that he interviewed over 150 Arab and Iranian pastors and leaders, some of whom are former jihadists who converted to Christianity (2009, xvii).
Rosenberg gives neither the Radicals nor the Reformers short shrift. Indeed, if anyone gets less attention in this book than merited, it is the Revivalists, whom readers might have expected Rosenberg to emphasize because of his clear Christian sympathies. Though they receive less thorough treatment, the Revivalists constitute Rosenberg's most original reporting. Given the nature and current vulnerabilities of this group, safeguarding Revivalists' identities is vital. This anonymity invites easy dismissal from a journalistic vantage point, but Rosenberg partly mitigates this by footnoting times, dates, and regions for each interview. Skeptics will scoff, and friendly readers may be flustered by the lack of more specific verifiable data. Even so, Rosenberg shines light on a Christian phenomenon rarely investigated.
Concerning the Reformers, Rosenberg is less clear than he should have been about how and in what sense Islam—or a precise mode, method, or school within Islam (and not just Muslims implicitly or explicitly sympathetic to Jeffersonian Democracy)—is shaping the way Reformers are trying to remake their societies. What resources for human harmony from Islam do "Reformers" bring to the table?
Rosenberg retells many moving stories of Muslim-Christian encounter and relationship in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. Such stories are refreshing, because as a Jewish convert to Evangelical Christianity whose books contain endorsement blurbs from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Rosenberg could have simply thrown red meat to a right-wing readership, engaging in fear-mongering, monolithic generalizations, and stereotypes of Muslims as "totally other."
Instead Rosenberg construes many Muslims and Islamic Reformers positively, extolling those who work within Islam as well as those who convert from Islam to Christianity. Rosenberg also presents Radicals in their own words and injects multiple disparate voices in his narratives. He supplies fresh reporting on Middle Eastern Revivalist Christianity with journalistic flare, incorporating accounts of humble believers who seek to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. Rosenberg accomplishes all this with an explicitly Evangelical Christian perspective, a cultural Jewish background, and as a former Netanyahu staffer unashamedly endorsed by conservative American controversialists.
One area for possible improvement is the nomenclature of Rosenberg's taxonomy. Rosenberg may intend to define or adapt the terms of discourse, but educated skimmers may be confused by Rosenberg's use of "Revivalists," which in the academic study of Islam can coincide with those he designates as "Radicals." Second, Rosenberg and his publishers ought to recruit partners and endorsers not merely from vocal American conservatives, but the "religious left," Muslims, and luminaries among Rosenberg's interviewees. (One wonders whether Rosenberg views "conservatives" not only as his primary marketing audience, but as most urgently needing exposure to the moderating aspects of his message.)
Keeping these factors in mind, Rosenberg demonstrates significant creativity and panache in this popular-level Christian book. Rosenberg is relevant—even essential—reading for those interested in Jewish-Evangelical-Muslim encounter and in current American portrayals of Muslims from an avowedly Evangelical and sometimes politically conservative angle.
 "Religion in Review." (September 29, 2010). Publisher's Weekly. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/religion/article/44635-religion-in-review.html. Accessed January 16, 2012.
 Cf. Tafsir Ibn Kathir on Surah 2: Al Baqarah, "The Jews breach the Sanctity of the Sabbath," and "The Monkeys and Swine that exist now are not the Descendants of Those that were transformed." Online: http://www.qtafsir.com/.