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Imperialist Islam Unveiled: a wide-ranging interview with Dr Mark Durie

(First published in the New English Review)

We were fortunate to have caught up with Dr. Durie and interviewed him at the conclusion of his most recent lecture tour of the US in early 2012.

Jerry Gordon:  Mark, thank you for consenting to this interview prior to your departure for Australia.

Mark Durie:     Thank you for the invitation.

Gordon:  Your doctoral dissertation was on Acehnese language and culture in Indonesia. What was unique about the Acehnese transformation from its Hindu origins to Islam?

Durie: The Acehnese are cousins to the Chams of Vietnam. Historical evidence suggests that after the destruction of the once great Hindu Champa kingdom in southern Vietnam in 1471, some high-born Chams found refuge in Aceh. Disillusioned by the much degraded state of Hinduism in India (memory was perhaps still fresh of the catastrophic massacre of more than 100,000 Hindus by Timur at Delhi in 1398), the Aceh-Chams embraced Islam and spread it in the region. From its first beginnings, the Acehnese sultanate was engaged in jihad against the Portuguese, who conquered Mallaca in 1511. Later they waged jihad against the Dutch.

Gordon: How did the Acehnese experience deepen your interest and study of Qu’ranic Islamic Doctrine, the Canon of Hadith and the Sunnah?

Durie: I must admit that while doing field work in Aceh my focus was very much on the language and culture, not on the Canon of Islam. My engagement with Islam was at the level of my Acehnese friends' understanding. We talked about their pilgrimages to Mecca, their hopes and personal beliefs. I did not attempt a systematic study of Islam from its foundations, although I was curious.  I sensed that engaging with Islam at that level could drive a wedge between me and my Acehnese hosts.  In any case I did not have the resources to do this while living in an Acehnese village. However there was one area of Acehnese theology which I came to know well, which was the institution of jihad, which had played a major role in the self-understanding of the Acehnese people

Gordon:  What course of formal and informal study into Islamic Doctrine did you follow and whose critical scholarship and criticism assisted you in this endeavor?

Durie:    I began studying Arabic in Leiden in 1985 with Professor G. W. J. Drewes, who had been a student of Snouck Hurgronje. Snouck Hurgronje had been the leading scholar of Islam in his generation: a pilgrim to Mecca in 1885, he guided the Dutch in overcoming the Acehnese jihad insurgency from around 1890 on. During the 1990's I also apprised myself of Bat Ye'or's writings on the dhimma. I did not commence my systematic study of Islam until after the 9/11 atrocity. At that time I researched through many volumes of hadiths, studies of the Qur'an, revised my Arabic, and engaged in a systematic exploration of what Islam teaches, and how this is changing the world today. For the past three years I have also been undertaking a second doctorate - this time in Islamic Theology. My research focus is on whether the Qur'an can be considered a continuation of Biblical faith, or a clear break from it.

Gordon:  What prompted your career change and when did you enter the Anglican Ministry?

Durie: I was leading an academic department at the University of Melbourne when I felt called to pastoral ministry in the early 1990's. Although I loved my academic work, I had a deep sense of the need of the church for guidance and felt that the coming years would be very difficult for people of faith. I resigned my tenured university position in 1998 and was ordained at the start of 1999.

Gordon:  When did you assume your position as vicar at St. Mary’s Church in Caulfield?

Durie: I have been at St Mary's Caulfield since the start of 2004. I enjoy pastoral work and it is not easy to squeeze in my work on Islam in the midst of other duties, including hatches, matches and dispatches.

Gordon:  What prompted your human rights activism in Australia and internationally?

Durie:   It was a matter of seeing the need and stepping in to fill the gap. On the one hand I was concerned both by the erosion of freedoms in the West - in an increasingly hostile climate for Christians, and on the other hand by the rise of Muslim radicalism, which was imposing a bitter burden on Christians in Muslim-majority societies. I was quite frankly appalled by what I found when I looked carefully into the teachings of Muslim groups throughout the West. Everywhere I looked I found eulogies for jihad and hopes for establishing a Shariah state. Hardly anyone seemed to care.  That woke me up and pushed me to get busy researching, writing and speaking.

Denial can be deadly. I was deep into digesting the Islamic source materials when I heard the news of the October 2002 Bali bombing, in which many Australians were killed.  However this attack had been preceded and to my mind greatly overshadowed by on-going jihad militia attacks, forced conversions and massacres of Christians in Eastern Indonesia, resulting in half a million people becoming internally displaced. There was even an active Al-Qaida camp functioning quite openly and providing training for the militias.  The current president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was minister for security at the time, and he defended the militias, even though he was aware of the carnage.  The Australian media had been ignoring this ‘slow-burn’ jihad against Indonesia’s Christians, yet was shocked when a night club was blown up in ‘peaceful’ Indonesia.

Gordon:  In your human rights activism, what aspects of Islamic doctrine and Shariah most concern you and why?

Durie:  I am concerned about five main areas. In Islamic societies I am troubled by the status of Muslim women under Shariah; the abuse of people who leave Islam — so-called 'apostates'; the systematic degradation of non-Muslims, of which Christians form the largest numbers today; and the lack of freedom that ordinary Muslims face if they wish to vary from the received dogmas and practices of their faith. And in Western, non-Muslims societies, I am concerned by the 'dhimmitude of the west', including the voluntary surrender of the right to freedom of speech where Islam is concerned.

Gordon: How significant is Australia’s Muslim population and what are the prevailing positions of its communal and religious leaders versus those of Australian political leadership regarding integration in the civil polity of the country?

Durie:  Australian Muslims are less than 2% of the population. They are not a large component, although more concentrated in some localities where their presence is more noticed. They have very diverse ethnic origins. Many have come from societies which are less strict in Islamic practice, such as Bosnia, Turkey, Indonesia and Fiji. The most prominent single group is the Lebanese of Sydney, who tend to be more conservative. Australian Muslims differ greatly about the issue of integration: one can find just about every imaginable viewpoint. However some Muslim leaders have spoken out against integration, and reject participation in Australian political processes. There are also regular requests for Australian Muslims to have distinct legal provisions, such as Shariah family law. Repeated Australian governments have rejected this, insisting that we will not embrace a plurality of legal systems. Australian Muslims attract a lot more media attention - and more anxiety - than any comparable group. I do not expect that will change in the coming years.

Gordon:  In 2001, the State of Victoria adopted a Racial and Religious Tolerance Act which became the basis of a legal action brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria against two apostate Pastors of the Catch the Fire Ministry for their criticism of Islam. What can you tell us about this landmark case and its consequences?

Durie:  This complaint, made against Pastors Daniel Scot and Daniel Nalliah was initially successful. The judge found the pastors guilty of 'vilifying' Muslims, and ordered them to take out expensive advertisements announcing that they had been found guilty. He also forbad them from expressing their views about Islam in Australia. However the Supreme Court in Victoria threw out this judgment. Eventually the two sides settled. The process was enormously expensive for the Christians, costing several hundred thousand dollars: the Muslims were represented pro bono by a leading law firm. The Christians contended that they had not been vilifying Muslims, but had a right to criticize Islam. They said that much of the Muslims' complaint was about accurate quotes from the Qur'an. "Does the Qur'an vilify Muslims?" they asked. The Muslims contended that to attack Islam is to attack Muslims, and their lawyers repeatedly argued that speaking the truth should not be considered a defense for vilification charges.

Many Australians were deeply concerned about this case, and as a result of it other states across the nation did not proceed with introducing similar laws. Victoria modified the law, but it still remains on the statute books. It is a bad law, ill-conceived and poorly drafted.

One of the consequences of the case is that it made it easier for Australians to debate Islam in public forums.
The case has also had global ramifications: it seems that Tony Blair's desire to introduce hate-speech laws in Britain could not be fully realized because of the impact of this case in Australia.

Gordon:  What are the major themes of your books on Islam, Liberty to the Captives, Revelation: Do We Worship the Same God? and The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom?

Durie:  My first book, Revelation: Do we worship the same God? considers the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God; whether we honour the same Jesus, and whether the Islamic 'Holy Spirit' (Ruh Al-Qudus) is the same Holy Spirit as in the Bible. In all three cases I found that the differences are very considerable.

The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom is above all an account of Islam as a faith. It has useful discussions of topics as diverse as taqiyya (lawful deception) and female circumcision. It also explores the meaning of the dhimma pact and its implications for non-Muslims living under Islam. Liberty to the Captives is a supplement to The Third Choice specifically written for Christians. It explains how the contrast between the response to rejection in Jesus' and Muhammad's life provides a key to a spiritual response for Christians, enable them to stand against and reject the odious claims of the dhimma system.

Gordon:  What is the significance of your interpretation of dhimmitude?

Durie:  I can mention three points.

I delved deeply into the life of Muhammad to explain the spiritual origins of dhimmitude, and especially the concept of fitna or 'trial, persecution' (of Muslims), and the motif of imposing humiliation upon those who reject Islam. I regard the dhimma laws as an elaborate system designed to minimize obstacles for Islam by humiliating non-Muslims. The 'success' of non-Muslims is a theological offense which the dhimma system is designed to remove.

I also provided a deep and path-breaking analysis of the meaning of the jizya payment ritual, for which around 30 Islamic commentaries were consulted, most of which had not been translated from the Arabic. I established that the tax payment ritual is an enactment of the dhimmi's decapitation, with powerful symbolic significance. The concept of redeeming one's life by simultaneously enacting one's death and handing over a blood-price is key to understanding dhimmi status.

I also argued that where Christians are persecuted under Shariah conditions, this tracks Shariah law's discriminatory provisions. For example modern-day restrictions on building and repairing churches is grounded in the principles of Shariah law. In other words actual persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims is thoroughly theological in its motivations.

Gordon:  How do you differentiate your criticism of Islam with the work of Bat Ye’or, Andrew Bostom, Robert Spencer and other scholars and authors?

Durie: My writings are more theological and focused on world view transformation. I lay out theological principles as a whole system, linking them up to history and canonical texts. For example I explain the importance of the concepts of ‘guidance’ and 'success' in Islam, showing how these shape aspects of Shariah law. My writings also tend to be more concise and easier to digest than those of Bat Ye'or and Andrew Bostom. This is partly a matter of style – after all Bat Ye'or's writings are translated from academic French – but I work hard to elucidate the transformative belief system which underpins the dhimma. I explain how the whole system makes sense from the inside, from the perspective of a true believer. That is why The Third Choice is not just about dhimmitude: it is also an explanation of Islam itself, in which I clarify issues which often cause confusion, such as the doctrine of taqiyya 'deception'. I discuss whether reform of Islam is possible, by examining disputes among Muslims about the Shariah practice of female circumcision. There is also a pastoral perspective which runs through my writings. Robert Spencer's writings are more polemical. I am not just concerned to win the argument about Islam, but to count the cost to the human soul exacted by Islamic teachings, and how this damage could be healed, both for non-Muslims and Muslims alike. I want to win and heal hearts, not just win minds.

Gordon:  There have been several trials in the EU regarding criticism of Islam: Geert Wilders in The Netherlands, Lars Hedegaard in Denmark and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff in Austria. Wilders has been acquitted, but both Hedegaard and Wolff have been convicted and fined. What are your views on these free speech cases?

Durie:  These cases represent the failure of Western legal systems to chart their way through the difficult waters of resurgent Islamic demands to control infidel speech about Islam. A fundamental error of the West has been to look to established ideas about racism and multi-culturalism to interpret issues of religious freedom. People in the West don't understand - and prefer to discount - religion so they think of Islam as a kind of culture or ethnicity, which is a mistake. Criticism of Islam is not hate-speech against Muslims. Bad ideas deserve to be criticized. The sooner Western states come to their senses the better.

Gordon:  What concerns you about threats to human rights from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the political arm of the Muslim Ummah, and Fatwas of the International Fiqh Academy?

Durie:  The OIC is trying to impose Shariah principles upon the legal system of the whole world. They are using the UN to stop infidels from criticizing Islam, in any jurisdiction. It is part of their religion to insist that no-one speaks ill of Islam or Muhammad. Non-Muslim states need to realize that this is an imperialistic attempt to impose Islamic sensibilities upon non-believers.

The International Fiqh Academy was set up as a kind of global supreme legal authority for the Islamic world. It is very significant, yet often overlooked. Its rulings on topics such as citizenship and coexistence, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and women's rights are a blast from the past, an attempt to weld medieval Islamic theological perspectives onto modern life.

Non-Muslims need to pay attention, and to say, in the clearest possible language to the OIC: "No, not in my back yard'.

Gordon:   How troubling are the threats to the human rights of minority Christian populations and apostates in major Muslim countries embroiled in the Arab Spring?

Durie:  The situation for Christians in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel and Lebanon, is dire. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled their homes in Iraq. Many of them have ended up in Syria, which is now also looking insecure and unsafe. In essence, Christians in the Middle East are being gradually, inexorably, squeezed back into the dhimma straightjacket of a few centuries ago by age-old processes motivated by Shariah. How far this journey - which can be tracked by a grisly trail of blood throughout the twentieth century - will progress remains unclear. The most likely outcome is a continued demographic draining of Christians from the Middle East.

Gordon:  What should world Christian bodies do to defend the rights of beleaguered Christian minorities in Muslim lands?

Durie:  They should pay attention, report accurately what is happening, grieve the martyrs, lobby politicians, pray for their brothers and sisters in the faith, provide material support, and where needed offer sanctuary. The biggest problem is a culture of denial. To deal with the present we must acknowledge and come to terms with the Islamic doctrines which drive the institution of dhimmitude. We need to acknowledge what Islam is if we are to adequately address and counter its imperialistic demands upon non-Muslims. Otherwise we will only come up with band aid measure which fall hopelessly short of what is required. Stop-gap measures cannot withstand consistent ideological pressure.

Gordon:   Who should assist in resettlement of these threatened Christian minorities in their Diasporas?

Durie:  Majority Christian nations should lead the way in welcoming and resettling Christian minorities fleeing Islamic states. It's so obvious that people need to look after their own families, yet our secular principle of non-discrimination makes very hard for us to selectively offer shelter to Christians. Christians are often discriminated against in resettlement processes, especially when Western governments have employed Muslims in their embassies and immigration departments. Muslim nations would not have such scruples at helping their co-religionists.

Gordon:  In a recent essay you have proposed several rules for dealing with “sensitive subjects”. What are they?

Durie:  This essay was very much influenced by my involvement in the vilification case in Victoria. As talk about Islam becomes more heated, we need the best -informed voices to also be the most persuasive.

I offered ten principles:

  • State your purpose and stay on topic.


  • Check your facts.
  • Don't say things you don't have adequate evidence for.
  • Take your information from the most authoritative and original source you can.
  • If your source has limitations be aware of this and acknowledge it
  • Be dispassionate and avoid emotive judgments.
  • Avoid stereotyping.
  • Refer people to original sources, so people can check things for themselves.
  • Take appropriate responsibility for inferences others may come to from what you are saying.
  • Be clear.

    Gordon:  In your most recent Calvin Seminary Conference Lectures in Michigan, you presented on how the colonial Dutch at the turn of the 20th Century conducted a successful counter-insurgency campaign in Aceh. What role was played by a Dutch academic expert on Islam?

Durie:  Snouck Hurgronje's proposals were considered to have turned the tide of a decades-long and very costly jihad insurgency. It had been a political nightmare for the Dutch. Some of Snouck Hurgronje's key points were that the Dutch had to finally grasp that they were fighting a religious war. This meant that the power and influence of the ulamas had been raised to new heights by jihad conditions.  They had to support traditional non-Islamic authority structures in Acehnese culture, specifically the traditional rulers whose interests balanced those of religious leaders. They had to stop brutalizing and punishing the general population, and they needed to pursue and eliminate hostile religious leaders who were stoking the jihad dogma among the people. Snouck Hurgronje argued that key Islamic leaders who were driving the insurgency could never be 'converted' to the Dutch cause.

To implement this policy the Dutch used lightly armed groups of soldiers to pursue the Islamic teachers through the jungles. After a decade of following this policy the jihad insurgency war was essentially won.

Gordon:  What do you view as the prospects for preserving Western human rights in the face of demands for Shariah compliance by the rising Caliphate of the OIC?

Durie:  The West appears to have little capacity for containing the rise of Shariah across the Muslim world. We are caught flat-footed without a clue about what is happening, and are standing confused by all the voices coming from the Muslim world, not knowing which way to turn. The issue is ultimately not our lack of influence. It is our lack of will, and widespread denial. We do not know even how to recognize, let alone support the voices of moderation. We refuse to admit the real nature of the problem, namely its theological roots. We have shown little capacity for befriending those who are struggling for human rights in Islamic states. Our elites are grotesquely relieved to partner with ideologues who sooth them with deceptive words, while all the time these ill-found partners oppose essential principles of universal human rights. We show no capacity to promote the values which have made our nations great. We are well launched into a pattern of cultural decline, and, spiritually exhausted.  We find that we have little energy to resist the demands of determined Shariah ideologues. Things may get better, but they may need to get worse first. I remain mainly optimistic about the future, but by no means naive about the struggles facing us, and the losses we have to will endure.

Gordon:   Thank you for this fascinating interview and your unique views, as a scholar, human rights activist and theologian on the doctrine of imperialistic Islam. Good luck on completion of your doctoral work on Islamic Theology.

Durie:    Thank you for affording me this opportunity.