What price will we pay for our failure to understand the Islamic bona fides of Islamist ideology?
Ten years after 9/11 many politicians and pundits continue to misinterpret Islamic jihadism. Typical is the following comment from Senator Joseph Lieberman’s essay in Foreign Affairs, in which he speaks of “an ideological struggle within Islam, waged between an extremist minority that seeks to enslave the world and a moderate Muslim majority who want the same freedoms and opportunities that we all desire.” In this view, bin Laden and his ilk are outliers, fringe figures exploiting the lack of political freedom and economic opportunity among Muslims, particularly the young men who fill the jihadists’ ranks. This was the view of the New York Times right after the attacks, in an editorial opining that “the disappointed youth of Egypt and Saudi Arabia turn to religion for comfort.” In other words, we have interpreted jihadism through our own categories and concepts, dismissing the history and theology of Islam with which most Muslims are intimately familiar.
Indeed, this misapprehension began long before 9/11. The Iranian Revolution and its leader the Ayatollah Khomeini were analyzed from the perspective of Western notions. Khomeini, a revered and respected Islamic scholar, was dismissed by Time magazine as “a fanatic whose judgments are harsh, reasoning bizarre and conclusions surreal.” The revolution was seen not for what it was, a restoration of Islam’s political and social preeminence diminished by the modernizing secularism of the Shah, but as a nationalist, anti-colonial movement for which, Barry Rubin writes, “Islamist rhetoric was seen as a mask, as a convenient vehicle for expressing accumulated economic, political, and social grievances.” Mistaking a religious movement for a Western political one, the U.S. was caught unprepared for the theocratic regime that has for thirty years been the premier state supporter of jihadist terror, and today is actively seeking nuclear weapons.
Despite that mistake, our reaction to the latest phase of jihadism has been equally myopic. The 14-centuries-long doctrine of violent jihad against the unbelievers––copiously documented in the Koran, hadiths, and Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and written on every page of history––is dismissed as irrelevant compared to the Western ideals we assume drive all peoples: political freedom and material prosperity. Religious belief is either a Marxist opiate or a Freudian illusion, a relic from our benighted past that progress will reduce to what it is in the West today: a mere lifestyle choice with no greater claim on the public square or political policy than any other. The jihadists are thus “distorters” of Islam, disguised “fascists,” would-be tyrants exploiting religious beliefs in order to seize power for themselves. And this “extremist” minority stands in opposition to that alleged moderate majority, whom it is our duty to aid in their struggle for human rights, freedom, and all the goods we enjoy.
What is curious, however, is that for the last decade, the thousands of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims, the violent riots over trivial “insults” to Islam, the murders committed by Muslims like the Fort Hood killer are never met with global widespread protests on the part of all those Muslim “moderates” presumably outraged by this “extremist” distortion of Islamic doctrine. Muslim opinion did turn against bin Laden, but that came only after the al Qaeda jihadists began killing fellow Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Formulaic “condemnations” of terrorism are indeed trotted out by Muslim leaders after an attack, but always as the prelude to the demonization of Israel and American foreign policy, to whose depredations the attacks are an understandable response. I’ll believe in Senator Lieberman’s “moderate majority” when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Muslims march in protest against the next jihadist attack on Westerners.
Having created this “moderate minority,” for the last decade we have anxiously monitored our public statements about Islam in order not to alienate all those Muslims we think are outraged by the jihadists’ “distortions.” Thus we have heard from Republican and Democratic administrations alike all about the “religion of peace.” According to President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.” Nearly a decade later, John Brennan, Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, repeated the same received wisdom: “Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against ‘jihadists.’ Describing terrorists in this way––using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal––risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.” Unfortunately for this sort of thinking, the evidence for understanding jihad as the violent defense of Islam against its enemies is overwhelming in Islamic religious writings. Khomeini certainly thought so: “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidels but a religion of guidance for other people,” he proclaimed. And so did Muslim Brothers founder Hassan al-Banna, who wrote, “Fighting the unbelievers involves all possible efforts that are necessary to dismantle the power of the enemies of Islam including beating them, plundering their wealth, destroying their places of worship, and smashing their idols.”
Failing to see the legitimate Islamic roots of jihadist terror has distorted our foreign policy by shackling us to a “hearts and mind” campaign we think will win over all those outraged moderates who just want to live as we do––a belief that has driven our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, where after ten years of occupation and nation-building the jury is still out on what sort of regime will be left after we depart. Yet despite these efforts at liberating Muslims from tyrants and providing them with democratic freedom, majorities of Muslims all over the world still don’t like the United States and still oppose most of our efforts to destroy the jihadists. Worse yet, this flawed assumption has compromised out response to the so-called “Arab spring.” Lieberman’s essay is typical of this belief: “Now, throughout the Middle East, we see the narrative of violent Islamist extremism being rejected by tens of millions of Muslims who are rising up and peacefully demanding lives of democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world. Indeed, the Arab Spring and its successes thus far are the ultimate repudiations of al Qaeda and everything Islamist extremism stands for.”
Yet if we look to the evidence of events, this rosy estimate is hard to believe. In Egypt, a newly assertive Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafists have moved aside the minority of liberals and moderates. Relations with Israel have deteriorated rapidly, with a terrorist attack launched from the Sinai, and the Israeli embassy in Cairo evacuated because of violent mob attacks. A rejection of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, along with a resurgent Hamas in Gaza with access to weapons supplied over the now porous border with Egypt, could lead to a new war endangering our most loyal and valuable ally in the region. Given that majorities of Muslims believe that their countries’ laws should “strictly” follow the teachings of the Koran or follow the “values of principles of Islam,” Lieberman’s assertion that the “Arab Spring” represents a repudiation of “everything Islamist extremism stands for” is misleading. What many Muslims oppose is not the Islamist goal of repudiating Western secularist government, but at best the tactic of terrorist attacks, particularly against Muslims.
Despite the mind-concentrating attacks of 9/11, we still have not learned the lessons we should have after the Iranian revolution. We have prevented further attacks on the homeland, but the longer-term goal of definitively repudiating the Islamist drive for global preeminence has been compromised by our failure to understand the Islamic bona fides of much of the Islamist ideology, and its resonance among millions of Muslims. This failure may in the long run lead to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt joining Iran as an Islamic republic hostile to our interests.