PIPES: The imaginary ‘moderate’ Islamist

Western governments beware

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A September attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis left four dead, 49 injured, several buildings looted and burned out and the black Salafi flag flying above the embassy grounds. In response, the ruling “moderate” Islamist party of Tunisia, Ennahda, forthrightly condemned the incident. Minister of the Interior Ali Larayedh recognized that the government “failed to protect the embassy and we should offer our apologies to the Americans.” Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, more vehemently condemned the Salafis as a “danger” to freedom and security in Tunisia and called for a fight against them through every legal means.

Those statements reassured Americans that if long-bearded and burqa-robed crazies want to kill them, moderate-sounding Islamists in ties and hijabs are civilized, law-abiding allies. That, in turn, fits a policy going back to 1992 of fighting violent Islamists while cooperating with nonviolent ones. Thus did American troops execute Osama bin Laden while American presidents helped Islamists take power in Turkey and Egypt.

Many other differences mark variant strands of Islamism: Yusuf al-Qaradawi urges conversion to win over non-Muslims, while Nigeria’s Boko Haram prefers to kill them. The Hizb ut-Tahrir organization aims to bring all Muslims under the rule of a universal caliphate, and Turkey’s Fethullahis aspire to build a national form of Islam. Egypt’s Islamist president routinely wears a tie, but his Iranian counterpart never does. The former Cat Stevens sings nasheeds, a cappella music, while Somalia’s al-Shabab bans all music on the radio. Women may not drive a car in Saudi Arabia, but they drive taxis in Iran.

Broadly speaking, Islamists divide into three types:

1. Salafis, who revere the era of the salaf (the first three generations of Muslims) and aim to revive it by wearing Arabian clothing, adopting antique customs and assuming a medieval mindset that leads to religious-based violence.

2. Muslim Brothers and like types aspire to an Islamic version of modernity. Depending on circumstances, they might act violently or not.

3. Lawful Islamists work within the system, engaging in political, media, legal and educational activities. By definition, they do not engage in violence.

Their differences are real, but they also are secondary, for all Islamists pull in the same direction — toward full and severe application of Islamic law (Shariah), and they often cooperate toward this end, sometimes covertly. For example, a recently leaked video from Tunisia spectacularly exposes Ennahda links to the embassy violence. Initially broadcast in April 2012, the video resurfaced on Oct. 9. In it, Mr. Ghannouchi talks tactics with young Salafis to achieve their common goals and boasts, “We’ve met with the Salafis, including Sheik Abou Iyadh.”

Oh really? Sheik Iyadh (real name: Seifallah Ben Hassine) heads Ansar al-Sharia, aka al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Tunisian police established a dragnet to question him about his role leading the Sept. 14 attack on the U.S. Embassy. With the revelation of their meeting, Mr. Ghannouchi undercut Ennahda’s condemnation of the Sept. 14 attack.

The video also shows that Mr. Ghannouchi sees Ennahda and the Salafis as allies in the effort to dominate Tunisia and implement Shariah. He offers his listeners some strategic advice: “I tell our young Salafis to be patient … . Why hurry? Take your time to consolidate what you have gained” by creating “television channels, radio stations, schools and universities.” He also admonishes them to “fill the country with associations, establish Koranic schools everywhere, and invite religious preachers.”

Revealingly, Mr. Ghannouchi states, “The government is now at the hands of Islamists, the mosques are ours now, and we’ve become the most important entity in the country.” Note the references to “ours” and “we,” further confirming that he sees Ennahda and the Salafis constituting a single force.

Mr. Ghannouchi’s outreach to al Qaeda fits a larger pattern. The Turkish government not only works with IHH, an organization associated with al Qaeda, but it may soon join North Korea and Iran on the black list for its lax terrorism-financing laws. The Council on American-Islamic Relations appears legitimate but is a terrorist-supporting front organization founded by Hamas supporters. “Moderate” British Islamists exploited terrorist incidents to increase their clout.

The Tunisian tape brings the carefully constructed bifurcation of moderate and extremist Islamists crashing down. All Islamists are one. A moderate Islamist is a fantastical notion. Every member of this barbaric movement is a potential totalitarian thug. Western governments should neither accept nor work with either one.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.

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