Part two in a three-part series.
So far the ideological battle against political Islam has proven to be a fight few Muslims want to participate in. It has taken five years since September 11 for conventional wisdom to even begin to attempt to understand “moderate” Muslims let alone engage their ideology.
Far more important than a debate over who or what defines a moderate is our need in the United States to focus discussions upon the ideology of Islamism and political Islam. If radical Islamist terrorism is a means to an end, we should be pressing American Muslim leaders about where they stand regarding al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah.
Islamism, as I see it, is an overriding philosophy of Muslims who believe in a society guided by a system of government founded upon clerical interpretations of religious law as derived from their own interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah. Argumentation within Islamist governments and parties is based upon clerical interpretations of God’s law, not upon a reasoned deduction of effectiveness of human law. No matter how moderate Islamists present themselves, they will always hold on tightly to the notion that a majority Muslim state must be identified as an “Islamic state” with clerical guidance of their society’s proximity to the Muslim path.
Islamism is clearly in direct conflict with Americanism. Yet, an Islam which is anti-Islamist is not. Americanism as Islamists see it is defined by our Constitution and our legal precedents as a system based in legislative liberty for all faiths — true pluralism. Americanism uses a language of legislative debate not derived from religious precedent or clerical interpretation of one faith, but rather from the reasoned precedent of our secular courts and legislatures. Until this great chasm of thought between Islamists and American ideology is made clear, we are actually facilitating the spread of Islamism among American Muslims.
Make no mistake. There are many Muslims who do understand that anti-theocratic societies like the United States are preferable for the free practice of their own private faith and that of all others. In fact, many Muslims are inherently anti-Islamist by virtue of being pious Muslims demanding to be free of coercion. That is why many of our families immigrated to the United States. But virtually no efforts are underway to find these Muslims, who are our greatest untapped resource since September 11.
Islam, as a personal faith, and its inherent spirituality, worship, moral code and practices can and should be looked upon as entirely separate from all that is political Islam. This is the profound challenge of anti-Islamist Muslims of this generation. While this separation is admittedly hard to find, its existence is essential to our victory in this ideological battle.
Muslim ideological moderation is not achieved by a declaration of nonviolence. It is not demonstrated by a belief in elections and representative democracy. The radical Islamists simply ride along with moderate Islamists toward the same arena. They repackage themselves as moderates while still residing within an Islamist construct.
For example, Europe’s radical, pretend moderate, Imam Yusef al-Qaradawi, the international spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Grand Islamic Scholar of Qatar, has recently been pushing for a “wasatiya” (middle way) movement, often preaching to his followers to moderate and tolerate. Yet, he continues to have the blood of American soldiers and innocent civilians in Iraq on his hands, with his endorsement of the religious legitimacy of suicide bombing in Iraq. He moderates his language for European audiences and reverts back to his fundamentalism for his Al Jazeera audiences. His fundamentalist stances are misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, pro-Islamist and anti-freedom.
In the current American discourse, we should be curious to learn whether Muslims agree with leaders like him and why. Unless my fellow Muslims are willing to take on the likes of al-Qaradawi ideologically, they will continue to facilitate Islamism and its associated threat to American security.
When we fought the ideological battle against communism during the Cold War, was there a moderate Communist ideology? The public intellectual debate was clear that Americanism and communism were entirely incompatible. The Soviet goal for global domination was an imminent threat to our security. Similarly, the Chinese, North Vietnamese, North Koreans and Cubans, to name a few, had central conflicts with American ideology. Are we as aware of the threat posed by “moderate” Islamists regardless of their denunciation of militancy? Those who know American Muslims will tell you that the violent jihadists are a small minority of the world’s Muslim population and hard to find in our local communities. This militant minority, including members of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others, certainly needs to be found and reckoned with swiftly and forcefully on the battlefield. However, the jihadists use barbaric methods to achieve change toward a theocratic political end — political Islam.
Political Islam, on the contrary, has great support within the Muslim population. It should be engaged relentlessly in our public arena. Only anti-Islamist Muslims can change that tide. But, for now, our private and public-sector thought leaders should first wake up and force the debate.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a former Navy lieutenant commander.