Q and A:
This was originally supposed to be a continuation of my print debate at National Review (here and here) with Andrew McCarthy on Islam vs. Islamism. It was changed at the last minute into this panel with the peerless artist Bosch Fawstin and the Baroness Caroline Cox. While the change was disappointing on numerous levels, it did allow for a superb contribution from Fawstin.
FrontPage has published the transcript today. Here is an excerpt:
Andrew McCarthy: Thank you, Karen.
Karen was good enough to mention the Blind Sheikh case. And it’s worth going back to it because this is sort of how I not only come into this challenge, but to try to reflect the debt I owe to Robert Spencer. I think that when I got involved in trying to confront this — really, civilizational threat is the right way to put it — I knew nothing more about Islam than somebody’s who’s got a reasonably good education in the United States, which is to say not much.
And I wanted to believe what we were saying as a Justice Department, which was essentially that there was a fringe group — very, very small; almost unnoticeable, except that they were involved in committing such heinous acts — but they were totally unrepresentative of Islam, and that if we could just shave off this fringe, everything would be fine. Because Islam itself was peaceful and wonderful, and one of the great religious traditions of the world. And I wanted to believe that. And I think almost everybody in the government, when we first started to say those sorts of things, really did believe that.
What ended up happening was — in almost every trial, whether the lead defendant testifies or not, you have to get ready for him as if he were going to testify — and so it was with the Blind Sheikh. And he didn’t end up testifying. But I actually had to go to school on everything that we had that he had either written or said. And he was a very prolific speaker and writer.
And the problem that emerged over time, as I got immersed in his work product, was that every place that he said that the scripture said X or Y, he was not lying. He was not perverting Islam. It turned out that every place that he purported to quote scripture he was correct.
And you know, I wasn’t going to try to get into a theological debate with a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University. But I did think, if we were right, that we ought to be able to nail him in one or two or three places. And there was no place you could do that.
Then, it started to dawn on me slowly that — well, you know, there’s not a whole lot that he could do for a terrorist organization. He can’t build a bomb, can’t conduct an attack. There’s nothing really that you would think of that a terrorist organization does that this guy would be particularly useful for them on, except that he was a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence, graduated from Al-Azhar University. And that singularly was the source of his ability to influence this movement and, actually, in fact, made him the most important person in the cell and in the cells that were being constructed. Because without his green light, things would not go forward, which I think underscores how powerful the ideology is that we’re talking about.
And then there was the final thing that really pushed me over the edge, which was we had a very extensive defense case, because we had such a long trial. The trial was nine months long. I think the defense case took about two and a half months. And during the course of the defense case, we had people who were actually moderate Muslim people who would come in to testify. And they really were moderate people — they wouldn’t commit a terrorist act or even think about committing a terrorist act, no matter what.
But every now and then while they were on the stand, some question about Islam would come up — you know, what does jihad mean, what is Sharia, what is Zakat? And three or four times, these perfectly nice, moderate people would say — well, I wouldn’t be qualified to render an opinion on that. You’d have to ask someone like him. And they would always point to the homicidal maniac –
– in the corner of my courtroom. And I thought it was — in real-life terms, it was a very powerful lesson — that you had these people who were ordinary, peaceful people who would not become terrorists under any circumstances. And yet, with respect to principal parts of their belief system, they were willing to take their guidance from somebody who was a five-alarm terrorist. So I thought — I came away thinking, from that experience, that man, we have this just totally backwards.
The good thing about a trial, particularly a trial of that nature, is that no matter what politically correct thing the government happens to be saying on the courthouse steps or down in Washington, in the four corners of the trial, you actually have to prove to people what happened, what the people did and why they did it. So we didn’t have politically correct Islam in our courtroom; we actually had, you know, what I now call Islamist ideology. And the question is — is it Islamist ideology, or is it Islam?
There’s the other side of this. We could not have done that case without patriotic American Muslims who helped us at every step of the way, either by infiltrating the cells, by helping us whip the evidence into shape, by helping us present it, by giving us intelligence. It was a very interesting dynamic. There were many people who were in the Muslim community, rank-and-file Muslims, who wanted to help the government, knowing exactly what it was that we were doing. Their condition to me usually was — I can only help you if no one will ever find out that I spoke to you.
And it became very obvious to us that there was a big divide between rank-and-file Muslim people in the community, who — at least among the older generations of them — tended to be pro-American and pro-Western, and the leadership of the mosques and the Islamic communities, who tended to be very heavily influenced by overseas elements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. So you had this divide.
Here’s the problem. The guys from overseas, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood or the other groups that give the guidance to both the mosques and the community centers — when they quote scripture, it’s not like they’re — when they tell you what they think, and they root it in Islam, it’s not like they’re dancing on the head of a pin. When they say it’s in there, it’s in there. And when they rely on it, they are not relying on something that’s an aberration.
And this goes to, as I said, the debt I owe to Robert. I think singularly in the country, if there’s anybody who has given us a coherent, deep read on what this ideology really is — and the fact that it is not just coherent, but it is mainstream, and it is what basically is the mainstream ideology of Sunni Islam — it’s Robert Spencer.
And I continue to learn every day, reading what Robert writes.
The issue we have — and whether it’s debate-worthy or discussion-worthy, or what worthy — I’ll leave it to you to decide — is — what do we do about the non-Islamist Muslims? And I’ve assumed a fact that’s not in evidence, which is that “Islamist” is even a valid term, but engage me for a moment. I think it’s absolutely clear that the marriage of the political elements and what are the spiritual elements of Islam are one. And in mainstream Islamic scripture, mainstream Islamic doctrine, there’s no question that there’s no division between the sacred authority and the political authority — they’re one.
The reality of the world, however, is that we have many, many Muslims, millions and millions of Muslims, who don’t want to live that way, who embrace the West, who don’t want to live in Sharia societies. Some of them are trying to interpret their religion in a way that, as they say, contextualizes the troublesome elements of it, so that they can create an Islam that’s congenial to Western ideas about separating church and state, separating the religious elements from the political.
I confess, when I read what they write, I don’t find it particularly compelling. For the most part, I think it’s a work in progress. I think, you know, compared to what I like to call Islamist ideology, it’s not particularly coherent, it’s not well-rooted in scripture the way that Islamic — what I call Islamist ideology is. But I think we have to give them the space to try to evolve their belief systems.
And the reason I use the term “Islamist,” the reason I think it’s a valuable term to use — a means of separating one camp from the other — is I just don’t think that if you’re taking people who we want to have on our side in this struggle — and the people who we have to hope at some point will be able to reform if not the entirety of their religion, at least the way that it exists in the West — that we have to have some space where they can do that. And I think the distinction between Islam and Islamist allows us to identify the people who actually want to impose Sharia on the West versus the people who are Muslims — whether they’re just culturally Muslim or they have a different way of interpreting their religion — but who want to live here and live among us as Americans, as Westerners; and not be identified as Sharia Muslims.
Am I confident that that will happen, that those people will actually succeed, that they can actually reform their religion? No, not particularly. But I think we have to give them a chance. I’m not completely convinced they can’t do it, either. But I just don’t see what the sense is of taking your natural allies — the people that you want on your side, the people who have in their community actually contributed to our counterterrorism — and tell them that the problem is their religion, is their belief system; and that, you know — basically address them in a way that tells them that we think that their choice is basically to convert. Because, you know, the problem that we face is Islam.
And I say that, I hope, with my eyes open. I appreciate the fact that a lot of the people who use the term “Islamist” use it in a fraudulent way, to suggest that, you know, the Islamists are just — what I was talking about back in 1993, just a handful of terrorists; and everybody else is a moderate Muslim. And I think if that’s going to be their interpretation of it, it is a useless term, and we should reject it.
But we do have people who are trying to reform this belief system. And I think we have to give them what encouragement we have to give. I’ll leave it at that.
Robert Spencer: Andy said we’d have to — what do we do about the non-Islamist Muslims? And I’d like to amend the question just slightly, to say — what do we do about the non-Islamist Muslim? And after we have expressed our support for Zuhdi Jasser, then where do we go?
I’m, of course, exaggerating. There are indeed the people who worked with the prosecution in the case of the Blind Sheikh, and there are many others who work. But they work under the cover of darkness, they work not wanting to be recognized, precisely because the situation is what it is within Islam.
The question about giving people the space to reform the religion cannot really be answered until we understand how religions reform in the first place. And do we reform the religion of Islam by pretending that it is other than what it is? Or do we reform the religion of Islam by confronting the elements of it that are outrageous to universally accepted notions of human rights, and call upon Muslims who do want to live according to universally recognized notions of human rights to fight against those ideas? There aren’t really very many historical precedents for reformation in religion. But of course, the main one is the Reformation.
So let me put it to you this way. Imagine, in 1517, that instead of nailing the 95 theses to the door of the church in Gutenberg that Martin Luther had said — how dare you suggest that the Catholic Church teaches the primacy of the Pope and the doctrines of transubstantiation and the perpetual virginity of Mary. You must be a venomous Catholic-hater, a Catholophobe.
And I stand for the true Catholicism, which has none of that in it — now, that would have been absurd. Because obviously, the Church did teach all those things. And those were the things, among others, that Martin Luther objected to. And Martin Luther did not set out to reform the Church. Whatever one may think of the necessity or the veracity of the charges, all that is beside the point. But he did not set out to reform the Church by pretending it was otherwise than what it was. He set out to reform the Church by confronting the doctrines he thought were false and calling upon people to discard them. Now, that ended up creating a schism, of course, a number of schisms, such that there are Catholics and Protestants in the world today. And maybe that’s what would happen in Islam.
But the problem is also compounded by the fact that Islam has a doctrine of religious deception. It not only has doctrines of warfare and subjugation of unbelievers that are universal among the sects and schools of law in Islam, but it also has doctrines of deception. And that makes it doubly difficult.
Because unfortunately, I think, with all the best intensions, Andy — by trying to separate out the supremacists and marshal elements of Islam from Islam — is enabling the deceivers. Because the deceivers sound just like reformers. Or almost just like reformers. They come around — and actually, you can turn on the television any given moment and see them, and they’ll say — Islam doesn’t teach any of this, and we reject all this. And we abhor terrorism. And really, the problem is Islamophobia and unjustified suspicion of the peaceful Muslim community.
And invariably, when you start to look into the people who are saying this, they’re connected to one or another Muslim Brotherhood group. And the Muslim Brotherhood, of course — as you all, I’m certain, know — is dedicated, in its own words, to eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within. And what better way to do that but to render us complacent in the face of the reality of this threat, and make it such that we are afraid to speak about it in its full dimensions? Because we think, on the one hand, that if we do that we will be charged with being bigoted, racist and hateful, and our professional prospects will be dim. And you know, I certainly know that. I’m 10 years an Islamophobe now, and I can’t get another job.
But also, that we will be discouraging the few actual genuine Muslim reformers will be hurting Zuhdi.
And so, for those two reasons, we cannot speak about this problem honestly. And so, the situation we are in now is one that I think was summed up very tellingly by a young man in a video store who ended up foiling the Fort Dix jihad plot.
We all know, of course, that in Fort Hood, Major Nidal Hasan murdered 13 Americans in a jihad attack. And we know, of course, that the United States government in its report on that attack never mentioned jihad or Islam, even though the guy was handing out Korans that morning, and he was shouting Allahu Akbar, and had given off many signs of what he was all about for years before that. And that is, of course, part of the fact — the reason why the government does that is because we don’t want to alienate the moderate Muslim community, which of course also Nidal Hasan lived and moved among, and they never did anything about him.
But also, there was a lesser-known attempted attack at Fort Dix. And at Fort Dix, it was a number of Albanian Muslims who were enjoying watching the gory al-Qaeda videos of beheadings and things like that. But they had them on VHS. And technology marched on. And so they went to the video store to get them transferred to DVD.
And — this is a true story. I know it’s unbelievable. And the young man working in the video store — he’s doing the job, and he’s seeing these horrible images unfold before his eyes. And he goes to his manager. And he says — you know, there’s some very disturbing things on this tape, and I’m thinking maybe we should go to the police. But would that just be racist?
This is actually what he said. And to his credit, the manager encouraged him. They went to the police, they foiled the plot.
But the point is that in both cases, you have the entire United States government, and you have individuals who have been breathing the air of our politically correct culture. And they are afraid to confront this monstrous evil because they think that it will cause some even greater evil if they do. And so they dissimulate, and they pretend that things are other than the way they are. And what exactly does it get us?
I can’t tell you how many times — and I expect if you thought that you would be in the same situation — how many times have you read an article since 9/11 that said — it’s time for the moderate Muslims in the United States to stand up and show that they oppose this? And then, the next year — it’s time for — and every year, it’s time. Well, when are they going to get on it? When are we going to learn the lesson of the fact that they have not done so, and examine the implications of that?
The reality is that Islam does teach these things, as Andy acknowledges. Islam does teach warfare and subjugation. If there are Muslims — and there certainly are — who do not want to kill or subjugate us, then I applaud them. But they can only succeed if they confront the problem honestly.
And we can only truly encourage them if we confront the problem honestly. Anything else leads to bad policy. We’ve been pretending they weren’t Islamists in Pakistan for a decade now, giving them billions every year to fight al-Qaeda. And what’d they do? They gave the money to al-Qaeda. But we had our Islam/Islamist distinction, and they were on the good side. And so that was as far as it went. Well, the implications are obvious.
Bosch Fawstin: Hello. I’m honored to be here. I was invited here with a short notice. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to read some stuff that I prepared.
I come from a Muslim Albanian background, and born and raised in America. We were non-devout. But it was enough where it still had detrimental things in our lives growing up.
So, you know, one thing — the entire context here is the fact that we are at war. We are at war. This is not — we’re indulging things that are outside of that in order to try to create this Islam that doesn’t exist. Because there are, you know, Muslims who are not terrorists; therefore, they’re practicing some other sort of Islam. And they’re not. You know, they’re practicing life in a free country, they’re practicing something other than Islam.
You know, as Jerome Brooks said — you know, even though I disagree with him in terminology, we agree on this — we need to identify the enemy and do whatever is necessary to eliminate the threat, with minimal loss of life and liberty on our side.
You know, Andrew McCarthy said — early this morning, he said we need to put American interests first. I absolutely agree with that. So we need to identify the right terms to use so we can defend our interests. [I think] Islam — you know, not Islamism, militant Islam, radical Islam, totalitarian Islam, every other Islam that we hear about — Islam is the right term to name the ideology that we must criticize, reject, ultimately defeat, regardless of there are non-Muslim Muslims out there. And the implication with all those terms is that Islam as such is fine. It’s all the other, bad Islams that are the problem.
And you know, post-9/11, I read the Koran. I read Robert’s books. Everything I could get my hands on — jihad, Islam. And I just — Islam is not fine, Islam as such. Islam promotes anti-Semitism, misogyny. And being raised again as a non-devout Muslim, there was still an admiration for Hitler in my household. My cousins. Because of the anti-Semitism. And Hitler — there was a mutual admiration society between Nazism and Islam. Hitler admired Islam as a “masculine religion.”
And you know, besides the explicit doctrines of jihad and Sharia, I know firsthand from being raised by non-devout Muslims — my mom, even — I come home one day, and she’s crying. And I was worried about her. I said — what happened, what happened? My first niece was born. And she was mourning the birth of a female, of a baby girl. Because she had projected the idea that her life would be miserable. It will have to be miserable, there’s no way out. And in Islam, women, in a lot of ways, are necessary evils. They can bring into the world male Muslim heirs.
Besides that — and while it’s true that only a small minority actually wage jihad — small minority of Muslims — it’s equally true that only a small minority criticize them. How many Muslims celebrated 9/11? Far too many. We don’t even know. In America, the Middle East, Europe. You know. And imagine in the past, if we referred to enemy ideologies such as radical Nazism.
Militant communism. You know, that kind of thinking leads us to try to find moderate Nazis. You know.
In lieu of waging a proper war in our defense. Because that’s the most important thing here — our defense. Not their defense, not the Muslim world’s future — our future. And you know, besides using the correct term, “Islam,” at times, in order to distinguish between individual Muslims and Islam as such, I use the term “organized Islam.” That doesn’t connote anything besides the fact that [you have] Islam is bad as such. And if it’s organized, it’s even worse.
Individual Muslims — they are what they are. They don’t want to take part in it. But they — you know, I have family who don’t want to talk about jihad; never, ever talk about it. They want to remain — they identify themselves as Muslim. But they eat pork, they have dogs — which are considered filthy in Islam. They’re — I call them post-Islamic Muslims, you know. They’re not Muslim in any serious way. But they sure as hell don’t want to say anything against jihad, which is troubling. Because they give a good face to an evil ideology.
And that’s a real problem. Because people keep saying — well, I know a good Muslim. He’s, you know, a nice guy. But he doesn’t personify the religion. You know, and if he does — if he’s pro-Israel, he sure as hell doesn’t, you know, personify the religion. And you know, my thinking is, in general, your average Muslim is morally superior to Mohammad, morally superior to Islam itself. It’s the consistent practitioners who are the problem.
Then you got individuals like Irshad Manji, who wants Islam to return to its fun — clever, fun-loving roots.
She’s another non-Muslim Muslim. And Zuhdi Jasser — while he may be a good individual amongst us, according to Islam, he’s bad. Because he’s like — he might as well be an apostate. You know, you can’t be against Sharia, against jihad, and be for Islam. In a literal sense, you really can’t. So his Islam, in a lot of ways, I call Zuhdi Jasser-ism.
You know, it’s a subjective, individualist view of Islam. And it gets in the way of us seeing the actual threat for what it is and what it promotes.
And then, you know, the political agenda furthering the myth of “moderate Islam” is good only insofar as it furthers our interests. We cannot sacrifice the truth or refrain from fighting the war we need to fight in the proper way. I see no widespread moderate movement, and I don’t want to help create one at our expense.