This is a familiar controversy to longtime Jihad Watch readers; in November 2011 I published an article in National Review responding to a piece by Andy McCarthy and criticizing the Islam/Islamism distinction for obscuring the fact that doctrines of warfare and subjugation are found in Islam's core texts.
I've long rejected the term "Islamist" for reasons I explained in that piece: "...the distinction is artificial and imposed from without. There are not, in other words, Islamist mosques and non-Islamist mosques, distinguishable from one another by the sign outside each, like Baptist and Methodist churches. On the contrary, 'Islamists' move among non-political, non-supremacist Muslims with no difficulty; no Islamic authorities are putting them out of mosques, or setting up separate institutions to distinguish themselves from the 'Islamists.' Mevlid Jasarevic [a jihadist in Sarajevo] could and did visit mosques in Austria, Serbia, and Bosnia without impediment before he started shooting on Friday; no one stopped him from entering because he was an 'Islamist.'"
And so to say we must work with ordinary Muslims while eschewing collaboration with Islamists is not precisely a distinction without a difference, but a distinction that is practically imperceptible and, in many cases, in fact not there at all.
This is not to say that Islam can never be reformed. Many strange things have happened in history: events that no one 100 or 50 or sometimes even 10 years before they happened would have or could have predicted. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but in 1986 and 1987 there were still plenty of learned analysts all over the airwaves and in the corridors of power in Washington talking about how we were going to have to deal with the Soviet Bloc for generations to come. So I will never say that something can never happen. But we have to recognize fully and honestly the obstacles in the way of it happening so as to make a truly realistic assessment of the situation we're in, and apply remedies that are most likely to work, as well as to accord with our own fundamental principles.
"Islam and its infidels," by Daniel Pipes in the Washington Times, May 13:
What motives lay behind last month’s Boston Marathon bombing and the would-be attack on a Via Rail Canada train?
Leftists and establishmentarians variously offer imprecise and tired replies — such as “violent extremism” or anger at Western imperialism — unworthy of serious discussion. Conservatives, in contrast, engage in a lively and serious debate among themselves: some say Islam the religion provides motive; others say it’s a modern extremist variant of the religion, known as radical Islam or Islamism.
As a participant in the latter debate, here’s my argument for focusing on Islamism.
Those arguing for Islam itself as the problem (such as Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali) point to the consistency from Muhammad’s life and the contents of the Koran and Hadith to current Muslim practice. Agreeing with Geert Wilders’ film “Fitna,” they point to striking continuities between Koranic verses and jihad actions. They quote Islamic scriptures to establish the centrality of Muslim supremacism, jihad and misogyny, concluding that a moderate form of Islam is impossible. They point to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s deriding the very idea of a moderate Islam. Their killer question is “Was Muhammad a Muslim or an Islamist?” They contend that we who blame Islamism do so out of political correctness or cowardliness.
To which, we reply: Yes, certain continuities do exist, and Islamists definitely follow the Koran and Hadith literally. Moderate Muslims exist, but lack Islamists’ near-hegemonic power. Mr. Erdogan’s denial of moderate Islam points to a curious overlap between Islamism and the anti-Islam viewpoint. Muhammad was a plain Muslim, not an Islamist, for the latter concept dates back only to the 1920s. And no, we are not cowardly but offer our true analysis.
Not only do moderate Muslims "lack Islamists’ near-hegemonic power"; they also lack the justification in the Qur'an and Hadith that Islamic jihadists always point to in order to gain recruits among peaceful Muslims, as well as to justify their actions. And this is a key point: if Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (both, not incidentally, ex-Muslims) are right that there is a "consistency from Muhammad’s life and the contents of the Koran and Hadith to current Muslim practice," and they most certainly are, as Daniel Pipes apparently acknowledges when he says that "certain continuities do exist, and Islamists definitely follow the Koran and Hadith literally," then attempts to prescind from Qur'anic literalism in order to reform Islam and create a more peaceful version of the faith will always be challenged by the literalists (who are and have always been the mainstream in Islam) as heretics and apostates.
And the punishment for heresy and apostasy is death. That's why Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was murdered in the Sudan in the 1980s for daring to suggest that the Qur'an's peaceful verses (which are slight and scanty in any case) should supersede its violent ones, instead of the other way around, as is the traditional understanding in Islamic theology and law. (Islam's doctrine of abrogation holds that the verses revealed later chronologically supersede those revealed earlier, if there is any contradiction -- and the violent verses came later.) That's why the Moroccan cleric Ahmed Assid, who just recently condemned violence in Islam's name, was declared an apostate and an enemy of Allah by other clerics, and threatened with death. That's why the Iraqi Shi'ite scholar Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji called for reason in Islamic discourse and jurisprudence, and was promptly arrested.
It's hard to see how a mass reform movement can ever grow when those who make even a peep calling for reform are promptly condemned and arrested, but the larger point is that the claim of Qur'anic and Islamic authenticity by the jihadists and Islamic supremacists is extremely powerful, has never been successfully challenged on any large scale, and will continue into the foreseeable future to stifle genuine attempts at reform. It would be unwise to wave it away lightly.
And that analysis goes like this:
Islam is the 14-century-old faith of a billion-plus believers that includes everyone from quietist Sufis to violent jihadis. Muslims achieved remarkable military, economic and cultural success between roughly 600 and 1200 A.D. Being a Muslim then meant belonging to a winning team, a fact that broadly inspired Muslims to associate their faith with mundane success. Those memories of medieval glory remain not just alive, but central to believers’ confidence in Islam and in themselves as Muslims.
Sufis haven't always been all that quietist. They have long been involved with the Chechen jihad; Hasan Al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood was strongly influenced by them; and some of their most revered figures, including Al-Ghazali himself, were quite clear in their espousal of violent jihad and dhimmitude for non-Muslims. Islam "includes everyone from quietist Sufis to violent jihadis," and yet the one aspect of this glorious diversity that we would want to see most is unfortunately missing: an Islamic sect that actually rejects the concept of jihad warfare against and subjugation of unbelievers under Sharia. The Ahmadiyya reject violent jihad, although they energetically pursue dawah for the imposition of Sharia, and are violently persecuted as heretics.
Major dissonance began around 1800, when Muslims unexpectedly lost wars, markets and cultural leadership to Western Europeans. It continues today, as Muslims bunch toward the bottom of nearly every index of achievement. This shift has caused massive confusion and anger. What went wrong? Why did God seemingly abandon His faithful? The unbearable divergence between premodern accomplishment and modern failure brought about trauma.
Muslims have responded to this crisis in three main ways. Secularists want Muslims to ditch the Shariah (Islamic law) and emulate the West. Apologists also emulate the West, but pretend that in doing so they are following the Shariah. Islamists reject the West in favor of a retrograde and full application of the Shariah.
Islamists loathe the West because of its vast influence over Muslims and its being tantamount to Christendom, the historic archenemy. Islamism inspires a drive to reject, defeat and subjugate Western civilization. Despite this urge, Islamists absorb Western influences, including the concept of ideology. Indeed, Islamism represents the transformation of Islamic faith into a political ideology. Islamism accurately indicates an Islamic-flavored version of radical utopianism, an -ism like other -isms, comparable to fascism and communism. Aping those two movements, for example, Islamism relies heavily on conspiracy theories to interpret the world, on the state to advance its ambitions, and on brutal means to attain its goals.
"Islamism" as a modern construct was by no means the first to transform the "Islamic faith into a political ideology." Islam was political from the beginning; Islamic tradition portrays Muhammad as a political as well as religious leader, and his successors amassed large Islamic empires based on the proposition that Islam was a political system. In fact, the most prominent contemporary exponent of "Islamism," the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna as a direct response to the abolition of the caliphate, the foremost symbol of political Islam, by the secular Turkish government in 1924. Al-Banna envisioned the Brotherhood not as some kind of innovation, but as a revival of traditional and mainstream Islam.
Supported by 10 percent to 15 percent of Muslims, Islamism draws on devoted and skilled cadres who have an impact far beyond their limited numbers. It poses a threat to civilized life in Iran and Egypt, and not just on the streets of Boston, but also in Western schools, parliaments and courtrooms.
Our killer question is “How do you propose to defeat Islamism?” Those who make all Islam their enemy not only succumb to a simplistic and essentialist illusion, but lack any mechanism to defeat it. We who focus on Islamism see World War II and the Cold War as models for subduing the third totalitarianism. We understand that radical Islam is the problem and that moderate Islam is the solution. We work with anti-Islamist Muslims to vanquish a common scourge. We will triumph over this new variant of barbarism so that a modern form of Islam can emerge.
Moderate Islam is a solution that does not exist, and can only be a solution if it could be successfully invented. Calling upon Muslims to renounce the aspects of their theology that violate basic human rights will never be effective if we do not acknowledge that those aspects exist -- and that requires talking about Islam. As I said in that National Review article: "Andy is wrong in his claim that I have ever said that any form of Islam is 'the only Islam,' but the fact is that throughout its history, and in all its theological, legal, and sectarian manifestations, Islam has always been supremacist and political. Acknowledging that is simply acknowledging reality. Pro-Western Muslim reformers have to start there. In Christian history, the Protestant reformers did not pretend that Church doctrine was other than what it was. They confronted and refuted portions of that doctrine. But Andy seems to expect contemporary Islamic reformers to succeed by pretending that Islam is not what its authoritative texts teach and what it always has been historically. He says that he does not see 'what purpose is served' by telling Islamic reformers that 'Islam is incorrigibly supremacist and political.' But if it is supremacist and political, whether 'incorrigibly' or not, then sincere reformers have to start there in order to fix it. Wishful thinking and self-deception are not reform. Ultimately those doctrines can be combatted only by actually combatting them."
I stand by that.