Merry Christmas, Infidel
In this FrontPage Symposium, I mix it up with Daniel Pipes and Bruce Tefft:
The FBI recently issued a warning that al Qaeda may be preparing a series of holiday attacks on US shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago. How seriously must we take such warnings in the context of them applying to the approaching holiday? And must we try to gauge terrorist strategy in the contexts of holidays and certain dates? Do jihadists have a predilection for inflicting violence on some dates over others? Is it wise for us to fixate on certain dates as opposed to others in preparation against terrorist strikes?
To discuss these issues with us today are:
Daniel Pipes, (www.DanielPipes.org) a director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures.
Bruce Teft, the Director of CRA’s Threat Assessment Center. He retired from the CIA as a case officer in 1995 after 21 years, 17 working in Stations abroad. He was a founding member of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center in 1985 and has been involved with terrorism issues since then. After his retirement, he continued studying Islamic terrorist techniques and training more than 16,000 first responders, law enforcement, military and intelligence officials in terrorism awareness and prevention. For a two year period following 9/11, he was the Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence advisor to the New York Police Department.
Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of seven books, eight monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Religion of Peace?
FP: Daniel Pipes, Bruce Teft and Robert Spencer, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Bruce Teft, let me begin with you. What do you find significant about the FBI warning in the context of jihad attacks and dates?
Tefft: I believe that it is pretty clear that the FBI has no “sources” within the terrorist organizations per se — they mostly draw these warnings (and they come out every year like clockwork) from increased “chatter” on jihadi websites. Of course, the terrorists are not going to be talking about real attacks on the websites. However, they know that we monitor and react to these websites and that it costs us inordinate amounts of time and money in preparing defensive measures. I suspect that most of these chat sites are manned by Muslim teenagers doing their part in the war of Islam against the West.
I do not believe that there is a connection between terrorist attacks and certain dates, with perhaps rare exceptions such as the connection between the OKC bombing and the Waco, Texas disaster. Any other apparent connections are probably nothing more than coincidence.
Clandestine operations, whether military, intelligence or terrorist, are very difficult to fix for certain dates. They usually take place as soon as they are ready, certainly not before and rarely afterwards (due to a legitimate fear of discovery). It has been reported that bin Laden expected 9/11 to take place first in June and then August and was getting anxious just before the actual 9/11 attack.
Spencer: Bruce Tefft is of course correct: there is no direct correlation between jihad terror attacks and certain dates. Still, there are some curious resonances. Many have noted that the breaking of the siege of Vienna on September 11, 1683 (although some say September 12) led Osama bin Laden, within a culture that is famous for its long historical memories, to choose that date for the 2001 attacks as a means of signalling that now the mujahedin were picking up where they left off back then. However, even if this connection is absolutely true, no one could have predicted it in advance: it is not that well known as a historical landmark, and the date is not celebrated or memorialized by anyone. This indicates that it is essentially a worthless exercise to try to gauge terrorist strategy by scanning over notable dates in history.
That said, it is also true that the jihadists have an eye for the grand symbol, and this could conceivably take the form of a strike on a notable date as easily as it took the form of attacks on a military landmark (the Pentagon) and an economic one (the World Trade Center). Also notable in this connection may be the warnings we see from Islamic clerics every year: do not participate in the infidels’ festivities, do not wish them holiday greetings, do not endorse in any way what Muslim hardliners see as celebrations of infidelity and the rejection of God. These attitudes, so often reemphasized among Salafist communities, inculcate a contempt and hatred for non-Muslims particularly on the occasions of their holidays that could become the justification for a holiday attack. In sum, then, while the possibility cannot be ruled out that a large-scale attack could be planned for Christmas or New Years Day, there is still no solid indication that jihadists have a predilection for inflicting violence on some dates over others, and law enforcement officials have the obligation of remaining vigilant on every day of the year.
Pipes: I’d like to start by concurring with the observation that operational imperatives appear nearly always to trump the search for symbolic dates; and by joining with Bruce Tefft in wondering if all that “chatter” isn’t manufactured for the purpose of misleading intelligence agencies into thinking something is amiss.
It also bears noting that by the year 2007, there’s a lot of history behind us down to the specific day, so no matter what date out of the 366 one chooses for an act of terrorism, there surely will be something relevant taking place on that same day in some year of recent centuries.
Finally, I’d like to concur with Robert Spencer’s point about Islamist hostility toward Western holidays. I have written about the rejection of Valentine’s Day, but that is a special case, for the focus is erotic, something that bothers the pious of several faiths. More to the point is the general Muslim hostility toward most other holidays, both religious (Christmas above all, but also Easter and Yom Kippur), quasi-religious (New Year’s), and completely secular (in the United States , July 4th and Thanksgiving).
Arguments against these holidays tend to fall into several categories: (1) They have pagan origins. (2) Muslims must not imitate kafirs. (3) Islam is complete and has no need for external celebrations.
To sum these various points up: While Islamists might well enjoy the symbolism of striking during Western holidays, this motivation will not likely have much importance.
Tefft: Both Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes are far more erudite and educated in Islam than I am. In fact, I regard both as my mentors. Drawing on their discourse and writings, I’ve only tried to apply those teachings to the operational matter of fighting Islam.
I have no disagreement at all with their observations of Muslim hostility to Western holidays, or a Muslim desire to attack the kafir to commemorate a significant date- or that nearly every date in the calendar could be linked to some event significant to Muslims since they have been waging war against non-Muslims for 1400 years.
Operationally, however, specific dates are difficult to adhere to and analytically, it is nearly impossible to determine which date might be preferred for an attack over another date.
I eschew the term “Islamist” since I believe it is misleading, implying, as does the term “Islamofascist” that there is some major theological or ideological split in Islam over basic goals. From my understanding of Islam it appears that those we call “radicals”, or “Islamists”, or “Islamofascists” are basically acting in strict accordance with the Koran, Mohammed’s example, and the hadiths. Those Muslims attacking us are the militants, the muhajideen or holy warriors — the armed wing of Islam, much like the various IRA factions were the armed wing of the Irish nationalists, while Sinn Fein was the political/moderate wing.
Both the militants and the other Muslims who support them, or do not reject them as apostates, are after the same goal: conquest of the world by Islam. Their only difference might be tactical. “Moderate” Muslims may believe, as many Communists did during the Cold War, that infiltration and subversion are more effective than direct, frontal-assault armed attacks in conquering their enemy. But even “moderate” Muslims can not deny the Koranic dictates to convert, enslave or kill every non-Muslim and make the world Islamic.
FP: Well moderate Muslims might not be able to deny that this is what the Qur’an dictates, but they can reject it. And in rejecting it this may make them un-Islamic in the eyes of Islam, but they can see themselves as Muslims if they want to and we cannot stop them. In other words, the problem is Islam, not the many Muslims who want to democratize it. They face a large challenge, but because they face a large challenge does not make them the same as Muslim extremists.
Robert Spencer, what do you make of Daniel Pipes” and Bruce Tefft’s comments? And do you think in general that we should be on greater alert this holiday season? And in a general sense, is the West preparing itself in a way that it should be?
Spencer: Daniel Pipes” explanation of why Muslims reject non-Muslim holidays brought to mind an article posted recently on the website of the Khalid Bin Al-Walid Mosque in Toronto, which asks: “How can we bring ourselves to congratulate or wish people well for their disobedience to Allah? Thus expressions such as: Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Birthday, Happy New Year, etc, are completely out.” This grounds the objection to them in the assertion that they are inherently manifestations of disobedience to Allah, probably because of their non-Islamic origins.
On a different subject, I agree with Bruce Tefft that –˜moderate” Muslims can not deny the Koranic dictates to convert, enslave or kill every non-Muslim and make the world Islamic” with a few small reservations: the choices for non-Muslims delineated by Muhammad and Islamic law are not conversion, slavery, or death, but conversion, subjugation, or death (cf. Sahih Muslim 4294). Subjugation is not, strictly speaking, slavery, although the distinction between the two at various points in Islamic history was exceedingly fine. Non-Muslims had to accept a humiliating second-class status and held their lives and property always at the sufferance of their Muslim overlords, but they were not slaves outright.
As for Mr. Tefft’s statement about moderate Muslims, I think it is a handy test of whether a self-professed moderate is sincerely interested in Islamic reform, or is a deceiver: does he admit that Islamic tradition contains teachings involving violence against and the subjugation of unbelievers? Or does he deny that such teachings exist? A real reformer will not deny the existence of such teachings, but will confront them and try to formulate ways to blunt their force for incitement to violence. So I agree that moderate Muslims cannot deny these Qur’anic dictates, but I think it may be possible to formulate a non-literal (and, indeed, anti-literal) understanding of Islam that explicitly rejects its traditional supremacist elements.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves, however, into thinking this is a mass movement that is ready to sweep the Islamic world. There are a few Muslims in the West who are genuinely grappling with how to reconcile Islam with otherwise universally accepted notions of human rights, the sacred/secular distinction, and more. They deserve our support. But they do not at this point have the numbers or influence to even be called a movement, much less to seize the intellectual initiative from the jihadists.
Do I think in general that we should be on greater alert this holiday season? Yes, because the possibility of a holiday strike is there, but we should maintain general vigilance at all times. And in a general sense, is the West not preparing itself in a way that it should be? Indeed not. But the failure is not so much in efforts to head off jihad terror attacks, as many have been thwarted, but in meeting the ideological challenge the jihadists present, and in calling upon American Muslim groups to do something effective to meet that ideological challenge and stop resisting anti-terror efforts. There are also many non-violent ways in which the Islamic supremacist agenda is advancing, and those are not even on the radar screen for law enforcement or government officials at this point.
FP: Dr. Pipes, your thoughts on the discussion? And kindly add a word, if you can, about Robert Spencer’s point about the many non-violent ways in which the Islamist agenda is advancing.
Pipes: Robert Spencer makes two points — that there are “many non-violent ways in which the Islamic supremacist agenda is advancing” and that these are “not even on the radar screen for law enforcement or government officials at this point.” I agree entirely.
(1) I have labeled this phenomenon “lawful Islamism,” argued that it is no less dangerous than violent Islamism, and founded “Islamist Watch” to battle it.
(2) Government officials in general and law enforcement in particular are clueless about this problem; indeed, they tend to make matters worse by effectively endorsing lawful Islamists. This, by the way, has been U.S. policy since Edward Djerejian’s Meriden House speech of June 1992.
Looking ahead, I see an emerging debate on lawful Islamists. That is, Westerners generally agree that truly moderate Muslims are our allies and violent Islamists are our enemies. Contention centers on the middle ground of lawful Islamists.
As for the topic that began this discussion, that of “holiday jihad,” I think we three general agree that the December holiday season is about as dangerous as other times of the year.
Tefft: I disagree with you Jamie that moderate Muslims can reject any part of the Qu’ran and remain Muslims. Nor have I ever seen “many Muslims” wishing to do so. As Robert noted, this is hardly a mass movement ready to sweep the Islamic world…a few hundred Muslims rejecting the Koran out of 1.5 billion is not even statistically noticeable.
As far as those Muslims who do not necessarily support al-Qaeda’s tactic of frontal assault against non-Muslims, I think Dr. Pipe’s points are essential. Muslims, who know they are obligated to make the world Islamic, are far more dangerous when they pretend to be pro-democratic, or loyal members of any man-made, non-Islamic state. CAIR and all of the other terrorist or Wahabbi-related Muslim organizations in the US from ISNA to MPAC to the Muslim Student Associations are past-masters at this type of infiltration and deception. This is much the same tactic the Communists resorted to following the Second World War when they realized that they could not beat the West on an open battlefield. Islam is at war with us. Muslims have so stated, from Mohammed to bin Laden to the Prime Minister of Turkey. Why do we persist in denying the danger? Islam is at war with us, we are not (yet) at war with Islam. And we are in grave danger because of this.
FP: There is a difference between Islam and Muslims. And there are Muslims who are not aware of — or simply not interested in — many of their own teachings. There are Muslims who do not and will not follow out on many of the teachings. Are these Muslims considered good Muslims within Islam? No. Does this mean they do not exist? No.
Islam poses a threat and a problem for us today. Muslims such as Khalim Massoud and Hasan Mahmud do not. They represent part of our hope and we would be very unwise to paint them with the same brush that we do Islamic extremists.
Having said that, Mr. Tefft, I am not in disagreement with your main points about Islam itself.
Spencer: Bruce Tefft is right that moderate Muslims cannot “reject any part of the Qu’ran and remain Muslims” — from the standpoint of traditional Islamic theology and law. That is not to say that a new understanding of Islam could not be developed and ultimately become a large movement, but that consummation, however devoutly to be wished, is not at this point on the horizon. The jihadist movement is precisely a reassertion of that traditional theology and Qur’anic literalism among Muslim populations where some aspects of that literalism have been set aside in practice for quite some time.
Most analysts assume that Muslims who in practice reject that literalism will stand up and be counted on the side of the West, pluralism, and peaceful coexistence when challenged. This has, however, not as yet been proven. And it seems unlikely to happen, since the jihadists can and do portray themselves as the exponents of “pure” and “true” Islam in order to gain recruits and justify their actions. In light of that, genuine reformers would have to reject Qur’anic literalism and traditional Sharia provisions explicitly, and brave the charge from Islamic supremacists that they have by doing so ceased to be Muslim.
Those who do so, however small their numbers may be, deserve our support, although we should be wary of placing too high hopes on their prospects for initiating a large-scale reform movement within the Islamic world. Still, policymakers who are aware of the real magnitude of the problem should be studying ways to exploit the fact that, as Jamie puts it, there are Muslims “who are not aware of — or simply not interested in — many of heir own teachings. There are Muslims who do not and will not follow out on many of the teachings.”
I believe there are many ways this can be done that haven’t even begun to be explored, because official policy has been hamstrung by fictions about Islam and Muslims that have been invested with the status of unquestionable dogma.
Pipes: Islam is in many ways similar to Judaism, as they are both based on a sacred law, Shari”˜a and Halakha. It is therefore instructive to look at the encounter of Judaism with modernity. To shorten a long and complex story, played out over several centuries, the grip of sacred law was loosened and Jews today remain Jews while eating pork and not keeping the Sabbath. Indeed, schools (e.g., Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist) emerged that codified attitudes toward the law. Although such developments remain in the future of Islam, I see no reason to preclude them. As I like to put it, Islam is what Muslims make of it. Or, as Hassan Hanafi, professor of philosophy at the University of Cairo, puts it, the Koran “is a supermarket, where one takes what one wants and leaves what one doesn’t want.”
Tefft: I notice that we are now moving into some very esoteric or philosophical areas — which I am as well qualified as my friends here. While I wonder at Jamie’s comment that there is a difference between Islam and Muslims, I certainly do not disagree with the thought that all whom we might call Muslims, or even moderate Muslims, may not be “good Muslims” according to Mohammed, Allah or the Koran. In that case these ‘bad’ (or “moderate”) Muslims are, from our point of view, not a problem, not a threat and indeed, quite probably good, decent people.
That said, from a military-intelligence point of view, or even an operational and security viewpoint, we must drop political correctness and look at reality. As with the Nazis or Communists of a by-gone era, basic (fundamental) Islam is a murderous, even genocidal, supremacist, exclusionary and evil religion (ideology). I do not think we can gainsay individuals who claim to be Muslims and say that they really do not support the Koran (an obligation in being Muslim) or the ideology of Islam, or are ignorant of what they are claiming to be. This would be most presumptuous on our part. As a simple man, I will take people at their word and if a person claims to be a Muslim, like someone claiming to be a Nazi, they are also laying claim to the belief system that ideology professes.
Islam is not a race, ethnicity, or skin color. Adherence to Islam is not accidental or involuntary. You have to choose to believe in Islam and choose that ideology if you are a Muslim. If it is not yet clear, the religion of Islam is 180 degrees antithetical to the American way of life and the US Constitution. Our separation of church and state, by law, is an in-your-face denial of Allah and the Koran. This is the basic reason for Islam singling out the US as the Great Satan above all other nations. We are thumbing our collective noses at Mohammed teachings. True Muslims are not and can not be our friends and allies. And, barring a crystal ball or mind-reading device, we really have no way to sort out the “True Muslims” from those who only claim to be Muslims (would someone who is not a true believer in National Socialism, claim to be a Nazi?). If someone states that he is a Muslim, I will take him at his word that he is my sworn enemy.
FP: Ok, well, this debate is starting to go in circles.
Needless to say, this position that “If someone states that he is a Muslim, I will take him at his word that he is my sworn enemy,” well, as I have already stated, I reject this position.
And this is not coming from someone who is naÃ¯ve about Islam or naÃ¯ve about what the intense believers of that religion hold to be true and important. Yes, of course, a person who states that he is a Muslim and who means this within the context of embracing the violent and totalitarian themes of Islam, yes, this person is obviously an ideological enemy to anyone who believes in democracy, freedom, individual liberty etc. But again, there are those Muslims who consider themselves to be good Muslims but they are not knowledgeable about, or interested in, or have any intent on pursuing, the violent and authoritarian principles of their religion. And if they are Muslims like Thomas Haidon, they might even be interested and intent on working on an Islam that nullifies those ingredients of their religion. And this is why I have many friends who are Muslims, and these Muslims consider themselves to be Muslims and they have absolutely no interest in jihad or political Islam. And yes, the jihadis might kill these Muslims if they had the chance — but this does not take the reality away that these are still Muslims.
But in any case, I have already made my position clear on this throughout the symposium. There is a difference between Muslims and Islam. And millions of Muslims throughout the world have been and are the victims of political Islam. And part of our impulse in doing what we do here at Frontpagemag.com is founded on reaching out to –and helping — those Muslims who are victims of Islamo-Fascism and/or who are just as intent as we are on defeating Islamo-Fascism. .
An all-inclusive attack on people of a faith, rather than the focus on the problems within a religion, is destructive and will get us nowhere.
But, as a said, this argument is starting to go in circles. Robert Spencer, last comment please.
Spencer: Mr. Tefft is correct that “Islam is not a race, ethnicity, or skin color.” At the same time, in the Middle East in particular, as well as in other areas of the Islamic world, one’s deen — religion — does approach the level of ethnicity. It is considered an unchangeable element of one’s identity. A few years back a Palestinian Muslim named Eyad Sarraj expressed this assumption when he said: “I would honestly say that if I could choose a religion, I would choose Christianity and its ideal of universal acceptance, love, and forgiveness.” It never occurred to him that he could actually choose a religion; such an idea, so taken for granted in America, is almost unheard-of in some sections of the Dar al-Islam.
Consequently, I think it might be fruitful for analysts to study how to bring Muslims to an explicit rejection of concepts that many reject implicitly already — Islamic supremacism, the subjugation of unbelievers, and the like. This could contribute to building the supermarket of which Dr. Pipes spoke, although it will certainly face titanic obstacles from those who consider themselves the guardians of Islamic authenticity and purity. Despite those obstacles, however, I don’t think it would be wise to cede the field entirely to the jihadists in their efforts to win cultural Muslims to their point of view. Our appeals to those cultural Muslims have thus far been based on ignorance both of Islam and of human nature, but there is no reason why that must always be the case.
Pipes: We seem long to have left the “holiday jihad” topic behind. A few responses to comments by my fellow panelists:
* To Mr. Tefft’s comment that “the religion of Islam is 180 degrees antithetical to the American way of life and the US Constitution,” I note that he has isolated a virulent form of Islam, that which I call Islamism, and decided it is the whole of the religion, past and future. This is as fallacious as would be taking a certain form of Christianity — say, that of fifteenth-century Spain — and extending it to all times and places. All things change, especially major religions.
* Malaysia may offer the most complete confluence of ethnicity and religion, where ethnic Malays are all assumed to be Muslim and woe to one would convert to another religion.
* Muslims must indeed do much work do modernize their religion, but it is counterproductive to deny them this potential and insist that they remain mired in the horrors of Islamism. Would it not be better to give them a hand to help pull them out?
FP: Daniel Pipes, Bruce Teft and Robert Spencer, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium. Though indeed we strayed from the “holiday jihad” topic that we focused on in the beginning, you gentlemen nonetheless gave some profound wisdom on that topic — and even the debate that occurred after on connected issues of Islam crystallized crucial themes and perspectives. Thank you.