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Islam vs. Islamism
Those who make all Islam their enemy succumb to a simplistic and essentialist illusion.

A supporter of the Islamist ruling party in Tunisia, February, 2013.

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Daniel Pipes

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.

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Those who focus on Islam itself as the problem (as do ex-Muslims such as Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali) point to the consistency from Mohammed’s life and the contents of the Koran and hadiths to current Muslim practice. Agreeing with Geert Wilders’s film Fitna, they point to striking continuities between Koranic verses and jihadist 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 Mohammed 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 hadiths literally. Moderate Muslims exist but lack Islamists’ near-hegemonic power. Erdogan’s denial of moderate Islam points to a curious overlap between Islamism and the anti-Islam viewpoint. Mohammed 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 honest analysis.

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 jihadists. 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 worldly success. Those memories of medieval glory remain not just alive but central to believers’ confidence in Islam and in themselves as Muslims.

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 sharia (Islamic law) and emulate the West. Apologists also emulate the West but pretend that in doing so they are following sharia. Islamists reject the West in favor of a retrograde and full application of sharia.

Islamists loathe the West because of its being tantamount to Christendom, the historic archenemy, and because of its vast influence over Muslims. 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.

Supported by 10 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, 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 they 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 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.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.



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