The Western schizophrenia about radical Islam is on full display in Britain, in the aftermath of the latest jihadist atrocity, the third in just the past three months.
Three terrorists rammed a van into a crowd on London Bridge and then went on a stabbing rampage, brutally assaulting pedestrians while braying that each blow was struck “for Allah.” A duly outraged Theresa May donned her prime-minister hat to announce that her government is “leading international efforts to take on and defeat the ideology of Islamist extremism around the world.” She also slipped on her amateur-imam cap, adjusted her rose-tinted glasses, and proclaimed that “Islamist extremism” is an ideology
that preaches hatred, sows division and promotes sectarianism. It is an ideology that claims our Western values of freedom, democracy, and human rights are incompatible with the religion of Islam.
And what right-thinking Western politico’s post-mass-murder speech would be complete without May’s insistence that this ideology is — all together now! — “a perversion of Islam and a perversion of the truth.”
If you are an Islamist in the West, you are, by definition, an extremist. An Islamist is a Muslim who believes Islam requires the imposition of sharia, Islam’s ancient, totalitarian societal system and legal code.
“Islamist” is a term we in the West use in the hope that, because there are Muslims who are tolerant, pro-Western people, it must not be inevitable that Islam itself — or at least some interpretations of Islam — will breed the fundamentalist, literalist, supremacist construction of Islam.
It may be a grave error to adopt this hope, especially since it has been elevated into seemingly incorrigible policy. Does the incontestable existence of moderate Muslim individuals necessarily translate into a coherent, viable doctrine of moderate Islam? Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to take just one very influential Muslim leader, says no: The West’s invocation of “moderate Islam” is “ugly,” he counters, because “Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” Erdogan is a close ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential Islamist organization. If he’s right that there’s just one true Islam, rest assured that it’s not friendly to the West. Erdogan describes the Western call for Muslim migrants to assimilate in their new European societies as “a crime against humanity.”
Meanwhile, many students of Islam observe that its aggressiveness, intolerance of non-Muslims, and subjugation of women are indisputably rooted in Islamic scripture. Wherever there is Islam, they maintain, there will inevitably be Islamists; and when those Islamists reach a critical mass of population (which can be considerably less than 50 percent), there will inevitably be sharia activism.
They may be right. I don’t want them to be . . . but hope is not a national-security strategy — even if it has been the West’s national-security strategy for a quarter-century.
Obviously, there are gradations of extremism. Some Islamists are violent jihadists. Some support violent jihadists but eschew violence themselves. Some may reject violence (or at least say they do) and claim to seek sharia imposition only by peaceful persuasion. Some may lie about their intentions, pretending to oppose both violence and the imposition of sharia, or pretending that sharia is really moderate, peaceful, and perfectly compatible with Western notions of freedom, democracy, and human rights. But they all want sharia. If you are a Muslim who wants British law supplanted by Islamic law, that is not a moderate position, even if you’re not prepared to drive a van into a crowd of infidels over it. If that’s where you’re coming from, you are a Muslim extremist — an Islamist.
Jihadist terrorists do not kill wantonly. They kill for a purpose: namely, to impose sharia.
To speak of “Islamist extremists” is either gibberish or a form of political correctness designed to conceal a position one knows makes no sense but feels compelled to take anyway. Since I believe Prime Minister May is no dolt, I am betting on the latter: She is using “Islamist extremist” as code for “terrorist,” even though she knows, deep down, that this makes no sense — i.e., it is inconsistent with her correct insistence that the violence that aggrieves Britain is ideologically motivated.
Jihadist terrorists do not kill wantonly. They kill for a purpose: namely, to impose sharia. The ideology that motivates them does not endorse violence for its own sake. It reflects what Islam takes as the divine imperative that life be lived under the strictures of sharia. That is the ideology.
The problem that Mrs. May has is that it is an ideology shared by many Muslims who are not terrorists. Britain, like many in America, wants to embrace these Muslims as “moderates,” notwithstanding their hostility to Western society and law. May would prefer not to connect the dots that tell us these Muslims, even if not jihadists themselves, are pillars of the ideological support system in which jihadism thrives — they are, as some have aptly put it, the sea in which the jihadist sharks swim, and without which the sharks could not survive.
It is not merely al-Qaeda or the Islamic State that says Islam is incompatible with the Western understanding of human rights. In 1990, the 57 member-governments of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. These representatives of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims took this action precisely because Islam could not be content with the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. The latter is incompatible with the two key provisions of the Cairo Declaration: Articles 24, which states: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah”; and Article 25, which adds: “The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.”
The Western understanding of freedom and democracy holds that people have a right to govern themselves. We draw a line between the secular and the sacred, rejecting the establishment of a state religion. To the contrary, as explained by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps the world’s most influential Sunni sharia scholar, “secularism can never enjoy a general acceptance in an Islamic society,” because “the acceptance of secularism means abandonment of Shari’ah, a denial of the divine guidance and a rejection of Allah’s injunctions.” Qaradawi elaborated (in his book, How the Imported Solutions Disastrously Affected Our Ummah), “Islam is a comprehensive system of worship (Ibadah) and legislation (Shari’ah).” Thus: “The call for secularism among Muslims is atheism and a rejection of Islam. Its acceptance as a basis for rule in place of Shari’ah is downright apostasy.”
Lest we forget, apostasy from Islam is a capital offense in Islamic law. It is punished as such not just by terrorist organizations but by governments in Muslim-majority countries. In the Middle East, at least, sharia is not extremist Islam. It is Islam.
Pace Prime Minister May, it is not “Islamist extremism” that “claims our Western values of freedom, democracy and human rights are incompatible with the religion of Islam.” This is a conceit of leading Islamic scholars and governments. One need not agree with them or concede that theirs is the only interpretation of Islam. But one should grant that their interpretation is no perversion — and that they just might know a lot more about the subject than non-Muslim politicians in the West.
Mrs. May is half right. We are confronted by an ideology. But it is sharia supremacism, the belief that Islamic law must be imposed on society. To limit our attention to violent jihadists is to remain willfully blind to what inspires the jihadists. That is what has to be confronted, if we have the stomach for it.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.