Among the Believers
Almost a decade after 9/11, we should better understand the varieties of Islamist experience.


Clifford D. May

Nearly ten years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many politicians, diplomats, journalists, and academics remain reluctant even to name America’s enemies. To take but one example: John Brennan, head of the White House homeland-security office, has argued that America is only “at war with al Qaeda” and its closest affiliates.

I understand the impulse to frame the conflict as narrowly as possible. Brennan and others do not want to reinforce al-Qaeda’s message that Muslims from Afghanistan to Iraq to Israel to Paris to Detroit must choose between the umma, the global Islamic community (“Islamic nation” is an equally accurate translation), and the West — to fight for one and against the other.

But can we not say — truthfully and without playing into al-Qaeda’s hands — that there are regimes and groups within the Muslim world that are implacably hostile to the West? Can we not say that they subscribe to a belief system called jihadism? The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus defined jihadism as a religiously inspired ideology built on the teaching “that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary in order to compel the world’s submission to Islam.”

I would contend that there is a distinction, subtle but significant, between jihadism and Islamism. Jihadists see warfare as the divinely ordained path to Islamic supremacy. Islamists may prefer to utilize other means. Some may even think terrorism ill-advised because attacks like those carried out in New York and Washington — and London, Bali, Madrid, and Ft. Hood — have awakened many in the West — but by no means all — to the seriousness of the threat we face.

Among the jihadis and Islamists there is variety and diversity. If you want a glimpse of it, let me suggest the just-completed World Almanac of IslamismProduced by the American Foreign Policy Council, and edited by AFPC’s Ilan Berman, it contains contributions from more than 50 experts (including two from my organization, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies).

Among the morsels in this cornucopia: Of more than 1,000 mosques in Spain, about ten percent are believed to be radical. Of the estimated 1,500 mosques in France, about 80 are considered to be “at risk of radicalization” and 20 are under close government surveillance.

In Russia, the Caucasus Emirate has ideologically and politically allied itself with the most virulent elements of the global jihadist movement, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and others.”

Albania has become the first European member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, one consequence of which is that there are no longer any visa requirements for citizens of Muslim countries, making Albania an open door for terrorists who want to disappear into Europe. When local authorities in the northern Albanian, majority-Catholic city of Shkoder announced that Mother Teresa would be commemorated with a statue, three Muslim NGOs protested — calling that a “provocation” against Islam.

I was unaware that in the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, religious freedom has been abolished and Taliban-style public flogging is becoming common as Islamist political parties push for the strict implementation of sharia, Islamic law.

I did know that the Tablighi Jamaat, the [Islamic] transmission group,” was founded in India in the early 20th century, but I was surprised to learn that it is now active “in at least 165 nations” including the U.S., wherethere may be as many as 50,000 Muslims affiliated with the TJ.” The TJ preaches against Westernization, secularization, and religious toleration but steers clear of local politics and “teaches jihad as personal purification” rather than warfare. Nevertheless, the almanac says, there is “some debate” about whether it “serves as an incubator for jihadin the kinetic sense.