That virulent Islam is ascendant in the world today. Despite the good work of Nadlahtul Ulama, it is gaining strength in parts of Indonesia. It is rolling over Europe and making inroads here in America. It is a profound threat. To assert that there can be other interpretations of Islam — constructions that adapt to Western norms — is not to claim that such constructions will inevitably succeed or that Islamism’s sharia agenda will cease to be a profound threat. It is not to give Islam a pass: Even if Islam is capable of benign interpretations, it quite naturally spawns supremacist interpretations — interpretations whose influential adherents, such as Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, echo Robert’s conclusion that their Islam is the only Islam. To draw the Islam/Islamist distinction is not to claim that everything is coming up roses or that this story must eventually have a happy ending.
Nevertheless, the question raised by Robert’s unyielding position is whether there are, and can be, other viable interpretations of Islam. The answer is yes. They are not as cogent as we’d like them to be, and they do not compete with classical Islam as effectively as we wish. Most of the time, they are less a refutation of classical Islam than a choice — conscious or unconscious — to ignore its supremacist, political elements. But even a passive choice can change a doctrine or a social system, and can do so even if the ignored elements remain on the books.
We see that with our own law: political decisions about which statutes get enforced and which do not can effectively nullify the latter over time. Repeal is more often achieved by inaction than by a formal process — inaction does not require an airtight theory why some law or standard is no longer honored; all you need is inertia. Once the political will to enforce a standard has evaporated, most any post facto rationalization will justify abandoning it — even one that barely passes the laugh test. If Muslims came to a consensus position that mosque and state would henceforth be separated, or that aggressive jihad was no longer an acceptable way to impose sharia, it would be immaterial that these positions represented a less than compelling exegesis of their scripture.
My argument with Islam’s Western apologists is not that this kind of evolution is out of the realm of possibility. It is with their absurd insistence that it has already happened. Not just that it could conceivably happen — about which there are lots of reasons for pessimism — but that it has already happened. This is not only self-evidently untrue; it may be fatally counterproductive. By failing to shine the light of inquiry on supremacist, political Islam — by failing to force Islamists into the position of publicly acknowledging and defending their noxious beliefs — we deprive pro-Western Muslims of the platform they need to promote reform and marginalize the supremacists. This only empowers faux moderates like the Muslim Brotherhood, enabling them to push sharia as if it were unthreatening and promote Hamas as if it were an ordinary political party.
That, however, is a different problem from the one Robert’s position poses. He is essentially saying that if it is not supremacist and political, then it is not Islam. That not only closes the door on any potential reform, it risks antagonizing pro-Western Muslims. There are many of them and they have no desire to impose sharia on civil society — even if they are less vocal about that than we’d like. Given that they nevertheless see themselves as faithful Muslims, I do not see what purpose is served by telling them that Islam is incorrigibly supremacist and political.
From a tactical standpoint, we want such Muslims as our allies, and we certainly want to see them make inroads against the Islamic supremacists. That makes the Islam/Islamist distinction a worthy accommodation. It does not deny that classical Islam is the source of Islamism. But it does two important things. First, it identifies as “Islamist” those Muslims who hold to the supremacist and political aspects of Islam — and it is very useful for us to see those people for what they are. Second, it acknowledges interpretations of Islam that reject these political and supremacist elements: They are plausible, they are legitimately called “Islam,” and we want them to thrive. That is not a prediction of success, but it is a significant show of support.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.