Militant Islamism, Islamism, Islam
A senior U.S. military adviser attempts their “disaggregation” — not entirely successfully.

From the cover of Youssef H. Aboul-Enein’s Militant Islamist Ideology


Clifford D. May

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has described the Muslim Brotherhood as “secular.” Vice President Joseph Biden recently said that the Taliban “is not our enemy.” According to John Brennan, assistant to the president on counterterrorism, terrorists who proclaim they are motivated by religion should not be described using “religious terms.” Where do ideas such as these come from? The answer, in large measure, is from advisers — so perhaps it would be instructive to examine more closely what those advisers are actually saying.

U.S. Navy Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein “has advised at the highest levels of the defense department and the intelligence community,” according to the jacket notes on his book, Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat, published by the Naval Institute Press. Raymond Ibrahim, a young analyst for whom I have great respect, recently gave the book a withering review. My reading is less harsh. I think that Commander Aboul-Enein, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Saudi Arabia, is grappling, seriously and sincerely, with the pathologies that have arisen from within the Muslim world, and is struggling to formulate a coherent American response. That should not suggest, however, that his efforts have been entirely successful.

Aboul-Enein states that the “challenge to America’s national security in the twenty-first century” comes from “Militant Islamist Ideology.” Good for him for not defaulting to “violent extremism,” a term designed to hide rather than to reveal. He urges that policy makers adopt a “nuanced” approach to this challenge — one that “disaggregates” Militant Islamism from both Islam and Islamism.

To charge that “all Islam is evil,” he says, is a mistake. For many Muslims, Islam is “a source of values that guide conduct rather than a system that offers solutions to all problems.” It is no less incorrect, he adds — with more intellectual honesty than many other analysts have demonstrated — to “insist that all Islam is peaceful.” Islamic scripture provides ample justification for hating, oppressing, and killing non-Muslims. But it is neither accurate nor productive, argues Aboul-Enein, to confirm the militants’ claim that theirs is the only authentic interpretation of Islam — that Muslims not waging a “jihad” against “infidels” are, at best, misguided; at worst, traitors to their faith.

As for Islamists, he confirms that they seek “unacceptable outcomes for the United States in the long run.” Allow me to offer one example: Muhammad Badi, supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said last year that Muslims should strive for “a government evolving into a rightly guided caliphate and finally mastership of the world.”

Despite that, Aboul-Enein argues that Islamism has “potential” as an “alternative to Militant Islamist Ideology.” His rationale: Islamists intend to achieve their objectives not through violence but “within the political and electoral frameworks of the countries in which they operate.”

This is where, in my view, he gets lost in the analytic woods. Islamists may prefer ballots to bullets. But is that because, as Aboul-Enein asserts, they “abhor the violent methodologies espoused by Militant Islamists”? Or is it because they see elections as a less bumpy path to power?

Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, has said that Islam will “conquer Rome . . . not by the sword but by preaching.” But if you were to infer that he has a moral objection to violence, you’d be wrong. The proof: Qaradawi has praised Hitler for his “punishment” of the Jews, adding, “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”