The answer is found in one word: sharia. Unfortunately, that is a word that Messrs. Feith and Cropsey do not utter — the elephant in the room that many Republican national-security thinkers continue to ignore.
Sharia is Islam’s societal framework, its legal code. The classical interpretation of sharia is the backbone of the ideology we are talking about. As I reiterated on the Corner earlier this week, it is easily accessible: Reliance of the Traveller is an authoritative sharia manual, the English translation of which has been endorsed by the scholars of al-Azhar University (the center of Sunni jurisprudential learning since the tenth century) and by such influential outfits as the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a think tank established by the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States in the early eighties.
It is sharia that rejects liberal principles, including the fundamental right of people to make law for themselves, irrespective of sharia’s dictates. It is sharia that consigns women to second-class legal status. It is sharia, or rather, the failure to rule in accordance with sharia, that drove the ideologues targeted by Bush counterterrorism to oppose the governments of Muslim countries. And when Feith and Cropsey accurately point out that, among other things, “jihad also means holy war,” they are singing sharia’s tune (or at least they would be if sharia did not frown on music). As Reliance puts it (in Sec. o9.0), “Jihad means to war against non-Muslims.”
The failure to confront sharia dilutes the force of the authors’ admirable essay. The modifier “extremist” is no substitute — it just makes matters murkier.
I’ve grappled with this confusion in both The Grand Jihad and my new book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy. To summarize, an “Islamist” used to be a scholar of Islam — like an “archeologist” is a scholar in archeology. In the last few decades, however, “Islamist” has taken on a starkly different meaning, to wit: a Muslim who favors the imposition of the sharia societal system.
We use the term to draw the salient distinction, described above, between Islamic-supremacist ideology and “Islam,” the root belief system. Setting the parameters of Islam’s proper First Amendment protection is not the only reason for this. The distinction is also necessary because many adherents of Islam do not insist on imposing sharia — certainly not the classical sharia laid bare in Reliance of the Traveller. For example, most Muslims in the West, a dwindling majority of Muslims in the Far East, and a minority of Muslims in the Middle East either do not wish to be ruled by sharia or interpret sharia differently from the Islamists — some of them see it as a private compass not to be imposed on others (the same way that Westerners typically view their religions, in keeping with the separation of church and state).
Many analysts, and many Islamists, argue that distinguishing Islam from Islamism is just political correctness. In fact, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says it is an insult. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, he contends there is only one true Islam, “and that’s it.” But that is an argument about ultimate truth, not an accurate report of real-world conditions. It is simply a fact that, of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, a sizeable number — almost surely not a majority, but not a trivial percentage, either — do not subscribe to Islamic supremacism. These millions are our allies and potential allies. Many of them are our fellow Americans. It is in our vital interest to identify those Muslims, make clear that our ideological quarrel is not with them, and try to empower them when it is practical to do so.