Last week, Doug Feith and Seth Cropsey co-authored a very interesting and important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “A Foreign Policy Failure to Acknowledge the Obvious.” It is about President Obama’s denial of the Islamist threat. In it, they zero in on two “strategic misjudgments” the administration has made:
First is the refusal to accept that the terrorism threat is part of a larger problem of Islamist extremism. And second is the belief that terrorism is spawned not by religious fanaticism but by grievances about social, economic, and other problems for which America bears fault.
This is largely right. If it were internalized by a Romney administration, it would be a step in the right direction. Still, the essay goes awry in significant ways.
Let’s start with the authors’ intimation that “religious fanaticism” causes terrorism. To be sure, that’s a better explanation than the Left’s “blame America first” approach. Yet, it still misses the mark. The real cause is ideology, not religion. The distinction is worth drawing because, for the most part, Islamist terror is not fueled by Muslim zealousness for Islam’s religious tenets — for instance, “the oneness of Allah.” We Westerners recognize such beliefs as belonging to the realm of religion or spirituality. To the contrary, Islamist terror is driven by the supremacism and totalitarianism of Middle Eastern Islam — i.e., by the perception of believers that they are under a divine injunction to impose all of Islam’s tenets.
Most of those tenets do not concern religion or spirituality, at least not as Westerners interpret those concepts. Instead, sharia is largely concerned with controlling what we see as secular affairs — political, social, military, financial, jurisprudential, penal, even hygienic matters. Of course, the fact that we separate church and state in the West does not mean our moral sense is without influence — indeed, profound influence — over how we conduct secular affairs. But in the West, we reject the notion that any religious belief system’s tenets should control those affairs. In the United States, we reject the establishment of a state religion — such official primacy would suffocate freedom of conscience, a bedrock of liberty.
By contrast, the foundation of Middle Eastern Islam is submission to Allah’s law, not individual liberty. This interpretation of Islam thus rejects a division between the secular and the spiritual. Its sharia system contemplates totalitarian control. That makes Islamist ideology (i.e., Islamic supremacism, or what is sometimes more elliptically called “political Islam”) just another totalitarian ideology, albeit one that happens to have a religious veneer.
Some of my friends make the error of claiming that “Islam is not a religion.” I understand what they mean — it is a clumsy way of making the point that mainstream Islam aspires to control much more than spiritual life. Still, the clumsy rhetoric is a bad mistake, driving a wedge between what should be natural allies: those fearful of Islamic supremacism and religious believers. The latter — for example, American Christians, Jews, and non-Islamist Muslims — today find their core liberties under siege by government overreach and atheist hostility. How convenient for these aggressor forces if, by the hocus-pocus of denying an established creed the status of religion, its adherents may be stripped of their constitutional protections.