We suffer from willful blindness now more than ever. Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, who prosecuted the Blind Sheik, who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center, warned us of our error in his terror memoir by that name; as we continue our denial of the threat Americans face, McCarthy names names in his new book, The Grand Jihad, which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list this weekend. Andy, a fellow at the National Review Institute, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez about President Obama at war, the future of Islam, the dangers of intramural rancor, and much more.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do health-care reform and “the Grand Jihad” have in common?
ANDREW C. McCARTHY: They both enjoy the support of Islam and the Left. Obviously, I need to explain a few things about that — brevity may be the soul of wit, but I’m learning it can be used against you. In this context, by “Islam,” I mean the Islamist movement — which, though very mainstream among the world’s Muslims, is by no means representative of all Muslims. By “the Left,” I mean the modern hard Left led by President Obama — I do not mean all people who would identify themselves as progressives or liberals. And when I say Islamists and leftists work together, I mean they have an alliance, not that they’ve merged. They’ve got some significant differences, but there are so many historical and present-day examples of collaboration, I’m surprised that there is any dispute about their alliance and their agreement on many big-picture issues.
LOPEZ: When you talk about transformation, do you find people are increasingly at a point where that resonates? Because that’s what they are watching the majority party in Washington trying to achieve?
McCARTHY: Well, it’s clearly more widely accepted now that when the president called for “fundamental change,” that was not just campaign rhetoric. He is a movement leftist. Campaign rhetoric, though, is now becoming policy, pinching pocketbooks and affecting security, so people are more aware that those of us who were so frightened by the prospect of an Obama presidency were not scaremongering. There’s real unease because, while Democrats are the majority party in the sense that they won the election and control Congress and the White House, the government is really being run by a faction of the hard Left that is not representative of majority sentiments. Obama is governing against the majority, and people feel helpless because, while they can discourage Democrats, they can’t really stop them from going down this road.
LOPEZ: How much worse has our willful blindness gotten since you wrote your book by that name?
McCARTHY: It’s worse. Unlike in the early stage of our encounter with Islamism’s civilizational jihad — and that’s their term for it, not something I dreamed up — we now know how serious they are. We’ve been profoundly harmed. Yet, rather than keep our guard up, we’re going back in the other direction, even though it always ends in catastrophe. We are aggressively miniaturizing the threat against us — just “violent extremists,” no connection to any ideology, no sense of how mainstream that ideology is in the Islamic community.
LOPEZ: Explain the subtitle of your book, “How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.” Is this really what’s going on?
McCARTHY: Well, Kathryn, it’s a funny thing. For years after the World Trade Center was bombed, Islamist terrorists declared war against the United States and brazenly promised more terrorist attacks. No one took them too seriously, no one talked too much about it . . . until they came back and destroyed what they’d set out to destroy eight years earlier.
The title of my book, The Grand Jihad, and the subtitle’s invocation of “sabotage,” are not inferences I am drawing or ideas I came up with. I am merely reporting, verbatim, what the Muslim Brotherhood (a.k.a. the Ikhwan) says it intends to do. As they put it in a 1991 internal memorandum:
The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and “sabotaging” its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.
The Brotherhood is the font of Islamist ideology, which is very mainstream among the world’s Muslims. The Brothers are lavishly backed by Saudi millions, they have spent three generations building an activist infrastructure in the United States, and they are very open in explaining that they see themselves in a “civilizational” struggle against the West, that they intend to “conquer America” and “conquer Europe,” that they will implement and spread sharia law (including the sharia political system), and that this will establish the global caliphate. They use terrorism as a method, and exploit the atmosphere of intimidation created by Islamist terrorists, but they are campaigning on every front: the education system, the legal system, the political system, the media — a full cultural assault. And they are convinced that they will win — confirmed in that conviction by the strides they are making, day in and day out.
LOPEZ: Why must England serve as a warning to the U.S.?
McCARTHY: Because England is further ahead than we are in the fallout of a policy that deals with Islamists by engagement and denial, so we can see our destiny in England’s current straits.
LOPEZ: Can England turn things around?
McCARTHY: Of course, but it needs to appreciate the threat and the lateness of the day. My British friends point out that Lady Thatcher rescued Blighty from a dark moment. I defer to their better informed judgment on that, though I’d be very concerned that Thatcher did not have to deal with a British population in which Islam was ascendant and the fallout of a decades-long campaign against Britishness by the country’s opinion elites. It seems to me that the Brits have much more of an uphill climb than they did in the ’70s, but I’m pulling for them.
LOPEZ: Does President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser really believe Islam has nothing to do with the war we’re in? Are we still in a war or have we talked it away? Or are we willfully blind because we’re afraid of the truth . . . or simply afraid?
McCARTHY: I don’t know Mr. Brennan, so I won’t presume to read his mind. As a general matter, I’d say this. Those who won’t come to terms with the fact that our enemies are motivated by Islamist ideology fall into two principal categories. In the first are those who believe, wrongly but in good faith, that we can’t acknowledge the nexus between Islamic doctrine and the Islamist threat because doing so leads inexorably to being “at war with Islam.” That is, we can’t accurately register reality without being in a shooting war with 1.4 billion people. That fear is absurd — Islam is diverse, hundreds of millions of Muslims do not subscribe to Islamist/sharia ideology, and, in any event, we can be in sustained, profound disagreement with people without being in a shooting war — see, e.g., the Cold War. But I do not doubt the good faith of people who hold this position.
The second category is the hard Left. They don’t acknowledge the role of Islamist ideology for a tactical reason: If Islamist ideology is not the rationale causing terrorism and the broader Islamist threat (the Left denies that there is a broader Islamist threat), then there must be alternative rationales. Those rationales, of course, just happen to be American policies despised by the Left. It’s very effective for them to argue that the things they don’t like cause mass-murder attacks.
LOPEZ: Are you being fair to the Left in your book? We both have friends on the left; surely they’re not all trying to “sabotage America.”
McCARTHY: Well, a couple of points here. First, I use “sabotage” because the Muslim Brotherhood uses it, to describe a strategy — different from but interconnected with terrorism — to destroy the West from within. The Brotherhood is explicit about that, and it has extensive alliances with the Left.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, I am not talking about all progressives and liberals. I am talking about hard leftists who want to change America fundamentally because they believe American is irredeemably bad. I don’t have any friends in that part of the Left. My liberal friends love America — they would think it bizarre to have friends who used to be in the Weather Underground and who, far from repenting, brag that they’ve found less personally risky ways to advance the same revolution.
Regarding the Left I am talking about, I think I’m being entirely fair. But I suppose that’s for other people to judge.
LOPEZ: Has the Obama administration done anything right? Has anything pleasantly surprised you?
McCARTHY: Yes. The military attacks on al-Qaeda havens overseas have been very good. There are things with which to quibble. For example, it doesn’t make sense to ramp up troop levels while simultaneously announcing that you’re going to leave. I still disagree fundamentally with the nation-building exercise for the reasons laid out in the book (and often on NRO), but in that regard the administration is essentially continuing the Bush policy. And the administration, particularly by the irresponsible campaign rhetoric of Obama and Eric Holder and other spokesmen, has made it unduly difficult to detain war prisoners.
Marc Theissen and others are right to worry that we are killing people we could be capturing and interrogating — denying ourselves the intel that would improve the effectiveness of our combat operations. But those are quibbles. I said during the campaign that I thought Obama’s position — namely, his promise to attack al-Qaeda safe havens even in Pakistan — was considerably superior to that of McCain (who foolishly regarded Pakistan as a great ally and tried to paint Obama as reckless). My only hesitation was that I believed Obama wasn’t serious — I thought he was just engaging in campaign rhetoric to make himself look stronger and that he’d never actually follow through. He’s proven me wrong on that one, and I’m glad of it.
Of course, the “Why is he doing it?” is the intriguing part. Some of the explanation is domestic politics. But the interesting part goes to the heart of what I’m talking about in the book.
These days, the vibrant debate in Islamist circles — the circles Obama has courted assiduously — is over whether al-Qaeda has outlived its usefulness, at least when it comes to attacking our homeland. Many Islamist thinkers believe the Islamist movement is making such progress marching through our institutions (and Europe’s) that terrorist attacks at this point are a tactical blunder. They cause a blowback effect that retards the progress of what Robert Spencer aptly calls the “stealth jihad.”
Don’t get me wrong: The Islamists are still supportive of terrorist aims, and they still applaud al-Qaeda’s attacks on American troops operating in Muslim countries. (We don’t seem to get this, but even if we think we are doing humanitarian service, Islamist ideology construes sharia to condemn as acts of war attempts to plant Western ideas and institutions in Islamic countries, and to call for violent jihad in response.) But the Brotherhood and the Saudis will sing no sad songs if the U.S. kills bin Laden or crushes al-Qaeda. In Muslim countries, they’ll use it as propaganda against us; in the West, they’ll pretend that they always condemned terrorism (they do that now — even as they urge the destruction of Israel and attacks against American troops). So Obama knows the Islamists he wants to engage have decided al-Qaeda is expendable. He won’t lose any ground with them by smashing al-Qaeda.
LOPEZ: You talk in your book about flushing out the Islamists and the burdens of “true moderate Muslims.” I worry when you and moderate Muslims like the courageous Zuhdi Jasser don’t seem to be on the same page. How do we help encourage and protect moderate Muslims? How can we better hear and highlight them?
McCARTHY: I have great respect for Zuhdi, particularly for his patriotism and his courage. As I explain in the book, I reluctantly part company with friends who say Islam itself is the problem. I do that because of people like Zuhdi and the millions of Muslims who don’t want to live in a sharia society. I think you have to give those people every chance to win — they are our allies, and you don’t keep allies you need by telling them their religion is irredeemable. So I prefer to call our challenge “Islamism” in the hope, however vain it may be, that true moderates like Zuhdi, Irshad Manji, and others will be able to reform Islam.
That said, it is up to these moderates to accomplish this reformation; it’s not our job. Of course we want to hear and highlight the true moderates. But we also need for them to have something compelling to say. It can’t just be what we want to hear. It can’t just be, “Look at me, I’m a Muslim, I’m a moderate, and I love America, so Islam must be great.” It has to be, “Let me give you the reasons why Islam does not require the implementation of sharia law, why Islam accepts freedom of conscience, why Islam accepts a separation of mosque and state, why Islam fully accepts the Western notion of equal protection under the law — for men and women, for Muslims and non-Muslims.” The Islamists have thought these matters through and have strong theological arguments for the contrary positions. If the reformers can’t compete with that, they are losing the battle for allegiance among Muslims, regardless of how much we may admire them and wish they were winning.
LOPEZ: Is there any way to have these conversations between Right and Left constructively?
McCARTHY: It depends on what part of the Left. Like everyone else, I get very thoughtful e-mail that makes me rethink things, and I get other e-mail that starts out with what a racist Islamophobe I am and goes downhill from there.
When I read or hear smart progressives say the problem with Obama is that he’s trying to do too much too fast, I think: We just have an unbridgeable divide here. What Obama is trying to do, whatever the pace, is fundamentally to alter the country in a way that suppresses the freedom culture on which the country was built. I don’t see any constructive debate on that. These sorts of differences are not reconcilable. One side has to win and one side has to lose.
I’m more dismayed by the difficulty of having conversations between the Right and the Right. There are real debates worth having about the conservative vision of the size and role of government in the modern world; federalism; the courts; how to defend ourselves from the broader Islamist threat within the rule of law; sovereignty; the validity of international democracy promotion and whether we should be using the military to accomplish it; how to oppose Obamacare (i.e., total repeal or something less ambitious); the question of whether the movement should be more strategic or more tactical; and so much more. The intramural rancor makes those debates hard to have in a constructive way.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.