Politics & Policy

Can Islamism Evolve?

Al-Nusra brigade fighters in Syria
It’s possible, but that’s not a rationale for collaboration or concessions.

Like everything Daniel Pipes writes, his column this week about the prospects of Islamism is interesting and admirably honest. If every public intellectual were as willing as Daniel to check his premises regularly and modify them when new facts call them into question, our discourse would be a lot more civil and edifying.

His column is about “Islamism,” which is the ideology I (among others) call “Islamic supremacism” — a.k.a “radical” or “extremist” Islam, or even “sharia-ism” in the recent coinage of my friend Joy Brighton . . . all of us, it should be conceded, grappling for the pitch-perfect term that (we hope) justifies sidestepping the gnawing question whether Islam itself inevitably breeds aggressive Muslim groups even if it is otherwise widely construed, or at least practiced, benignly.

Daniel has previously rejected the possibility that Islamism, which is innately dictatorial, could evolve into something that approximates pluralistic democracy. He now surveys recent developments and concludes it is conceivable — not likely, but conceivable — that Islamism could evolve and improve.

To me, the developments Daniel cites are just glimmers here and there along a mostly discouraging trajectory. I will make three points, more in reaction than in direct response to his observations.

1. Only our own lower expectations of what liberal democracy is make it possible to speculate that Islamism could become borderline democratic. While Daniel mines some hopeful signs that Islamism — or at least branches of it — could be progressing away from unyielding authoritarianism, the parallel phenomenon (which is not the subject of his column) is that Western democracy is regressing away from a culture of individual liberty protected by limited government. If it now seems conceivable that Islamism could democratize, it can only be owing to modern democracy’s accommodation of more centralized and intrusive government.

2. The only conclusion of Daniel’s that I have a real quarrel with is his assertion that

Islamism has significantly evolved over the past 13 years. As recently as 2001, its adherents were synonymous with criminals, terrorists, and revolutionaries.

I think this conflates Islamism with our perception of Islamism. Personally, I don’t believe Islamism has materially changed at all. Instead, beginning about 21 years ago with the bombing of the World Trade Center, there was a vigorous effort on the part of progressive policy-makers and thinkers — an effort that still persists — to convince the public that the only “radical” Muslims were violent jihadists (who were incongruously portrayed as both “extremist” Muslims and practitioners of a “false Islam”). All other Muslims, we were told, were “moderates,” no matter how immoderate their beliefs. There was very little public understanding of sharia — the Islamic societal framework and legal system — and of the fact that imposing its implementation is the rationale for both jihadist terror and the non-violent agitations of Islamist groups.

What has changed over the past 13 years is not Islamism. Thanks to the good work of people like Daniel — I have tried to do my share, too — the public has begun to learn that Islamists include not only terrorists but Islamic supremacists who seek to impose and inculcate sharia standards by such other means as lawfare, legislation, the classroom, the media, popular culture, etc. There is nothing new in this variegated approach; it is the same plan for ground-up revolution that Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna laid out nearly a century ago. There is, however, more popular awareness today that not every non-terrorist Muslim activist is a “moderate.”#page#

Daniel recalls his observation all those years ago that many Islamists “are peaceable in appearance, but they all must be considered potential killers.” He says “these words ring archaic now,” but, to me, they simply reflect the still valid insight that terrorist and non-terrorist Islamists share objectives even if their methods differ. I don’t think there has been any real evolution just because we are in a time when many Islamists, as Daniel says, “find the ballot box a more effective means to power than the gun.”

It has always been the case that some Islamists pursue the sharia agenda by barbaric means and others by political and legal processes. The only difference today lies in the nature of their opportunities. In Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Islamists got the chance to obtain by popular vote what they had previously sought by terrorism — control of the government. And what happened when the Muslim Brotherhood took over? Terrorists were sprung from captivity. Islamist Egypt seamlessly became a hospitable place for jihadists to organize against Israel and the United States. Islamists — both violent and ostensibly non-violent — put their differences aside and allied against the West.

’Twas ever thus. Daniel is surely right that “some reforms of Islam are already underway” (my italics). But that hardly means Islamism is reforming in any substantial way. Indeed, the link in Daniel’s assertion about ongoing Islamic reform takes the reader to an excellent essay he wrote for Commentary last year, which portrays the reform of Islam as what is required “if Islamism is to be defeated,” not as a phenomenon happening in Islamism itself.

3. Daniel’s column is an analysis of what is happening to Islamism as a result of its internal tensions. I’d like to pick up from there and ask what we do about it. That is, if we assume for argument’s sake that Islamism could evolve into something worthy, what are the public-policy implications?

In my estimation, there are none. Our interests lie, as they always have, with promoting authentic moderate Muslims — i.e., the non-Islamists we are hoping will defeat Islamists. The slight chance that Islamism could evolve into something worthy — and Daniel isn’t saying it’s anything more than a slight chance — does not change this. (I want to stress, again, that I don’t take Daniel to be suggesting otherwise. I am addressing a U.S. policy question that is collateral to his analysis, not picking a fight where there is none.)

The biggest problems we have made for ourselves, both at home and abroad, involve embracing Islamists. Internationally, the policy of accommodating Islamists has inevitably empowered jihadists. Domestically, it has eroded our liberties and made counterterrorism more difficult. In both realms, it has demoralized and marginalized moderate Muslim reformers who champion civil liberties and the exclusion of sharia from public political life (they see it, at most, as a private moral compass that needn’t be taken literally).

I can think of no worse choice we could make, and thus none more likely for the current administration to make, than to see a small ray of hope that Islamism could improve as a rationale for further collaboration with and concessions to Islamists. Islamism is the ideology of our enemies and the bane of the reformist and pro-Western Muslims who are our real friends. It needs to be defeated, not brought around.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His next book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, will be released by Encounter Books on June 3.

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