A common complaint you hear these days, especially on the right, is that “moderate” Muslims do nothing to oppose or denounce radical Islam and jihadist terrorism. As a blanket generalization, this is untrue and unfair. If you bother to look, you can easily find examples of this around the world: individual Muslims assisting investigations and lending a hand to victims of terrorism, imams and organizations issuing statements against terrorism, even groups of Muslims bravely standing up for persecuted Christians (such as the Copts in Egypt).
Muslims are often the first targets and victims of the radicals, and even among those who share some of the jihadists’ political beliefs, many would love to see the scourge of Islamist terrorism exterminated. While public polling on extremist attitudes often shows alarmingly large minorities of Muslims holding one or more radical beliefs, they still consistently show majority rejection of most of those beliefs in most countries’ Muslim populations (in both Western countries and majority-Muslim states).
You may be skeptical about the political will behind these sentiments, but the sentiments are there, and the individual actions taken are real. Why, then, do we hear so little about them, and why do they seem to have so little impact? Media narratives and media laziness are a factor, as is the mainstream media’s general difficulty when it comes to intelligently covering sincere religious belief of any stripe. But the media alone is an incomplete answer, especially given how many outlets are so visibly desperate to run stories about how radical Islam isn’t Islam at all, etc., and how eagerly they tend to eat up propaganda from public-relations shops for organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Two things that are really needed are vocabulary and organization.
The Word Is Father to the Thought
Let’s start with vocabulary. I’ll focus on the terms used in English-language discourse, but many of these problems are pervasive across languages. First of all, let’s consider what we call the bad guys. Nearly everyone in America and the West at least claims to consider them bad guys, and we know in general terms what they believe, where it comes from, and what sort of rule they wish to impose. It’s a political vision, but one rooted in a distinctive reading of Islamic scriptures. Non-Muslims can really only speak to the politics; it’s not for us to say what is or is not “true” Islamic doctrine, or to disentangle how much of the political extremism in the Muslim world is truly separable from religious doctrine. Muslims who disagree with the political vision can most effectively fight it by advancing an alternative religious and political vision.
To do so, they first need to name the idea they disagree with. And few have really tried. Radical Islam. Islamists. Jihadists. Almost 16 years after 9/11, we don’t even have commonly-agreed-upon words to describe the enemy, and Muslim religious and community leaders are rarely willing to endorse any but the vaguest alternatives, ones like “radicals” and “extremists” that omit any Islamic identifier capable of distinguishing these bad guys from others with completely different ideologies.
Instead, the typical response of Western Muslim groups — CAIR and its counterparts in Britain, Canada, France, and other places — is to (1) describe the perpetrators in “No True Scotsman” terms as generic extremists who are not real Muslims, and (2) immediately turn, in classic circle-the-wagons-around-our-tribe fashion, to complaining about expected “backlash” and “Islamophobia.” It’s not surprising, after a decade and a half of this pattern, that Westerners generally don’t think the Muslim spokesmen who push this line are actually serious about opposing an enemy they won’t even properly name. Instead, these groups come off like the “Italian-American Civil Rights League” that arose in the early 1970s; its alleged purpose was to combat the popular connection between Italian-Americans and the Mafia, but it was generally regarded as an apologist for the mob, and it vanished once Mafia leaders no longer saw a point in backing it. By contrast, voters warmed to mob-busting Italian-American prosecutors such as Rudy Giuliani, who thought the best way to disassociate yourself from the bad guys was to lock them up.
Indeed, the term “moderate Muslims” is itself harmful and counterproductive; it implies that Muslims generally agree with the beliefs of the radicals, but are just more modest in how they want them implemented. For some people and some beliefs, that is undoubtedly true. But the term encourages thinking of Muslims as a single tribe with some wayward members. What’s needed instead is to draw clear lines between those who want the dark political vision of the Islamists, and those who wish to practice their faith in free societies without blasphemy laws, honor killings, the execution of apostates, the honoring of suicide bombers, the pursuit of extermination of Israel, the execution of gays, and the like. Believers in an Islam that can coexist in a pluralistic world need a way to label themselves not only as true Muslims, but also as opponents of these destructive political doctrines.
The term ‘moderate Muslims’ is itself harmful and counterproductive.
Consider some history. Over the past century, international Communism was responsible for almost inconceivable atrocities, including the murder of hundreds of millions of people and the immiseration of more. The horrors of Communism produced a backlash in the West and around the world, leading to its decisive defeat in all but two places by the 1990s; outside of Cuba and North Korea, even nominally Communist states like China had abandoned it. Liberalism, progressivism, and socialism all shared a number of tenets and prejudices in common with the Soviets, the Maoists, and the Khmer Rouge. Yet, at the end of all that, liberalism, progressivism, and socialism survived largely unscathed. Why?
In large part, they survived because each of the other movements had thought through how they differed from Communists, how to name and define those differences for the public, and how to maintain a consistent, disciplined message that maintained that distinction across decades and national boundaries. Left-leaning writers like George Orwell dramatized the horrors of Bolshevism without abandoning their self-identification as socialists. Even socialists and liberals who sympathized with the Communists to one extent or another had a vocabulary to distinguish themselves.
If Islam is to separate itself politically from association with terrorism and tyranny, as many Muslims plainly wish to do, its believers need to follow that example. Outbreaks of Western fear and paranoia about all Muslims will never be cured by lectures about tolerance, nor by familiarity with well-meaning Muslim neighbors. The best medicine is to convince Westerners that Muslims who reject the tenets of radical Islam and oppose its methods are a distinct category, and truly on the West’s side.
Organization: Words Made Deeds
Words are important and necessary. But so are deeds. Islamic organizations have a crucial role to play in elevating and coordinating grassroots Muslim opposition to radical Islam, while cutting ties with longstanding friends and allies who are radicals or radical fellow-travelers. The process of policing your own allies is never fun, but there is ample historical precedent for the task.
Anti-Communism on the Left is one such example. The 20th-century American labor movement, for example, often chose fiercely anti-Communist leaders, people like Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO and Daniel Tobin of the Teamsters. Even in Hollywood, the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 chose a staunchly anti-Communist union president: Ronald Reagan. Reagan had flirted briefly with socialist circles — including what amounted to some Communist front groups — when he arrived in California as a twentysomething actor late in the Depression; by 1947, he was a New Deal Democrat fighting Communist infiltration of the union and informing on Communists to the FBI. And alongside those institutional leaders, there were individuals who took a stand as well, such as the director Elia Kazan, who earned the ire of many of his peers by “naming names” of Hollywood Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 and publishing an op-ed in the New York Times urging others to do the same.
From the Democratic party in the U.S. to Labour in England and left-of-center parties in France and Germany, there may not have been consensus on Communism, but there were always just enough people willing to pull their parties in the anti-Communist direction to win the confidence of voters who did not wish to be associated with Stalin or Brezhnev. Some of those people were vigorous anti-Communists like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson; others were ambiguous cases, such as François Mitterrand, who came to power with the French Communist party in his coalition but ended up standing in solidarity with the likes of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on important occasions. The entire “neoconservative” intellectual movement started with people from socialist backgrounds who were united in their rejection of Communism.
William F. Buckley’s fight against the Birchers and their leader, Robert Welch, developed slowly and with no little anguish about airing the Right’s dirty laundry in public.
Political movements of the Right have done the same. The most consistent and consequential foe of European fascism was a man of the Right, Winston Churchill. National Review, of course, played a major role in establishing a clear distinction in the early 1960s between conservatives and the conspiratorial right-wingers of the John Birch Society. As Alvin Felzenberg has detailed in these pages, William F. Buckley’s fight against the Birchers and their leader, Robert Welch, developed slowly and with no little anguish about airing the Right’s dirty laundry in public. Buckley wasn’t eager for a fight with people on his own side who shared a lot of his friends, subscribers, and benefactors, but he came to see that Welch and the Birchers who followed his line were toxic in general and specifically poisonous to the conservative movement if a vigorous effort wasn’t made to draw a line of demarcation between the two. By setting up National Review as the opponent of Welch, he ultimately sowed the seeds for the movement to grow stronger while Welch faded into obscurity.
If anti-radical Muslims want to break through the media narratives and be known as opponents of radical Islam — if they truly want to defeat radical Islam — organization will be crucial. That means placing spokesmen at the head of national organizations who will become recognized as foes of the radicals. It means promoting writers and speakers who will fight the radicals in the open marketplace of ideas – and continue the same fight in the same terms outside of English-language media. It also means fights for control of local mosques and commercial boycotts of the sponsors of terror. And it means publicizing these fights. Like Kazan or Buckley or Mitterand, this will mean some bad publicity and some setbacks for the tribe in the short run, but Islam has been around for 1,300 years and has a billion adherents; if it intends to last, better that it take the hit now and have it out, with the goal of excising the radicals once and for all.
This isn’t an argument for asking every Muslim to ritually denounce every action taken by every individual radical. It’s the opposite: We don’t ask people to denounce actions they already are known to oppose. By creating visible organizations with a distinct vocabulary for fighting jihadists, Muslims can make it unnecessary to have to fight that perception on an incident-by-incident basis.
Can it be done? We’ve seen it happen in Iraq, where the “Anbar Awakening” that began in 2006 sowed the seeds for Iraq’s victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ) within a few years. That may not be the most encouraging parallel: The movement began only after the populace had grown sick of living under the boot heel of the Sunni jihadists, it was never fully matched in areas of the country plagued by Shiite radicalism, and Iraq in the years since saw the rise of ISIS as the successor to AQIZ, requiring a second generation of Iraqi resistance (illustrated by the recent reconquest of Mosul from ISIS). The fight against Islamism in Iraq has been protracted and bloody, and it will likely occupy the Iraqi people for at least a generation before it is settled.
The rise of brute tribalism in the West, from Trump to Le Pen to Putin, suggests that the game of “moderate” Muslims’ appealing to liberal tolerance is itself a strategy that risks empowering the most ruthless and least discriminating of Islam’s foes, those who are least likely to care about Muslims oppressed by the radicals and most likely to seek mutually destructive civilizational conflict. With vocabulary and organization, anti-radical Muslims can leverage the resistance to radicalism that already exists, and turn it into something visible, meaningful, and effective. Without an anti-radical vocabulary or anti-radical organization, there remains the risk that only the most bloody-minded tribes on all sides will be left standing.
— Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and an NRO contributing columnist.