The Corner

Aggressive Traditionalism

Cheryl Bernard of the Rand Institute has written an important piece for the National Interest on the mistakes which Western countries have made in how they identify and treat moderate Muslims. Bernard’s major point is that Western governments have defined “moderate” Islam too broadly, so as to include Muslim leaders and influencers who, while eschewing violence, nevertheless relentlessly preach hatred and alienation, not just from Western societies but from the people in those societies who would otherwise become friends, neighbors and co-workers.

According to Bernard, the Imams and mosques which insist on what she calls “aggressive traditionalism” in interpreting the Koran are a pervasive presence in the West. She monitored a number of Islamic websites which were dispensing advice, in a Dear Abby kind of format, to questions from the Muslim diaspora about how to handle day to day life in the West. The websites preached not only separation, but hatred.

For example, one young Muslim wanted to know if it was permissible to play basketball with his classmates during recess. Here was the answer:

Allah has forbidden the believers to take the kaafireen as friends, and he has issued a stern warning against doing that. . . Elsewhere Allah states that taking them as friends incurs the wrath of Allah and his eternal punishment. . . . One of the forms of making friends with the kaafirs which is forbidden is taking them as friends and companions, mixing with them and eating and playing with them. . . . You should not sit and chat and laugh with them. . . . It is not permissible for a Muslim to feel any love in his heart towards the enemies of Allah who are in fact his enemies too.

Another example: A young Muslim housewife, looking for companionship, asked whether it was permissible for a Muslim woman to be friends with a “very decent” non-Muslim woman who lived next door. The answer speaks for itself:

Praise be to Allah. Visiting kaafirs in order to have a good time with them is not permitted, because it is obligatory to hate them and shun them.

As Bernard points out, this kind of teaching creates a vicious cycle for those who are taken in by it. They voluntarily segregate themselves from life around them and gradually come to despise most of the people they meet. That marginalizes them both socially and economically, which reinforces their sense of alienation, which causes them to segregate more. Though most such individuals do not turn to violence, the communities of which they are a part become breeding grounds for anger and radicalization.

Bernard proposes several ways of combating “aggressive traditionalism.” Some are problematic, to say the least. She suggests, for example, that the government establish “a vetting and a certification process for Muslim clerics in the United States, as a requirement before someone can head a mosque, run a religious education or a youth program . . . ”

That kind of government supervision of religion is plainly forbidden, and properly so, by the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. But certainly private opinion leaders — from foundations to filmmakers to religious leaders — could exercise their influence in a constructive direction. And nothing in the Constitution would forbid our political leaders from clearly identifying the preachers of alienation and hate as part of the challenge that must be overcome in order to defeat Islamic terrorism. British prime minister David Cameron did just that in a speech he gave last year.

Bernard is on much stronger ground in proposing that the government tailor its immigration policies to guard against aggressive traditionalism expanding its foothold in the United States. She suggests that the government

require new immigrants and refugees to formally accept some basic rules of the road that describe daily life and values in the United States . . . from language acquisition to acceptance of women’s equality and non-segregation, tolerance of (though not, of course, mandatory participation in) the modern Western lifestyle such as alcohol consumption and habits of dress.

I would make explicit what Bernard only implies: that prospective immigrants who do not accept the basic “rules of the road” in a liberal democracy — those who are not fleeing from radical Islam but are at high risk of bringing it with them — not be allowed entry into the United States in the first place. As always, it’s important to make careful distinctions. Those Muslim teachers in this country who preach hatred and alienation, but take no active steps towards violence or to conspire with terrorists, have the right to their ideas. The answer to totalitarian speech is not force or suppression, but forthright and courageous advocacy of the equality of all human beings before God and the law. Also, the problem is not Muslims who, like many people of all faiths, reject or condemn what they view as the excesses of Western life. The problem is an extreme and isolating ideology that teaches impressionable people to treat as subhuman all those, including most Muslims, who choose a different life, a different God, or no God at all. That ideology is a recruiting ground for the jihadists, and it should be exposed and rebutted, wherever and in whatever form it appears.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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