The Corner

Is Islam the Problem?

In my column today, I write:

I am more sympathetic toward this reluctance to state the truth of the matter than are some of my colleagues on the Right. There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world. And yet, to work from that assumption might make the assumption all the more self-fulfilling. If we act as if “Islam is the problem,” as some say, we will guarantee that Islam will become the problem. But outright denial, like we are seeing today, surely is not the beginning of wisdom either.

As I fully expected, this has elicited a lot of disagreement from some readers and I figure I should offer a fuller explanation (my apologies in advance for the long post). They complain I want to put on blinders, that I don’t want to deal with the truth, etc. For example, from a reader:


Islam is the problem. At its core is a radical worldview that is incompatible with individual freedom, democracy, and Western culture in general. You of all people should know this.

For a fuller explication of this view, you should read some of Andrew Bostom’s writings, including this post below.

Let me say up front that I think folks like Bostom make a very powerful case that Islam is, if not the problem, then at least it is a major problem. It’s “mainstreamism” as Andy says below. There’s too much in the history and canonical text of Islam — not to mention the present-day reality of Islam –  to really deny this outright.  Even the statements of  many “moderates” would be counted as bigoted and hate-filled if they came from Christians. Polls supporting everything from anti-Semitism to suicide bombings in Muslim countries demonstrate that, at minimum, extremism is not a “fringe” view held by a few “hijackers” of a peaceful religion. Even Egypt’s “liberals” are anti-Semitic. Talk about how the “real” problem is poverty and ignorance is not completely without merit, but neither is it all that persuasive. The 9/11 hijackers were educated and middle class. Wahabbism thrives among the wealthy of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden and Zawaheri come from very prosperous backgrounds. Hasan was/is an Army major and a psychiatrist. These intelligent, educated people have no problem looking to the Koran and other established texts of their faith and saying, “See, what I believe is true and right according to my faith.” I would very much like to see a Western devotee of the notion that the extremists have merely “hijacked” the Muslim faith debate Islam with a Jihadist. My hunch is they would lose, badly.

So why don’t I fully agree with those who argue that Islam is the problem? Well, because that strikes me as a blind alley.

What are the policy implications of this view? That we should take a posture of enmity with over a billion Muslims, including millions of law-abiding U.S. citizens? Some (though not all) say that’s a strawman argument. To say that Islam is the problem is not to say that we have to be at war with Islam. Rather, we need to put the focus on Islam so it can expedite internal reform. As one reader puts it very well:

Saying that Islam is the problem doesn’t mean that all Muslims are dangerous.  It puts the onus on Muslims to confront what is being done in their name.  Are they for it or against it?  If they turn against us on this basis, then at least we know where they stand.  Pretending that Islam (as opposed to all Muslims) poses no danger to us won’t help matters.   What if we had done the same thing when fighting Communism?  The fact that people of good will could sincerely believe in Communism didn’t lessen the threat Communism posed to our survival as a free people.   Islamic dogma is anathema to human freedom.  We need to understand this and battle it on that basis.

I really wish I found this more persuasive. The problem with the Communism analogy is that Communism really was a novel and artificial imposition on society. You could appeal to Ukrainians as Ukrainians in an effort to get them to reject Communist ideology. The rhetoric of freedom had salience both as an appeal to individualism but also to national and cultural self-determination (we didn’t call them “captive nations” for nothing).

Islam isn’t like that, at least not in most places (one exception that comes to mind is Iran where a Persian, nationalist, identity seems to many to be as authentic as the post-revolutionary ideology that rules the country now). In most Islamic countries, Islam isn’t a foreign ideology imposed by revolutionaries from within or without. Islam is central to the culture, integral to their identity. Only a relative handful of Russians took great offense when you insulted Marxism, because Marxism was never central to the Russian identity. Indeed, my hunch is that at least in the years between Stalin’s death and 1989, you were more likely to invite a punch in the nose from a typical Russian by insulting Tolstoy than by insulting Marx.

The problem with formulating a serious public policy based on the assertion that Islam is the problem is that you guarantee Islam become even more of a problem. It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. Right now Islam is both problem and solution. If we decide on one, we foreclose the possibility of the other.

People who say Islam is The Problem often overlook the fact that there are millions of Muslims who are peaceful, do not support terrorist Jihad, and so on. If all of a sudden you claim their faith in and of itself is a threat to us, you push them toward the Jihadists. The Kurds in Kurdistan are Muslims, should we stop working with them? There are millions of moderate Muslims in Pakistan, should we send the signal that they are indistinguishable from the terrorists because they share the same faith?

Stephen Schwartz and others are pretty persuasive that the core of the problem is Wahhabism and we should throw in Iran’s Shiite radicalism as well. Right or not, I think as a practical matter, focusing on the dangers from these sects is a better way to demonize extremism while giving the rest of the Muslim faith room to maneuver. The fact that we don’t hear all that much about Sufi terrorism tells me that there’s space within Islam for other, non-problematic, interpretations.

Again, I have no great answer here and I’m running very, very long. In short, I think those who insist that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Islam are befogged by a political correctness that blinds them to a real threat. But I also think that some of the people saying Islam is the problem often fail to recognize — or at least acknowledge –  that Islam will have to be the solution as well.


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