The Corner

The ‘Mainstream’ of ‘Islam as a Whole’

This article by Aymann Jawad al-Tamimi at the American Spectator (h/t to the Middle East Forum) is interesting for a variety of reasons. It concerns the firebombing by jihadists that destroyed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The firebombing was retaliation for the edition the magazine published after the Islamist party won the recent Tunisian elections — an edition that featured a caricature of Mohammed on the cover and also jokingly included the prophet as a “guest editor.”

Mr. al-Tamimi’s main thrust is to contrast the spirited defense of free speech by the French press and political class with the craven response in “English-speaking circles.” The latter, echoing the Obama administration, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gen. David Petraeus, and other notables, seem eager to erode free speech protections in order to appease the hair-trigger sensitivities of Islamists.

Tamimi’s praise for the French seems somewhat overstated. He points out that Charlie Hebdo had been absolved in 2007, when Islamist groups sued them for reprinting the Danish cartoons. Of course, the Islamists were only able to bring the suit because French law recognizes such claims on the theory of “incitement to racism” (in which Islam is somehow considered a “race”). But Tamimi is certainly right that, on the occasion of the firebombing, both sides of the French political spectrum issued strong statements condemning the notion that intimidating threats and arson should be permitted to limit debate.

No doubt owing to the discussion Robert Spencer and yours truly have been having about the merits of distinguishing between Islam and Islamists, these two paragraphs toward the end of Tamimi’s piece jumped out at me (bold italics are mine): 

More generally, this affair — along with the attack on a Tunisian TV station for broadcasting the film Persepolis, and the death threats that forced the flight from Pakistan of the judge who convicted the assassin of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor who opposed the blasphemy law — demonstrates that Islam as a whole still has a long way to go to come towards accepting basic standards of toleration of criticism.

In short, one hopes that the following principle … will come to be accepted as mainstream in Islam: ‘[O]ne’s response to someone else’s provocative action is entirely one’s own responsibility. If you do something that offends me, I am under no obligation to kill you, or to run to the United Nations to try to get laws passed that will silence you. I am free to ignore you, or laugh at you, or to respond with charity, or any number of reactions.’

This gets at what we’ve been arguing about. Mr. Tamimi qualifies his negative criticism as directed at “Islam as a whole” and strongly implies that “the mainstream in Islam” fails to accept enlightened standards of toleration of criticism; at the same time, he expresses “hope” that some day such standards “will come to be” mainstream — indicating that, for now, they are a minority sentiment but that this will not necessarily always be the case.

I don’t see how framing his argument this way detracts even slightly from its force. Nor do I see how an Islam/Islamist distinction, properly understood, should be any different. Using the term “Islamist” to designate those Muslims who want to impose or live under classical sharia does not deny that Islamists are a mainstream of today’s Islam — as I said in my column on the subject, they are the mainstream in many Muslim countries. All it does is acknowledge that there are many Muslims, and a number of Islamic sects, that see sharia as a matter of private conscience, that contextualize or ignore its troublesome elements, and that do not wish to impose it or see it imposed on civil society.

Yes, there is potential for (and plenty of instances of) of misrepresentation and confusion. Apologists for Islamists — including too many government officials in the West — constantly use “Islamist” as a reference to Muslim terrorists. Terrorists are a fringe that constitutes a tiny subset of the enormous number of actual Islamists — i.e., Muslims who want sharia to control civil society. Consequently the apologists’ usage of “Islamist” implies that mainstream Islam itself is moderate, that it requires no reform, that these wily Islamists have perverted Muslim doctrine, and that few Muslims share the desire to impose sharia.

I emphatically agree with Robert and others that this is a false suggestion. In my mind, though, that means we should fight to clarify what the designation “Islamist” signifies. The potential that people might be confused or misled does not justify doing something similarly confusing and misleading: namely, allowing Islamists to own the term “Islam,” and thereby implying (intentionally or not) that all Muslims believe Islam requires the imposition of classical sharia on civil society and wish to bring that about. 

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