Aspirational Culture

Realism, Islamism and Islam: When Will Difficult Conversations Begin?

It just may be time to really start having some difficult conversations.

After the attacks in Manchester and London, British prime minister Theresa May called for “difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations” about the sources of extremism. In February, I called for soul searching among those who have refrained from speaking frankly about Islamism since 9/11.

So far, that soul-searching and those conversations have not begun, at least not in public. Perhaps we are at a turning point. Since 9/11, the leaders in the democracies have refrained from stating in public what they knew to be true in private concerning the connections between Islam, Islamism and terror. They did so for a variety of reasons, including not offending Muslims, gaining support from Muslim communities for counterterrorism intelligence operations, avoiding fanning hostility to Muslims in democracies and being accused of Islamophobia. Such a policy was thought to be a realistic effort to avoid the “clash of civilizations” that the Islamist terror organizations were trying to foster.

Donald Trump won in part because he denounced this apparent realism as political correctness run amok. Yet from the outset Trump’s inability to speak the truth about anything, his penchant for conspiracy theories and his toying with the anti-Muslim elements of his core supporters destroyed his credibility as a messenger about this issue. Instead, we need to look to other political leaders—and to writers and intellectuals—who had and have the courage to face down accusations of Islamophobia and to speak with intelligence and nuance about interpretations of the religion of Islam and the practice of terror. The three attacks in Britain this spring led Prime Minister May to state that “while we have made significant progress in recent years, there is—to be frank—far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.” She added that “defeating this ideology” which she did not specify, “is one of the great challenges of our time.”

As the French writer Pascal Bruckner has argued in his recent essay Un racisme imaginaire: La querelle de’Islamophobie (An Imaginary Racism: The Dispute about Islamophobia) that for that to happen, criticism of Islamism, or Islam as religious doctrines, and the issue of their connections to terrorism should be regarded as legitimate as criticism and interpretation of religion has been in the modern West since the Enlightenment. The horror of the recent attacks, and the fact that Islamist terrorism has been a fact of life and death around the world since the 1990s, may finally convince leaders in the democracies to listen to voices of criticism that they have previously ignored.

It’s necessary to pay attention to voices that have been speaking and writing for a long time but were dismissed as Islamophobic. In his recently publishedDer Islamische Kreuzzug und der Ratlose Westen: Warum Wir eine Selbstbewusste Islamkritik Brauchen (The Islamic Crusade and the Helpless and Clueless West: Why We Need a Self-Confident Critique of Islam), the German journalist Samuel Schirmbeck cites the work of North African Muslim writers, scholars and journalists who, since the 1990s, were drawing attention to the connections between interpretations of Islam and the practice of terror by Islamists organizations. They did so, especially in what he called “the terror years” in the 1990s in Algeria, which is when between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand people died in a civil war between Islamist organizations and the military regime. Despite the billions of dollars spent in counterterrorism efforts in Europe and the United States, the writings and views of Muslim writers and scholars such as Abdelwahab Meddeb, Fatema Mernissi, Zaim Khenchelaoui, Abdennour Bidar, Wassyla Tamzali, Tahar Djaout, Said Mekbel, Abdellah Taia, Said Djabelkhir, among others, remained either unknown or absent from the discussion about Islam, Islamism and terror in the democracies. While the essays and novels of Boualam Sansal did receive attention in Europe, on the whole, what Schirmbeck calls North Africa’s Voltaires and its “Muslim Enlightenment” did not find an echo in the Western press and public discussion.

In their scholarship, journalism, poetry, essays and satire, these writers disputed the idea that terror “had nothing to do with Islam.” They called for a critical engagement with the sacred texts which terrorists cited to justify murder and offered abundant and embarrassing evidence about the importance of religious texts used to legitimate terror. They argued that a criticism of Islamism and its interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam were not synonymous with prejudice against Muslims. They began an enlightenment project comparable to the historicization and critical reading of the Old and New Testaments in the history of Christianity and Judaism in Europe’s eighteenth century. They did so beginning in the 1990s, before the attacks of 9/11. Schirmbeck offers a long and grim list of journalists and writers in North Africa murdered by Islamist terrorist organizations. Though only available in German, Schirmbeck’s examination of the North African Muslim Enlightenment constitutes an important contribution to discussion of the issues here as well.

Yet, in what Paul Berman rightly described as “the flight of the intellectuals” from inconvenient truths, the seemingly natural liberal and left-leaning allies of the North African Muslim Enlightenment, critics who opposed religious fundamentalism in their own societies, mostly refused to listen to the warnings from North Africa. Instead, as Sansal wrote, “with the accusation of Islamophobia, the Islamists found the absolute weapon,” one that they used to censure a necessary discussion about religious justifications for terrorism as instead a form of racism against Muslims or blasphemy against Islam. Western governments and intellectuals, fearful of accusations of making “blanket generalizations about all Muslims,” did not say publicly what their diplomats, intelligence agencies and political analysts knew to be the truth. The resulting vacuum was filled by easy and stupid conversations by the nationalist and populist voices in Europe and by Trump’s demagoguery in the United States.

The government, scholars, journalists and writers in Israel have had to think about Islam, Islamism and terror longer and more extensively than anyone else. The Middle East Media Research Institute, also known as MEMRI, emerged from that preoccupation. It has informed political leaders with massive amounts of evidence regarding the relationship between interpretations of Islam and the practice of terror. MEMRI’s abundant documentation of print, television and internet material has offered an indispensable and ongoing refutation of the mantra that the terror “has nothing to do with Islam.” Following the attack on Manchester on May 22, Yigal Carmon, MEMRI’s president published “They Are Neither ‘Losers,’ ‘Nihilists,’ ‘Worshipers Of Death,’ Nor ‘Sick Cowards’– But Rather Believers And Idealists Who Commit Horrific Murders For A Cause And Sacrifice Their Lives For A Utopian Future: A World Ruled By Their Faith.” He published it again on June 5, 2017.

Carmon’s essay should be widely read, especially by politicians, journalists, scholars and citizens who want to foster a responsible, civil and decent public discussion about the ideological sources of terrorism and how we—and our fellow Muslim citizens—can defeat it. Carmon writes: So first, let’s put forward the true, if “unhelpful,” definition. The jihadis who perpetrate these horrific crimes are neither losers, nor nihilists, nor worshippers of death, nor sick cowards. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of them are devout and fanatic believers. They are idealists who sacrifice their lives for the sake of a utopian future: a world ruled by their faith. The attacks they commit are extreme acts of piety. They seek to emulate the dedication of the early believers in order to revive the glory and grandeur of the past.

Contrary to the approach of the Western leaders, who blame the evil character of the perpetrators while absolving the faith they follow, the truth is that these perpetrators, by the standards of their own belief, are virtuous people who follow the directives of the Koran [48:29]: “Be fierce towards the infidels, merciful towards each other.” The problem lies not in the perpetrators’ innate character but in some of the core values of their religious belief system. Indeed, their faith—any faith—includes elements that are beautiful alongside elements that are malevolent. Denying that these malevolent elements are part of the faith, as the Western leaders do, is wrong. It is such denial that is unhelpful; in fact, it is self-deception.

Can the mischaracterization of the terrorists’ acts actually achieve the goal of avoiding offense to the world’s Muslims? The answer is no. Faced with the Western leaders’ statements that totally disassociate the jihadis’ acts from their religious roots, the world’s Muslims can only conclude that Western leaders do not understand their faith and have the intellectual conceit to mischaracterize it. In fact, this mischaracterization denies some of the core values that underpinned the great achievements of Islam in which Muslims take pride: the establishment a great civilization and the building of not one empire but several in the course of history.

It would be far more respectful to Muslims to acknowledge that these values (of self-sacrifice and extreme dedication aimed at spreading the faith by force) were the basis of Islam’s expansion, just as the spread of Christianity, after the Emperor Constantine established it as the state religion, was based on a similar process of imposing the faith by force. However, Christianity has since renounced these values. Christianity does not deny its past, but it has jettisoned the element of coercion. Similarly, Western leaders must not denigrate the Muslim past by denying its core values, but rather should demand that Muslims follow the same path: realize that some violent values that underpinned their civilization and glorious past are incompatible with modern morality. Western leaders should therefore demand that contemporary Muslims focus on other aspects of their faith (as Christianity has done), and totally reject imposing their religious utopian vision by the force of arms.

Western leaders cannot expect to defeat terrorism in their countries when they deny and evade acknowledging the roots of the jihadi phenomenon: the deep connection of the attacks to the faith. Admitting this connection will not only be more respectful to Muslims, it will also be conducive to reforms and useful to Muslim reformists, who acknowledge that the terrorists’ ideals come from within: from the houses of worship, the schools and society at large. Being truthful towards the Muslims is more respectful than denial. It will also be much more helpful, since only discarding the completely unnecessary hypocrisy regarding the roots of Islamic terror will help Muslims adopt a normal attitude towards their past: pride in its achievements, along with the necessary criticism of the archaic values that led to those achievements. Muslims should accept a post-caliphate role for themselves just like all European states have reconciled themselves to post-imperial status. This is an admittedly painful process, but it is an unavoidable one. The most senior Muslim religious leaders should seek a Muslim aggiornamento (a bringing up to date of the religion) along the lines of the reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII.

These messages should be delivered by Western leaders openly and insistently, in lieu of the intellectual evasion and denial practiced today. It should be emphasized that this demand is not addressed exclusively to Muslims. It is a demand that the West and Christianity have applied to themselves, and therefore have every right to demand it of the Muslim world. Only thus will the ideological base of jihad be eradicated and “terrorism” significantly decline. Needless to say, this is a long-term process, but it is nevertheless the genuine solution to the problem and the only way to produce results.

In translating this insight into concrete policies, two steps seem to be immediately necessary. First, Western leaders must cease the hypocritical denial of jihad’s deep connection to faith, and firmly and openly demand that the leaders of the Muslim world take significant steps to reform the religion. Second—and this is up to them alone—they must enact legislation to stop the jihadi use of the Internet, which has been powering the spread of jihadi ideology for over a decade. They must disregard all the corporate excuses, that this is impossible or incompatible with free speech. Free speech does not permit incitement to murder, including faith-based incitement. They should honor the international conventions against genocide and not allow the Internet companies to flout the laws of democratic countries. For a detailed strategy for purging the Internet of jihadi incitement, see MEMRI daily brief number 126, which is titled “An Internet Clean of Jihadi Incitement—Not Mission Impossible, May 1, 2017.

From a historian’s perspective, Carmon’s argument is on solid ground. The terrorists of our era, like those of the past, are inspired by a set of ideas, in this case, religiously legitimated ideas. It is these ideas, not the character flaws spread widely and equally among human beings, that are the problem. While millions of Muslims firmly reject these ideas, a minority, however small, does not. It is not true that Islamism has nothing to do with the texts of the religion of Islam. He is right as well that it is not a sign of respect to ignore what people say as they engaged in terrorist attacks. Further, serious people who have some understanding of the role of religion in modern Western history all understand that at times religious belief has been a source of political fanaticism and mass violence. To address the religion of Islam with the same mixture of empathy and criticism that became the norm after the Enlightenment in the West asserts that the issue of Islamism, Islam and politics will be treated with equally, not more or less critically, than the West treats its own religious past and present. He is also right that when and if Western leaders speak frankly, they will be making common cause with those Muslims, from the Mayor of London to the anti-Islamist writers of North Africa, who reject the employment of the texts of Islam to justify terrorism and who embrace the values of open, free and pluralistic societies.

For many years, the voices of apparent realism in the democracies have told us that euphemism and avoidance regarding the truth about Islamism, Islam and terror were essential to win the “war on terror.” Fearful of generating an anti-Muslim backlash in the democracies, the euphemisms and silences of the realists of center right and center left have contributed to just that outcome. To refrain from stating the obvious has fostered cynicism and mistrust. It contributed to the mistrust of elites and the success of Trump’s populist demagoguery. Now it is important to say that Yigal Carmon, Bassam Tibi, Boualem Sansal, the anti-Islamist writers of North Africa, and the late Fouad Ajami, among others, have been the true realists in this long running debate. It was never realistic, hard-headed or prudent to deny in public what all Western political leaders knew—or should have known—about the ideological connection between interpretations of the religion of Islam and the practice of terror in recent decades. Realism in politics and policy demands an unflinching gaze at the facts, the evidence and the truth. That unflinching gaze needs to be focused on the ideas and passions that have inflamed the hearts and minds of the murderers. Elements of the intellectual history of Islamist terror have already been written and are readily available as sources for the “difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations” that need to take place around the world.

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent publications include Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989; Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World; and with Anthony McElligott, eds., Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust.

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