November 23, 2009 | Wall Street Journal
Major Hasan and Holy War
A domestic Islamic threat is real, and the FBI is unprepared to fight it.
For those of us who have tracked Islamic militancy in Europe, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's actions are not extraordinary. Since Muslim militants first tried to blow a French high-speed train off its rails in 1995, European intelligence and internal-security services have increasingly monitored European Muslim radicals. Whether it's anti-Muslim bigotry, the large numbers of immigrant and native-born Muslims in Europe, an appreciation of how hard it is to become European, or just an understanding of how dangerous Islamic radicalism is, most Europeans are far less circumspect and politically correct when discussing their Muslim compatriots than are Americans.
A concern for not giving offense to Muslims would never prevent the French internal-security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), which deploys a large number of Muslim officers, from aggressively trying to pre-empt terrorism. As Maj. Hasan's case shows, this is not true in the United States. The American military and especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation were in great part inattentive because they were too sensitive.
Moreover, President Barack Obama's determined effort not to mention Islam in terrorist discussions-which means that we must not suggest that Maj. Hasan's murderous actions flowed from his faith-will weaken American counterterrorism. Worse, the president's position is an enormous wasted opportunity to advance an all-critical Muslim debate about the nature and legitimacy of jihad.
European counterterrorist officers know well that jihadists can appear, self-generated or tutored by extremist groups, inside Muslim families where parents and siblings lead peaceful lives. Security officials live in fear of the quiet believer who quickly radicalizes, or the secular down-and-out European who enthusiastically converts to a militant creed. Both cases allow little time and often few leads to neutralize a possible lethal explosion of the faith.
It shouldn't require the U.S. to have a French-style, internal-security service to neutralize the likes of Maj. Hasan. He combines all of the factors-especially his public ruminations about American villainy in the Middle East and his overriding sense of Muslim fraternity-that should have had him under surveillance by counterintelligence units. Add the outrageous fact that he was in email correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaqi, a pro-al Qaeda imam well-known to American intelligence, and it is hard not to conclude that the FBI is still incapable of counterterrorism against an Islamic target.
For the FBI, religion remains a much too sensitive subject, much more so than the threatening ideologies of yesteryear. Imagine if Maj. Hasan had been an officer during the Cold War, regularly expressing his sympathy for the Soviet Union and American criminality against the working man. Imagine him writing to a KGB front organization espousing socialist solidarity. The major would have been surrounded by counterintelligence officers.
A law-enforcement agency par excellence, the FBI reflects American legal ethics. Because the FBI is always thinking about criminal prosecutions and admissible evidence, its intelligence-collecting inevitably gets defined by its judicial procedures. Good counterintelligence curiosity-that must come into play before any crime is committed-is at odds with a G-man's raison d'être. And much more so than local police departments-which are grounded to the unpleasantness of daily life-it is highly susceptible to politically correct behavior.
Powerfully intertwined in all of this is liberal America's reluctance to discuss Islam, Islamic militancy, jihadism, or anything that might be construed as invidious to Muslims. The Obama administration obviously doesn't want to get tagged with an Islamist terrorist strike in the U.S.-the first since 9/11. The Muslim-sensitive 9/11 Commission Report, which unambiguously named the enemy as “Islamist terrorism,” now seems distinctly passé.
Thoughtful men should certainly not want to see a U.S. president propel a “clash of civilizations” with devout Muslims. However, clash-avoidance shouldn't lead us into a philosophical cul-de-sac. The stakes are so enormous-jihadists would if they could let loose a weapon of mass destruction in a Western city-that we should not prevaricate out of politeness, or deceive ourselves into believing that a debate between Muslims and non-Muslims can only be counterproductive.
The great Muslim reformers of the last 200 years have all been intellectually deeply intertwined with the West. The West has stimulated every single great modern Muslim conversation. The abolition of slavery, the study of science, public schools and widespread literacy, the widely felt and growing need for constitutional and representative government-and less meritorious subjects like socialism, communism and fascism-came about because of Westernization. The Westernization, moreover, was usually driven by Muslims themselves.
This “globalization” has not always been appreciated on the Muslim side. Britain's imperialistic doggedness against the slave trade was deeply resented by Muslims who, like American Southerners, saw slavery, as sacred. Devout Muslims often go ballistic when Westerners and secular Muslims push hard for an expansion of women's rights. Militant Islam is a response to the unstoppable Westernization of Muslim society.
But unavoidably invidious dialogue is the essence of modernity-it is the lifeblood of autocratic societies that have successfully made the painful jump into a democratic era.
The brilliant Iranian revolutionary-turned dissident, Abd al-Karim Soroush, whose ideas contributed to the pro-democracy tumult we've witnessed in Iran since the June 12 election, has forcefully argued for Muslims to critique themselves unsparingly, to happily import and use the West's rational relentlessness to strengthen the faith. An elemental part of Mr. Soroush's critique is that Muslims are capable of thinking on their own. They can take the heat.
In his Cairo speech in June, Mr. Obama pledged “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” Muslims don't need his help protecting Islam from mean-spirited Westerners-or from Western novelists, film directors or scholars who might see something in Islamic history that devout Muslims find insulting.
But Westerners could certainly benefit from Mr. Obama underscoring something else he touched on in his Cairo speech: Muslims should stop blaming non-Muslims for their crippling problems. He could ask, as some Muslims have, why is it that Islam has produced so many jihadists? Why is it that Maj. Hasan's rampage has produced so little questioning among Muslim clerics about why a man, one in a long line of Muslim militants, so easily takes God's name to slaughter his fellow citizens?
Had Mr. Obama asked this, we might now be witnessing convulsive debate among Muslims. He missed the opportunity to start this conversation before what is clearly the first Islamist terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. He will probably get another opportunity.
As it stands now, however, Iranian youth who once so eagerly welcomed Mr. Obama's election by shouting his name in Persian-U ba ma! (“He is with us!”)-are now writing the president's likely legacy among Muslims who yearn for a better modernity. Disappointed to see how determined Mr. Obama has remained to engage the regime they despise, they now forlornly chant U ba unhast (“He is with them.”).
For Muslims who are on the front lines of Islam's bloody reformation, as well as for American counterterrorist officers who must find holy warriors in our midst, Mr. Obama has come down on the wrong side of history.
Mr. Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.