February 27, 2015 | The Weekly Standard

Violent Extremist vs. Holy Warrior

Is Barack Hussein Obama wrong to avoid appending “Islamic,” “Muslim,” “Islamist,” or even “jihadist” to the terrorism that has struck the West with increasing ferocity since the 1990s? This question has at least two parts: Is the president historically correct to do this? And is he politically smart to do it? 

The president could be a historical ignoramus and yet be strategically right to use the linguistic dodge. If Islam really is a faith that lends itself to hideous violence, does it do any good for a Christian American president, especially one with Muslim forebears, to censure Muslims for their failings? The American right is chock-full of folks who show Christian hubris when they highlight the Islamic world’s manifest problems. Intentionally or not, a presidential bully pulpit could egg them on. Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s lead speechwriter, recently wrote in the Washington Post a defense of Obama’s and Bush’s appeals for an irenic interpretation of the Islamic faith. In Gerson’s view, an American president just can’t say unkind things about a religion with a billion-plus believers. Gerson may have overlooked Bush’s brief flirtation with—and sincere intellectual curiosity about using—“Islamofascist” to refer to jihadists, but his point is well taken: Bush finally decided not to use provocative, religiously laden language in public to refer to Muslim radicals. 

Obama is doubtless well aware that the Islamic world has a particular problem with “violent extremism,” as are counterterrorist officials and analysts elsewhere in the government. Obama may personally be afflicted with a bad case of Edward Said Syndrome, a malady brought on by reading the late Columbia professor’s Orientalism at an impressionable age, which renders liberals incapable of seriously criticizing Muslims for fear of being seen as racist, imperialist, or inauthentic. But he nonetheless understands enough—as do lower-level officials in the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency, who still target militant Muslims at home and abroad more assiduously than they target potentially violent Marxists and neo-Nazis. The president’s linguistic gymnastics probably don’t much affect the way the U.S. government operates; we haven’t returned to the Clinton years, when the FBI really did rein in its surveillance for fear of violating the civil liberties of even visiting Muslims. 

To be sure, political correctness can intrude into how cops do their work. The massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 certainly suggested that the U.S. Army had allowed political correctness to deter a thorough assessment of Major Nidal Malik Hasan before he killed. Even so, domestic counterterrorism since 9/11 has remained a politically incorrect profession in the United States and Europe. The rise of the Islamic State, with its thousands of Western Muslims flocking to the cause, has guaranteed that disposition will continue. 

The primary danger is that the president’s sensitivities about Islam may have prevented a more effective strategy for dealing with Muslim holy warriors overseas. Having the history wrong seldom conduces to sound foreign policy. Disconnecting rhetoric from history can easily lead to sloppy thinking and baleful action. As Bernard Lewis pointed out 25 years ago in the Atlantic Monthly, the roots of Muslim rage against the West are deep. What if being provocative were actually a good thing strategically? What if provocative rhetoric from Western officials could actually help bring into focus the all-critical internal discussion among faithful Muslims about “violent extremism”? 

No one in his right mind would want an American president to encourage a clash of civilizations—to do an American version of the vituperations hurled at us by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. If the Muslim Middle East is going to progress, democratic space will need to be made for people of faith to participate in politics. American words and actions that encourage the region’s secular generalissimos to pummel the politically religious, which is what Obama and his secretary of state have done in Egypt, can only intensify the anger that religious Muslims feel toward the United States without any lasting strategic gain for the West. We certainly don’t want Western officials on anti-Islam rants suggesting to Muslims that they must accept the latest Western values before they have any right to self-government. 

Internal political, cultural, and religious evolutions—the three, as any reader of Tocqueville knows, are inseparable—are the key to extirpating the Muslim radicalism that mutates into jihadism. American rhetoric and actions should always be keyed to encouraging the pacific and democratic evolution of the Muslim world’s politics. We want Muslims to have great debates about man, God, and holy law. We want them to have searing discussions about political sovereignty and self-government (which many of our Arab “allies” in the fight against the Islamic State would not like). Westerners have often provoked great debates among Muslims. All of the liberal advances in the Middle East have come about through Western stimulation and sometimes Western coercion. 

Obama’s way hasn’t so far produced any notable success overseas: Islamic militancy, which always has an anti-American edge, is more powerful today than when Bush left office. Whether one scans the Arabic, Persian, or even Turkish media, it’s hard to see any lessening of anti-American agitation since Obama announced in his Cairo speech in June 2009, “I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” 

Obama’s anodyne discussion of Islam and Muslim holy warriors is surely linked to his determination to withdraw the United States militarily from the Middle East. Downplaying the Islamic quotient in terrorism dovetails well with downsizing what the United States can and should do to fight jihadists. It’s possible to be intellectually serious about the nature of Islamic radicalism and also be disinclined to support any substantial increase in American military efforts against the Islamic State. Graeme Wood’s much-noted piece in the Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” is an example of serious reflection on the religious roots of the Islamic State’s radical appeal paired with a reluctance to commit more American ground troops to the Middle East. But that’s not where the president and his intellectual compatriots are. Obama obviously believes that his rhetoric is moral, strategically astute, and historically sound or he wouldn’t cling to it so tightly. It takes an intellectually fearless man to host a conference on “violent extremism”—after the Islamic State has conquered a big slice of the Middle East and the Charlie Hebdo murders have rocked Europe—that specifically aims to curtail any discussion of the Islamic components of the terrorism brewed in the Greater Middle East. 

Islamic History Revisited

At the heart of Obama’s palliative approach is the oft-heard sentiment that “Islam is a religion of peace.” All great faiths, even those that laud the warriors among them, ultimately promise some peaceful transcendence and comity among men. Like any religion that lasts, Islam has given enormous comfort to its believers. Anyone who has spent much time visiting Islamic shrines can see the decency and kindness that pilgrims bring to them. In the Middle Ages and into the modern era, an objective traveler wandering through Christian Europe and the Muslim lands would certainly have viewed the former as the more bellicose and intolerant. In Islam’s many variants since its birth in 7th-century Arabia, “peace” has even sometimes been the explicit goal. Sufi mystics and merchants preaching an eclectic doctrine in which love and fraternity figured prominently helped spread Islam into southern Asia. But Sufism isn’t just the love poetry of 13th-century mystic Jallaludin Rumi, so prominently displayed in new-age bookshops. Like much else in early Islamic history, Sufism quickly developed a “warrior tradition.” It mellowed with time, but as late as the 16th century, perhaps the most famous and wildly eclectic Sufi order, the Safavids, went jihadist and, under the leadership of their sheikh-turned-demigod-turned-shah Ismail I, conquered Iran and irrevocably converted that land to Shiism. 

Religions are forged and reforged by their believers. They do not exist, as Obama seems to suggest and Islamic fundamentalists insist, as fully formed ideals. Islam has evolved. The religion’s birth, however, has had an irresistible centripetal pull on the faithful. The Koran is the literal word of God. What is vouchsafed to the believer in the Koran—inheritance laws, private property, multiple wives, slavery, to name just a few divinely ordained “rights”—has not easily been denied him by Westernized Muslim dictators in modern times. Muhammad is the central player in Islamic history. The ethical, political, and juridical structure of all Islamic societies—even Shiite ones, where the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin Ali and his descendants are a theological aristocracy—in important ways hinge on Muhammad’s life. Rice University historian David Cook nicely sums up this dependency:  

The hadith literature [purported statements by the prophet or purported eyewitness accounts of his actions], thus, is the basis for the sunna [way of the prophet], and upon these traditions rest the equally vast edifice of the sharia, the Divine Law, which is the supreme legal expression of medieval Islam. This classical Muslim civilization is the fountainhead of all contemporary Muslim societies.

And the prophet was a military leader. An indispensable part of the accepted historical record of Muhammad drawn up by revered compilers of his “traditions” Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) and al-Waqidi (d. 822) carries the title Kitab al-Maghazi, The Book of Battles. Although it would be historically and religiously gross to reduce Muhammad’s life to his military campaigns, or to view the Koran primarily through its discussion of wars between the faithful and infidels, it is simply dishonest, let alone insulting to the Muslim faithful, to turn Muhammad and his close companions, who became caliphs of an ever-expanding empire, into apostles of peace. 

For centuries the faithful have understandably admired their warrior prophet who overcame tremendous odds to triumph over the superior forces of unbelief. Similarly, the early caliphs with Bedouin armies laid low two great empires—the Persian Sassanid and the Byzantine. When the leading figures of modern Islamic militant thought—the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, the Indian-Pakistani Abu Ala Mawdudi, and the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—developed their doctrines of holy war, they were following a well-worn path back to the prophet. 

So, too, the Islamic State. This rampaging outfit may be crude, without a first-rate mind among them, but they aren’t historically illiterate. Muhammad and the “Rightly-Guided” Caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali—created a massive conquest society. As Graeme Wood noted in his essay, these 21st-century holy warriors are not squeamish about enslaving captives for the simple and undeniable reason that the prophet and the early caliphs weren’t squeamish about enslaving or killing many of those they conquered. Muhammad put to the sword all of the males of the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza, who had rebelled against his rule, and enslaved all its women and children. In the 7th century, this act was disturbing but hardly uncommon among warring societies. 

Obama has called Muslim “violent extremists,” including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, a “perversion” of Islam. That’s a sensible, modern view, one with which many Muslims agree. But they agree primarily because most contemporary Muslims have left behind the ethics of a 7th-century conquest society. Any informed and sensitive Muslim, nevertheless, understands how the Islamic State—and Qutb, Mawdudi, and Khomeini before it—plays on the historical nerves of Muslims. Islamic militants have been resilient in modern times in part because they draw on a beloved narrative that cannot be easily gainsaid by faithful Muslims. Even secularized Muslims can be unnerved by historical arguments that get too close to the prophet. It’s difficult for many Muslims to tackle head-on the immorality of the past, as seen from today, when the Koran, the prophet, and his companions come into view. The Koran, it always bears repeating, was dictated by God. 

Christians inevitably view faith through the lens of Jesus, who was nothing like a military leader. Yet for a time, Western Christianity was led by Germanic princes who excelled at combat and slaughter. Theirs might have become a real warrior’s faith, especially after popes Gregory VII and Urban II—reacting to the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 by the Fatamid caliph al-Hakim and to the battle of Manzikert in 1071, where Seljuk Turks broke the back of Byzantine power in Anatolia—launched the Crusades to save and recapture the Christian Near East. But Orthodox Christianity was never comfortable with Byzantine emperors trying to turn the faith into a weapon. When the emperor Nicephorus Phocas (963-969), who led Byzantine armies back into the lost province of Syria, “attempted to institute,” as the Michigan historian Michael Bonner tells us, “a kind of crusade, granting the martyr’s halo to the soldiers of Christ who had ‘sacrificed their lives to serve the holy emperors and to liberate and avenge the Christians,’ ” the Orthodox clergy “nipped this effort in the bud, citing a 4th-century canon of Basil the Great that recommended that Christian Roman soldiers who had killed in war be excluded from the sacraments for a period of three years. The Byzantines persisted in their old ideas, afterward finding the Latin Crusaders, with their fighting priests, at least as dangerous and barbarous as the Saracens.”

Christian revisionism—adapting the faith to a secularizing age—has proceeded more smoothly because Jesus gave theological liberals so much more material to work with. It’s easy for them to transform Jesus into an apostle of love for the LGBT community. Trying to similarly transmogrify the prophet Muhammad just doesn’t work. Pick other progressive Western causes—pick older liberal ideas like the individual’s inalienable, “natural” rights—and it’s hard for many faithful Muslims to look back at the prophet respectfully and lovingly and balance it all out. Westernization of the Muslim world has been changing minds profoundly for two centuries, but it has also been generating a reaction—Islamic fundamentalism—that anchors its legitimacy in the sunna of the prophet. President Obama’s glib discussion of Islam depicts Muslims as if they’d already successfully made the jump into the ethical realm that is, more or less, our own. 

Helpful Provocation

A more thoughtful, productive presidential approach to the Muslim predicament would be an honest discussion of Islam’s difficult passage into the modern era. It would be useful to keep in mind the issue of slavery, which Muslims failed to confront until Great Britain sent the Royal Navy to interdict slaving ships. (The Muslim slave trade, largely supplied through emirates in eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula, was much larger than the North Atlantic trade.) With time and constant Western pressure, Westernizing Muslim elites changed their minds about the propriety of slavery. Unlike in the West, however, the clergy was not on the cutting edge of emancipation. To this day, disquisitions by accomplished theologians on the evil of slavery are, to put it politely, rare. The prophet casts a long shadow. 

It may be an unbearable contradiction for many on the left, but it’s no coincidence that the Arab world’s most liberal moment occurred when European imperial powers—chiefly Great Britain and France—still held sway throughout the region. European domination didn’t prevent Westernizing Muslims, who usually loathed European supremacy as much as traditional Muslims did, from absorbing and advocating Western ideas. The cleverer ones tried hard, not always with great success, to clothe these appealing foreign notions in Islamic garb. And European imperialists could be witheringly offensive to their Muslim subjects. President Bush’s brief (and commendable) use of “Islamofascist” seems like a study in good etiquette by comparison. 

It’s in all probability not a coincidence that the so-called Arab Spring exploded after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq superheated the debate about representative government in the Middle East. Most Arab democrats loudly condemned America’s war against Saddam Hussein—and yet, when the Great Arab Revolt began in Tunisia in 2010, no one argued that America’s actions had compromised the appeal of self-government. This is not a recommendation that the United States be overbearing towards the Middle East’s Muslims, shouldering a new “white man’s burden.” It’s just to suggest that we shouldn’t treat Muslims like children. They can withstand stiff debate from non-Muslims, even those they loathe. 

Tocqueville can always help. He highlighted in Democracy in America the intolerant and lethal religious statutes that early Anglo-Americans had established in some of the colonies. He writes:

Among these documents we shall notice as especially characteristic the code of laws promulgated by the little state of Connecticut in 1650. The legislators of Connecticut begin with the penal laws, and strange to say, they borrow their provisions from the text of Holy Writ. 

“Whosoever shall worship any other God than the Lord,” says the preamble of the Code, “shall surely be put to death.” This is followed by 10 or 12 enactments of the same kind, copied verbatim from the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and rape were punished with death; an outrage offered by a son to his parents was to be expiated by the same penalty. .  .  . The Code of 1650 abounds in preventive measures. It punishes idleness and drunkenness with severity .  .  . and simple lying, whenever it may be injurious, is checked by a fine or a flogging. In other places the legislator, entirely forgetting the great principles of religious toleration that he had himself demanded in Europe, makes attendance on divine service compulsory, and goes so far as to visit with severe punishment, and even death, Christians who chose to worship God according to a ritual differing from his own.

Tocqueville goes on to suggest that it was the very power of local, republican government, which had instituted these severe measures, that also mitigated their enforcement. America became the world’s greatest debating society. More often than not, religion in America became a vehicle for liberal, individual empowerment, a complementary, inextricable adjunct to the ballot box. So much of Washington has now relegated the democratic experiment in the Middle East to the trash bin. On the left and right, we find applause for the Egyptian dictator, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But we’ve been down that road before. Sisi’s predecessors tried to kill off Islamic militancy, only to help it grow. Egypt, still the pivotal Arab land, is now a society without debate. 

In the end, Muslims will have to solve their own problems. American military power will likely be an essential factor—much more than Obama can possibly condone—in ensuring that Islamic radicalism doesn’t create another effective base for terrorist operations against the West. The Western bully pulpit, a tool unused under Obama, could play a big role. But Muslims have to do the heaviest intellectual lifting. The odds are good they can do so only as Westerners did: through the gradual expansion of the rights of man via unrelenting, often brutal, sometimes bloody debates. In other words, democracy, with all its frightful messiness, remains the answer. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.