July 23, 2015 | The Hill

Radical Islam and the Culture War

What are we to do with radical Islam? Ever since 9/11, Western leaders have insisted that we are “not at war with Islam,” have sometimes said that “Islam is a religion of peace” and bent over in a multiculti contortion to avoid criticism of the Islamists' calls, and actions, to destroy us. Insofar as Western political, intellectual and religious leaders have discussed the subject at all, they have shied away from direct criticism of Islamist doctrine. Even Pope Benedict XVI, who delivered the most trenchant criticism of radical Islamists' rejection of rational thought, backed off after his memorable speech at Regensburg.

Things are changing. In recent weeks, we have heard strong criticism of Islamism. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for an Islamic Reformation. British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that he and his government will be unstinting in attacking the radicals' doctrines. Muslim leaders in Singapore have begun an anti-radical campaign. And American intellectuals are beginning to say that our war on terror must include direct criticism of their hateful ideas.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the most explicit call to intellectual and cultural arms comes from Cameron:

[S]imply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn't work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims. The fact is from Woolwich to Tunisia, from Ottawa to Bali, these murderers all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith.

Now it is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous. To deny it has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices; the voices that are challenging the fusing of religion and politics; the voices that want to challenge the scriptural basis which extremists claim to be acting on; the voices that are crucial in providing an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager's slide along the spectrum of extremism.

These reforming voices, they have a tough enough time as it is: the extremists are the ones who have the money, the leaders, the iconography and the propaganda machines. We need to turn the tables.

We can't stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values.

We've heard this sort of language from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim (her latest book is tellingly called Heretic), and from others who have left the Koranic faith. But the real change, it seems to me, is that both non-Muslims, like Cameron, and pious Muslims — notably Sisi — are doing the same.

Even American intellectuals with longstanding liberal credentials are joining this encouraging movement. It pays big dividends to listen carefully to Paul Berman, who's written some of the most thoughtful and stimulating things about our current predicament. Even when he says something that sets my teeth on edge, as he did when he said “One paragraph in President Barack Obama's initial speech on the Iran deal was superb.”

Here's that paragraph, directed at the Iranian people:

Our differences are real, and the difficult history between our nations cannot be ignored. But it is possible to change. The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel—that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive.

Notably, these words are not the usual apologies for Western sins against the “Muslim world,” but a call to radical Islamists to change their views. Berman calls on Western intellectuals to engage with Iranians on these matters, just as the Cold War generation did with communists. He doesn't mince words about the nature of the Western campaign, calling it “an ideological de-toxification campaign. A debate over Islamism, and over maniacal hatred of the Jews.”

Good words, and it's significant that Berman insists they must be delivered clearly and forcefully to the Iranians, who have suffered for 35 years under a brutal theological fascism. In the Iranian case, Berman is pushing at an open door; the failed Islamist tyranny has alienated most Iranians. But he's got the basic theme right, namely that we must unleash Western values against the radical Muslims, and support those Muslims who are willing to join our anti-jihad.

The benefits aren't limited to the Muslims. Such a campaign might well do wonders for our own understanding of the war being waged against us.

Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Read in The Hill