What’s in a word?
by Bruce S. Thornton
The war against Islamic jihad continues to be compromised in the West by the dominant narrative that supposedly makes sense of the conflict. In this scenario, the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful moderates, while the jihadists exploit a distortion of Islam fueled by modern discontents. To the left, these discontents are created by Western neo-imperialist and neo-colonialist adventurism, oil-industry greed, a culture-destroying globalization, irrational “Islamophobia” and “Orientalism,” and continuing support for Israel’s “occupation” of Muslim territory and thwarting of Palestinian nationalist aspirations. To the right, a lack of political freedom and economic development dashes Muslim hopes for a better life and leaves them prey to jihadist propaganda. Both interpretations, however, are based on unfounded assumptions.
The first assumption is the existence of large numbers of “Muslim moderates.” Indeed, Muslims who want to integrate their faith with liberal democracy, pluralism, human rights, and economic development exist and deserve our support. But I challenge anyone other than scholars to name one of their spokesmen. The moderates surveyed by Joshua Muravchik and Charles Szrom in their recent Commentary article — Kamran Bokhari, Said Edin Ibrahim, Amr Hamzawy, or Abdel-Aziz el-Sherif — have a negligible influence with the Muslim masses compared to that of bin Laden or the Muslim Brotherhood or the mullahs of Iran. And these moderates are just as marginalized in the West, where instead the duplicitous Tariq Ramadan is promoted and celebrated as a “moderate” despite his adherence to the radical doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood. If large numbers of Muslim moderates existed, and if such moderation were typical of most Muslims, then wouldn’t these spokesmen have a higher profile and a greater constituency among their co-religionists?
On the contrary, moral and economic support for jihadist organizations continues to run high among Muslims across the world. In other words, millions and millions of Muslims admire and support organizations that supposedly have “distorted” Islamic doctrine. Consider the arrogant, elitist assumption behind this belief: millions of Muslims are so ignorant of their own faith, or so traumatized by political or economic distress, that they can’t tell when someone is distorting Islamic doctrine, and so like children they irrationally “act out” against their own best interests. I think it more likely that these Muslims indeed understand their own faith and support the jihadists because they call for a “reform” of Islam, which does not mean, as we Westerners assume, interpreting Islam to make it compatible with tolerance, pluralism, or democracy. Rather, it means returning Islam to its traditional doctrinal purity and practice.
Yet here in the West, even usually right-thinking commentators like Muravchik and Szrom fail to take seriously the power of jihadist doctrine. At the end of their article they write that, compared to communism, “radical Islam is a fragile and perishable ideology.” This is backwards: communism was “fragile and perishable,” because it grew out of modern superstitions like materialism, atheism, and scientism, and it was imposed for the most part on religious peoples whose traditional spiritual aspirations it thwarted and traduced. So-called “radical” Islam, however, is more correctly traditional Islam, a return to the doctrine of jihad documented in Islamic scripture and history, the spiritual dynamic that created one of the world’s greatest empires.
Recognizing the power of traditional spiritual aspirations and imperatives makes better sense of Muslim behavior than does our own Western materialist or psychological explanations. Take the case of Pakistan. The “Talibanization” of the tribal regions is intensifying unchecked, with the Pakistani security forces, police, and military doing very little to stop it. Why not? Why not accept American military help in rooting out these radical distorters of Islam supposedly despised by the vast majority of Pakistanis? Because Musharraf would most likely fall from power if he more actively cooperated with the Americans and were seen to be their puppet. In other words, to a critical mass of Pakistanis, cooperating with the Americans to root out “distorters” of their faith who murder their fellow citizens is worse than allowing the Taliban to grow in power and kill even more Pakistanis. The dominant narrative would explain this phenomenon by talking about a lack of political and economic freedom (the right) or anger over American neo-imperialist sins against Muslims (the left), both of which blind Pakistanis to their private and national interests. A more convincing explanation is that there is wide support for the jihadists because they are battling the infidel, just as good Muslims have done for fourteen centuries according to the precepts of Mohammed.
Attributing Muslim behavior to reactions to what we do, rather than to Muslim understanding of traditional Islamic doctrine, fuels other distortions, such as the currently popular mantra that American sins against Muslims account for their hatred of us. In reality, the United States has saved more Muslim lives in the last twenty years than anybody else on the planet. In Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait, and Iraq Americans have stopped Muslims from dying and liberated them from an oppressive despot. Yes, Muslims have died in the process, but they are a fraction of those killed by Hussein, not to mention those killed by other Muslim tyrants and terrorists. And America has pumped billions into the Palestinian Authority, an organization of terrorists and kleptocrats that has squandered every opportunity to achieve its ostensible goal of a Palestinian state, all the while we continue to pressure our loyal ally Israel to negotiate and compromise with those who want to kill her citizens.
Here at home, we continually trumpet our admiration for Islam and its glories; we anxiously cultivate Muslim “moderates,” many of whom are shills for jihadists; our airport security aggressively wands and probes old ladies and children so that some young Muslim male won’t be traumatized by “racial profiling”; our courts bestow Geneva Convention “rights” on captive murderers explicitly excluded from those rights by that same Convention; our intellectuals and scholars castigate the West and blame it for the dysfunctions of Islamic states; and we take into our country the sons and daughters of Muslims who tell us over and over they want to kill us. Yet despite all these appeasing beneficia bestowed on Muslims, we are still hated as the “Great Satan.”
This behavior makes sense only if one attends to Islamic doctrine: all non-Muslims are “infidels” whose destiny is to convert, die, or live under Islamic subjection. It doesn’t matter what we do––unless we convert to Islam or stop pursuing our own national interests. Our very existence is an affront to the believers and an impediment to the fulfillment of Allah’s will, and our global success is a bitter reminder of how far Islam has fallen from the glory days of its dominance, when Europe trembled at Allah’s warriors. A critical mass of Muslims know this, and that is why they support the jihadists, even at the price of freedom, security, and prosperity. Until we discard the dominant narrative and take seriously and counter the spiritual imperatives and motives driving the jihadists and their millions of supporters, our chances of success in this struggle will remain bleak.
©2008 Bruce Thornton