Paul Pillar

Not All Islamists Are Alike

Political Islam is a vocabulary that embraces a wide range of doctrines and ideology, including the moderate and the extreme. But you would never know it from commentary that lumps all Islamists together in a single pile. Some of the best examples are coming out of Israel, where, especially since the ouster of Israel's pal Hosni Mubarak, some Israelis are quick to see a threat under every Islamist. Other commentary tars the Muslim Brotherhood—either the Egyptian group of that name or the international agglomeration of Brotherhood affiliates—by pointing out radicals who have come out of the group. This is an odd way to implicate a group: to associate it with people who have departed the organization and then went on to commit whatever deeds made them notorious. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's decades-long commitment to nonviolent methods gets overlooked. If a group that has sustained such a commitment for so long is to be refused acceptance as a legitimate player in a newly democratic system, then the refusal indicates simple, crude Islamophobia.

The Arab Spring has produced some Islamists who are worth worrying about. As a front-page piece in Thursday's New York Times discusses, this is especially true in Libya. The fact that such concern is concentrated in Libya reflects the disproportionate role that Libyans have played in transnational terrorism and the near absence of prior moderate opposition leadership that can compete effectively with the radicals for power. Of particular note is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (classified by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization) who is now probably the most powerful military leader in Libya. Belhaj is not just a garden-variety militant who has long opposed the Qaddafi regime; he has lived and operated with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

How soon we forget that when the United States helped to depose Qaddafi, it deposed someone who was opposing radical Islamists of the sort that the United States is most concerned about opposing itself. And by opposing Islamists of any sort, he was effectively on the same side as Islamophobic Israelis. Accordingly it might not be so crazy, as raised by The Economist, for an exiled Qaddafi to find refuge in the Israeli town of Netanya, where many Israeli Jews of Libyan origin have settled. Some of the town folk have talked openly of welcoming the deposed Libyan ruler, and a square has been named Qaddafi Plaza. There also appears to be indication of Qaddafi having some Jewish ancestry, and perhaps of the sort that would make him Jewish under rabbinic law. Saudi Arabia, whose rulers hate Qaddafi's guts—and he theirs—clearly isn't open to Qaddafi as a place of exile. He might want to look into this Netanya possibility.