The Buzz

Why Obama and Trump Are Both Wrong About Islam

Political correctness about Islam isn’t confined to America. It also exists in Europe. Last week Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel thus learned a sad lesson in Ankara: those who seek to distinguish between Islam and Islamism face accusations that they are condemning a whole religion and are thus being “Islamophobic.” On February 3, 2017, Merkel, while meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, defended the importance of protecting the right of opposition in a democracy and called for joint opposition to the “Islamist terror” of the Islamic State. Erdogan immediately replied that there it was not acceptable to speak of “Islamist terror” because Islam was a religion of peace. He rejected her efforts to distinguish between “Islamic” and “Islamist” and presented himself as a defender of Muslims in general against the unbelievers.

Unfortunately for her, Merkel’s lesson came in a very public setting, but the message is one that a group of scholars and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic and some in the Middle East have been hearing since the attacks of 9/11 as they have tried to make the same point. In numerous essays and books, I and others have argued that an ideology alternatively called Islamism or radical Islam has been the inspiration for a war of terror launched against the West in Europe, the United States and Israel, and against Muslims especially in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon. This ideology, which has Sunni and Shia variations, emerged in the Arab world 1930s and 1940s in the era of fascism in Italy and more importantly Nazism in Germany. Despite sectarian differences that have even led to violence between Islamist groups, the bottom line is clear: Islamism everywhere opposes liberal democracy, denies the state of Israel the right to exist, is blatantly and proudly anti-Semitic against both the religion of Judaism and Jews as a group as well as the state of Israel, and equally proudly calls for terrorist attacks on the people, values and institutions of Western liberal modernity.

The scholarship on this urgent topic includes Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (2004) and The Flight of the Intellectuals (2011), Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism and the Roots of 9/11 (2002; English, 2013), Bassam Tibi’s Islamism and Islam (2012), and my own Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009). All draw a sharp line between the religion of Islam and the large majority of its Muslim adherents, on the one hand, and the minority that adopted Islamism as its creed, on the other. We all urged governments on both sides of the Atlantic to make this distinction. Alas, with the exception of France, and that not until after the terrorist attacks of 2015, none did.

Instead, President Bush spoke vaguely of a “war on terror” while President Obama referred to an unspecified “violent extremism.” Such obfuscatory language clouded what was really at stake. In the past sixteen years, it has been patently clear to serious scholars and observers that Islamism was indeed an interpretation, however distorted, of the religion of Islam, that it referred, in however absurd a manner, to existing passages in the Koran and commentaries about it. To say, as President Obama once did, that the Islamic State had nothing to do with Islam took this refusal to make distinctions to an absurd conclusion.

No matter how careful we were, no matter how sound our scholarship, or how reliable our reading of key texts, the advocates of euphemism and avoidance, especially in the past eight years, have refused to state the obvious or to challenge those who claimed that making any connection between terrorism and any interpretation of the religion of Islam was “Islamophobic” and thus an insult to all Muslims. Our government officials failed to mention the well-documented collaboration of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the founder of the Palestinian national movement, with the Nazi regime during World War II and the Holocaust. They did not mention his 1937 essay “Islam and the Jews,” a text that became a canonical interpretation presenting the religion of Islam as being inherently at war with both Judaism and the Jews. They refused to recall that Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and then the leading Islamist organization in the Arab world, hailed Husseini as a hero when he returned to the Middle East in 1946. The advocates of euphemism and denial refused to discuss publicly the enormous impact of Sayyid Qutb’s viciously anti-Semitic texts, such as his 1952 essay “Our Struggle with the Jews.” The attackers of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden repeatedly and proudly announced their hatred of Jews, Israel and the United States, yet in his eight years in office, President Obama made no effort to educate the American people and the global public about the Islamist interpretation of Islam. The anti-Semitism of the Iranian government received inadequate discussion in Washington as well. Millions of people around the world could see that the terrorists evoked Islamist ideas to justify their barbarism. They could also observe that by far the greatest number of their victims were their fellow Muslims. Yet the era of euphemism and avoidance continued unabated.