Realism, Islamism and Islam: When Will Difficult Conversations Begin?

Realism, Islamism and Islam: When Will Difficult Conversations Begin?

Western leaders cannot expect to defeat terrorism in their countries when they deny and evade acknowledging the roots of the jihadi phenomenon.

Western leaders cannot expect to defeat terrorism in their countries when they deny and evade acknowledging the roots of the jihadi phenomenon: the deep connection of the attacks to the faith. Admitting this connection will not only be more respectful to Muslims, it will also be conducive to reforms and useful to Muslim reformists, who acknowledge that the terrorists’ ideals come from within: from the houses of worship, the schools and society at large. Being truthful towards the Muslims is more respectful than denial. It will also be much more helpful, since only discarding the completely unnecessary hypocrisy regarding the roots of Islamic terror will help Muslims adopt a normal attitude towards their past: pride in its achievements, along with the necessary criticism of the archaic values that led to those achievements. Muslims should accept a post-caliphate role for themselves just like all European states have reconciled themselves to post-imperial status. This is an admittedly painful process, but it is an unavoidable one. The most senior Muslim religious leaders should seek a Muslim aggiornamento (a bringing up to date of the religion) along the lines of the reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII.

These messages should be delivered by Western leaders openly and insistently, in lieu of the intellectual evasion and denial practiced today. It should be emphasized that this demand is not addressed exclusively to Muslims. It is a demand that the West and Christianity have applied to themselves, and therefore have every right to demand it of the Muslim world. Only thus will the ideological base of jihad be eradicated and "terrorism" significantly decline. Needless to say, this is a long-term process, but it is nevertheless the genuine solution to the problem and the only way to produce results.

In translating this insight into concrete policies, two steps seem to be immediately necessary. First, Western leaders must cease the hypocritical denial of jihad's deep connection to faith, and firmly and openly demand that the leaders of the Muslim world take significant steps to reform the religion. Second—and this is up to them alone—they must enact legislation to stop the jihadi use of the Internet, which has been powering the spread of jihadi ideology for over a decade. They must disregard all the corporate excuses, that this is impossible or incompatible with free speech. Free speech does not permit incitement to murder, including faith-based incitement. They should honor the international conventions against genocide and not allow the Internet companies to flout the laws of democratic countries. For a detailed strategy for purging the Internet of jihadi incitement, see MEMRI daily brief number 126, which is titled “An Internet Clean of Jihadi Incitement—Not Mission Impossible, May 1, 2017.

From a historian’s perspective, Carmon’s argument is on solid ground. The terrorists of our era, like those of the past, are inspired by a set of ideas, in this case, religiously legitimated ideas. It is these ideas, not the character flaws spread widely and equally among human beings, that are the problem. While millions of Muslims firmly reject these ideas, a minority, however small, does not. It is not true that Islamism has nothing to do with the texts of the religion of Islam. He is right as well that it is not a sign of respect to ignore what people say as they engaged in terrorist attacks. Further, serious people who have some understanding of the role of religion in modern Western history all understand that at times religious belief has been a source of political fanaticism and mass violence. To address the religion of Islam with the same mixture of empathy and criticism that became the norm after the Enlightenment in the West asserts that the issue of Islamism, Islam and politics will be treated with equally, not more or less critically, than the West treats its own religious past and present. He is also right that when and if Western leaders speak frankly, they will be making common cause with those Muslims, from the Mayor of London to the anti-Islamist writers of North Africa, who reject the employment of the texts of Islam to justify terrorism and who embrace the values of open, free and pluralistic societies.

For many years, the voices of apparent realism in the democracies have told us that euphemism and avoidance regarding the truth about Islamism, Islam and terror were essential to win the “war on terror.” Fearful of generating an anti-Muslim backlash in the democracies, the euphemisms and silences of the realists of center right and center left have contributed to just that outcome. To refrain from stating the obvious has fostered cynicism and mistrust. It contributed to the mistrust of elites and the success of Trump’s populist demagoguery. Now it is important to say that Yigal Carmon, Bassam Tibi, Boualem Sansal, the anti-Islamist writers of North Africa, and the late Fouad Ajami, among others, have been the true realists in this long running debate. It was never realistic, hard-headed or prudent to deny in public what all Western political leaders knew—or should have known—about the ideological connection between interpretations of the religion of Islam and the practice of terror in recent decades. Realism in politics and policy demands an unflinching gaze at the facts, the evidence and the truth. That unflinching gaze needs to be focused on the ideas and passions that have inflamed the hearts and minds of the murderers. Elements of the intellectual history of Islamist terror have already been written and are readily available as sources for the “difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations” that need to take place around the world.

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent publications include Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989; Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World; and with Anthony McElligott, eds., Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust.

Image: Abbasi Mosque. Wikimedia Commons