Islam, Islamism, and the West.

I noticed some unhappy reactions in the Twitterverse to comments by Gen. Michael Flynn, a likely bigshot in the incoming Trump administration, that we are at war against “Islamism.”

I’m not an expert on the intellectual history of Islam or the modern Middle East, but I do know a few things.

First, “Islamic fundamentalism” is a fairly modern development.  One of its major thinkers, Qutb, was born in 1906 and died in 1966, for example, and his views were formed to a significant degree by his visit to United States as a young man.  One of my friends who does specialize in the development of Islamic intellectual history has told me that the intellectual impulse that led to its development came from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the modernization drive launched by Mehmet Ali, or, more accurately, the intellectual reaction thereto.  In other words, Islamic fundamentalism is, at its roots, the Islamic counterpart to both European Romantic nationalism and  the Evangelical fundamentalism in United States, a very recent development where some traditionalist ideas are radically transmogrified by modern thinking and modern technology.

Second, people who know Islamic theology better than I tell me that Islam is fundamentally a religion of laymen, built on personal and individual connection between the believer and God.  There is no formal “clergy,” but only “teachers” and “preachers.”  (in a manner distinctly different from Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, but similar to modern Judaism or Protestantism.)  Thus, imams ultimately only “advise,” not command.  There is no “true” Islam, except in the minds of the believers, because no instituted authority exists to define it.  This is especially stronger in the Sunni world, where there is no formal institution of even the teachers.  Shi’ism, with much more institutionalized and hierarchical leadership operates rather differently.  (Although, one might say, they can become collectively harder to deal with when the whole hierarchy decides to preach uniformly–see Iran.)

The combination of first and second makes Islamic fundamentalism an extremely deadly foe.  It certainly is not “Islam,” certainly not the traditional Islam.  But there is no one to denounce it as improper in a binding fashion.  Yes, traditionalist preachers might be persuaded to denounce it–they are already enemies of the fundamentalists, after all–but its adherents are under no obligation to listen.  That they were influenced by the corrupting powers of the “modernity” and “the West” to denounce fundamentalism can, in fact, only reinforce it while subverting the credibility of the traditional Islam.

Compounding it further, I think, is the willful blindness among many Westerners to different strands of Islam.  Islamism is NOT Islam, but a minority movement within it that happens to be explicitly hostile to “the West” that happens to be of very recent creation.  During World War II, many camps housing German POW’s were run by commandants who thought all Germans were Nazis, and unwittingly gave the pro-Nazi prisoners far more power in running the camps, whereas the actual Nazis were relatively few and resented by the average POW’s.  I suspect, by conflating Islamists and Islam, we might be making the same mistake–by giving the Islamists a de facto right to define all of Islam and gain influence as its primary representative.  The British did somewhat better than we did, in sorting through German POWs and isolating the Nazis from the rest, in part because they were able to enlist a large number of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany into their military intelligence services.  Ironically, this points to something we should be trying to emulate:  actually try to recruit people who know something about Islamists and traditional Islam, and tell them apart.

Erecting successful barriers against Islamic fundamentalism, however, still runs into problems.  Islamic fundamentalism, is, after all, still a religious movement and its adherent are free to exercise their faith as they see fit under the Constitution.  We cannot bring in traditionalist preachers and say that they are not “proper” Islam (that would be problematic both on Islamic grounds and Constitutional grounds:  defining what is not “proper” Islam is complicated enough given its theology; under the First Amendment, the government has no business defining what proper practice for any religion is anyways.)  Islamic fundamentalism may be anti-modernity and anti-Western, but the same might be said about Hasidic Judaism or the Amish.  If they insist that they are not violent, merely anti-modern, can they be subject to additional restrictions to ensure that they are really not violent, as they say?  Personally, I do think that fundamentalist Islamists in America, if they are indeed patriots who are only anti-modern, have somewhat of a moral obligation to actively cooperate with the authorities to show their good faith–but it is not something that can be demanded legally.  The anti-Islamic sentiment among a significant part of the US population is not helping this, as the distinction between Islamists and Muslims, let alone the much finer distinction between the factions of Islamists who are merely anti-modern and those who are actively anti-Western and anti-American (and violently so) are lost.  Why would “peaceful Islamists” cooperate with the “infidel modernists” against their co-religionists, when all infidels are against all Muslims (or even just Islamists)?  So conflation takes places on opposite sides, both aspects of conflation subverting the fight against violent religious extremism.


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