Where Does the Fight Against Islamism Go from Here?
by M. Zuhdi Jasser
As President-elect Barack Obama and his administration begin the transition process from the Bush administration, anti-Islamists cannot help but be concerned. Those of us dedicated to stimulating and facilitating long overdue reform within the Muslim consciousness against the growing threat of political Islam cannot help but feel more adrift now than ever before with little legitimate “hope for change” in our policy against Islamists then we have ever had. The long and arduous two year campaign negligently spent little to no time laying out what the policy of the Obama administration would be toward Islamists, both foreign and domestic. While the Bush administration understood the basic need to promote liberty as an alternative to oppression in Muslim lands, they were unable to translate that into an effective policy with a critical engagement of Islamists. They did not seize the opportunities they had to counter political Islam by fostering grassroots movements for freedom against Islamists. If the Obama campaign is any sign of what is in store, we seem to be headed even further back into a retreat from any perceptible contest of ideas against the ideology of Islamism.
The Obama Campaign and Islamists
While the dominance of economic issues during the final months of the campaign can certainly be understood, one major attack by radical Islamists is all that would be necessary to precipitate what could ultimately be a most devastating and crippling blow to our economy. We cannot afford to overlook this possibility. To do so leaves little room for comfort in the hearts of concerned anti-Islamists today.
In fact, looking at the Obama campaign’s inclination to appoint individuals like Mazen Asbahi to “Muslim outreach” may portend a naïve facilitative role with regards to Islamists and the ideology of Islamism. Looking at the converse, in what appears to be significant domestic and foreign support for President-elect Obama by Islamists, also portends an upcoming weaker stance – if not outright appeasement – from Washington against the ideology of Islamists. In fact, the messages from the Obama campaign (or lack thereof) concerning political Islam, were interpreted favorably by American Islamist organizations. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and their umbrella lobbying organization the American Muslim Task Force (AMT) all quickly rushed to congratulate President-elect Obama. Interestingly, the AMT pushed out an election eve endorsement on November 3, 2008, deceptively trying to “have its cake and eat it too.” They stated to the Massachusetts Telegram and Gazette , “by making an ‘indirect endorsement’ but keeping it low profile, Mr. Ali said, the organization avoided two pitfalls: ‘creating problems for the Obama campaign (and) accepting exclusion from the American mainstream.” In other words, the Islamists carefully avoided any possibility of having the Obama campaign account for their stance by having to accept or reject the endorsement of every American Islamist organization. Thus the twelve Islamist organizations which are represented by AMT were able to claim public and open support of Obama on November 5, 2008 while avoiding any real contest of ideas and reckoning about their own facilitation and promulgation of political Islam.
Post-election day, AMT quickly rushed out a press release of the results of a poll (conducted by “Genesis Research Associates”) of American Muslims, which was uncritically regurgitated by the mainstream media claiming that 89% of American Muslims voted for Obama. It also claimed a 95% Muslim voter turnout. I am inclined, for a number of reasons, to believe that these numbers are a bit inflated. This reminds us of the dire need for anti-Islamist Muslims to contract well-established polling firms in the study of the American Muslim population from an anti-Islamist perspective rather than what can be a self-fulfilling prophecy completed by Islamists.
Regardless, the general “collectivist-liberal” trend with regards to Muslim voting numbers presents an even deeper challenge to any effective effort to counter the equally collectivist ideology of Islamism – the theocratic ideology of Muslim collectivism inherent in political Islam. By the way, it should not escape informed readers that Islamists are “hardly liberal” and are in fact “reactionary,” if not medieval in their views, when it comes to their beliefs on women’s rights, minority rights, free speech laws (i.e. blasphemy laws), and corporal punishment for crimes, to name just a few areas of conflict between current day “established sharia law” and the rule of law in Western secular liberal democracies. Islamists are still very easily able to escape this whole discussion, short of being pushed into a “contest of ideas,” since they are a minority in the U.S. and never have to actually account for the laws they would endorse in places where they are a majority. And if Muslim leaders claim agreement with Western secular law, one cannot help but ask where all the movements for modernization of sharia law against the current salafist interpretations are?
Identity Politics, the Left, and the Ideology of Islamism
The Obama mantra of “change” gives anti-Islamists little comfort arising out of a campaign which was negligently short on substance on the issue of radical Islamism and the threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism. One would be hard-pressed to find candidate Obama or any of his surrogates on the record once about the “contest of ideas” and what his vision, or that of his advisors, is of how that contest would play out in his administration. Sadly, when the issue of Islam and Muslims was addressed it focused far too narrowly and naïvely on identity politics and religious freedom for Muslims in America, rather than the threat of political Islam or the absence of religious freedom in “Muslim” nations. Political correctness once again prevailed against a backdrop of an ideology promoted by Islamists which still threatens our national security.
A good example was Gen. Colin Powell’s comments on October 18, 2008 on NBC’s Meet the Press. Unfortunately, Gen. Powell missed the point of the entire struggle at the eye of the storm in the global contest of ideas. His overriding comments on Muslims, in general, were certainly laudable and long overdue in the public place in as far as they spoke to the irrelevance of a candidate’s personal faith practice. Powell’s comments asking, “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America” did resonate with me from a perspective of religious freedom and liberty for all Americans certainly including American Muslims in the pluralism which is America.
Gen. Powell’s touching story about an American Muslim soldier who gave the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq also resonated with me as a former U.S. Navy officer. Powell related, “…and his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life” These comments are all well and good and may warm the cockles of the hearts of Muslims including me, but at the end of the day we are losing the meaning of why this courageous American soldier gave his life and who and what he was fighting. The fact is that we are still left with a real and existential threat of political Islam that feeds radical Islamist networks that only Muslims can defeat. As long as our political leaders demagogue identity faith politics (of Muslims) and give American Muslim leaders and their organizations more and more room to deflect their own responsibility to counter the threat of political Islam, we will not win the contest of ideas. A contest of ideas not waged cannot be won. To dismiss American Muslims and their global brethren as mere victims or bystanders in a conflict which is at its core only theirs to wage and to win against political Islam is to leave our security perilously at risk.
Regardless of how much American Islamists reject terrorism as an act, the fact remains that all radical Islamists come out of the mindset of political Islam. Real counterterrorism can only come out of real anti-Islamism. Collectivizing Muslims in elections, as the Left is want to do, is reckless and feeds into the ideology, means, and mission of savvy Islamists who know exactly how to manipulate this. We will never defeat such an ideology which thrives upon the political collectivization of all Muslims if we continue to feed into the mindset which demagogues Muslims as a homogenous collective unit. It may be very comfortable and certainly true from a First Amendment perspective to couch commentary about personal Muslim faith practice as Gen. Powell did in the warmth of religious liberty and American ideals. God knows, my family has certainly realized this and it was one of the primary driving forces of my own service in the U.S. Navy. But Gen. Powell forgets that the same Islamist organizations which so widely disseminated his remarks have done very little to encourage military service of Muslims in the U.S. military and to the contrary take every opportunity to disseminate incidents like the Abu Ghraib story as the representative example of American action in Iraq.
Gen. Powell’s comments are misused by Islamists because he did not make them concomitantly with comments denouncing the political ideology of Islamism and Muslim political collectivism. When the Muslim community is looked upon as a collective and as a victim with no emphasis upon responsibility in defeating Islamism, it ends up propping up Islamists substantially. In order to know understand how reckless such comments can be, one need look no further than how far and wide Gen. Powell’s comments were disseminated by global transnational Islamist movements. Leaders like Gen. Powell need to both advocate for American religious freedom domestically which includes Muslims and all faiths while also positioning such advocacy within a concurrent Muslim anti-Islamist movement. Avoiding this positioning leaves Islamists empowered and overly comfortable. One cannot help but see that the Obama campaign and its surrogates have done just that- empower transnational Islamist movements.
We need cautious and thoughtful politicians who understand the “contest of ideas” within the Muslim consciousness. We need leaders who are willing to ask Muslims and all of their organizations the tough questions – not just the easy ones about condemning terrorism which any human being should do; but rather to ask Muslims to condemn the ideology of political Islam which is always an undercurrent of radical Islamist movements.
One can only guess that President-elect Obama seems to come from the school of thought that terrorism is simply a crime problem and radical Islamists are simply a crime syndicate. Such a line of thinking is not only wrong-headed but leaves us perilously and continuously exposed to a deep existential threat. Islamist terrorism is just that- Islamist. It is fueled by an undercurrent of political Islam which is running rampant in the Muslim world and yet remains basically unopposed by western ideas.
We have had over 30 planned attacks upon our citizens that, thankfully, were prevented since 9/11. They will continue to recur unless we begin a movement from within the Muslim consciousness to counter the politico-religious ideology (Islamism) which feeds it. The Bush administration proved not to have the stomach to deal with the real ideological threat of Islamism. Instead they have often appeased Islamists domestically (MB surrogates) and globally (i.e. the MB). If we do not realistically and critically counter the ideas of political Islam we stand against a growing threat that we will ultimately be unable to counter.
Unanwered Questions: Beyond the war of ideas
Regardless of whether the Obama administration addresses the war of ideas or not, the conflict will not go away. In fact, it is set only to increase. As an aside, one cannot help but wonder what life must have been like living in the “war of ideas” of the Cold War of the 1960s against communism as the left controlled the executive branch.
Does the Obama administration on deck really feel that the threat of Islamist terror will disappear if we withdraw from Iraq? Will Obama’s transition team acknowledge that terror is merely a tactic and its threat preceded the Iraq war and runs across the deep abyss which separates political Islam from Western secular democracies?
The nonpartisan Committee on the Present Danger which includes bipartisan involvement has gathered its resources again in the wake of 9/11 to educate America to the threat of Islamism and its fuel for terror against our homeland. Is President-elect Obama ready to acknowledge this threat? If so, are we going to withdraw all substantive influence from the Muslim world and allow Islamists to make dangerous political gains? If not America, then who is going to help defend Muslim liberty movements in each nation where Islamists should meet Muslim and non-Muslim resistance alike? Is America going to live up to our own ideologies of liberty, freedom, and secular democracy by advocating for such ideas abroad? What will happen to our thus far ineffectual Public Diplomacy program? How will our Public Diplomacy program engage in the Contest of ideas? Will his administration finally have the stomach to confront the ideology of Wahhabism under the Saudi regime? Will we continue the often hypocritical and short-sighted policy in the Muslim world of making our “enemy’s enemy” into our friend? Do we understand how that perception undermines our credibility with real reformist movements? What will be the Obama strategy for countering the dangerous ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad and domestically?
As goes the foreign verbiage and engagement so goes the domestic engagement of Muslim organizations. As a relatively new immigrant population, the connections of the domestic Muslim community to the Muslim community abroad are deep, daily, and continuous, fed by a robust exposure to Arabic and Indo-Pakistani satellite news media which is most often Islamist. How will the Obama administration counter and engage that media including such outlets as Al Jazeera, MBC, Al-Arabiya, or GeoTV to name a few.
How about a bold new mantra of “change” directed at the Islamists changing their ideas toward real religious freedom and liberty for all? But that would demand that the mantra actually have substance and be backed up by a clear strategy. So far, if the campaign season is any sign, the Obama administration policy toward Islamists and Islamism appears to be long on platitudes and bromides and short on substance and a clear strategy.