January’s murderous attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher evoked not only fear, indignation, and defiance from Western leaders and publics, but also a second stream of reactions: anxious assertions that the killings bore no relation to Islam and expressions of worry that the Muslim identity of the killers would stoke the flames of “Islamophobia.”
French President François Hollande declared that “these terrorists, these fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed him, saying that the perpetrators “have nothing to do with Islam.” Secretary of State John Kerry opined that “the biggest mistake we could make would be to blame Muslims for crimes…that their faith utterly rejects.” President Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, evinced reluctance to conclude that the Paris gunmen even believed they were acting for Islam. On the evening of the first attack, he declared that despite the perpetrators’ widely reported cries of “Allahu Akbar” and “we have avenged the Prophet,” the White House “was still trying to figure out exactly…what their motivations were.” And at a subsequent briefing he would go only so far as to acknowledge that having committed an act of terrorism, “they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam,” as if they might have contrived the invocation merely as a post-hoc rationalization.
A week after the attacks, Hollande declared an “implacable struggle against racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.” This, according to French news reports, was the first time he had used the latter term, which is more freighted in French discourse. He repeated it more than once over the next days, whereas previously he had used only the more anodyne expression, “anti-Muslim.” In the British press, according to a roundup by Brendon O’Neill, the Guardian warned against “Islamophobes seizing this atrocity to advance their hatred,” while the Financial Times saw a threat to Europe in the form of “Islamophobic extremists.” There was more along these lines.
In the United States, New York Times editorials reverted to this subject again and again. “This is…no time for peddlers of xenophobia to try to smear all Muslims with a terrorist brush,” it declaimed immediately after the first attack. Four days later, with four Jewish victims at the kosher market having been added to the original death toll at Charlie, the Times opined, “Perhaps the greatest danger in the wake of the massacres is that more Europeans will come to the conclusion that all Muslim immigrants on the Continent are carriers of a great and mortal threat.” Two days after that, the sole editorial during this period to lament anti-Semitism contained the reminder that “there have been more than 50 anti-Muslim episodes across France…French Muslims, too, are afraid.” A few days later, the editorialists returned to this theme:
French Muslims, who are as scared of terrorists as everybody else, also have to fear anti-Islam prejudice and attacks. There were 60 recorded threats and attacks against Muslims during the six days following the Jan. 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo. There is a real danger the right-wing National Front will seek political advantage by fueling anti-Muslim hysteria.
Is it true that the Paris attacks have nothing to do with Islam and that “the greatest danger” embedded in them is the dread specter of Islamophobia? It is easy to understand why Western leaders propound the former thesis. In Obama’s case, it might be attributed to his solicitousness toward Islam. (“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” he solemnized before the United Nations in 2012.) But in fact, his predecessor, George W. Bush, made similar statements after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful,” he said. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith.”
In the aftermath of those attacks, the State Department under Colin Powell fell over itself trying to demonstrate that the Muslim world rejected al-Qaeda and its actions. For example, the department ballyhooed some pronouncements against “terrorism” by the renowned Sheik Yussuf al-Qaradawi. Apparently no one at State knew what the sheikh’s many followers in the Arab world did: He advocated “martyrdom operations,” that is, suicide bombings, aimed at Israelis, which in his lexicon did not constitute “terrorism.” And he was soon to adopt a similar stance regarding Americans in Iraq.
Powell’s team got itself into this pickle for much the same reason that Western leaders today hasten to pronounce about what is or is not Islamic, a question one might think best left to those who study or at least practice the religion. That is, they understand that the most decisive way purveyors of extremism and violence can be defeated, and perhaps the only way the threat they pose can be rendered negligible, would be their utter repudiation by the umma, the community of Muslim believers, itself. And conversely, the danger we face will be multiplied many times over if a genuine “clash of civilizations” ensues in which the extremists can win recognition as the defenders of the faith.
So when these Westerners insist that the terrorists are not authentically Muslim, they are trying to display their own respect for Islam in a way they hope will be convincing to the mass of that faith’s adherents and will help distance those adherents from the terrorists.
But is what they say true? And is saying it likely to achieve the intended aims?
Muslim scripture is ambiguous. The Koran is not organized as a logical treatise any more than is the Bible. It is sprinkled with “sword verses” as well as “peace verses,” and the proper interpretation or application of these verses has always been a subject of debate among believers and Islamic scholars. Great value is often attached to emulating Muhammad, who is not regarded as in any sense supernatural but rather as the greatest of human beings. He did kind and peaceful things but he also was a conqueror. As Obama recently reminded Americans, “people [have] committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” but Christ himself counseled turning the other cheek; not so the Prophet of Islam.
Certainly, contrary to Josh Earnest, the Paris killers Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were fulfilling the strictures of their faith, and they were prepared not only to kill but also to die in doing so. Neither can it be said, alas, that they were merely one (or three) of a kind, like the home-grown American terrorists who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Of the 51 organizations listed by the State Department as “foreign terrorist organizations,” 38 are predominantly Muslim, mostly Islamist in ideology.
Their works are evident daily all around us. At nearly the same moment as the first Paris attack, in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, a car bomb, presumably set by Houthis who are waging a war that is at once ethnic and religious, killed 37 and injured another 66, according to the BBC. Also that day, Iraqi News reported that the Islamic State publicly executed 20 men and three female lawyers in Mosul, the men for various alleged offenses and the women apparently merely for being who they were. At the same time, Iraq’s minister of human rights reported the discovery of mass graves in the area containing the remains of 320 other Islamic State victims, including children, apparently of the Yazidi sect. Also that day in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported that a Taliban car bomb killed a judge and injured his two daughters, and six men on a construction crew in Baghlan province were mowed down. The next day in Libya, the Islamic State issued a claim to have executed two Tunisian journalists who, they alleged, worked for “a satellite channel that fights religion,” while the group’s Syrian members beheaded an imam in Hassakeh for “insulting God” and threw another man to his death from a rooftop in Aleppo for being gay, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. While all this was going on, the Muslim terror group Boko Haram was slaughtering an estimated 2,000 residents of the village of Baga, Nigeria, and then released a video in which a man purporting to be the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, crowed: “We indeed killed them, as our Lord instructed us in His Book…We will not stop. This is not much. You’ll see.”
The website TheReligionOfPeace.com monitors such terror attacks and lists 25,000 of them (in which at least one person was killed) since 9/11. The site is openly hostile to Islam, so it is not a respectable source. But I have Googled numerous incidents on its list, and in each case my search produced multiple accounts from Western or other neutral news organizations that corroborated the listing. The BBC, working in cooperation with King’s College, conducted a count of “jihadist violence” for the single month of November 2014. While the website I’ve mentioned listed 284 incidents killing 2,515 people, the BBC counted 664 incidents, killing 5,042. “Jihadist violence,” the BBC’s category, is broader than “terror attacks,” the website’s term, since the former includes killings of combatants by other combatants, not properly labeled “terrorism.” Still, the BBC’s numbers, which are twice as large as those of TheReligionOfPeace.com, make the latter’s seem plausible.
Of course, even 25,000 atrocities need bespeak only the depredations of some hundreds of thousands or a few million individuals out of a worldwide Muslim population of a billion-plus. It raises the question, “What do Muslims in general think of terrorism?”
President Obama recently said that “99.9 percent of Muslims…are looking for the same things we are looking for—order, peace, prosperity” and “don’t even recognize radical [interpretations] as being Islam.” Alas, opinion surveys tell us a more equivocal story. To be sure, all opinion polls show that most Muslims reject such murderous acts as those of the Islamic State or of the Kouachis and Coulibaly. But the minorities who do not reject terrorism are not negligible.
A Gallup poll in nine predominantly Muslim countries taken months after 9/11 found that pluralities or bare majorities in most of these countries judged the attacks to be “totally unjustifiable.” In Kuwait, however, a mere decade after its national independence had been restored by American arms, only 26 percent found 9/11 “totally unjustifiable,” while two other governments closely allied to the United States, those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, refused Gallup permission to ask their citizens this particular question (although not others), presumably for fear of what it might reveal. Further dampening whatever satisfaction could be taken from the main results were the responses to a question about the U.S. attack on Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda once its government had refused an ultimatum to do so itself. Respondents judged this U.S. action to be “totally unjustifiable” in far larger proportions than said the same about the 9/11 assault that provoked it. And to make the picture still cloudier, overwhelming majorities denied that Arabs had been involved in the 9/11 atrocity (presumably believing that the CIA or the Mossad had done it), although Osama bin Laden had already released a video claiming credit.
The Pew Research Center has taken numerous polls since then of citizens in Muslim-majority countries and occasionally of Muslims in other countries. A key question asks whether “suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets” are justified “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” or “never.” In most cases at least a plurality of respondents answer “never,” but a significant segment of the populations chooses one of the other responses. For example, in 2014 in the largest Arab country, Egypt, only 38 percent said such violence was “never” justified, while 24 percent approved of it “often” or “sometimes.” Another 35 percent chose “rarely.” In some discourse, “rarely” can be a euphemism for “never.” But in this case, the option “never” was always offered, so respondents who instead chose “rarely” must have meant something else. On its face, this would seem to mean they believe that violence aimed at civilians is generally a bad thing, but not always. If this group is added to those who say “often” or “sometimes,” then in most years including the most recent survey, most Egyptians—a total of 59 percent in 2014—believe terrorism is justified at least once in a while.
The same is true for Lebanon’s Muslim population, of whom 29 percent say “often” or “sometimes” and another 25 percent say “rarely,” for a total of 54 percent, while those choosing “never” made up 45 percent. In the Palestinian territories, the share saying “never” to violence against civilians rose in 2014 to 32 percent while 59 percent chose one of the other three options. (These results, although tilted in favor of violence, are so much less so than in the previous four Pew surveys of Palestinians as to suggest some kind of anomaly in the 2014 survey. In all the previous surveys, whopping majorities approved violence against civilians “often” or “sometimes” while fewer than 20 percent answered “never.”) In Jordan, a majority once approved of such violence and only 11 percent said it was “never” justifiable, but this was back in 2005 just before jihadists blew up three hotels in Amman. The following year’s survey revealed a sharp drop in support for anti-civilian attacks, and this new attitude has endured since. In 2014, 44 percent of Jordanians answered “often” or “sometimes” or “rarely,” while 55 percent said “never.”
Jordan was not the only country in which support for suicide bombings and the like diminished following domestic terror incidents. In Pakistan, a decade ago there were more respondents who thought these acts “often” or “sometimes” justified than those who thought them “never” justified; but in recent years, with many horrific attacks on mosques, schools, and markets, majorities upwards of 80 percent have responded “never.” In Nigeria in 2010, before the resurgence of Boko Haram, 51 percent responded “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely,” and only a plurality of 44 percent said “never.” Now, in 2014, the number who accepted such violence had fallen to 26 percent, while those who said “never” made up a clear majority, at 61 percent. Tunisia, where a process of reform and democratization has been punctuated by acts of extremist violence, recorded the strongest consensus (90 percent in 2014) of any Muslim country surveyed by Pew that such acts are “never” justified.
One country in which the trend has gone in the opposite direction is Turkey, perhaps due to the influence of its increasingly shrill Islamist government. Such responses were once minuscule in number, but in 2014, 29 percent of Turks found violence against civilians at least occasionally justified, while the proportion answering “never,” which had once been in the 80-plus range, was down to 58 percent, a majority but no longer overwhelming.
In the other 10 African and Asian countries surveyed by Pew, the share of respondents clearly rejecting attacks on civilians ranged from overwhelming in Uzbekistan (78 percent “never”) to a weak minority in Bangladesh (33 percent “never”). In most cases, about 20 percent said attacks on civilians were “often” or “sometimes” justified, with another roughly 15 percent saying “rarely.” In other words, about one-third of respondents decline to categorically eschew such acts.
The findings are not much different among Muslims living in the four European countries that Pew included in its surveys. Of these, only in Germany did an overwhelming majority of Muslims rule out violence against civilians. In France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, Pew found that 15 to 16 percent of Muslims endorsed violence against civilians “often” or “sometimes.” In France, another 19 percent gave the answer “rarely.” In other words, more than one-third of France’s Muslims support such acts at least on occasion, as do about one-quarter of those in Spain and the UK.
In sum, while the predominant view among the world’s Muslims, insofar as we can learn from these polls, rejects terrorism, a significant minority does not. If, on the whole, say, 20 percent of Muslims, a conservative estimate of the average of these numbers, support terror “often” or “sometimes,” that amounts to 300 million people; and if, say, another 15 percent support it “rarely,” then the total base of support for at least occasional terror acts comes to 500 million. There is little comfort to be found in such figures.
They also make nonsense of the claim that it is unfair to speak of Islamic violence or terrorism and not of Christian or Jewish violence or terrorism, even though occasional terrible acts are committed in the names of the latter two faiths. The obvious answer is that there are no Christian or Jewish analogues to the Islamic State; the numbers of such outrages are an infinitesimal fraction of those committed by Muslims; and there is no equivalent base of support in the respective religious communities.
Studying these data, one wonders what respondents who chose the option of “rarely” have in mind. One of the Pew surveys asked a question not asked in the others, and it may give us a glimpse into the answer, bringing into view another important aspect of the issue of Islamic terrorism: its relation to Israel.
In 2004, during the Palestinian intifada, in addition to its usual question about violence against civilians, which was asked in the abstract and specified no venue, Pew also asked: “What about suicide bombing carried out by Palestinians against Israeli citizens? Do you personally believe that this is justifiable or not justifiable?” Only two options were offered for answering this question: “justifiable” or “not justifiable.” In Turkey and Pakistan, the percentage of respondents that found Palestinian suicide bombing “justifiable” was exactly or almost exactly equal to the combined total that, in response to the first question, chose “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely.” In other words, countenancing violence against Israeli civilians was apparently what was on the minds of respondents who said they supported violence against civilians “rarely” rather than “never.”
The parallel numbers in Morocco were even more remarkable. There, the proportion who found Palestinian bombings “justifiable,” 74 percent, was far larger than the combined total who, in answer to the first question, replied “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely.” In other words, a great many of the Moroccans (about half) who said that they “never” supported violence against civilians turned around moments later and endorsed Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians. If all these polls suggest that Muslim attitudes toward terrorism are often equivocal, the case of Israel compounds the problem. For many Arabs and Muslims, Israelis are always fair game.
The Muslim states have long insisted that violence against Israelis, no matter what its nature, cannot by definition constitute terrorism. They argue that terrorism must be defined by its goals rather than the nature of the act, a position that was spelled out by none other than Yasir Arafat in his famous 1974 address to the UN General Assembly. “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights,” he said. “Whoever stands by a just cause…cannot possibly be called [a] terrorist.”
This directly contradicted the stance of UN Secretary General U Thant, who had asserted in response to a Palestinian airplane hijacking in 1970 that “a criminal act is judged by its criminal character and not for its political significance.” But Arafat’s position has prevailed over U Thant’s in UN bodies thanks to the united, adamant stance of the Muslim states. Just a week after Arafat’s appearance, the General Assembly endorsed “the right of the Palestinian people to regain its rights by all means,” and a subsequent reiteration dotted the i, affirming “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples against foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.” Since the Palestinians were engaged neither in conventional nor even, for the most part, guerrilla warfare with Israel, “armed struggle,” as all parties understood, was a euphemism for the Palestinians’ campaign of bombings and murders aimed at civilian targets.
The UN periodically reaffirmed this endorsement until the attacks of 9/11 brought new urgency to the issue of terrorism and prompted Secretary General Kofi Annan to issue a statement that echoed U Thant’s. “The right to resist occupation…cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians,” he said, and he urged the adoption of a general treaty against terrorism. But the Islamic Conference would have none of it, insisting, as the Washington Post reported, “that anti-Israeli militants be exempted.” The Pakistani ambassador explained the reasoning of the Islamic states: “We ought not, in our desire to confront terrorism, erode the principle of the legitimacy of national resistance that we have upheld for 50 years.” Thus Annan’s efforts were thwarted, and in 2011, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, his successor, Ban Ki Moon, lamented that the UN still had not been able to adopt a treaty against terrorism.
In other words the Muslim states have often denounced “terrorism,” but only by defining that term to exclude any and all attacks against Israel and miscellaneous other depredations, such as against Americans in Iraq, undertaken in the name of “national resistance.” To countenance terror in some cases is to countenance terror, period. Who, after all, would support terror on behalf of causes that he opposes? Just as the only meaningful test of support for free speech is support for speech with which one does not agree, so the only meaningful measure of opposition to terrorism is to condemn it even if carried out in the service of a cause of which one approves.
This the Muslim world remains reluctant to do. Palestine is its signature cause. Although the Palestinians did not invent terror, it was Fatah and kindred Palestinian groups that in the 1970s, with their attacks on airplanes, ships, trains, embassies, and even the Olympic Games, made terrorism the scourge of international life that it is today and inspired others to emulate their deeds. Yet how many Muslim voices can be heard anywhere decrying Palestinian terror? Even the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, which has repeatedly renounced terrorism, continues to honor child-murderers and pay stipends to imprisoned terrorists and the families of deceased terrorists. Its official news agency described last summer’s killers of three Israeli teens as “martyrs.” This past November, when four rabbis were hacked to death in prayer in Jerusalem, Abbas condemned the deed, but that same day, as Palestinian Media Watch has documented, Fatah’s Facebook page signaled to the Palestinians that he did not really mean it. It posted a clip from a television interview with one of Arafat’s bodyguards describing how Arafat sometimes bowed to foreign pressure to condemn terror attacks but would do so insincerely because, the guard explained, Islam allows lying under such circumstances. Any viewer would grasp the implication that Abbas was acting in the same manner as his predecessor.
Aside from playing semantic games with the word terrorism, there is another reason that helps to explain why the world’s Muslim governments maintain a strong front in defense of terrorism even while surveys, like Pew’s, suggest that most Muslims reject violence against civilians. The political dynamics of any community are shaped only in part by the proportion of people who believe one thing or another. They are also shaped by the intensity with which views are held. A huge advantage accrues to those who, in Yeats’s line, “are full of passionate intensity.” Today, in the Muslim world, the passionate ones are the Islamists.
Their allure was evidenced a decade ago by Saad Edin Ibrahim, once the most celebrated of Egypt’s political prisoners. Married to an American and carrying dual citizenship, Ibrahim, a sociologist who currently holds a chair at Drew University, is the doyen of Arab liberals. Yet in 2006 he traveled to Lebanon to meet with Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, and then wrote:
Mainstream Islamists with broad support, with developed civic dispositions, and with services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
When, in these pages, I criticized Ibrahim for these words,1 I held up Ayman Nour, who had been the leading alternative to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s 2005 presidential election, as a true liberal. But soon Nour followed Ibrahim into the embrace of the Islamists. The outcome of Egypt’s (and Tunisia’s) 2011 elections following the Arab Spring in a sense vindicated the intuition of both these men that the liberal camp was so weak they would do better to place their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following its victory, however, the Muslim Brotherhood badly overplayed its hand in Egypt and has been dealt a severe setback. While the army has regained power there, the liberal camp shows no new signs of life. If any political forces have benefitted from the Brotherhood’s defeat, they are the more extreme Islamists: Salafis allied with the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and more extreme jihadist sects that have managed to hasten the tempo of guerrilla and terror attacks in Egypt. The military may be back in the saddle, but on the political front the action remains mostly with the Islamists in Egypt and most other Arab states as well as in Iran, Turkey, and across the Muslim world.
The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, is one manifestation of this. Hussein Ibish, a Lebanese-American commentator and a leader of the American Task Force on Palestine, put it:
The grimmest truth about ISIS and other ultra-radical extremist groups is that, in addition to their extreme brutality, they have coherent, albeit despicable, narratives, ideologies and agendas… ISIS fighters could certainly tell you what, exactly, they think they are fighting for and why… Mainstream Arab societies look on in horror but have few compelling narratives to counter ISIS’s propaganda… The alternative Arab visions…remain largely repressed, scattered, unorganized, marginal, and hence ineffective.
He offered this observation in the course of commenting on a remarkable cri de coeur published in Politico in September by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of the satellite channel Al-Arabiya and columnist for the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar—a highly respected journalist who was chosen to be the first newsman to interview President Obama days after he took office. “Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” wrote Melhem. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented, and driven by extremism…than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” He added: “The Islamic State[’s] roots run deep in the badlands of a tormented Arab world.”
While his focus was on the Arabs, Melhem indicated that the problem he saw encompassed the wider Islamic world:
And let’s face the grim truth: There is no evidence whatever that Islam in its various political forms is compatible with modern democracy. From Afghanistan under the Taliban to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and from Iran to Sudan, there is no Islamist entity that can be said to be democratic.
The élan of the extremists may account for some curious poll data reported in 2009 by David Pollock, an expert on Middle East public opinion at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Citing a survey of Egyptians and Saudis taken by a reputable agency, Pollock noted:
Both in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, 75 percent of the public voiced an unfavorable opinion of al-Qaeda; only 20 percent expressed even a “somewhat favorable” view. But when asked to estimate the views of other Muslims, nearly half—44 percent in Egypt and 48 percent in Saudi Arabia—said that “al-Qaeda’s message appeals” to them.
Conceivably some respondents were concealing their own affinity with al-Qaeda by attributing it to others, but a simpler explanation for these incongruous results is that the outspokenness or dynamism exhibited by al-Qaeda sympathizers led their countrymen to overestimate their prevalence.
Likewise, this dynamic may explain the anomaly that support for the Islamic State, as measured in polls of the surrounding countries, is extremely low, but nonetheless it has attracted tens of thousands of volunteers and has had considerable success on the ground. In a September interview, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confessed: “We didn’t…predict the will to fight…[I]n Vietnam…we underestimated the Viet Cong…In this case we underestimated ISIL.” In November, Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, reported the following:
In the many media stories about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, much of the focus has rightly been on the thousands of foreign fighters ISIS has attracted, its brutal tactics and its robust social-media presence. But an arguably even more important development has not received the attention it deserves: the group’s widening influence across the Muslim world, driven by the numerous terrorist and insurgent organizations that have recently sworn loyalty to it. In the past six months, ISIS has drawn into its fold some dozen groups from Algeria to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, had been in existence for a decade before it recruited its first affiliate.
Of course, in attributing the Muslim world’s equivocations about terrorism in some degree to the influence of Islamism, I do not mean to suggest that all Islamists are violent. Melhem summarizes the situation in this passage:
Yes, it is misleading to lump…all Islamist groups together…As terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda and Islamic State are different from the Muslim Brotherhood [,which] renounced violence years ago, although it did dabble with violence in the past. Nonetheless, most of these groups do belong to the same family tree—and all of them stem from the Arabs’ civilizational ills.
Whatever the deepest source of those civilizational ills, the despair or grievance at the heart of Islamism, of whatever stripe, is expressed in terms of competition and conflict with the West. The Muslim Brotherhood, granddaddy of them all, was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna when, according to his own account, six men who had been moved by his lectures came and said to him:
We know not the practical way to reach the glory of Islam and to serve the welfare of Muslims. We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. Lo, we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and no dignity. They are not more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners…We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it, or to know the path to the service of the fatherland, the religion, and the umma as you know it.
Al-Banna’s teaching stressed the necessity of violent jihad: “He who dies and has not fought… has died a jahilliya [unenlightened or un-Islamic] death.”
After engaging in low-level violence over its early decades, and losing out to successive regimes, the Brotherhood foreswore violence within Egypt. Outside is a different matter, as General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef explained when U.S forces were fighting in Iraq:
The Muslim Brotherhood movement condemns all bombings in the independent Arab and Muslim countries. But the bombings in Palestine and Iraq are a [religious] obligation. This is because these two countries are occupied countries, and the occupier must be expelled in every way possible. Thus, the movement supports martyrdom operations in Palestine and Iraq in order to expel the Zionists and the Americans.
Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, says in its charter not only that “the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [Trust] upon all Muslim generations till the day of Resurrection” but also that “the same goes for all the lands accessed and consecrated by Muslims at the time of conquering.”
While the Muslim Brotherhood is one example of moderate Islamism, a still greater one is the AKP of Turkey. But it has become increasingly autocratic in its rule, scornful of the West, anti-Semitic in its rage at Israel, and is serving as the principal diplomatic sponsor of Hamas. In other words, even Islamist groups that avoid violence themselves support it on the part of other Islamists. It goes without saying that the more extreme Islamist groups burn even brighter in their rage at the West and in the lengths to which they are prepared to go to express it.
This rage was plainly evident in the responses to the Paris massacres. In Tehran, protestors encouraged by the government massed outside the French embassy, chanting “death to Charlie” and “death to France.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that French intelligence might have been complicit in the attack and warned: “We must be aware of [the West’s] plots against the Muslim world.”
The Islamists in general draw strength from a sentiment of sullen defensiveness more widely evident in the Muslim world. This was exemplified by a furious war of emails that broke out among editors and reporters at Al-Jazeera, mostly pitting Arab against Western staff. Said one of the former: “I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people, chances are one or two of them will kill you.” And the French Jewish intellectual Michel Gurfinkiel reported that in France itself:
Most imams issued perfunctory condemnation of terrorism, but were clearly unenthusiastic about Charlie Hebdo’s right to make fun of every religion, including Islam…More ominously, one-minute silence ceremonies at school were met with hostility and scorn by Muslim children and teenagers…Two hundred such instances were reported; thousands of cases went unreported, according to teachers’ sources.
Much has already been written about Europe’s burgeoning and poorly integrated Muslim populations. In Western Europe, France is home to the largest number, and there is anecdotal evidence that parts of it seethe with hostility. In 2001, when France hosted an Algerian soccer team in a match staged by diplomats as a demonstration of friendship, it had to be canceled midway when fans, who appeared to be French of North African descent, charged the field, having earlier booed the national anthem and thrown debris at the two French ministers present. In 2005, riots tore through the banlieues, suburbs where Muslims live, lasting three weeks. And in 2012, Christopher Caldwell reports, rioting broke out in Lyon when a bomber was arrested. Many of these suburbs have been called “no-go zones,” although in January that term came in for ridicule when some conservative commentators said these were formal areas outside national sovereignty. This was an exaggeration, but the neighborhoods referred to this way are, as international journalist David Rieff described in the New York Times Magazine in 2007, intimidating to non-Muslims, even police. A few years ago, I strolled a few blocks from my hotel on Place de la République, the center of January’s “Je Suis Charlie” march, and during the hour of midday prayers, a street was blocked by a few hundred male worshippers who filled it with their prayer rugs, appropriating it without official sanction, as far as I could tell.
A particular focus of Muslim hostility in France and other European countries is on Jews. The neo-Nazi French “comedian,” Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who is not himself Muslim but aims in large measure to appeal to a Muslim audience, responded to the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan on Facebook with the taunt “Je Suis Charlie Coulibaly,” which seemed calculated to suggest that he identified with both the provocative magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the killer of Jews at Hyper Cacher. This was, of course, not the first killing of French Jews by angry Muslims. In 2006, a gang of Muslim youths kidnapped Ilan Halimi in one of the banlieues and tortured him to death over three weeks. In 2012, a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse were mowed down. In 2014, there were no killings, but there were many assaults on individuals identifiable as Jews and desecrations of Jewish sites, punctuated by riots during the Gaza war in which Jews were besieged in two Paris synagogues by a mob “with murder on its mind,” according to witnesses quoted in news reports. Jews attest that one can no longer safely roam Paris or its Metro or many other French cities while wearing a kippah. The natural outcome of all this was twofold: a survey showing that the vast majority of French Jews were considering emigration and a great outpouring of concern by the New York Times and others about…Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is a term first put into currency in 1997 in a report of the Runnymede Trust, a left-of-center think tank in the UK. It then was given a kind of official international consecration by the 2001 UN conference on racism at Durban. That conference devolved from an exercise on racism to an exercise in racism, more particularly anti-Semitism, prompting the U.S. delegation to walk out. While the session of government representatives singled out Israel for unique criticism, the officially sanctioned session of NGOs convened in parallel became a circus of Jew-baiting. According to an account by two officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “copies of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were widely distributed by Muslim activists, while a mob marched on Durban’s Jewish community center shouting, ‘Hitler should have finished the job.’” When some representatives succeeded in getting the official declaration to include a reference to anti-Semitism, this was counterbalanced by the addition of “Islamophobia.” Then in 2007, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now Organization of Islamic Cooperation) created the Islamophobia Observatory, based in Saudi Arabia— which, in the words of Muslim author Asra Q. Nomani, “tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.”
Islamophobia is an odd term. The staffers of Charlie Hebdo were not the first to be murdered for offending Islamic sensibilities. Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Flemming Rose (who published the famous Danish cartoons in 2006), and others are stalked by fatwas commanding their deaths. Israel lives under the specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb in the hands of a government pledged to wipe it off the map. Jihadist groups wage war on “Zionists and Crusaders.” And Islamism, in its various forms, proclaims the goal of world domination, if not now then eventually. In short, there are many people who have real reason to fear violence aimed at them from within the Muslim world and in the name of Islam. Of course the overwhelming majority of victims of Muslim violence are Muslims, so clearly none of this justifies fear, and even less so hatred, directed toward Muslims in general or any other expression of prejudice or discrimination.
But how big a problem is Islamophobia? The British writer Brendan O’Neill notes that a widely forecast upsurge in crimes against Muslims following the 2007 British Underground bombings never materialized. “Islamophobia is a myth,” he says. This brought a rejoinder from Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic who turned the focus to the U.S.: “My belief that Muslims are at special risk…is grounded in the fact that after the September 11 terrorist attacks…hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked dramatically.” They did, but Friedersdorf offered no numbers. According to federal statistics, “hate crimes” aimed at Muslims spiked—to almost half the number aimed at Jews. Before 9/11 such crimes against Muslims were fewer than against any other religious group covered in the reports—Jews, Catholics, or Protestants. A year after the “spike,” hate crimes aimed at Muslims fell, not all the way back to their pre-9/11 level, but to one-sixth as many as were aimed at Jews. This, in a country where, I believe, most Jews feel they do not experience much hatred.
Nonetheless, Hussein Ibish argues that there must be some term to stigmatize “hate speech—which targets real people … compromising or threatening their ability to function as equals to all others in society.” Fair enough. And Ibish further argues that Islamophobia is the term we have. That may be true, but if so, it is important that it not be used, as Asra Nomani says it is, to silence debate. Also, that it not serve to distort priorities. At a moment when the principle of free speech and the ability of Jews to live in Europe as Jews are under serious threat, threats that could set back the progress of liberal civilization perhaps irreparably, the issue of the moment is not, contrary to New York Times or Guardian editorialists, Islamophobia. And finally, the term or concept of Islamophobia should not be used to compound a debilitating falsehood.
By this I mean the falsehood pronounced by Hollande and Merkel and Kerry and Obama’s spokesman that jihadist violence has “nothing to do with Islam.” I have already presented abundant evidence that this claim is false. Let me explain why I believe it is likely also to prove self-defeating.
There are voices in the Muslim world beckoning Islam to confront its faults and errors and achieve a better understanding of itself so that it might move forward from an era of stagnation and live in harmony with the rest of the world. Melhem’s has been the most eloquent such voice, but it is far from the only one. Nomani’s is another, as is Ibish’s. I could name many more. The London-based international Arabic newspapers, for example, have run several such columns.
The most remarkable and important voice now is that of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. True, his rule thus far has been repressive, some say more repressive than the old regime of Mubarak, and not only of the Islamists but also of secular liberals. Nonetheless, he delivered a speech on December 28 of historic importance. He spoke at Al-Azhar University, the world’s preeminent center of Sunni learning, to a large body of clerics and religious scholars, and he summoned them to transform the faith. The message, although already reported, is so important as to justify quoting at length:
I would like to reiterate that we are not doing enough with regard to true religious discourse. The problem has never been with our faith. Perhaps the problem lies in ideology, and this ideology is sanctified among us…
We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world…I am referring not to “religion,” but to “ideology”—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.
It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at Al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion…
The world in its entirety awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition. (Translation by MEMRI.)
Even for a man in Sisi’s position these are brave words, and he repeated many of the same thoughts a month later at the World Economic Forum at Davos, while Kerry droned on about “blam[ing] Muslims for crimes…their faith utterly rejects.” It is to be hoped that Sisi’s words will stimulate more debate within the Muslim world. He will be countered not only by would-be assassins, although there will be no shortage of those, but also by many voices of sullen defensiveness and deep denial that will insist that if there are any problems, they are all the fault of the West or the Zionists.
True, it is not easy to figure out what, besides preserving our own strength while affirming our desire for peace and friendship, non-Muslims can do to encourage and support those seeking to reform the “religious discourse” of the Muslim world. But surely for us to make the point, in the face of yet another brutal Islamist depredation, that, as far as we can see, nothing is amiss in Islam will only lend confirmation to the deniers and will sooner undermine than help the reformers.
1 “In Search of Moderate Muslims,” February 2008