The radical-moderate continuum that has defined the dialogue on Islam in the War on Terror is not an authentic perspective, it is an observer perspective.
To the Western observer, a suicide bomber is radical, a Muslim Imam willing to perform gay weddings is moderate and the Muslim Brotherhood leader who supports some acts of terror, but not others, is moderately radical or radically moderate.
These descriptions tell us nothing about Islam or about what Muslims believe, but do tell us a great deal about its observers and what they believe. They turn Islam into inkblots that reveal more about the interpreter than the splotch of ink being interpreted.
Muslims are not radical or moderate. The radical-moderate continuum is how liberal countries rate individuals and countries to decide how well they will harmonize with the national and international consensus. Even if that consensus only exists in their own mind. The label of moderate does not mean a rejection of violence. Otherwise it could hardly be applied to the Muslim Brotherhood. What it means is a willingness to collaborate with Western governments and progressive organizations.
The radical-moderate labels are useful for liberals, but useless for anyone who wants to asses reality. It is tied into a number of false notions that are necessary for maintaining the status quo of liberal democracies. Notions such as the equal moral stature and interchangeability of all religions and peoples are key to running a liberal democracy, but they make it impossible to have a rational conservative about Islam.
In liberal democracies, no one really discusses Islam as a religion. That discussion is preemptively aborted by the defense of the general category of religion. To criticize Islam is to challenge the category of protection for all religions, much as to attack Communism during the Cold War was to attack the First Amendment.
The general category makes it necessary to subdivide the specific religion or ideology into a moderate majority and a tiny minority of extremists. This categorization tells us nothing about Islam and everything about the political and intellectual classes that refuse to rationally discuss it.
Islam is neither moderate nor extreme. It simply is. Extremism and moderate are an observer perspective. That does not mean that Islam is all one thing, an impermeable block. But the one thing that it is not, is liberal.
Liberal Islam is secular Islam, in the same way that liberal Christianity and liberal Judaism are both secularized in their subservience to liberal values. There are indeed secular Muslims out there, but they are a tiny minority of secularists even in the secular West. Their influence is minimal. And it likely would be minimal even if the Saudis weren’t spending fortunes in oil money to control the expressions of Islam in the West.
Even these secular Muslims are not necessarily non-violent. What they lack is the broader worldview of Islamic nationalism, that some label Islamism. They will support Arab Nationalist terrorism, which defines peoples by nation, rather than the Islamic Nationalism, which defines them by religion.
Islamic nationalism is not a religion. Nor is it a separate branch of Islam. It is influenced by movements within Islam, but those movements are largely reformist efforts aimed at returning to a more uncompromised Islam. And it is not limited to these movements. The majority of Muslims identify with Islamic nationalism to some degree.
Islamism is simply the political implementation of Islam which is already political. Islamism does not politicize an apolitical religion, it applies a political religion to politics. And most Muslims support that for the simple reason that they are Muslims and Islam is their religion. They may quibble over some of the details and they may be fooled by some smooth talk, but the same may be said of many supporters of National Socialism and Bolshevism. What matters is not whether every single German who thought Hitler had some good ideas supported the concentration camps or whether every single Communist supported the Gulags. Certainly not all did. What matters is that they supported the systems and leaders that made those things possible even when the warning signs were there.
No Islamist movement represents a complete break with Islam. Not even a partial break. The greatest stressors that Islamic terrorist groups impose on their religious codes is the treatment of other Muslims as infidels. And that alone is a telling statement about the tolerance for interfaith violence in their religion. It isn’t war that stresses Islamic codes, it’s internecine warfare.
Western observers may label those who identify with Al Qaeda as extremists and those who identify with the Muslim Brotherhood as moderates, but these are cosmetic differences. Islamist organizations are not a separate religion. They are the practical implementation of the religion. If we are to have a truer continuum, it would run from secular to religious, rather than moderate to extremist.
What makes Islamists dangerous are not their means, such as flying planes into skyscrapers, but their ends, which involve a global theocracy that reduces non-Muslims to enemies and slaves. Whether this end is accomplished through bombs or elections makes little difference. Hitler and Stalin would be no different whether they won elections or seized power by force. Not so long as their ends involved war, mass slavery and genocide.
The trouble with Islamic nationalism is Islam. There is no way of getting around that. Terrorism is an aspect of the problem. But the problem is a violent system that views the lives of non-Muslims and dissenting Muslims as worthless.
When Muslim terrorists set off bombs in Boston, Mumbai, Jerusalem or anywhere else, what they are really communicating is not some passionate grievance, but an ideology that has no regard for the lives of non-Muslims. That same message is communicated by the treatment of Western prisoners in Dubai or the treatment of Western hostages in Nigeria. It is a message rooted in the xenophobia of the Koran and it is a warning of the system that these acts of oppression and terror are intended to build.
The extent to which most Muslims are committed to the final ends of Islamism, including a total war with the rest of the world and its subjugation under Islamic law, may vary, but there is no denying the fact that in open elections, Islamists have won again and again. The Arab Spring conclusively demonstrated that the Islamist agenda is more compelling than any other. Indeed it is hard to find any political movements in ascendency in the Muslim world today except Islamist ones.
The tiny minority of extremists are not the Islamists who have dominated the Arab Spring as thoroughly as they have dominated the Islamic institutions of the West, it is the secularists who still cling to forms of solidarity based on national identity or economic class.
If their moderate Islam, which will have co-ed prayers in mosques, female prayer leaders and gay Imams is the solution, then there is no hope for a solution because it has no trajectory. The forces that forged a liberalized Christianity and Judaism in Europe are in decline. And they could hardly impose their worldview on a religion whose centers of power are out of their reach.
Liberal Islam is not in ascendency anywhere. In much of the world, including the Muslim world and totalitarian nations such as Russia and China, the continuum is not that of the radicals and the moderates, but the government clerics who are not moderate, but lack all conviction, and the Islamists who want to overthrow them.
Government clerics are rarely moderate. They often support terrorism, so long as it is aimed at other nations. The moderate cleric in Egypt supports war with Israel, but not domestic theocracy. The moderate cleric in Russia supports terrorism against New York, but not Moscow. The moderate cleric in Saudi Arabia supports war with Syria but not assassinations at home. There are exceptions, but these exceptions, when they are sincere, are the tiny minority.
Everywhere Islam is weaponized to be used against someone else, just as Carter once believed that he could use the Iranians and the Afghans against the Soviet Union. But it is folly to think that the means of religious violence can be directed toward any other ultimate end than religious supremacy.
Islamism is applied Islam. It is not extreme, only illiberal, but then Islam is an illiberal religion. It is a religion built on war and conquest.
The Islamist only reminds Muslims of what their religion stands for. It is not a separate entity from Islam because it is rooted within Islam. Its solutions are Islamic solutions. It may break in some ways with history, but not with theology.
The pragmatic solution of denying this is so to keep Muslims from embracing Islamist solutions to political problems is doomed. Muslims do not define themselves by Western standards of liberalism and extremism. They do not rely on Western thinkers to determine their religion for them. They are outside the consensus of liberal democracies and the best evidence of that is the triumph of Islamists in the political spheres of the Middle East and the West.
Tactics that ignore reality are doomed. We have learned that the hard way in many wars. We are learning it now in Afghanistan and in London, Paris and Boston. We can waste time trying to fit Muslims into our categories or we can understand that they are not part of our categories.
Islamism is not a sect, it is the Islamic consensus. It is the closest thing that the Muslim world has to match the liberal worldview of the West. The Islamist is not radical to his own. He represents the majority view of the Muslim world that power and politics should derive from Islam and that Muslims should assert a collective power based on their common Islamic nationalism,
Islamism won in the Arab Spring. It won the Western Diaspora. The idea that we can detach Islam from its political application by branding its political application extremist has failed. The two are intertwined. We cannot weaken Islamism except by weakening Islam, economically, militarily and demographically.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish