Last week, Doug Feith and Seth Cropsey co-authored a very interesting and important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “A Foreign Policy Failure to Acknowledge the Obvious.” It is about President Obama’s denial of the Islamist threat. In it, they zero in on two “strategic misjudgments” the administration has made:

Global_JihadFirst is the refusal to accept that the terrorism threat is part of a larger problem of Islamist extremism. And second is the belief that terrorism is spawned not by religious fanaticism but by grievances about social, economic, and other problems for which America bears fault.

This is largely right. If it were internalized by a Romney administration, it would be a step in the right direction. Still, the essay goes awry in significant ways.

Let’s start with the authors’ intimation that “religious fanaticism” causes terrorism. To be sure, that’s a better explanation than the Left’s “blame America first” approach. Yet, it still misses the mark. The real cause is ideology, not religion. The distinction is worth drawing because, for the most part, Islamist terror is not fueled by Muslim zealousness for Islam’s religious tenets — for instance, “the oneness of Allah.” We Westerners recognize such beliefs as belonging to the realm of religion or spirituality. To the contrary, Islamist terror is driven by the supremacism and totalitarianism of Middle Eastern Islam — i.e., by the perception of believers that they are under a divine injunction to impose all of Islam’s tenets.

Most of those tenets do not concern religion or spirituality, at least not as Westerners interpret those concepts. Instead, sharia is largely concerned with controlling what we see as secular affairs — political, social, military, financial, jurisprudential, penal, even hygienic matters. Of course, the fact that we separate church and state in the West does not mean our moral sense is without influence — indeed, profound influence — over how we conduct secular affairs. But in the West, we reject the notion that any religious belief system’s tenets should control those affairs. In the United States, we reject the establishment of a state religion — such official primacy would suffocate freedom of conscience, a bedrock of liberty.

By contrast, the foundation of Middle Eastern Islam is submission to Allah’s law, not individual liberty. This interpretation of Islam thus rejects a division between the secular and the spiritual. Its sharia system contemplates totalitarian control. That makes Islamist ideology (i.e., Islamic supremacism, or what is sometimes more elliptically called “political Islam”) just another totalitarian ideology, albeit one that happens to have a religious veneer.

Some of my friends make the error of claiming that “Islam is not a religion.” I understand what they mean — it is a clumsy way of making the point that mainstream Islam aspires to control much more than spiritual life. Still, the clumsy rhetoric is a bad mistake, driving a wedge between what should be natural allies: those fearful of Islamic supremacism and religious believers. The latter — for example, American Christians, Jews, and non-Islamist Muslims — today find their core liberties under siege by government overreach and atheist hostility. How convenient for these aggressor forces if, by the hocus-pocus of denying an established creed the status of religion, its adherents may be stripped of their constitutional protections.

No, Islam clearly is a religion, and its theological tenets are every bit as deserving of the First Amendment’s guarantees as any other. But Muslims must accept that, in America and the West, it is not Islam but our traditions — especially the separation of church and state — that set the parameters of religious liberty. This way, Islam, the religion, is protected, but Islamic supremacism, the totalitarian ideology, is not. The latter undeniably draws on Islamic scripture, but it is categorically akin to Communism or National Socialism, not to religious creeds.

Next we come to what Messrs. Feith and Cropsey call “Islamist extremism.” Again, it is far better than the Obama Left’s explanation for the threat to America. Yet, in the end, the phrase contributes more confusion than illumination.

The authors are spot on in arguing that the Obama administration has not acknowledged the ideological nature of the threat. The president, they say, defines our enemy “organizationally” rather than “ideologically” — as al-Qaeda and its network of affiliated terrorist groups, not as believers united by a common construction of Islam.

In addition, Feith and Cropsey correctly take to task both Obama and his mostly non-Muslim advisers for fashioning their own bowdlerized version of Islam. Departures from Obama’s rosy Islam — as opposed to the Islam of Mohammed — are branded by the administration as “extremist” (the same adjective that, we shall see, Feith and Cropsey use to describe a different amorphous concept). Team Obama’s intimation is that these departures pervert Islam, or are even downright non-Muslim; the brute fact that their endorsements of violence are palpably rooted in Islamic scripture never seems to register.

The authors are also right in faulting the administration for claiming that the “fires of extremism” are stoked exclusively by “longstanding political and economic ‘grievances,’” for which Americans are reliably portrayed as the culprit. A better explanation for “extremism,” argue Feith and Cropsey, lies in “the supremacist exhortations of Islamist ideology.”

Here is the problem, though: Feith and Cropsey do not tell us is what they think “Islamist ideology” is.

Like Obama, they describe it as “Islamist extremism.” Well, what is it that makes the ideology an “extreme” version of Islam? Quite obviously, it is not terrorism. The authors forcefully assert, “the terrorism threat is part of a larger problem of Islamist extremism.” Perceptively, Feith and Cropsey see terrorism as only one manifestation of “extremism,” by no means the whole story.

This conclusion is underscored by their account of President George W. Bush’s approach to anti-terrorism. Bush, they explain, “saw al Qaeda as part of a diverse international movement of Islamist extremists hostile to the United States, to liberal principles (in particular the rights of women), and to most governments of predominantly Muslim countries.”

So it is not just al-Qaeda and not just the violence that makes Islamist extremism extreme. It is the ideology’s opposition to the West, which is led by the United States and identified by “liberal principles.” But what, pray tell, is this ideology’s problem with Western principles, “in particular the rights of women”? What has been its problem with the governments of predominantly Muslim countries?

The answer is found in one word: sharia. Unfortunately, that is a word that Messrs. Feith and Cropsey do not utter — the elephant in the room that many Republican national-security thinkers continue to ignore.

Sharia is Islam’s societal framework, its legal code. The classical interpretation of sharia is the backbone of the ideology we are talking about. As I reiterated on the Corner earlier this week, it is easily accessible: Reliance of the Traveller is an authoritative sharia manual, the English translation of which has been endorsed by the scholars of al-Azhar University (the center of Sunni jurisprudential learning since the tenth century) and by such influential outfits as the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a think tank established by the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States in the early eighties.

It is sharia that rejects liberal principles, including the fundamental right of people to make law for themselves, irrespective of sharia’s dictates. It is sharia that consigns women to second-class legal status. It is sharia, or rather, the failure to rule in accordance with sharia, that drove the ideologues targeted by Bush counterterrorism to oppose the governments of Muslim countries. And when Feith and Cropsey accurately point out that, among other things, “jihad also means holy war,” they are singing sharia’s tune (or at least they would be if sharia did not frown on music). As Reliance puts it (in Sec. o9.0), “Jihad means to war against non-Muslims.”

The failure to confront sharia dilutes the force of the authors’ admirable essay. The modifier “extremist” is no substitute — it just makes matters murkier.

I’ve grappled with this confusion in both The Grand Jihad and my new book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy. To summarize, an “Islamist” used to be a scholar of Islam — like an “archeologist” is a scholar in archeology. In the last few decades, however, “Islamist” has taken on a starkly different meaning, to wit: a Muslim who favors the imposition of the sharia societal system.

We use the term to draw the salient distinction, described above, between Islamic-supremacist ideology and “Islam,” the root belief system. Setting the parameters of Islam’s proper First Amendment protection is not the only reason for this. The distinction is also necessary because many adherents of Islam do not insist on imposing sharia — certainly not the classical sharia laid bare in Reliance of the Traveller. For example, most Muslims in the West, a dwindling majority of Muslims in the Far East, and a minority of Muslims in the Middle East either do not wish to be ruled by sharia or interpret sharia differently from the Islamists — some of them see it as a private compass not to be imposed on others (the same way that Westerners typically view their religions, in keeping with the separation of church and state).

Many analysts, and many Islamists, argue that distinguishing Islam from Islamism is just political correctness. In fact, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says it is an insult. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, he contends there is only one true Islam, “and that’s it.” But that is an argument about ultimate truth, not an accurate report of real-world conditions. It is simply a fact that, of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, a sizeable number — almost surely not a majority, but not a trivial percentage, either — do not subscribe to Islamic supremacism. These millions are our allies and potential allies. Many of them are our fellow Americans. It is in our vital interest to identify those Muslims, make clear that our ideological quarrel is not with them, and try to empower them when it is practical to do so.

Yet, that is not to say we don’t have a political-correctness problem. We do. It rears its head in the use of modifiers like “extremist” (“radical” is similar). There is no reason to call an Islamist “extreme.” He is extreme by definition: He wants to impose sharia on a non-sharia society.

As Feith and Cropsey seem to recognize, this desire is extreme regardless of whether the Islamist in question pursues his agenda by violent jihad or by less coercive methods. To speak of “Islamist extremists” is to imply that there must be some Islamists who are not extremists. That’s nonsensical. Yes, there are many Islamists who are not violent jihadists — they are not threatening to blow up buildings to coerce their opponents into adopting sharia. But they still want sharia to be adopted. That is what makes them ideological allies of al-Qaeda — the alliance Feith and Cropsey are right to identify as our core challenge.

The authors write, “It is clear that not all Muslims embrace extremist Islamist ideology — perhaps only a small minority do.” Here, they commit a less egregious but still costly version of the same offense for which they indict Obama: miniaturizing our foes. The president cannot bring himself to admit that the challenge is ideological in nature or any broader than the al-Qaeda network of terrorists. Feith and Cropsey correct him on both these scores, but then cling to the hope that “only a small minority” of non-terrorist Muslims are ideological allies of the violent jihadists.

This is just wrong. Al-Qaeda wants to impose sharia — that’s precisely why it engages in violent jihad. Non-violent Islamists also want to impose sharia — that’s why they’re Islamists. These reputedly non-violent Islamists are not a “small minority” — they may be a majority of the world’s Muslims, and they are certainly a majority of the Middle East’s Muslims. They are al-Qaeda’s ideological allies, and, truth be told, they’re not really all that non-violent: They generally disagree with al-Qaeda’s attacks on Muslims and on non-Muslim countries, but they are supportive of violence against what they take to be non-Muslim aggressors in what they consider Islamic territories. Indeed, the sharia to which they adhere requires financial support (zakat) for those fighting in Allah’s cause.

Sharia is the tie that binds terrorists to all other Islamists. To admit this is difficult. It means our ideological foes number in the hundreds of millions among the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims — we cannot reasonably marginalize them as a “small minority.” It also means that Bush counterterrorism, for all the considerable good it did, was incoherent and counterproductive in claiming our government could both fight terrorism and promote sharia — Bush officials having not only lauded Islamic law but enshrined it in the constitutions they helped fashion for Afghanistan and Iraq; Bush officials having done their share of “outreach” to sharia activists, many tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.

If we shrink from confronting the Middle Eastern construction of sharia, though, we cannot do what Messrs. Feith and Cropsey correctly urge that our security demands: “acknowledge the obvious” and understand the ideological threat. The challenge is bigger than terrorism, but to describe it as “extremism” is to miss it. The challenge is sharia.


— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, which was published by Encounter Books.

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