The Associated Press has decided that the word “Islamist” may not be used to describe anything objectionable. Lori Lowenthal Marcus calls out the relevant passage from the news service’s newly revised stylebook:
[An Islamist is] an advocate of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.
Hmmm. It’s an interesting question who will be called an Islamist by AP writers, given this definition.
Who is an Islamist?
Presumably, Mohammed Morsi could be called an Islamist by the AP – unless the second sentence above cancels out the first, making it impossible to call anyone an “Islamist.” And maybe that’s the case; if so, defining “Islamist” is an exercise in futility for the AP.
But will Morsi be called an Islamist? By the letter of the AP definition, being labeled an Islamist would put Morsi in company with Hamas, the Iranian clerical council, and the Taliban. He belongs there, of course, but will that association be considered politically correct, given that the U.S. government is committed to Morsi’s success, and continues to deliver arms to him?
Hamas and the Taliban are terrorist organizations, but are or have been government authorities as well (the latter aspiring to be one again), reordering government and society precisely in accordance with laws they deem to be prescribed by Islam. Iran’s leaders sponsor terrorism, as well as doing the reordering thing in the name of Islam.
In fact, Hezbollah fits the bill as well, being a terrorist organization which currently governs Lebanon. Among this terrorist-governing group, Hezbollah may have made the least effort to reorder government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. But then, Hezbollah governs a tiny, fractious, all-but-ungovernable nation with mostly porous borders, and in that role has been more concerned since January 2011 with holding power than with remaking society. Does that mean there is some meaningful sense in which Hezbollah is not “Islamist” – even though it proclaims sharia and holds its political goals in common with Hamas and Iran (and has considerable overlap with Morsi in Egypt)?
Perhaps the seemingly narrow AP definition of “Islamist” is meant to ensure that only those who advocate Islamism from the more consensual environment of Western liberal societies will meet it. This proposition
will run into its own set of troubles, however, partly because radicals like Britain’s Anjem Choudary, who have been, so to speak, the face of Islamism in the West, might be considered ineligible for the title due to their explosively radical demeanor. If Choudary isn’t an Islamist, who is?
That remains a good question, considering that other, more mainstream Western organizations may have ties through their leadership, like CAIR’s, to the Muslim Brotherhood and even terrorist groups, but they do not overtly propose to reorder government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Does that mean they are not Islamist? And if not, what does that mean?
At present, CAIR’s efforts are not focused directly on reordering government and society, but rather on undermining one of the essential pillars of Western civilization: unfettered pursuit of the truth – about radical Islam as about anything else. Government agencies, with their top-down institutional pieties, are an easy target for outright censorship in this regard.
The AP Stylebook revision is something different, and perhaps more insidious. Presumably, an AP writer would not refer to CAIR’s involvement in redefining “Islamist” as a method of Islamism, although it is one. And, in fairness, there is a good case to be made that rewriting definitions for political reasons is something the Western left requires no prompting to do. Need it be “Islamist” to define categories prejudicially? It certainly doesn’t have to be “Islamist” to label anyone whose arguments you don’t like a “racist.” The Western left thought that one up all on its own.
The lack of firm ground to stand on in this analysis is quintessential in the propositions of radicals. Corruption and politicization of the language are common radical tactics. Whom, exactly, can an AP writer call an Islamist, given all these factors? The antiseptic definition of Islamism approved by CAIR might apply only to Islamic theoreticians who never actually engage in political advocacy – if there are any.
My guess is: it will effectively apply to no one. Although “Islamist” has been redefined to make it sound as if sharia advocates are moderates, the easily-unearthed associations of political sharia advocates with violent or Bolshevik-pattern radicals will tar all Islamists with the same brush – which, frankly, is ground truth anyway. But since it is inconvenient truth, AP writers won’t be able to find a use for “Islamist.”
Why we need the term “Islamist”
And that is a real problem. It’s not a problem because the distinction between political sharia advocates and violent cadre is strategically important; it’s a problem because distinguishing between radicalized/politicized advocacy groups and the non-radicalized/politicized mass of Muslims is important.
There are still millions of Muslims throughout the world who are not political advocates of sharia. This doesn’t mean that such people don’t have a hazy vision of there someday being a sharia caliphate; many of them probably have that vision. But they are no more energized to go out with heat-seeking missiles (or lawyers) and immanentize the eschaton than are Christians who foresee the day when Jesus will come again, or Jews who believe that they are still waiting for the Messiah.
There must remain a political space in which the non-radicalized can continue to be non-radicalized. The West is uniquely equipped to provide it, and it is in both our interests – the West’s and the non-radicalized Muslim world’s – that we do so. Modern Muslims have lived peacefully in the West for decades, because most of them have not been “Islamists”: advocates of reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Islamist leaders do not acknowledge the distinction between themselves and the non-radicalized Muslim citizens of Western nations – but the Western nations must. It is in our best interest not only to acknowledge it but to ensure that it is a basis for policy.
The broader basis for a winning Western approach
In my view, the use of the “Islamist” distinction, while it is important, should not be the main focus of Western dialogue on this matter. What must be most important to us is to enforce traditional Western beliefs about freedom, tolerance, the rule of law, and the underpinnings of civilization. This doesn’t mean forcing them on others; it means protecting them within our borders, advocating them in international and cross-cultural discourse, and privileging them, alongside other considerations, in our decisions about foreign relations and trade.
Western freedom, including freedom of intellectual inquiry, freedom of speech, and freedom of public advocacy, has never been the norm around the world. It always requires commitment and positive protection, because it is always under attack. Remembering that fact is essential in considering our relations with the Islamic world, so that we will not get our feelings hurt or give in to fearful, unwary surprise when there is pushback against our level of freedom.
America’s Founders, and our British forebears, believed that men have a natural right to these freedoms. They also believed – and this is important – that when this right is honored and protected, the freedom that results brings an unparalleled payoff in social goods. People are at their best when their freedoms are protected. They live in peace with their neighbors; they have a hopeful view of the future; they produce, trade, invent, enjoy, and give with unequalled fervor and success; and they exercise more tolerance than they do under more restrictive social and governmental organizations. The Founders did not prize rights and freedoms merely as negative injunctions against the overuse of state power. They prized them because of their unique positive results.
If we do not find in ourselves the same belief, we will lose our freedoms. We must believe in them, to such an extent that we advocate, enforce, and defend them even when some claim that they are offensive or racist.
We must have the confidence to affirm – and act as if – our freedoms are not offensive or racist. We must do this without caveat or exception. This means, for example, that it is not offensive or racist for the prevailing society to enforce safety for women walking the city streets unveiled, regardless of who is a majority in the neighborhood; nor to enforce safety for gays coming out of bars at night; or for Jews attending school (see here for a general summary of increasing attacks on Jews in Europe); or for Christians mounting a public protest; or for cartoonists who depict Mohammed in print.
Nor is it racist or offensive for Western governments to ensure that all their citizens have the same rights in divorce proceedings or domestic disputes, or that the laws on polygamy apply equally to all. It may be anti-libertarian, but it is not racist, for Western local governments to require that cab drivers accept passengers carrying dogs or bottles of liquor. Often, applying the law equally means that some end up dissatisfied, but the West has learned the benefits of having a government of laws, and not of men.
Freedom of intellectual inquiry is a highly prized Western value; Islam, like all other religions or philosophical ideas, will have to live with criticism in the West. Period. Sometimes that criticism will take an annoying or deliberately provocative form. Too bad. Our rules work better than anyone else’s ever have to foster hope and prosperity for the people. There’s a reason we don’t get into blood feuds over verbal provocations: because it’s stupid and destructive. Governments owe it to their people, and individuals owe it to their families and friends, to refrain from such counterproductive pursuits.
Muslims versus “Islamists”
Millions of Muslims have lived successfully in the Western societies that honor these principles. The issue is not whether Islam is better at promoting some other idea of social harmony and value. The West must not be the battleground for settling that question. The issue for the West must be that what we believe in and have cultivated works well, and accords with our most basic beliefs about the rights and dignities of humanity. We find it to be a good, productive, and necessary way to live – we find it to be moral and honorable – and we will enforce it on our territory. Muslims who choose to live among us will have to respect our code.
Most of them have, over the years. Most of them will continue to do so, and be good citizens whom we are happy to have as neighbors – if we provide the safe space in which they can make the choice.
The predators seeking to void that space are the Islamists. To make policy decisions that safeguard the quiescent space of freedom, we must distinguish between Muslim people, many of whom are prepared to worship and proselytize in an atmosphere of freedom and non-compulsion, and Islamism as an ideological, political-authoritarian motivation. For the sake of the West – indeed, in my view, for the sake of all mankind – there has to be a method of making this distinction rhetorically.
The future of Islamism…
I call ideological advocacy for sharia “Islamism,” and associate it where justified with radical violence. But the most important trend today is what I call “state-Islamism,” which is the specific focus on taking over the governments of armed nations and imposing sharia from the halls of political power.
Iran effectively launched this trend in 1979, and the Taliban continued it after the Soviet troops left Afghanistan. In different ways, Erdogan has been putting his own stamp on this trend in Turkey; and Hezbollah, Fatah, and Hamas have been maneuvering into more-or-less-govermental positions on the territories over which they hold sway. Algeria, Somalia, and Yemen have all dealt for decades with factions aspiring to impose sharia from the seat of national government; other African nations like Nigeria and Kenya are seeing such factions emerge. Now Morsi is busy imposing sharia on Egypt, and Tunisia looks virtually certain to become a sharia state as well. The fight for Syria is a fight over the imposition of sharia – and if the Islamists win there, Iraq and Jordan will be on borrowed time as non-sharia-subverted states.
The more established the state-Islamist trend becomes, the more important it will be for Western nations to have a well-defined policy for preserving, in our own social and civic arrangements, our Western heritage of freedom. Men live their lives on territory, and territory must be held for particular values if those values are to thrive and set an example. Sharia is antithetical to our heritage; Islamists, in their various ways, oppose and attack that heritage, meaning to exclude it, gradually, from territory around the earth. It will become only more important over time for us to have a way of talking about this.
… and the West
But we can take a cue from Ronald Reagan in maintaining our fundamental posture. Reagan knew that the biggest advantage America and the West had in the Cold War was not gained through properly defining the threat of communism – although that was important. The biggest advantage was the West’s own character and beliefs, which continued over the years to widen the divide between the failures of communism and the successes of freedom. This was the case even in the West’s deep political funk of the late 1960s and 1970s. The divide continued to grow, even then, and the flow of immigration was still all one direction, even when many in the West’s “elites” were claiming to despise Western freedom.
The most important thing the West can do today is recover our ideas about freedom and what it’s good for. If we do that, it will be glaringly obvious that freedom is better. The truth is that freedom is stronger, when men and women are committed to it; if it were not, it could not have won out over all the forces arrayed against it throughout human history. It can do so again, if we are not faint of heart.
The great moral question for us today – the question that defines our hope for civilization and a future – is not what Islam is, but who we are, and whether we will embrace our heritage of freedom. The proximate political question is what we will cede to Islamists, whose patterns are very identifiable and whose demands are specific. The answer to that question must come, not from what we fear, but from what we believe to be right. If we look to our heritage of freedom, we will answer it well.