Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"Islamist" is the Word

In an op-ed piece in response to the 9/11 Commission report, Arsalan T. Iftikhar, legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, decries the use of the word "Islamist."

In addition to practical recommendations, the commission stated a goal of preventing the growth of "Islamist terrorism." The commission concluded that the threat posed to the United States is not just "terrorism," but more specifically, "the catastrophic threat ... posed by Islamist terrorism."

Iftikhar complains that, "by associating the ill-defined 'Islamist' modifier to define 'terrorism,' the commission has overlooked numerous precedents that show an entirely different historical record."

That's kind of an awkward sentence: "by associating (x) to define (y)" -- the two verbs don't line up. "Islamist" doesn't "define" terrorism here. It restricts the use to a particular kind of terrorism, which as the commission report (and a glance at recent history) makes clear, is a particular threat to America at this time.

But I think Iftikhar's muddy syntax is deliberate, because he wants to make it seem as though the 9/11 commission is defining terrorism as an Islamist phenomenon.

For he then goes on to devote the rest of his piece to a recitation of the crimes of Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph. Mostly Rudolph. McVeigh, who had no identifiable religious affiliation, doesn't serve his argument. Rudolph, who "was associated with the violent Christian Identity movement," does.

According to Professor Michael Barkun, author of Religion and the Racist Right, the apocalyptic and racist philosophy to which Eric Rudolph adhered "is practiced by more than 50,000 people in the United States alone; [and] is prevalent among many right-wing extremist groups and has been called the 'glue' of the racist right."

However, the reality is far from the 50,000 would-be Christian terrorists that this suggests. Investigators have said they are not certain Rudolph genuinely was an Army of God member or merely claimed to belong to an organized group. And Barkun himself, Iftikhar's source for the damning evidence of "Christian terrorism," in other places disconnects Rudolph from any sort of trend or organized movement.

According to Barkun, most Christian Identity followers are nonviolent, and the movement's militants generally adhere to the principle of "leaderless resistance," believing that government surveillance is so pervasive that organized groups are bound to be penetrated and it is wiser to act alone.

At any rate, as Barkun says, it would be difficult even for a Christian identity freak to find any sort of Biblical justification for Rudolph's bombing of the rock concert at the Atlanta Olympics, which killed a woman and injured more than 100 other people. Sometimes a mass murderer is just a mass murderer.

Iftikhar rounds out his holy trinity of non-Islamic terrorists by citing the April 2003 arrest of William Krar, an itinerant Texas gun dealer, who was caught with a homemade cyanide bomb. Krar hails from the McVeigh school of not-particularly-religious anti-government white supremacist kooks. He's become a meme, however, for the Islamist apologists. Google "William Krar," and you'll get hundreds of hits in leftist blogs and op-ed pieces on the phrase "If William Krar had been a Muslim ..." (or, in at least one case, "If William Krar had been Muslim, or had been a Socialist ...").

Yes, such men are dangerous. Yes, the government should devote itself to blocking their criminal intentions as thoroughly as it does those of the Mohammed Attas. But there's a difference.

Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorism who is more or less non-partisan (she's an opponent of many Bush policies, but who isn't?), has focused on Christian, Jewish and Islamic terrorists. In this interview, her frothing Bush-hating questioner wants her to assent to the idea that, "Because of 9/11, many Americans have demonized that this is something that’s Islamic. ... It’s getting back to this point that it’s not exclusive to any one religion, and, therefore, the battle against it isn’t a crusade -- quote, unquote -- because there are many more common factors between terrorists of different religions than terrorism as defined within a religion."

Stern, politely, won't have it.

But there’s something about what’s going on in the Islamic world. Islamist terrorist leaders are able to raise large armies. As you know, we don’t see Jewish terrorists able to raise large armies, and we don’t see Christian terrorists able to raise large armies.

She has her own theories about why that is, based on "a large number of humiliated young men in the Islamic world." That doesn't entirely ring true to me. How are they more humiliated than the men in Latin America, who have yet to take up car-bombing as a national pastime?

Why is it that, for every Tim McVeigh, there are hundreds of Mohammed Attas? Why is it that a Muslim extremist's killing spree is celebrated with cheers and toasts across the Islamic world? Do the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury advise their followers to kill Jews and Americans and Hindus and pagans (or Muslims, for that matter?). Do preachers in the United States tell their congregations that Muslims are "sons of pigs and monkeys?" Actually, the Archbishop of Canterbury does defend suicide bombers -- the al-Qaida ones, because they "have serious moral goals," while the United States is "trapped in a self-referential morality."

"Islamist" does not strike me as an "ill-defined" word. Webster's fourth edition (published in 1999, two years before Sept. 11) has it, defining the noun as "an advocate or supporter of Islamic, esp. orthodox Islamic, political rule." I would define it as someone who favors political rule based on Sharia and other Islamic principles. And I'd say that, beyond the definition, Islamists have other qualities in common: They see the West as corrupt and infidel. They believe the Islamic world has fallen behind because it has strayed from the original purity of Islam. And they seek to restore that purity, and the world-dominating power of the Islamic caliphate. They are the fundamentalists of Islam.

Differentiating "Islamist" from "Islamic" is no difficult task. The two are distinct, and the nearness of the words isn't a problem, for if it was we'd never know a commune from a communist from a community.

But an interesting question remains. Not all terrorists are Islamists, but is every Islamist potentially a terror advocate?

Sam Harris, the secular critic of monotheism, sums it up (and there are many other versions):

Koran 9:123 tells us it is the duty of every Muslim man to "make war on the infidels who dwell around you." Osama bin Laden may be despicable, but it is hard to argue that he isn't acting in accord with at least some of the teachings of the Koran. It is true that most Muslims seem inclined to ignore the Koran's solicitations to martyrdom and jihad, but we cannot overlook the fact that some are not so inclined and that some of them murder innocent people for religious reasons.

The phrase "the war on terrorism" is a dangerous euphemism that obscures the true cause of our troubles, because we are currently at war with precisely a vision of life presented to Muslims in the Koran. Anyone who reads this text will find non-Muslims vilified on nearly every page. How can we possibly expect devout Muslims to happily share power with "the friends of Satan"? Why did 19 well-educated, middle-class men trade their lives for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed, on the authority of the Koran, that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of human beings so easily explained. And yet, many of us are reluctant to accept this explanation.

... Anyone who thinks that terrestrial concerns are the principal source of Muslim violence must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They too suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against the Chinese? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam versus those of Buddhism and Christianity.