Many idealistic thinkers are coming to believe that “radical Islam” is a passing phenomenon, that large numbers of Muslims are turning against the more “militant” organizations, such as al-Qaeda, which have arrogated to themselves the doctrine of takfir (the practice of deciding who is a fit Muslim and who isn’t), and that Islam is only going through a violent cultural spasm as it belatedly enters the modern age.
Such is the gist of a long essay in The New Republic (June 11, 2008) by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, entitled “The Unraveling.” The scholarship on which these assumptions are based is rather flimsy—newspaper articles, the vapourings of the blogosphere, the confessions of former al-Qaeda operatives and suppporters who have experienced a certain revulsion against its methods but have not given up on its ideological goals.
Nor is there any understanding of the “stealth jihad” pursued by the Muslim Brotherhood (which receives favourable mention) and its multiple offshoots, or the svelte ruminations of Western-seeming Islamic intellectuals such as Tariq Ramadan who work like sappers beneath a mantlet of calming assurances and exquisite manners. Bergen and Cruickshank cite, almost with relief, Saudi religious scholar Sheikh Salman al-Ouda who has repudiated al-Qaeda, but do not dwell on the fact that he continues to embrace violent jihad against America and the West. The substance of their essay brims with a kind of quiet jubilation: al-Qaeda is on the downalator.
The problem with scholars like Bergen and Cruickshank is that, like so many in the field, they are prone to the occupational hazard of seeking reductive symmetries. In their case, they blithely equate violent jihad with al-Qaeda which, despite its prominence in the Islamic world, is only one among many such groups and does not necessarily speak for the millions of Muslims who wish to bring down the civil societies of the democratic West and ultimately to establish an Islamic state. Europe and America are Swiss-cheesed with Muslim advocacy groups, sleeper cells, online radical networks and lone wolves, orbiting around the same central cause. All these groups, despite their internal differences, are essentially cladistic, that is, they descend from a common ancestor.
Given the academic penchant for erudite simple-mindedness, it is not surprising that our authors are wrong about practically eveything. For example, despite its setbacks in Iraq, al-Qaeda remains strong and is still in a position to wield considerable influence, as witness its centralized as-Sahab media wing that encourages and coordinates terrorist activities around the globe. Al-Qaeda’s Internet activity has stepped up markedly since 9/11 to become a potent force for harm, so much so that the Israeli government has developed an Advanced Terrorist Detection System (ATDS) to monitor its communications. In November 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden warned that al-Qaeda remains the single gravest threat to the United States. And as video evidence has shown, al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistani safe havens continue to churn out terrorists in impressive numbers. To argue that it is not operationally relevant is playing into its hands.
Oblivious to all this, Bergen and Cruickshank laud the Quilliam Foundation, “an organization set up [in the U.K.] to counter radicalism.” The newly established Quilliam Foundation, named after William Henry Quilliam, a 19th century British convert to Islam, is a “moderate” Muslim think tank that has been effusively extolled in the press and publicized by such denominational bulletins as Ekklesia. Yet no one has seen fit to mention that it looks for guidance to Sheikh Ali Goma, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, whom its mission statement honours as a “scholastic giant.” Ali Goma is a hard-line cleric who supports Hizbullah, considers conversion from Islam a crime punishable by death, and upholds the standard enactments of the Islamic scriptures against the very freedoms the West assumes as given.
Such feel-good articles and reports as we are examining here render us in the long run ever more susceptible to a well-planned and resolute invasiveness that is meeting little resistance as we surrender to our own fondest wishes for pastoral reconciliations. As usual, we would prefer to succumb to a solacing mixture of sentimentality and hope than to take realistic stock of what is actually happening. The jihadists, we are assured, are having second thoughts, our enemies are slowly coming round to see us as friends, and what we mistook for a louring sunset is really an effulgent sunrise. But the sunrise may be deceptive, as in the famed passage from Book V of the Odyssey, where the rosy-finger’d dawn precedes the fatal shaft.
One may argue that most Muslims are not terrorists, but there is no denying that most terrorists are Muslims. Unless one is wearing blinders. The Dalai Lama, for example, whose celebrity status in the West is in inverse proportion to his political acumen and intellectual vigour, tells us that “Muslims cannot be terrorists. If a person is a terrorist, he cannot be a Muslim” (Rediff.com, June 1, 2008). Such pablum only weakens the corporate will to resist what is nothing less than a historically verified and scripturally sanctioned campaign of terror, the evidence for which stares us daily in the face.
Surveys show that over 95% of global terrorism is Islamic in origin. One may legitimately wonder whether fanaticism has not become commonplace, as the hysterical reaction that swept the Muslim world over the publication of satirical cartoons in certain European newspapers would appear to demonstrate. These were not merely rent-a-mob protestors, as some attenuating commentators have held; on the contrary, their numbers are legion and the damage they have caused is substantial. The uproar following Pope Benedict XVI’s citation of a medieval text faulting Islam for spreading the faith by the sword, which resulted in the burning of churches and the murder of a nun, is only par for the course. Ditto the commotion provoked by Geert Wilders’ video Fitna, an assemblage of pre-existent materials which correlates scenes of violence with well-known Koranic passages (and which most Western websites found too hot to handle).
Such disturbances would not cut so wide a swath through the entire Muslim world were popular anti-Western sentiment not so easily harnessed and ignited by Islamic autocrats intent on shoring up their regimes. Events of this nature and the feeling which animates them are far more representative of the historic impulsion of the faith than we are willing to concede, since doing so would require the courage and lucidity we are now scarcely able to muster.
The same is true of Muslim anti-protestor protestation, which has been even scantier. One may ask whether this deafening absence of public opposition may not be owing to the possibility that professedly moderate Muslims have been overtaken by the extremists among them, the expunging of whom from the body of the faith seems highly unlikely. On the contrary, the sense of no exit permeates the Muslim world.
Jihad is Quentin Tarantino gone Muslim mainstream, a bad film with an unmistakable Islamic slant, drenched in blood and gore, that has migrated into the real world, the movie theatre having become a theatre of war. That the Bergens and Cruickshanks among our scholarly commentariat, whose number is legion, appear to think otherwise should only corroborate our suspicions regarding their presumable insight, competence and sense of reality.