By Andrew C. McCarthy
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:
First 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.
Read more at National Review
— 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.