Islam and Islamism in the Modern World: An interview with Daniel Pipes

by Tom Bethell
The American Spectator
February 2013

Daniel Pipes1Daniel Pipes, one of our leading experts on Islam, established the Middle East Forum and became its head in 1994. He was born in 1949 and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, Richard Pipes, was a professor of Russian history, now emeritus, at Harvard.

Daniel studied Arabic and Islamic history and lived in Cairo for three years. His PhD dissertation became his first book, Slave Soldiers and Islam (1981). Then his interest in purely academic subjects expanded to include modern Islam. He left the university because, as he told an interviewer from Harvard Magazine, he has “the simple politics of a truck driver, not the complex ones of an academic.”

His story of being harassed through the legal system by a Muslim who later committed suicide was recently told in The American Spectator (“A Palestinian in Texas,” TAS, November 2012). He has been personally threatened but prefers not to talk about specifics except to note that law enforcement has been involved.

I interviewed Pipes shortly before Christmas, when the Egyptians were voting on their new constitution. I started out by saying that the number of Muslims in the U.S. has doubled since the 9/11 attacks.

DP: My career divides in two: before and after 9/11. In the first part I was trying to show that Islam is relevant to political concerns. If you want to understand Muslims, I argued, you need to understand the role of Islam in their lives. Now that seems obvious. If anything, there’s a tendency to over-emphasize Islam; to assume that Muslims are dominated by the Koran and are its automatons—which goes too far. You can’t just read the Koran to understand Muslim life. You have to look at history, at personalities, at economics, and so on.

TB: Do you see the revival of Islam as a reality?

DP: Yes. Half a century ago Islam was waning, the application of its laws became ever more remote, and the sense existed that Islam, like other religions, was in decline. Since then there has been a sharp and I think indisputable reversal. We’re all talking about Islam and its laws now.

TB: At the same time you have raised an odd question: “Can Islam survive Islamism?” Can you explain that?

DP: I draw a distinction between traditional Islam and Islamism. Islamism emerged in its modern form in the 1920s and is driven by a belief that Muslims can be strong and rich again if they follow the Islamic law severely and in its entirety. This is a response to the trauma of modern Islam. And yet this form of Islam is doing deep damage to faith, to the point that I wonder if Islam will ever recover.

TB: Give us the historical context.

DP: The modern era for Muslims began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Muslims experienced a great shock at seeing how advanced the blue-eyed peoples from the north had become. It would be roughly analogous to the Eskimos coming down south and decimating Westerners, who would uncomprehendingly ask in response, “Who are these people and how are they defeating us?”

TB: So how did they respond?

DP: Muslims over the past 200 years have made many efforts to figure out what went wrong. They have experimented with several answers. One was to emulate liberal Europe—Britain and France—until about 1920. Another was to emulate illiberal Europe—Germany and Russia—until about 1970. The third was to go back to what are imagined to be the sources of Islamic strength a millennium ago, namely the application of Islamic law. That’s Islamism. It’s a modern phenomenon, and it’s making Muslims the center of world unrest.

TB: But it is also creating discomfort?

DP: It has terribly deleterious effects on Muslims. Many of them are put off by Islam. In Iran, for example, one finds a lot of alienation from Islam as a result of the Islamist rule of the last 30-odd years.

TB: Has it happened anywhere else?

DP: One hears reports, especially from Algeria and Iraq, of Muslims converting to Christianity. And in an unprecedented move, ex-Muslims living in the West have organized with the goal of becoming a political force. I believe the first such effort was the Centraal Comité voor Ex-moslims in the Netherlands, but now it’s all over the place.