Whether from a desire to avoid being labeled as racist, from cowardice when confronted with the PR machine that is the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), or from slanted coverage in the mainstream media, presidential candidates of both parties take great pains to avoid commenting on jihad (Islamic holy war), even as they blame the West for terrorist acts committed against it, according to noted expert on Islam Robert Spencer.
Mr. Spencer, who runs the web site Jihad Watch and is author of seven books, most recently Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't, called jihad "the forbidden word" in the ongoing presidential campaign.
Speaking on Tuesday at a Center City luncheon sponsored by the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank headed by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, Mr. Spencer lamented that the majority of candidates in both parties go to great lengths to avoid naming America's enemies, lest by stating that a link exists between terrorism and Islam they find themselves pummeled for their frankness.
The dilemma, said Mr. Spencer, is that while any candidate would want to avoid being called a racist, anyone speaking the truth on this matter will most certainly find himself tarred with that term. When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used the word "jihad" in a television campaign commercial, Saturday Night Live parodied it simply by inserting a laugh track into the otherwise unaltered tape, as if using the term "jihad" was self-evidently absurd. The Wall Street Journal attacked Romney in a news article for speaking the unspeakable.
Moreover, CAIR's media guide warns that some unnamed non-Muslim writers suggest the Quran teaches violence. Yet, said Mr. Spencer, none other than Osama bin Laden quoted Quranic verses that call for violence against non-Muslims in his latest video, as did on many occasions the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. "There are hundreds of passages in the Quran and the Hadiths [commentaries on the Quran] that call for violence," Mr. Spencer said, and refusing to speak of this historical fact puts the West "at a disadvantage in understanding the enemy in order to defeat them."
Although denial on this matter does presidential candidates no good, most of them act as if it does, Mr. Spencer argued. But to voluntarily refuse to examine the causes of the war is self-defeating, he said, adding that while Rudolph Giuliani and Romney are more willing to identity our enemies by name than other candidates, every candidate needs to face the problem more fully. Yet some voters, Mr. Spencer said, first adopt a policy toward terrorists and then ignore facts that contradict it. "No number of future terror attacks will shake these peoples' beliefs that Islam is a religion of peace," he said, adding that such Americans prefer to flock to candidates who won't address the real issues.
Stating that "cowardice plays a tremendous role" in the problem, Mr. Spencer said that the media share much of the blame for our silence in the face of the most dangerous threat of our time. He recounted the unwillingness of most American media to show the Danish cartoons of Mohammed that caused worldwide rioting among some Muslims when they appeared in a Danish newspaper in September, 2005. Mr. Spencer said that "essential to a free press and a free society is the right to offend and to be offended." But in the wake of the rioting, in newsrooms "the test became, could the Muslims in Denmark be offended?" When Western papers said they didn't want to offend Muslims by reprinting the cartoons, they proved themselves politically correct cowards, Mr. Spencer said.
A corollary of presidential candidates' care not to give offense is that they behave and speak as if terrorism was the fault of the West (America, Israel, and Europe) rather than actions by Muslims against the West. Candidates will recite a litany of Western sins—the CIA's overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddeq of Iran in 1953, America's support for Israel, or Abu Ghraib—as explanations for terrorist acts. The implication, Mr. Spencer said, was that, with the proper initiatives on the part of the West, "the problem will go away," as if it's "something we can fix." Such an approach fails to grasp that the problem stems from "ideological imperatives within Islam," Mr. Spencer added.
Those imperatives mean that, from Indonesia to America, there is a movement that appeals to peaceful Muslims to become exponents of "pure Islam" and calls on them to "rise up and wage war to subjugate unbelievers under Islam," Mr. Spencer said. While it's true that most Muslims are not involved with this movement, it's also true that "they're not objecting to it, either."
Mr. Spencer said that while there are indeed moderate Muslims, there is no moderate Islam, which is "not a sect or a school of jurisprudence," since every school of Islam teaches warfare and subjugation. There exists, he said, a "huge spread of beliefs within Islam, just as there is with Jews and Christians. The Islamic world is not hermetically sealed against Western influence."
But Mr. Spencer warned against wishing for a widespread "Reformation" in Islam modeled on what the Christian West experienced in the sixteenth century under the leadership of Martin Luther and others. A rallying cry of that movement was a return to what the reformers believed was a purer, more ancient form of Christianity. Yet in Islam, that has already happened under the leadership of the eighteenth century writer Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi sect of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. The severity of this strain rests on reliance on the earliest works of Islam, and yet, Mr. Spencer said, the ancient works of Islam are more violent than later works, which Wahhabis, following the movement's founder, regard as mere "accretions."
Mr. Spencer closed with a few policy prescriptions. He said that the U.S. government should undertake a new "Manhattan Project" to find alternative energy sources by putting the best brains in the nation to work on the problem. He also argued some of America's massive foreign aid budget is misspent, saying that in particular we should tie aid to Egypt and Pakistan to their willingness to work against the jihadists in their countries. Otherwise, Mr. Spencer said, "we're financing our own destruction."
Winfield Myers is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.