Articles by MEF Staff and Fellows
Fighting Militant Islam, Without Bias
The whole country, and New York especially, has to face an urgent question in the wake of the September 11 attacks, organized by a militant Islamic network and carried out by Arabic-speaking Muslims resident in North America: how should Americans now view and treat the Muslim populations living in their midst?
Initial reactions have differed widely. Elite opinion, as voiced by President Bush, rushed to deny any connection between the acts of war and the resident Muslim population. "Islam is peace," Bush assured Americans, adding, "we should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror." Attorney General Ashcroft, Governor Pataki, and Mayor Giuliani closely echoed these comments. Secretary of State Powell went further still, declaring that the attacks "should not be seen as something done by Arabs or Islamics; it is something that was done by terrorists"—as though Arabs and Muslims by definition can't be terrorists.
This approach may have made sense as a way to calm the public and prevent attacks against Muslims, but it clearly failed to convince everyone. Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) told a radio interviewer that anyone wearing "a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper" should be "pulled over" for extra questioning at airports. And survey research shows that Americans overwhelmingly tie Islam and Muslims to the horrifying events of September. One poll found that 68 percent of respondents approved of "randomly stopping people who may fit the profile of suspected terrorists." Another found that 83 percent of Americans favor stricter controls on Muslim entry into the country and 58 percent want tighter controls on Muslims traveling on planes or trains. Remarkably, 35 percent of New Yorkers favor establishing internment camps for "individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes." Nationally, 31 percent of Americans favor detention camps for Arab-Americans, "as a way to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States."
What in fact are the connections between the atrocities and the Muslim minority resident in the United States and Canada? And what policies can protect the country from attack while protecting the civil rights of Muslims?
The problem at hand is not the religion of Islam but the totalitarian ideology of Islamism. As a faith, Islam has meant very different things over 14 centuries and several continents. What we can call "traditional Islam," forged in the medieval period, has inspired Muslims to be bellicose and quiescent, noble and not: one can't generalize over such a large canvas. But one can note two common points: Islam is, more than any other major religion, deeply political, in the sense that it pushes its adherents to hold power; and once Muslims do gain power, they feel a strong impetus to apply the laws of Islam, the shari`a. So Islam does, in fact, contain elements that can justify conquest, theocracy, and intolerance.
In the course of the twentieth century, a new form of Islam arose, one that now has great appeal and power. Militant Islam (or Islamism—same thing) goes back to Egypt in the 1920s, when an organization called the Muslim Brethren first emerged, though there are other strains as well, including an Iranian one, largely formulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, and a Saudi one, to which the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan and Usama bin Ladin both belong. Islamism differs in many ways from traditional Islam. It is faith turned into ideology, and radical ideology at that. When asked, "Do you consider yourself a revolutionary?" Sudanese Islamist politician Hasan al-Turabi replied, "Completely." Whereas traditional Islam places the responsibility on each believer to live according to God's will, Islamism makes this duty something for which the state is responsible. Islam is a personal belief system that focuses on the individual; Islamism is a state ideology that looks to the society. Islamists constitute a small but significant minority of Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide, perhaps 10 to 15 percent.
Apologists would tell us that Islamism is a distortion of Islam, or even that it has nothing to do with Islam, but that is not true; it emerges out of the religion, while taking features of it to a conclusion so extreme, so radical, and so megalomaniacal as to constitute something new. It adapts an age-old faith to the political requirements of our day, sharing some key premises of the earlier totalitarianisms, fascism and Marxism-Leninism. It is an Islamic-flavored version of radical utopianism. Individual Islamists may appear law-abiding and reasonable, but they are part of a totalitarian movement, and as such, all must be considered potential killers.
Traditional Muslims, generally the first victims of Islamism, understand this ideology for what it is and respond with fear and loathing, as some examples from northern Africa suggest. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Prize–winning novelist, said to his country's prime minister and interior minister as they were suppressing Islamism: "You are fighting a battle for the sake of Islam." Other traditional Egyptian Muslims concur with Mahfouz, with one condemning Islamism as "the barbaric hand of terrorism" and another calling for all extremists to be "hanged in public squares." In Tunisia, Minister of Religion Ali Chebbi says that Islamists belong in the "garbage can." Algeria's interior minister, Abderrahmane Meziane-Cherif, likewise concludes: "You cannot talk to people who adopt violence as their credo; people who slit women's throats, rape them, and mutilate their breasts; people who kill innocent foreign guests." If Muslims feel this way, non-Muslims may join them without embarrassment: being against Islamism in no way implies being against Islam.
Islamists of all stripes have a virulent attitude toward non-Muslims and have a decades-long history of fighting with British and French colonial rulers, as well as with such non-Muslim governments as those of India, Israel, and the Philippines. They also have had long and bloody battles against Muslim governments that reject the Islamist program: in Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey, for instance—and, most spectacularly, in Algeria, where 100,000 persons so far are estimated to have lost their lives in a decade of fighting.
Islamist violence is a global phenomenon. During the first week of April, for example, I counted up the following incidents, relying only on news agency stories, which are hardly exhaustive: deaths due to violent Islamist action occurred in Algeria (42 victims), Kashmir (17), the southern Philippines (3), Bangladesh (2), and the West Bank (1); assorted violence broke out in many other countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Sudan; courts handed down judgments against radical Muslims in France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Turkey, the United States, and Yemen. Islamists are well organized: fully 11 of the 29 groups that the State Department calls "foreign terrorist organizations" are Islamist, as are 14 out of 21 groups outlawed by Britain's Home Office.
Starting in 1979, Islamists have felt confident enough to extend their fight against the West. The new militant Islamic government of Iran assaulted the U.S. embassy in Tehran at the end of that year and held nearly 60 Americans captive for 444 days. Eight American soldiers (the first casualties in this war) died in the failed U.S. rescue attempt in 1980. Violence against Americans began in earnest in 1983 with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, killing 63. Then followed a long sequence of assaults on Americans in embassies, ships, planes, barracks, schools, and elsewhere.
Islamists have also committed at least eight lethal attacks on the soil of the United States prior to September 11, 2001: the July 1980 murder of an Iranian dissident in the Washington area; the January 1990 murder of an Egyptian Islamic freethinker in Tucson; the November 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York; the January 1993 assault on CIA personnel, killing two, outside the agency's Langley, Virginia, headquarters; the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, killing six; the March 1994 shooting attack on a van full of Orthodox Jewish boys driving over the Brooklyn Bridge, killing one; the February 1997 murder of a Danish tourist at the top of the Empire State Building; and the deliberate October 1999 crash of an EgyptAir flight by the Egyptian pilot into the Atlantic near New York City, killing 217. All but one of these murders took place near or in New York City or Washington, D.C. This partial list doesn't include a number of fearsome near misses, including the "day of terror" planned for June 1993 that would have culminated with the simultaneous bombing of the United Nations and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and a thwarted plot to disrupt Seattle's millennial celebrations.
In short, the massacre of upward of 6,000 Americans in September 2001 was not the start of something new but the intensification of an Islamist campaign of violence against the U.S. that has been raging for more than two decades.
No one knows exactly how many Muslims live in the United States—the estimates, prone to exaggeration, range widely—but their numbers clearly range in the several millions. The faithful divide into two main groups, immigrants and converts, with immigrants two to three times more numerous than converts. The immigrants come from all over the world, but especially from South Asia, Iran, and the Arabic-speaking countries; converts tend overwhelmingly to be African-American.
This community now faces a profound choice: either it can integrate within the United States or it can be Islamist and remain apart. It's a choice with major implications for both the U.S. and the Muslim world.
Integrationist Muslims—some pious, others not—can live simultaneously as patriotic Americans and as committed Muslims. Such Muslims have no problem giving their allegiance to a non-Muslim government. Integrationists believe that what American culture calls for—hard work, honesty, tolerance—is compatible with Islamic beliefs, and they even see Islam as reaffirming such classic American values. They accept that the United States is not a Muslim country, and they seek ways to live successfully within its Constitutional framework. Symbolic of this positive outlook, the Islamic Supreme Council of America proudly displays an American flag on its Internet home page.
American Muslims who go the Islamist route, however, reject American civilization, based as it is on a mix of Christian and Enlightenment values that they find anathema. Islamists believe that their ways are superior to America's, and they want to impose these on the entire country. In the short term, they promote Islam as the solution to the nation's social and moral ills. Over time, however, and much more radically, they want to transform the United States into a Muslim country run along strict Islamist lines. Giving expression to this radical view, Zaid Shakir, a former Muslim chaplain at Yale University, argues that Muslims cannot accept the legitimacy of the existing American order, since it "is against the orders and ordainments of Allah." "[T]he orientation of the Quran," he adds, "pushes us in the exact opposite direction." However outlandish a political goal this might seem, it is widely discussed in Islamist circles, and the events of September 11 should make clear just how seriously U.S. authorities must take this ambition.
The great debate among Islamists is, in fact, not over the desirability or plausibility of transforming the U.S. into a Muslim nation but whether to work toward this goal in a legal but slow way, through conversion, or by taking a riskier but swifter illegal path that would require violence. Shamim A. Siddiqi, a Pakistani immigrant, expects that vast numbers of Americans will peacefully convert to Islam in what he calls a "Rush-to-Islam." Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, wants Muslims to "conquer the land of the infidels." These two approaches can and do overlap, with some pinstripe-suited lobbyists in Washington doing things that help terrorists, such as closing down the practice of profiling Middle Eastern–looking airline passengers.
Integrationists tend to be thankful to live in the United States, with its rule of law, democracy, and personal freedoms. Islamists despise these achievements and long to bring the ways of Iran or Afghanistan to America. Integrationists seek to create an American Islam and can take part in American life. Islamists, who want an Islamic America, cannot.
The good news is that integrationists far outnumber Islamists. The bad news—and this poses a real and still largely unacknowledged problem for the United States—is that Islamists are much more active in Muslim affairs than integrationists and control nearly all of the nation's Muslim institutions: mosques, schools, community centers, publications, websites, and national organizations. It is the Islamists who receive invitations to the White House and the State Department. It was primarily Islamists with whom President Bush, in gestures intended to reassure American Muslims, met with twice after September 11.
What must Americans do to protect themselves from Islamists while safeguarding the civil rights of law-abiding Muslims? The first and most straightforward thing is not to allow any more Islamists into the country. Each Islamist who enters the United States, whether as a visitor or an immigrant, is one more enemy on the home front. Officials need to scrutinize the speech, associations, and activities of potential visitors or immigrants for any signs of Islamist allegiances and keep out anyone they suspect of such ties. Some civil libertarian purists will howl, as they once did over similar legislation designed to keep out Marxist-Leninists. But this is simply a matter of national self-protection.
Laws already on the books allow for such a policy, though excercising them these days is extremely difficult, requiring the direct involvement of the secretary of state (see "It's Time to Plug Our Leaky Borders"). Though written decades before Islamism appeared on the U.S. scene, for example, the 1952 McCarren-Walter Act permits the exclusion of anyone seeking to overthrow the U.S. government. Other regulations would keep out people suspected of terrorism or of committing other acts with "potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences." U.S. officials need greater leeway to enforce these laws.
Keeping Islamists out of the country is an obvious first step, but it will be equally important to watch closely Islamists already living here as citizens or residents. Unfortunately, this means all Muslims must face heightened scrutiny. For the inescapable and painful fact is that, while anyone might become a fascist or communist, only Muslims find Islamism tempting. And if it is true that most Muslims aren't Islamists, it is no less true that all Islamists are Muslims. Muslims can expect that police searching for suspects after any new terrorist attack will not spend much time checking out churches, synagogues, or Hindu temples but will concentrate on mosques. Guards at government buildings will more likely question pedestrians who appear Middle Eastern or wear headscarves.
Because such measures have an admittedly prejudicial quality, authorities in the past have shown great reluctance to take them, an attitude Islamists and their apologists have reinforced, seeking to stifle any attempt to single out Muslims for scrutiny. When Muslims have committed crimes, officials have even bent over backward to disassociate their motives from militant Islam. For example, the Lebanese cabdriver who fired at a van full of Orthodox Jewish boys on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, leaving one child dead, had a well-documented fury at Israel and Jews—but the FBI ascribed his motive to "road rage." Only after a persistent campaign by the murdered boy's mother did the FBI finally classify the attack as "the crimes of a terrorist," almost seven years after the killing. Reluctance to come to terms with militant Islam might have been understandable before September 11—but no longer.
Heightened scrutiny of Muslims has become de rigueur at the nation's airports and must remain so. Airline security personnel used to look hard at Arabs and Muslims, but that was before the relevant lobbies raised so much fuss about "airline profiling" as a form of discrimination that the airlines effectively abandoned the practice. The absence of such a commonsense policy meant that 19 Muslim Arab hijackers could board four separate flights on September 11 with ease.
Greater scrutiny of Muslims also means watching out for Islamist "sleepers"—individuals who go quietly about their business until, one day, they receive the call from their controllers and spring into action as part of a terrorist operation. The four teams of September 11 hijackers show how deep deception can go. As one investigator, noting the length of time the 19 terrorists spent in the United States, explained, "These weren't people coming over the border just to attack quickly. . . . They cultivated friends, and blended into American society to further their ability to strike." Stopping sleepers before they are activated and strike will require greater vigilance at the nation's borders, good intelligence, and citizen watchfulness.
Resident Muslim aliens who reveal themselves to be Islamist should be immediately expelled from the country before they have a chance to act. Citizen Islamists will have to be watched very closely and without cease.
Even as the nation monitors the Muslim world within its borders more closely for signs of Islamism, it must continue, of course, to protect the civil rights of law-abiding American Muslims. Political leaders should regularly and publicly distinguish between Islam, the religion of Muslims, and Islamism, the totalitarian ideology. In addition, they should do everything in their power to make sure that individual Muslims, mosques, and other legal institutions continue to enjoy the full protection of the law. A time of crisis doesn't change the presumption of innocence at the core of our legal system. Police should provide extra protection for Muslims to prevent acts of vandalism against their property or their persons.
Thankfully, some American Muslims (and Arab-Americans, most of whom actually are Christian) understand that by accepting some personal inconvenience—and even, let's be honest, some degree of humiliation—they are helping to protect both the country and themselves. Tarek E. Masoud, a Yale graduate student, shows a good sense that many of his elders seem to lack: "How many thousands of lives would have been saved if people like me had been inconvenienced with having our bags searched and being made to answer questions?" he asks. "People say profiling makes them feel like criminals. It does—I know this firsthand. But would that I had been made to feel like a criminal a thousand times over than to live to see the grisly handiwork of real criminals in New York and Washington."
A third key task will be to combat the totalitarian ideology of militant Islam. That means isolating such noisy and vicious Islamist institutions as the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Politicians, the press, corporations, voluntary organizations, and society as a whole—all must shun these groups and grant them not a shred of legitimacy. Tax authorities and law enforcement should watch them like hawks, much as they watch the Teamsters.
Fighting Islamist ideology will also require shutting down Internet sites that promote Islamist violence, recruit new members to the terrorist campaign against the West, and raise money for militant Islamic causes ("Donate money for the military Jihad," exhorts one such website). The federal government began to take action even before September 11, closing InfoCom, a Dallas-based host for many Islamist organizations, some of them funneling money to militant Islamic groups abroad.
Essential, too, in the struggle against Islamist ideology will be reaching out to moderate non-Islamist Muslims for help. These are the people unfairly tarred by Islamist excesses, after all, and so are eager to stop this extremist movement. Bringing them on board has several advantages: they can provide valuable advice, they can penetrate clandestine Islamist organizations, and their involvement in the effort against Islamism blunts the inevitable charges of "Islamophobia."
Further, experts on Islam and Muslims—academics, journalists, religious figures, and government officials—must be held to account for their views. For too long now, they have apologized for Islamism rather than interpreted it honestly. As such, they bear some responsibility for the unpreparedness that led to September's horror. The press and other media need to show greater objectivity in covering Islam. In the past, they have shamefully covered up for it. The recent PBS documentary Islam: Empire of Faith is a case in point, offering, as the Wall Street Journal sharply put it, an "uncritical adoration of Islam, more appropriate to a tract for true believers than a documentary purporting to give the American public a balanced account." Islamists in New York City celebrated the destruction on September 11 at their mosques, but journalists refused to report the story for fear of offending Muslims, effectively concealing this important information from the U.S. public.
Taking these three steps—keeping Islamists out, watching them within the nation's borders without violating the civil liberties of American Muslims, and delegitimating extremists—permits Americans to be fair toward the moderate majority of Muslims while fighting militant Islam. It will be a difficult balancing act, demanding sensitivity without succumbing to political correctness. But it is both essential and achievable.