A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published a very interesting post by George Packer on “Islamist Violence and a War of Ideas.” Packer began by giving “a very partial box score of global Islamist violence during the month of September.” Highlighting that “hundreds, of people…most of them Muslims…are being murdered every day, blown to pieces, burned alive, shot to death, beheaded, in the name of an extremely violent strain of Islam,” Packer argued that
“the violence flows from ideas, terrible ideas, about the meaning of Islam, the character of non-Muslims, and the duties of Muslims. These ideas are promulgated in mosques and coffee shops and schools, and on satellite TV and the Internet, with the aid of conspiracy theories, half-truths, deceptive editing, and lies.”
Packer warns that Americans, and presumably the West in general, must not be indifferent to this bloody violence even when its victims are primarily Muslims themselves. In his view, Americans have relied too much on fighting Islamist extremism by military means, while not giving “enough thought to… addressing the heart of the violence: the terrible ideas that license massacres in the name of religion.”
However, as Packer reports, there is a new initiative to fight these “terrible ideas.” A recently created joint U.S.-Turkish fund to combat Islamist extremism, called the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, is supposed “to identify and finance grassroots groups around the Muslim world that will do the difficult work of opposing extremist ideas at home.” As Packer emphasizes, the “American role would be very much in the background;” indeed, he notes that “Americans are not in a position, morally or practically, to lead this effort.” Instead, “citizens, organizations, and governments of key Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, would take the lead.”
While I agree that America can’t lead this “effort” for practical reasons, it seems to me that giving Saudi Arabia and Pakistan a leading role in combatting Islamist extremism is like putting a pyromaniac in charge of the fire brigade.
No less problematic is Packer’s failure to fully acknowledge what it means that the Islamist violence he denounces so wholeheartedly flows indeed, as he himself writes, “from ideas, terrible ideas, about the meaning of Islam, the character of non-Muslims, and the duties of Muslims.” These “terrible ideas” are by no means propagated by just a handful of extremists; indeed, Packer rightly notes that they “are promulgated in mosques and coffee shops and schools, and on satellite TV and the Internet.”
In other words, these “terrible ideas” are mainstream Muslim fare – which means that in the politically-correct West, non-Muslims are generally expected to refrain from any criticism.
A good example for an influential Muslim leader who spreads truly terrible ideas is Yusuf Qaradawi. Many millions of Muslims regard Qaradawi as a great scholar and, due to his enormous influence, he has even been described as the “Global Mufti”. Among the terrible ideas Qaradawi has propagated is his fervent belief in a divinely ordained battle between “all Muslims and all Jews,” his view that the Holocaust was well-deserved “divine punishment” for the Jews, and his hope that “the next time will be at the hand of the believers.” Yet, the politically-correct view of Qaradawi (expressed e.g. by a widely respected Middle East expert in the influential magazine Foreign Affairs) is that we should politely ignore Qaradawi’s genocidal Jew-hatred and instead appreciate him as a leading Muslim moderate:
“He [Qaradawi] is best known for his doctrine of wasatiyya, or ‘centrism,’ which lays out a middle ground between secularism and fundamentalism. He rejects the doctrinal extremism of the Salafists and the violent extremism of al Qaeda[…] At the same time, he often takes issue with U.S. foreign policy and is certainly hostile toward Israel, not to mention being a highly successful proselytizer of the Islamist worldview. This potent mixture may be troubling, but it largely defines the mainstream Muslim position. Indeed, one of the keys to Qaradawi’s popularity is his ability to anticipate Arab and Muslim views; […] Qaradawi is a barometer of Muslim opinion as much as a cause of it.”
The message here is clear: if the “mainstream Muslim position” reflects a “troubling” mixture, the West should simply be grateful that it’s not worse…
Sheik Yousuf Al-Qaradawi leads a prayer for the annihilation of the Jews, broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar) – January 9, 2009 (MEMRI screenshot)
Maybe this is a very pragmatic approach, but it hardly provides a sound footing for fighting a “war of ideas.”
Indeed, when it comes to Islam, the West seems very reluctant to engage in fighting any “war of ideas,” despite the fact that particularly in Europe, the radicalization of fast-growing Muslim minorities is very worrisome. An excellent feature essay for the November cover of Standpoint Magazine is devoted to the question if the West is losing “The War For The Soul Of Islam.” Author Douglas Murray notes early on that historically, “in the battle for the soul of Islam the extremists tend to win” and he concludes pessimistically:
“it is assumed that Islam is like all other religions, that suspicion of Islam is as dangerous as suspicion of any other religion. In short, they [British and Western governments] have tried to treat Islam like any other faith. And the problem is that it is not. Not just because Islam behaves in significantly different ways from other faiths, but because at the very point that it is swiftly growing in our own countries its global direction of travel is consistently regressive.”
Several of Murray’s central observations are confirmed in a recent post on the popular blog Harry’s Place, where a liberal Muslim notes despondently that nowadays, Muslim leaders in the West “can happily believe and even state publicly that the death penalty should apply to anyone who has sex outside of marriage, takes part in a homosexual act, insults the Prophet or leaves Islam without being [criticized as] ‘extreme’.”
So maybe instead of spending resources on funding an unpromising campaign to combat Islamic extremism in countries whose governments continue to promote fundamentalist Islam, the West would be better off to stop the appeasement of Muslim reactionaries and instead start vigorously supporting reform-minded Muslims in Europe and the US?
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First published November 1, 2013, at my JPost blog.