'Islam Is Islam, And That's It'
by ANDREW C. MCCARTHY
January 24, 2012
The tumult indelibly dubbed “the Arab Spring” in the West, by the credulous and the calculating alike, is easier to understand once you grasp two basics. First, the most important fact in the Arab world — as well as in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other neighboring non-Arab territories — is Islam. It is not poverty, illiteracy, or the lack of modern democratic institutions. These, like anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and an insular propensity to buy into conspiracy theories featuring infidel villains, are effects of Islam’s regional hegemony and supremacist tendency, not causes of it. One need not be led to that which pervades the air one breathes.
The second fact is that Islam constitutes a distinct civilization. It is not merely an exotic splash on the gorgeous global mosaic with a few embarrassing cultural eccentricities; it is an entirely different way of looking at the world. We struggle with this truth, which defies our end-of-history smugness. Enthralled by diversity for its own sake, we have lost the capacity to comprehend a civilization whose idea of diversity is coercing diverse peoples into obedience to its evolution-resistant norms.
So we set about remaking Islam in our own progressive image: the noble, fundamentally tolerant Religion of Peace. We miniaturize the elements of the ummah (the notional global Muslim community) that refuse to go along with the program: They are assigned labels that scream “fringe!” — Islamist, fundamentalist, Salafist, Wahhabist, radical, jihadist, extremist, militant, or, of course, “conservative” Muslims adhering to “political Islam.”
We consequently pretend that Muslims who accurately invoke Islamic scripture in the course of forcibly imposing the dictates of classical sharia — the Islamic legal and political system — are engaged in “anti-Islamic activity,” as Britain’s former home secretary Jacqui Smith memorably put it. When the ongoing Islamization campaign is advanced by violence, as inevitably happens, we absurdly insist that this aggression cannot have been ideologically driven, that surely some American policy or Israeli act of self-defense is to blame, as if these could possibly provide rationales for the murderous jihad waged by Boko Haram Muslims against Nigerian Christians and by Egyptian Muslims against the Copts, the persecution of the Ahmadi sect by Indonesian and Pakistani Muslims, or the internecine killing in Iraq of Sunnis by Shiites and vice versa — a tradition nearly as old as Islam itself — which has been predictably renewed upon the recent departure of American troops.
The main lesson of the Arab Spring ought to be that this remaking of Islam has happened only in our own minds, for our own consumption. The Muslims of the Middle East take no note of our reimagining of Islam, being, in the main, either hostile toward or oblivious to Western overtures. Muslims do not measure themselves against Western perceptions, although the shrewdest among them take note of our eagerly accommodating attitude when determining what tactics will best advance the cause.
That cause is nothing less than Islamic dominance.
‘The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” wrote Samuel Huntington. “It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture.” Not convinced merely in the passive sense of assuming that they will triumph in the end, Muslim leaders are galvanized by what they take to be a divinely ordained mission of proselytism — and proselytism not limited to spiritual principles, but encompassing an all-purpose societal code prescribing rules for everything from warfare and finance to social interaction and personal hygiene. Historian Andrew Bostom notes that in the World War I era, even as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Ataturk symbolically extinguished the caliphate, C. Snouck Hurgronje, then the West’s leading scholar of Islam, marveled that Muslims remained broadly confident in what he called the “idea of universal conquest.” In Islam’s darkest hour, this conviction remained “a central point of union against the unfaithful.” It looms more powerful in today’s Islamic ascendancy.
Of course, conventional wisdom in the West holds that the Arab Spring spontaneously combusted when Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself ablaze outside the offices of the Tunisian klepto-cops who had seized his wares. This suicide protest, the story goes, ignited a sweeping revolt against the corruption and caprices of Arab despots. One by one, the dominos began to fall: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya — with rumblings in Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well as teetering Syria and rickety Iran. We are to believe that the mass uprising is an unmistakable manifestation of the “desire for freedom” that, according to Pres. George W. Bush, “resides in every human heart.”
That proclamation came in the heady days of 2004, when the democracy project was still a Panglossian dream, not the Pandora’s box it proved to be as Islamic parties began to win elections. Like its successor, the Bush administration discouraged all inquiry into Islamic doctrine by anyone seeking to understand Muslim enmity, indulging the fiction that there is something we can do to change it. Inexorably, this has fed President Obama’s preferred fiction — that we must have done something to deserve it — as well as the current administration’s strident objection to uttering the word “Islam” for any purpose other than hagiography. In this self-imposed ignorance, most Americans still do not know that hurriya, Arabic for “freedom,” connotes “perfect slavery” or absolute submission to Allah, very nearly the opposite of the Western concept. Even if we grant for argument’s sake the dubious proposition that all people crave freedom, Islam and the West have never agreed about what freedom means.
The first count of contemporary Muslims’ indictment of Middle Eastern dictators is not that they have denied individual liberty, but that they have repressed Islam. This is not to say that other grievances are irrelevant. Muslims have indeed been outraged by the manner in which their Arafats, Mubaraks, Qaddafis, and Saddams looted the treasuries while the masses lived in squalor. But the agglomerations of wealth and other regime hypocrisies are framed for the masses more as sins against Allah’s law than as the inevitable corruptions of absolute power. The most influential figures and institutions in Islamic societies are those revered for their mastery of Islamic law and jurisprudence — such authorities as top Muslim Brotherhood jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni learning for over a millennium. In places where Islam is the central fact of life, even Muslims who privately dismiss sharia take pains to honor it publicly. Even regimes that rule by whim nod to sharia as the backbone of their legal systems, lace their rhetoric with scriptural allusions, and seek to rationalize their actions as Islamically appropriate.
If you understand this, you understand why Western beliefs about the Arab Spring — and the Western conceit that the death of one tyranny must herald the birth of liberty — have always been a delusion. There are real democrats, authentically moderate Muslims, and non-Muslims in places such as Egypt and Yemen who long for freedom in the Western sense; but the stubborn fact is that they make up a strikingly small fraction of the population: about 20 percent, a far cry from the Western narrative that posits a sea of Muslim moderates punctuated by the rare radical atoll.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the ummah’s most important organization, unabashedly proclaiming for nearly 90 years that “the Koran is our law and jihad is our way.” Hamas, a terrorist organization, is its Palestinian branch, and leading Brotherhood figures do little to disguise their abhorrence of Israel and Western culture. Thus, when spring fever gripped Tahrir Square, the Obama administration, European governments, and the Western media tirelessly repeated the mantra that the Brothers had been relegated to the sidelines. Time had purportedly passed the Islamists by, just as it was depositing Mubarak in the rear-view mirror. Surely the Tahrir throngs wanted self-determination, not sharia. Never you mind the fanatical chants of Allahu akbar! as the dictator fell. Never mind that Sheikh Qaradawi was promptly ushered into the square to deliver a fiery Friday sermon to a congregation of nearly a million Egyptians.
With a transitional military government in place and openly solicitous of the Brotherhood, there occurred the most telling, most tellingly underreported, and most willfully misreported story of the Arab Spring: a national referendum to determine the scheduling of elections that would select a new parliament and president, with a new constitution to follow. It sounds dry, but it was crucial. The most organized and disciplined factions in Egyptian life are the Brotherhood and self-proclaimed Muslim groups even more impatient for Islamization, collectively identified by the media as “Salafists” even though this term does not actually distinguish them from the Brothers, whose founder (Hassan al-Banna) was a leading Salafist thinker. By contrast, secular democratic reformers are in their infancy. Elections on a short schedule would obviously favor the former; the latter need time to take root and grow.
Egypt being Egypt, the election campaign was waged with the rhetoric of religious and cultural solidarity. A vote against a rapid transition was depicted as a vote “against Islam” and in favor of the dreaded Western hands said to be guiding the Christians and secularists. The vote was the perfect test of the Arab Spring narrative.
Four-to-one: That’s how it went. The democrats were wiped out by the Muslim parties, 78 percent to 22 percent. While Western officials dismissed the vote as involving scheduling arcana, it foretold everything that has followed: the electoral romp in the parliamentary elections, a multi-stage affair in which the Brotherhood and the Salafists are inching close to three-fourths control of the legislature; the ongoing pogrom against the Copts; and the increasing calls for renunciation of the Camp David Accords, which have kept the peace with Israel for more than 30 years.
Four-to-one actually proves to be a reliable ratio in examining Islamic developments. In a 2007 poll conducted by World Public Opinion in conjunction with the University of Maryland, 74 percent of Egyptians favored strict application of sharia in Muslim countries. It was 76 percent in Morocco, 79 percent in Pakistan, and 53 percent in moderate Indonesia. Before American forces vacated Iraq, roughly three-quarters of the people they had liberated regarded them as legitimate jihad targets, and, given the opportunity to vote, Iraqis installed Islamist parties who promised to hasten the end of American “occupation.” Three out of four Palestinians deny Israel’s right to exist. Even in our own country, a recently completed survey found that 80 percent of American mosques promote literature that endorses violent jihad, and that these same mosques counsel rigorous sharia compliance.
The Arab Spring is an unshackling of Islam, not an outbreak of fervor for freedom in the Western sense. Turkey’s third-term prime minister Recep Erdogan, a staunch Brotherhood ally who rejects the notion that there is a “moderate Islam” (“Islam is Islam, and that’s it,” he says), once declared that “democracy is a train where you can get off when you reach your destination.” The destination for Muslim supremacists is the implementation of sharia — the foundation of any Islamized society, and, eventually, of the reestablished caliphate.
Rachid Ghannouchi is swarmed by supporters in Tunis.
The duration of the ride depends on the peculiar circumstances of each society. Erdogan’s Turkey has become the model for Islamist gradualism in more challenging environments: Slowly but steadily bend the nation into sharia compliance while denying any intent to do so and singing the obligatory paeans to democracy. Erdogan came to this formula after no shortage of stumbles — it is now rare to hear such outbursts as “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers,” the sort of thing he used to say in the late Nineties when he was imprisoned for sedition against Ataturk’s secular order. His banned Welfare party eventually reemerged as the new and democracy-ready AKP, the Justice and Development party. Ever since a quirk in Turkish electoral law put these Islamists in power in 2002, Erdogan has cautiously but demonstrably eroded the secular framework Ataturk and his followers spent 80 years building, returning this ostensible NATO ally to the Islamist camp, shifting it from growing friendship to open hostility toward Israel, co-opting the military that was Ataturk’s bulwark against Islamization, and salting the country’s major institutions with Islamic supremacists.
The Turkish model will be the ticket for Brotherhood parties that have just prevailed in Tunisian and Moroccan elections. In Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, a cagey Islamist of the Erdogan stripe, heads the Ennahda party, convincingly elected in October to control the legislature that will replace ousted ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Morocco, an Islamist party whose namesake is the AKP won the fall elections, but further Islamization is apt to be slower. Far from being driven from power, King Mohammed VI remains popular, having balanced his affinity for the West with deference to sharia norms. Moroccan Islamists are making significant inroads, though, as are their neighbors to the east. Algerian Islamists are poised to accede to power this spring after being thwarted by a military coup that blocked what would have been their certain electoral success in 1991.
Egypt, by contrast, will go quickly. There, the most salient development is not the weakness of secular democrats but the impressive electoral strength of the Salafists. Their numbers are competitive with those of the better-known Brothers, and they will tug their rivals in a more aggressively Islamist direction. Vainly, the West hoped that the country’s American-trained and -equipped armed forces would serve as a brake. But the Egyptian military, from which several top al-Qaeda operatives have hailed, is a reflection of Egyptian society, especially as one descends to the conscripts of lower rank. The undeniable trend in Egyptian society is toward Islam. That trend is more blatant only in such basket cases as Libya, where each day brings new evidence that today’s governing “rebels” include yesterday’s al-Qaeda jihadists, and in Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, where even the New York Times concedes al-Qaeda’s strength.
Led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic parties have become expert at presenting themselves as moderates and telling the West what it wants to hear while they gradually ensnare societies in the sharia web, as slowly or quickly as conditions on the ground permit. They know that when the West says “democracy,” it means popular elections, not Western democratic culture. They know the West has so glorified these elections that the victors can steal them (Iran), refuse to relinquish power when later they lose (Iraq), or decline to hold further elections (Gaza) without forfeiting their legitimacy. They know that seizing the mantle of “democracy” casts Islamists as the West’s heroes in the dramas still unfolding in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. They know that the Obama administration and the European Union have deluded themselves into believing that Islamists will be tamed by the responsibilities of governance. Once in power, they are sure to make virulent anti-Americanism their official policy and to contribute materially to the pan-Islamic goal of destroying Israel.
We should not be under any illusions about why things are shaking out this way. The Arab Spring has not been hijacked any more than Islam was hijacked by the suicide terrorists of 9/11. Islam is ascendant because that is the way Muslims of the Middle East want it.