Exclusive: What War of Ideas?

by M. ZUHDI JASSER July 25, 2008

As a Muslim, I am continually mystified by our nation’s inability to foster an environment conducive to a real “contest of ideas” between Muslims. This ‘”intra-Muslim contest” is arguably the linchpin of an effective counterterrorism strategy and possibly the most important debate of the 21st century. The infamous January 2008 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memorandum, “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations of American Muslims” only stifles progress in this debate. It absurdly admonishes government employees and thought leaders to avoid terms like Jihadist, Islamist, and Salafist.

More recently, buried in media coverage last week over the debate concerning the 2009 Intelligence Authorization Act of 2009 (H.R. 5959) was discussion over the Hoekstra Amendment (A004) which simply “barred the use of funds to prohibit or discourage the use of the phrases “jihadist’, ‘jihad’ ‘Islamo-fascism’, ‘Caliphate’ ,”Islamist’ or “Islamic terrorist” within the Intelligence Community or the Federal Government.Mainstream mediawho did mention the amendment spun it in ways which only catered to the Islamist mindset, stating that these terms are felt by so-called experts to cause “religious offense” and “are frequently applied incorrectly.” So who is to determine their ‘correctness’ – a small group of Islamist advisors? Where does that leave the war of ideas?
Thanks to Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, Muslims who believe in the need for Muslims to engage one another in a contest of ideas will go on another day with hope that these terms can be debated on our terms and inside the United States and not on the Islamist terms in foreign Islamist media alone.
No thanks to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslims are again perceived as being unwilling to engage in any contest of ideas and would rather remain oblivious to the root causes of the ideologies of militants. Rather than engage the militants in a real war of ideas over what is and what is not “Islamic,” American Islamists would rather coerce the language of non-Muslim governmental leaders.
CAIR-Michigan’s Executive Director was quick to give the Islamist line stating that they “support using terminology such as ‘criminals,’ murderers’ or terrorists that help isolate and remove the false cloak of religiosity they use to justify they barbaric actions.” Which part of militant Islamism is Mr. Walid dismissing as barbaric – just the means of terror or also the ends of an Islamic state or a ‘caliphate?” If he is just dismissing the means as “barbaric,” do he and CAIR-Michigan believe that the goals (the end-game) of the terrorists are irrelevant to their organizations or DHS’ counterterrorism efforts in the U.S.? Are there good forms of a theocratic Islamist state which Mr. Walid and CAIR would like to see formed – just not barbarically? If not, how does just calling them “criminals” begin to even touch the surface of what motivates these individuals and their organizations? How does Mr. Walid expect to engage in a war of ideas without using any of the Islamic terms if the debate is just over violence and criminality?
For background to this entire discussion, we are reminded that a nameless group of “influential Muslim Americans” met with Secretary Chertoff on May 8, 2007 and are cited as sources of a few “expert Muslims” who made these recommendations, which are now part of official State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and National Counterterrorism Center policy. These experts felt that these terms (Jihadist, Islamist, or caliphate) inappropriately empowered radical Muslims. Forget whether these concepts are compatible with American democracy.
And certainly in order to bow to political correctness and some Islamist sympathizers, DHS et al were all too willing to oblige and turn our government into a filter for what is and what is not Islam. Is the U.S. government encouraging a war of ideas or contrarily doing whatever it can to completely block any war of ideas and become the “arbiter-in-chief” of the Islamic lexicon? Who were these Muslims who covertly guided the public lexicon of our entire government? A quick Internet search reveals a June 5, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle story which also coincidentally notes a May 8, 2007 meeting of Secretary Chertoff with “influential Muslims.” Apparently, an erstwhile Pakistani ambassador and current professor, an author, a blogger, and a city councilman have become the primary sources for the intellectual governmental interference in what is an internal Muslim war of ideas. Muslim apologists who live in denial prefer to dismiss militant Islamists into meaningless labels as “radicals,” “terrorists” or “extremists.”
Transnational Islamist movements can never be effectively countered if their militant arms are dismissed out of hand. Avoiding terms like Jihad, political Islam and Islamism due to concerns over offending those with non-violent interpretations misses the entire crux of the war of ideas. A public process of Muslim confrontation to reclaim spiritual Islam from political Islam is the only path toward clarifying nomenclature. This path may offend some Islamists who prefer to sneak their theocratic ideology under the radar of secular liberal democracies. But any other path besides calling Islamists what they call themselves simply delays the needed debate and prevents real enlightenment, real reform.
By refusing to label militants what they call themselves, the U.S. government is bizarrely committing a form of takfir - the right in Islam reserved only to God of determining who is or is not a Muslim or a mujahid. This war will not be won over a slippery slope struggle of somehow excommunicating militants from Islam. That is actually what the militants do to moderates.
We would be far better served as Muslims actually debating the real root causes of the militancy – the empowerment of Islamist clerics and their pre-modern mixture of Quranic and Hadith exegesis and shar’ia (Islamic jurisprudence) in government. To ignore the terms is to, in fact, protect the militants from reform and critique by anti-Islamist Muslims. To ignore the terms is to protect the militants from critique where they are most vulnerable in a public (not private) debate over their own religious legitimacy. Muslims cannot marginalize the religious legitimacy of Islamists who are entirely dismissed by the most influential media and government in the world. Truly moderate non-Islamist Muslims will not be able to internally marginalize ideologies which are entirely ignored by non-Muslims. This is not to mention a key and very concerning element to all of these apologetics – the premise by DHS and their advisors that there is some kind of 21st century explanation of “caliphate,” “Islamism” or “Jihadism” which is compatible with American Constitutional law and our democracy.
No small group of Muslims has a right to direct the community lexicon especially over who is Muslim or what is Islam. The ‘free exercise of religion’ does not insulate religious communities from internal debate or external critique. Without it, there can be no legitimate ijtihad (modern reinterpretation) of Islam, to ultimately usher in a coexistence of Islam and modernity.
America is the place where this debate is the most feasible, yet it is proving to be the most elusive. Terrorism is just a tactic. Their goal is some form of an Islamic state, a theocracy which can never be free or natural. Some postulate that recent reductions in incidents of Islamist inspired terror are due to the realization of groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, that terror is a liability in their endgame of political Islam. Thus debating terror or ‘extremism’ rather than Islamism or jihadism actually empowers the theocrats.
Across the Muslim world, political Islam and its militant offshoots are a reality. In Muslim majority nations, the movements call themselves harikat Islamiyia or Islamic movements. Few there seem flummoxed by their Islamic moniker. And the ones who are actually direct their ire where they should – to those groups rather than to non-Muslims.
The frustrations of peaceful Muslims with the misuse of Muslim terms should be directed publicly at al Qaeda and their ilk not the U.S. government. The battle over the lexicon is an internal Muslim one. Reformists who are anti-Islamist need to take on the theological legitimacy of advocates for political Islam and their theocratic followers. Denying the terms prevents this Muslim struggle – this Jihad, if you will.  
Thanks to petro-dollars, Wahhabism, and global Islamism, the faith of Islam, which has no clergy or Church, has been transformed into a faith with a pseudo-clergy who have been allowed to determine who and what is Muslim. Homegrown terror can never be prevented without allowing Muslims the space to battle these ideas.
Those who are quick to succumb to apologetics for Islamists should ask themselves first, whether the separation of religion and government in the United States actually defends this bizarre governmental control of the lexicon or, rather, a deference of the lexicon to the free market of ideas within the Muslim community? Members of Congress who voted in favor of the Hoekstra Amendment (A004) which passed 249-180 seem to understand the steps necessary to create the space for this battle of ideas and ultimately the most effective form of counterterrorism – an eventual Muslim defeat of the legitimacy of political Islam rather than a vacuous non-Muslim attempt by the U.S. government.
What is and what is not Islam cannot be filtered through advisers to the U.S. government. Call these groups as they call themselves and let Muslims battle over whose ideas predominate in Muslim scholarship and discourse. Left unfettered, the public square will determine what words mean as long as Orwellian masters leave the faithful to repair themselves.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and Chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix Arizona. He is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, a physician in private practice, and a community activist. He can be reached at Zuhdi@aifdemocracy.org

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