Willful Blindness and Radical Islam: My Testimony

After the World Trade Center bombing, our government represented to the American people, just as it does after every jihadist mass-murder today, that the terrorist attack executed by Muslims in express reliance on Islamic scripture was a wanton act, unrepresentative of any mainstream of Islamic thought.

Now, put aside for a moment that sane people -- and our jihadist defendants were surely sane -- do not commit mass-murder attacks for no reason. Common sense tells us that there has to be a good reason that motivates them in a powerful way, overcoming basic humanitarian instincts.

Let us instead focus on Omar Abdel Rahman. He was not merely blind. He was beset by several other medical handicaps. Terrorism is hard work. Yet, here was a man who seemed utterly incapable of doing anything that would be useful to a terrorist organization: he couldn’t build a bomb, hijack a plane, or carry out an assassination.

Still, he was the unquestioned leader of terror cells and revered by jihadists across the globe. How could that be?

The answer is straightforward, though it plainly remains one we do not want to hear.

The Blind Sheikh is a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence graduated from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning for over a millennium. His area of expertise is sharia -- Islam’s legal code and societal framework.

The jihadists who listened to him did so because he is an internationally recognized authority in the political ideology that draws on Islamic scripture to inspire attacks against the West.

The centrality of ideology tells us why terrorists obeyed the Blind Sheikh. It tells us why terrorists act. This is something we must grasp if we have any hope of defending ourselves and defeating our enemies.

Yet, instead of focusing on this ideology, we have wasted much of the last two decades on a fool’s errand: attempting to define a “true Islam,” in the futile hope of discrediting terrorists as purveyors of a false Islam.

The stubborn fact is that there may not be a “true Islam.” Islam has a rich and diverse history, and there are various interpretations of it, all vying for the mantle of “true Islam” and denying it to one another. Innumerable factions of Muslims have been debating one another, often violently fighting amongst each other, for fourteen centuries. They have not settled the question, “What is the true Islam?”

The United States is not going to settle it, either.

From a humanitarian standpoint, we have to hope courageous reformers prevail – devout Muslims like my co-panelist here this afternoon, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. We should do what we can to help them, including marginalizing – instead of taking our cues from – sharia-supremacist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

But from the standpoint of American national security, it is irrelevant whether there is a true Islam. What matters is that there is a sharia-supremacist construction of Islam to which hundreds of millions of Muslims have adhered for centuries. They are supported by centuries of scholarship and scriptural literalism. We are not going to convince them that they are wrong.

They do not care what American politicians and commentators think about “the true Islam.” They judge themselves by their own civilization and culture principles – just as we in the West do by ours. It is absurd to believe, as what passes for today’s counterterrorism strategy maintains, that they are motivated or even affected by the language we use to speak about them, or by our stated beliefs about Islam.

Sharia supremacism, their interpretation of Islam, is not a religion as we understand religion. It is political radicalism with a religious veneer. Sharia supremacism is virulently anti-Western, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic. It rejects basic tenets of Western liberalism, including the power of people to chart their own destiny and make their own laws in contravention of sharia. It rejects individual liberty and equality. It brooks no separation between spiritual life and civil society. It endorses violent jihad to implement and spread sharia. And it regards the United States, closely trailed by Israel and Europe, as the principal enemies of Islam that must be defeated.

That is something we desperately need to understand and highlight, not obscure and avoid.

There has been a reluctance to do this. Government counterterrorism policy has been willfully blind for a quarter-century to the ideological underpinnings of radical Islamic terrorism. The reluctance has been rationalized on the wayward theory that because a person’s religious beliefs and political speech are constitutionally shielded from prosecution, they are similarly shielded from mere inquiry and investigation – notwithstanding that we know they are often precursors to violence.

A sensible national security policy cannot regard the objective presentation of evidence as if it were the promotion of hate speech.

There is nothing inherently wrong with, much less constitutionally offensive about, the concept that radical religious or political beliefs should trigger investigations. That is especially the case if those beliefs are conveyed by aggressive language, or by association with other radicals or mosques known to endorse jihadism.

Here’s an important principle we must get right:

It cannot be that evidence an investigator may use to prove guilt of terrorism offenses is somehow insulated from an investigator’s suspicions about potential terrorism offenses.

The goal of counterterrorism is supposed to be the prevention of jihadist attacks, not the hope that there may be a living terrorist or two still around to be indicted and tried only after Americans have been murdered.

In 1996, I was awarded the Justice Department’s highest honor for proving the nexus between (a) jihadist commands in Islamic scripture, (b) their exploitation by sharia jurists like the Blind Shiekh, and (c) the commission of jihadist atrocities by the young Muslims he inflamed. Today, to say aloud what the Clinton administration honored me for twenty years ago, is to be ostracized as an Islamophobic bigot.

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, that is no way to protect our country.