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How to Understand Islamism: Read What Its Leaders Actually Say

The West has not dealt with such a situation of a sincerely held radical ideology that motivates people for a long time. Our contemporary memory of Communism is as a decayed, cynical movement. The favorite media story about Western religious figures is the expose of their sexual or financial deeds that betray their public beliefs. Even in regard to the Nazis, there were many Germans who didn’t back the movement even if they never resisted it, and fascism, while rooted in Germany’s political culture, was also so shallowly hegemonic that it disappeared after 1945. Islamism doesn't disappear after defeat, though perhaps it will do so after decades of Muslims experiencing Islamism in power.

Perhaps the last such true confrontation was with Japan in World War Two, a culture where almost everyone deeply believed in the ideology and was willing to give his life for it. I am not saying here that all Muslims support Islamism or that Islamism is the “proper” interpretation of Islam; one can see how, in Iran, the fact of life under a Sharia regime for three decades-plus has eroded the base of support there for that doctrine. Rather, my point is that Islamism must be taken seriously as a sincere movement and not just some rhetoric that nobody believes, and that Islamism is not led by people just looking for a bribe or a prostitute.

The suicide bomber has become the symbol of that characteristic which used to be called “fanaticism,” and can now merely be summarized as people who really believe what they say and intend to do what they declare even unto death. Al-Qaradawi recognizes this point:

If discourse is but verbal and the characters of such persons are free from those principles which he is propagating, then such invitations [to support these ideas] dash against the ears and become empty echoes.

In other words, people will not follow leaders who prove to be corrupt hypocrites. And part of being a corrupt hypocrite is to compromise on such goals as creating a Sharia state, driving Western influence out of the region, and wiping Israel off the map. Of course, a leader is still free to set his course, pulling back at times when conditions are unfavorable, avoiding battles that would obviously be lost (though the Islamist might be too confident of winning despite the objective balance of forces), not antagonizing the masses unnecessarily, and forming alliances with others when necessary.

As with Lenin, the question is how well Islamist politicians carry out this strategy. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has pushed too hard, too fast, though still it has come a long way. What is remarkable is that, unlike the opponents of Communism, the opponents of Islamism have barely begun their attempt to understand and educate others on this ideology.

It should be stressed that the key challenge is not to cite passages from original Muslim theology to “prove” that Islam is always unchanging and inflexible -- though understanding the roots of the radicals’ ideological appeal is important -- or to ignore Islam as a factor completely, but to look at the movement’s modern strategy and tactics. Almost thirty years after al-Qaradawi clearly explained the movement's ideas, the opponents of Islamism have barely begun their attempt to understand and to educate others on this ideology.