Fractures on the Right

It seems that conservatives have enormous difficulty getting along. Often we see them at odds with each other and dismissing the very groups trying to defend conservative ideas and assumptions. Some identify as neo-conservatives, others as paleo-conservatives, still others labor to distinguish themselves from libertarian conservatives. Fiscal conservatives set themselves apart from social and religious conservatives. Some are anti-Bush conservatives, some are RINOs. Many jumped on the Arab Spring bandwagon; others, far more prescient, warned of the disaster it portended. Some see major conservative figures like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Tommy Robinson, Ann Coulter, and Geert Wilders as stalwart defenders of Western values; others regard them as inflexible bigots and warmongers.

Recently, I hosted a dinner for a few conservative friends, well-known and influential people in the political community and doing much good work in promoting freedom, justice, national security, sane immigration policy, Zionism, the sovereignty of the individual, and resistance to tyrannical ideologies. And yet, as the evening progressed, basic divisions began to be exposed, especially with respect to the axial distinction between Islam and Islamism -- a necessary differentiation, according to my friends. The equation of Islam and Islamism, they argued, arose from ignorance. In fact, it conceded ground to the radicals and extremists, as one of my cherished friends put it in a subsequent letter to me, “by accepting the Islamists’ view that they are the sole representatives of Islam.”

Islamists, from my friend’s perspective, are barbarians, Bedouin outriders to the faith, marginal entities who “clothe themselves in the texts of Islam” instead of recognizing, as do their “moderate” brethren, that a renewed and “open reading” of the Koran is perennially possible and that the more offensive passages can be historicized and legitimately abrogated. Like any other religion, on this view, Islam is not “immune to the dialectics of history,” and can be reinterpreted and brought into a productive relation with the current era. All people of good will should therefore support these moderates and must be on guard not to alienate them through loose talk about the dangers of Islam.

For myself, though I would wish to eschew controversy among the ostensibly like-minded and cease throwing lead downrange, the dinner-party conversation struck me as evidence of how such divisions over the nature of Islam create a crippling discord amongst conservatives. The meliorists discriminate between a “good Islam” and a “bad Islam,” accusing those with whom they disagree of a perilous conflation of incompatibles. This “bad Islam,” apparently, is the product of a grievous misinterpretation of the primary documents and historical lore on the part of those who have “hijacked” the faith. It is not really Islam.

But the point is, as Anjem Choudary, head of the radical al-Muhajiroun (“the immigrants”) movement in Britain, assures us, the division between moderates and extremists is a “classification [that] does not exist in Islam.” Similarly, after the recent terrorist attack on a BP natural gas plant in Algeria, costing 81 lives, one of the perpetrators announced: “We’ve come in the name of Islam, to teach the Americans what Islam is.” And they have the liturgy and consecrations with them. As Robert Spencer comments, “mainstream media coverage has followed the usual patterns, downplaying or ignoring outright what the attackers said about what they were hoping to accomplish, since these statements lead to questions about Islam that they would prefer not be asked.”

Spencer properly grants that “Muslims exist who may not believe or act upon these teachings,” but, regrettably, such teachings are neither cancelled nor mitigated by revisionary fancies, saccharine acquittals and exemptions, or quixotic sallies into the realm of pseudo-scholarly annotation. Despite the dreamy and well-intentioned futility of glossing the unassimilable, these rules and precepts remain in force as textual ammunition for jihad. To suggest otherwise is to serve up the sort of political tapioca we expect from John Brennan of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, who cannot bring himself to see jihad as anything but a holy struggle for spiritual purity.

Former Islamic zealot Ibn Warraq in Why I Am Not a Muslim has also emphasized that fundamentalist Islam is Islam and rebuked Western intellectuals and apologists for fudging the difference, an act of conceptual amalgamation which he regards as nothing less than shameful. “Western scholars and Islamicists have totally failed in their duties as intellectuals,” he charges, “They have betrayed their calling by abandoning their critical faculties when it comes to Islam.” In his view, the term “Islamic fundamentalism” is a tautology and functions primarily as a “useful and face-saving device for those unable to confront the fact that Islam itself, and not just something we call ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ is incompatible with democracy.” To claim that the spate of Islamic-sponsored mayhem and upheaval has nothing to do with genuine Islam is not only counterfactual but wilfully astigmatic, if not perverse.

As historian Victor Davis Hanson illustrates in a recent and important editorial, “Our Old Grand Fantasies about Radical Islam,” the therapeutic approach to the problem of Islam is a macabre caprice. Jamie Glazov, author of the must-read United in Hate, has expressed his outrage in even more splenetic fashion, denouncing those on his Facebook site who trumpet ‘But it isn’t Islam, it’s just the ones who misinterpret it.” Labeling such propitiators as “enablers” of a “monstrosity,” Glazov is particularly incensed at the ongoing mutilation of young Muslim girls and condemns Western mollifiers as complicit in their fate.

Islam is founded and predicated on the Koran, the Sunnah, the diverse schools of jurisprudence, and the vast exegetical literature. Our meliorists, insisting on decoupling Islam from Islamism, contend that Western critical observers of the faith, who do not accept this distinction, are living in the same camp as the terrorists: the fundamentalists on the one hand, and the skeptics and detractors on the other, both assert that Islam is Islam with nothing aliquant left over. Thus, from the perspective of the conciliators, a Robert Spencer and a Yusuf al-Qaradawi are ideologically aligned.