Islam or Islamism: A Distinction without a Difference?

Thirteen years after 9/11, after some 24,000 terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims since that fateful date, after the atrocities carried out and still being carried out by Caliphate-aspiring terrorist militias, after civil wars, incursions, the mass extermination and eviction of Christian populations in Muslim lands and territories, hostage-takings, kidnappings, beheadings, bombings, missile barrages -- after all this, many Westerners still appear to endorse a strict distinction between Islam and Islamism. The former, we believe or have been led to believe, is a “religion of peace” whose doctrines have been twisted and misinterpreted by a cadre of extremists. Islam, according to this perspective, cannot be held accountable for a band of criminals willfully violating the tenets and premises of a venerable Abrahamic faith.

The claim is unsustainable. Where it is not advanced disingenuously -- for profit, power or position -- it is plainly a function of culpable or lazy ignorance or, at best, of a desire to be (or to seem) tolerant and supremely civil. I suspect that the majority of such Western apologists have not cracked a single page of the Koran or perused even a scattering of the ahadith and sirah, where the chasm on which they insist between Islam and Islamism is nowhere to be found. The Koran, in particular, brims with exhortations to violence against unbelievers, which the 1400-year imperial history of Islam has honored to the letter. The religious mandate as well as the empirical practice are undeniably Islamic, not “Islamist” -- a concept that has no meaning in the theological literature.

Far too many of us cannot bring ourselves to understand that the enemy we are facing is not some fringe minority of “radicals” who are abusing not only their victims but the principles of the faith they proclaim. For one thing, the jihadists and their enablers may be a “minority,” but they number in the millions -- the lowball figure of 1% of the ummah yields 15-16 million; a not unreasonable estimate of 10% gives 150-160 million. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of people determined to kill you. When one considers that this number amounts to half the population of the United States out for one’s blood, it puts the issue into perspective. For another thing, the shahids and mujahidin know perfectly well how to read their sacred texts, far better than their victims, dupes, extenuators and fellow-travelers who neglect to study either the scriptures or the history of Islam in order to gain a more acute and comprehensive knowledge of the enemy who plots their destruction. Others, of course, have been bought, suborned by donations or bribes and subsidized by petrodollars, or they are trimmers who have capitalized on business interests and opportunities.

Even those who have grasped the pitiless and bellicose quality of Islamic law and normative doctrine, and, moreover, have suffered terrible losses at the hands of “the believers” will, often from the noblest of motives, insist on distinguishing between the unoffending and the barbarous members of the faith. George Reisman, whose son was among the 2,296 innocents massacred on 9/11, delivered a lambent and courageous tenth anniversary speech in which he proudly declared himself an Islamophobe and excoriated the “medieval” savagery of his son’s murderers. Yet he assures us that his “hatred of Radical Islam does not extend to every Muslim as an individual. It does extend, however, to Islam as an institution.” Nor does his condemnation extend “to those brave souls who are struggling to bring Islam into the 21rst Century sensibilities.” These exceptions aside, he is clear about his “abhorrence of the 7th Century brand of Islam that the Radicals want to impose upon us and the rest of the world.”

The term “7th Century,” as employed here, is not exclusively historical but operates as shorthand for a primitive and barbaric mindset. The real problem, however -- and it may well be insuperable -- is that what we call  “7th Century Islam” is a 21rst century resident, inherent in the texts, judgments, precepts, usages and ceremonies followed by all believing Muslims. The distinction Reisman introduces between 7th century radicalism and the institution of Islam per se is redundant. Authentic Islam has always been a “7th Century” religion insofar as the harsh, legalistic and invasive spirit that animates its founding documents has remained intact to the present day. As the great historian Jacob Burckhardt observed, Islam “spread not by mission but by conquests.” This is how it differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths, which, for that matter, date prior to the 7th century. Judaism does not actively seek converts and Christianity is intrinsically a missionary religion; moreover, the indwelling spirit that vitalizes them is universal and their congregants have for the most part adapted to the modern world.

There really is no comparison. Authentic Judaism is defined by the Decalogue and the Noahide Laws, which value human life, prohibit murder, and command us to establish a just and humane social order extending to all mankind.  Authentic Christianity is a religion of mercy that renders unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, with only a sparse handful of jarring or dissonant moments. The fact that Islam, deriving from the preachments and practices of Allah’s Messenger, does not share these characteristics with Judaism and Christianity but is almost uniformly aggressive, severe and vindictive in its punitive austerities, is one that too few of us are willing to recognize, owing to a reluctance to appear “racist,” bigoted or illiberal.