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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.

Individuals will always betray or deviate from the austere or exalted temper of their scriptures where these enshrine the Golden Rule -- Kierkegaard’s wise distinction between Christianity and Christendom. The difference in this connection is that what we would regard as “deviation” -- cruelty, oppression, the call to perpetual warfare -- is in Islam not a function of individual or group delinquency but is actually intrinsic to the incunabula of Islam and ubiquitous throughout the founding library of the faith. “People ask whether Islam can undergo a reformation like the one that Christianity underwent. That's a poor parallel,” writes Canadian ex-Muslim Ali Sina in his seminal volume Understanding Muhammad and Muslims.

In Christianity, it wasn't the religion that needed to be reformed, but the church; what Jesus preached was good.…In Islam, it's the religion that is not good.

In other words, a lapsed Church is foreign to essential Christianity and a corrupt Temple is alien to essential Judaism. But such regressions are actually integral to Islam, bred in the unabrogated scriptures which permit, approve and ratify such depravities as slavery, child marriage, polygamy, gynophobia, deception (taqiyya), the breaking of treaties, the doctrinally sanctioned acquisition of booty and of women as the spoils of war, dhimmitude and, most terrible of all, wanton slaughter of unbelievers. As Koran 8:39 commands, “Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion reigns supreme.” It is not difficult, then, to see that ancestral Islam is demonstrably contemporary Islam since the Koran is understood to be an eternal book, coterminous with Allah, and thus does not allow for revision.

Further, critics of Islam who wish to spare the individual communicant, commendable as their attempt at fair-mindedness may be, are caught in a contradiction. In separating the institution of the faith, which they denounce, from peaceable and decent individual Muslims, whom they profess to applaud -- even Geert Wilders has taken this route -- they succeed only in undermining their own argument. Who or what can a “good” or moderate Muslim possibly be if he or she has no connection with or relation to the institution -- the structure, practice, canons and prescripts -- of the very faith from which he or she is said to be divorced? There is a blatant conundrum of identity at work here, which our charitable detractors apparently refuse to countenance or explain. Can there be such a chimera as a “Muslim” absent the institution of Islam? What is left but an empty jalabiya?

Muslims must be equally conflicted. Raheel Raza, whose film Honour Diaries  decries some of the worst practices of her co-religionists, remains a pious Muslim who is comforted and nourished by her faith. What, we may ask, defines that merciful and solacing faith for her if it is based on the Koran, the ahadith, the sirah, the shariah and the diverse schools of a grim and stringent jurisprudence governing every detail of quotidian life? And if it is not predicated on authoritative Islam, what can possibly be left over from so aliquant a commitment except a few abrogated tropes and a number of rituals and customs? Perhaps it is a private faith she is espousing, but a private faith is not a religion and does not merit a historical name.

The noted Islamic scholiast Salim Mansur lobbies in his 2011 book Delectable Lie for an end to or reduction of Muslim immigration to Canada, which he sees as disruptive of social harmony and democratic principles. Yet he is contemptuous of renowned and honest critics of Islam like Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom, and cleaves to what he regards as the true core of Islam (personal communication). The question immediately presents itself: what is the true core of Islam? How much cherry-picking must one diligently perform in the orchard of the sacred text to arrive at the real Islam? How high up the cherry tree must one’s ladder climb? Mansur is surely teetering. “How great the distance is now,” he laments in an obsequious article for the Wall Street Journal, “between many of those who wear the mantle of Islam and the message Muhammad delivered.” The distance this expert mourns, as we have seen, is too negligible to be measured. The larger, Medinan portion of the Koran consists to an alarming extent of messages that would make any harbi (non-Muslim living in a country not subject to Islam) or apostate fear for his safety, freedom and very existence.

Mansur strains to justify his faith by quoting an enigmatic if not utterly baffling hadith in which the Prophet himself supposedly deplores those who will violate his message: “Islam began as a stranger and will become once more a stranger.” The trouble is that, according to Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, 1/130, among a chain of transmissions, Muhammad concludes by saying, “so blessed are the strangers.” This hadith, narrated by Abu Hurairah, an early companion of Muhammad, is best left to its obscurity since it only confuses Mansur’s redemptive folly as well as the reader he is laboring to seduce. Mansur’s predicament is an unenviable one, shared by all like him who try to rinse the mantle of its indelible blemishes. When you have thoroughly bowdlerized the historical muniments and expurgated the near-entirety of the theological, political, legal, philosophical and narrative foundations of the faith, what remains to inspire one’s devotion except an embarrassing caricature or, at best, a beautiful fiction?

One thinks of other pacifist, socially conscious and highly intellectual Muslims like Tarek Fatah, Irshad Manji, Zuhdi Jasser and the Ahmadi Qasim Rashid,* contorting themselves into conciliatory knots to justify their continued loyalty to that which stubbornly resists explicative laundering. They cannot admit that al-Qaeda, ISIS and similar terrorist outfits are the pure, Koran-abiding communicants of the faith they persist in trying to salvage. Where this leaves the Western critic of Islam who condemns the faith but extols the enlightened Muslim individual, or the devout Muslim who eschews violence, shariah, the supremacist impulse and the rebarbative dictates of scripture defies all the postulates of rational thinking. One cannot help but contrast former Muslims like Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Walid Shoebat, Ali Sina, Nonie Darwish and Wafa Sultan who, at great personal risk, did the myth, so to speak, and followed their consciences.

* - The Ahmadis derive their version of Islam from the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who believed he was appointed by God to disinter the true message of Muhammad from the darkness into which it had fallen; he is therefore a problematic spokesperson for mainstream Islam, whether of the Sunni or Shia variety.

At the same time, we must be extremely wary of the proliferating Muslim and pro-Muslim Internet sites that torture the statistics and play havoc with the facts, citing problematic and deeply compromised sources, or rewriting them partially or wholesale. To take a salient instance, The American Muslim brazenly claims that in the period 1980-2005, “most terrorist incidents were not caused by Muslims,” that since Obama’s 2008 election, non-Muslim terror plots outnumber Muslim terror plots by a ratio of 25 to 9, that “the overwhelming number of attacks carried out in [Europe were] linked to separatism” (a claim which also and disingenuously discounts the magnitude of such attacks, where one Madrid commuter train bombing is worth thousands of fender benders, verbal insults, broken windows and torched outhouses), that Israeli PM Netanyahu and likeminded Israelis are proponents of “radical Judaism” and are “motivated by the extremely violent verses” of the Old Testament -- among a swollen farrago of outright canards, shameless lies, bizarre adductions and selective quoting from tainted documents. Loonwatch, another of these adulterated sites, assures us that 94% of Muslims are neither perpetrators nor supporters of terror; be that as it may, that still leaves by its accounting some 90-96 million who are. Not exactly a consolation. Loonwatch also informs us that Jewish acts of terrorism in the U.S. exceeded Islamic terror strikes. From its point of view, summer is obviously colder than winter.

Both these disinformative sites like to quote dubious and far left venues like the Southern Poverty Law Center, among the most toxic and mendacious of “progressivist” activist organizations. But the FBI database is a particular favorite. This is the same FBI whose training manual has recently been purged of all references to Islam and jihad, that has no viable definition of what constitutes a terrorist act -- indeed, its net is so wide that almost any tremor or molestation can qualify, that declares that nearly half (42%) of indigenous terrorist activities originate in the Latino community, that thoroughly botched its surveillance of the 9/11 terrorists, and that, in any event, is “unleashed and unaccountable.” These sites also like to go back to 1980 as a starting point, thirteen years before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and twenty-one years before 9/11, when Muslim-inspired terror attacks were not yet in full flower. This is either incompetence, political correctness or taqiyya with a vengeance.

We can no longer temporize and procrastinate. We need to wake up to reality before reality buries us in civilizational desuetude. As Sina asks, “How rational is it to let a belief system thrive in our countries when the very tenets of that belief are intolerant of ours and call for our subjugation?” The fact is, radical Islam is Islam, whose war against the West is transacted through the twin instruments of violence and infiltration, the latter a generally unacknowledged but even more effective form of terrorism. Merely remark the ruined neighborhoods, boroughs and suburbs of towns and cities in both Europe and America where Muslim immigration and mosque construction have gone unhindered.

Standard Islam is a war machine, an invading army with multiple techniques and weapons at its disposal. This is why Sina can logically state that “there are no extremists in Islam.” Terror, however we define it, is a genuine expression of Islam: The steeds of war gallop out of the Koran to terrify the enemy of Allah (see Koran 8:60). “Islamism” is a figment of weak or frightened, naive or complicit minds, endorsing by misdirection what Andy Bostom describes as “the profound moral pathology at the very heart and soul of mainstream, institutional Islam.” One cannot escape the conclusion that those who defend Islam or who struggle valiantly but fruitlessly to rehabilitate it are living in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Countering the pabulum of American presidential farceurs Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (and the equally mealy-mouthed claptrap of British PM David Cameron) that the conduct of Muslim terrorists is “not Islamic,” Daniel Pipes, who has in the past dined out on the theoretical distinction between radical and moderate Muslims, appears to have come to his senses. Pipes avers that “anyone with eyes and ears realizes that ISIS, like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before it, is 100 percent Islamic.” Nota bene: Islamic, not Islamist.

A former Muslim who goes by the pseudonym of Brother Rachid is even more emphatic: the terrorist franchises are marching in lockstep with the Prophet, their every abomination sanctioned by a command in the Koran, a passage in the ahadith, and an example in the sirah. They live in a veritable reverie of slaughter and conquest and thus fulfill what they conceive as a pledge and a duty. They are attending to the text. And in so doing, they also march in lockstep with their covert accomplices, namely, the asylum seekers, the refugee streams, the vast number of residential immigrants, the “re-united” families (often consisting of multiple wives masquerading as relatives and eligible for welfare), the firebrand imams and dawah-spouting preachers, the second-generation, born-again jihadists, and the pitiable revisionists who strive to re-interpret and redeem what is constitutively resistant to their efforts, yet cannot extricate themselves from the snare of creedal affirmation. There is much truth to Burckhardt’s observation that “obedience to a non-Islamic dispensation could never be enforced.”

Perhaps Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said it best: “There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.” “Islamism” is a Fata Morgana, a conceptual mirage that beckons in a mental desert. Erdogan’s slogan merits repeating, its content worth absorbing. Islam is Islam and that’s it.