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World Order and Islamism

I’ve been meaning to say something here about Charles Hill’s brilliant book Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism.  Published in 2011, Trial is a profound meditation on one of the most pressing questions facing the world community: whether Islam can integrate itself into the secular international order of states.

There are abundant reasons to conclude that the answer is probably “No, Islam cannot integrate itself into the secular order without ceasing to be Islam.”  The Egyptian author and activist Sayyid Qutb (an early and prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, executed by Egyptian authorities in 1966) said why in a sentence:  “A Muslim has no nationality except his religious beliefs.”

Is that so? It depends whom you ask. Nervous Western politicians disagree. They insist that “we are not at war with Islam.” When Cairo erupted a couple of years ago and Hosni Mubarak was deposed, James Clapper, the dunder-headed director of national intelligence, assured members of Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood was “a largely secular organization,” i.e., nothing to see here, move along.

Reality failed to live up to Mr. Clapper’s fantasy (or was it merely his mendacity?), but the question lingers: Is Islam the problem? Or is it only those bad hats who have a fondness for blowing up things, treating women as chattel, abominating anyone who is not a paid-up member of the Ummah, and generally endeavoring to impose sharia, Islamic law, on everyone everywhere?

Again, it depends whom you ask. Jacqui Smith, the former British home secretary, showed that she was a comedienne of Clapper stature when some members of the religion of peace blew up an SUV at the Glasgow airport a few years ago. Ms. Smith insisted the we not call such events instances of “Islamic terrorism,” but rather call them examples of “anti-Islamic activity.” Why? Because even if the “extremists” responsible for such outrages just happened, by some wild coincidence, to be Muslim, they were acting contrary to their faith. Right. So shouting “Allahu Akbar” and steering a jetliner into a skyscraper is not Islamic terrorism but really, deep down, essentially, anti-Islamic activity. (And I, to quote Dorothy Parker, am Marie of Roumania.)

Hopeful Westerners cherish the consoling thought that we can distinguish effectively between moderate Islam, which deserves, and which wishes to have, a place at the table of modern states, and the other sort of Islam — radical Islam, jihadist Islam, extremist Islam, etc. — which takes the Qutb line and rejects statehood as the work of the devil. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, doesn’t like such distinctions. They are, he says, “offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” Is he right?

There are some countervailing Muslim voices. Charles Hill cites several towards the end of his book.  Indeed, he concludes on a hopeful note, which is only appropriate for a book that is part of the Hoover Institution’s Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, which “seeks to engage in the task of reversing Islamic radicalism through reforming and strengthening the legitimate role of the state across the entire Muslim world.” That’s the antistrophe of his argument: to distinguish firmly between Islam — a religion like any other — and Islamism: the triumphalist ideology of Islam which might make use of modern modern liberal institutions, but only tactically, to increase its own power.