Dag asked me for my opinion of Jamie Glazov's Front Page interview of Bruce Tefft, a former CIA spy and now a counter-terrorism consultant. Jamie was not at his best in defending Front Page's preferred concept of "Islamofascism" to identify the supposedly specific problem we are having with the Islamic world. Many have asked, “what is the point of trying to distinguish bad “fascist” Muslims from regular Muslims who are also full of antagonism towards the West, as they are encouraged to be by the dictates of the Koran? Why use Western political terminology ("fascism") to describe Islam at all?” In my opinion, while there is always a role for comparative analysis, and thus for seeing similarities among disparate phenomena, imposing any terminology on a religion that it does not itself use is problematic. It is to imagine a world of ideal types and not one of historical particulars.
But leaving this question aside, I do think there is something wrong with Tefft's take on things, his argument that all of Islam is essentially the same thing, and all deadly for the West, just because, it seems, the Koran says this is the way it must be.
So, here are some of Tefft's arguments, and my responses:
Tefft: The "War on Terror" and the use of the terms "Islamofascism" or "radical Islam" are basic examples of faulty nomenclature. One terrorism is a tactic, used by an enemy. One wages war on the enemy, not the tactic. During WWII we did not wage war on the "blitzkrieg" or "kamikaze pilots" -- we fought a war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japanese. We are fighting a 14-century year old war against Islam and its adherents, Muslims. And it is a war that they have declared on all non-Muslims as part of their religious mandate, their ideology, to make the whole world Islamic, under the Caliphate, and to convert, kill or enslave all non-Muslims.
The two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shi'ite have both, as the initiation of the Third Jihad (Holy War) of the modern Islamic resurgence, have repeatedly declared war against the U.S. and the West -- the Sunni with bin Laden's 1998 Declaration of War and the Shi'ites when Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah and attacked our Embassy (sovereign U.S. territory under international law) in 1979. Ignoring the fact that we are indeed at war with Muslims, and not simply a tactic of war that they use, leaves us vulnerable to infiltration, subversion and other forms of attack and makes it impossible to defeat the enemy.
[responding to Jamie Glazov] I've heard this argument before: "radical" Muslims kill and terrorize other Muslims as well so they must be different from the "moderates" that they are terrorizing. I don't think so. As with any group of human beings, there are factions in Islam and personal ambitions and petty egos of various leaders which will them to power. So there are conflicts between Muslims as well as between Muslims and everyone else. However, those Muslims killing other Muslims (which is forbidden in the Koran) do not view the "others" as true Muslims but rather as 'takfir' or apostates, thus not true Muslims and therefore subject to the same killing as the rest of us.
Like Nazism, Islam is an ideology one chooses to adhere to. Were there "good" or "moderate" Nazis? If not, then no one can claim that there are good or moderate Muslims as they are voluntarily subscribing to an ideology that advocates murder, torture and jihad and does not permit its follower to cherry-pick which parts they believe in. The requirement to accept the Koran as the literal word of God also carries with it the obligation to accept it all. And as you say, the Koran instructs all Muslims to wage war against non-Muslims and all schools of Islamic thought instruct the subjugation of the non-Muslim world through jihad. Therefore, I do not believe it wise to attempt to create artificial distinctions between Muslims that don't really [exist] as far as their attitudes towards non-Muslims is concerned.
As the prime minister of Turkey recently said: There is no radical nor moderate Islam. That is an insult to Muslims. There is only Islam.
We may wish to give Muslims the benefit of doubt, due to our humanistic and liberalized Western way of thinking. But treating the enemy as we wish they were, than as they are, will only lead to our ultimate defeat.
Truepeers: The point of our humanistic way of thinking is to allow us to distinguish human reality from fantasy ideologies. Islam is in many respects a fantasy ideology/religion, so I'll argue we can’t begin by taking its word at face value, keeping in mind the power of the fantasy over its believers.
What if it is actually impossible to live, in this day and age, (as well as in the past) by simply “accepting the Koran as the literal word of God”. Do people actually begin with the Koran and other Islamic holy texts, and model their lives on them, in some exact process of transforming words into lives? Or, do they live according to the various exigencies, imperatives and necessary freedoms that constitute life in a particular place and time – for example, all the extra-Islamic imperatives and freedoms that are required to keep a family or kinship structure going, or to put food on the table, in face of daily conflicts - and then look for religious norms or justifications to guide them in their free engagement with the basic realities of their day?
Put another way, since when has a ritual order been sufficient to order a society, with no kings or extra-ritual legislators having freedoms to impinge on the practice of the ritual order? Only the most primitive societies can make do without kings or big men and the freedoms that make such men necessary and that become a model for others to aspire. Only the most primitive or basic forms of human society are largely bound by ritual and its myths, but even here there is necessarily freedom to help the ritual and myth grow. No language, no religion, is ever entirely static.
For example, recently the Taleban in Afghanistan, a rather backward place by the standards of the present world, tried to make the Koran and Sharia into a sufficient ritual-legal code to govern every aspect of life, something few Muslim countries still try to do, whatever the professed desires to the contrary. But how long could such a regime ever survive in our globalized world? As we saw, there were plenty of clan and tribal leaders in Afghanistan, interested in access to material wealth and the modern technologies of power, who were ready to ally with the West against the Taleban when they had the chance.
For the Talebanization of the world to be a possibility, there would have to be so much destruction of the present global economic and political order, along with most of the world’s population that this order sustains, that it seems unlikely that when faced with the choices that our globalizing reality ultimately puts to us, that many Muslims would willingly choose the Talebanization of the world, or some slightly more highbrow, Persian or Arab, equivalent. That’s not to forget that there aren’t plenty of Muslims around willing to play with fantasy ideas of a world ruled by Sharia law. But I rather think that’s because they have little idea what it would take for such a world to emerge. Would they offer up their own families as victims of the necessary cull? That is the kind of question we need to put before them, rather than simply repeating the fantasy that Muslims want to live in complete submission to Sharia.
I’m not out to defend Islam; I’ve yet to see an Islamic understanding of God that I could advocate as sufficiently true for people trying to find their way in the modern world with all its demands for the responsible exercise of freedoms, for people needing to accept and ally with the infidels and the freedom that makes the modern global economy possible. That, of course, hasn’t stopped some Muslims – no doubt bad or insufficiently pious Muslims according to the arguments of people like Tefft – from succeeding in the global economy, even in high positions in the West. They succeed because they accept to some degree certain Western values, ultimately rooted (if the roots are now forgotten) in Western religion. Pragmatic imperatives that no one need give a name or lineage to are ultimately more important than any ritual code, even for Muslims.
In any case, it strikes me that in developing a successful counter-Jihad strategy we need to keep forefront in our minds the fact that Islam is not and cannot be a closed ritual system, despite the orthodoxy that Sharia should rule the world. Indeed, the history of Islam, as first well explained by the medieval historian, Ibn Khaldun, has been one of a continual tension between puritanical attempts at realizing such a complete ritual system, and the inevitable decadence of such attempts. It seems to me the challenge of our age is to defeat the current fundamentalist movements to renew the puritanical desire, and to defeat it in such a way as to make more or less permanent the realization that only some kind of decadent or “moderated” Islam is compatible with a globalizing modernity and the free marketplace.
To do this, the first step, as noted, is to free our own thinking from the infatuation of many counter-Jihad forces that Islam is something immutable and unreformable just because the Koran claims to be the final, eternal, and perfect word of God. There is no need or good in reaffirming this Utopian lie, however fundamental it is to many Muslims’ consciousness.
Furthermore, it is time that those counter-Jihad bloggers who are presently calling on the West to separate Islam from the rest of the world - in some kind of quarantine to protect the world from violent Jihad (the inevitable outgrowth of fantasy ideology is violence and blood lust) that is currently being waged all around the borders of the Islamic lands - be asked to come to terms with the consequences of their own desires and fears. It seems inevitable to me that any real separation of Islam would quickly lead to the inability of the Islamic world to support anything like its present population. A true separationist strategy would have to come to terms with the likely civil war that, if we were in anything like the current ideological environment, would be engendered in the West at the sight of millions of Muslims dieing helplessly. One might also address the morality of allowing millions to die. And a less than complete separationist strategy that allowed the Islamic world to keep going on in something like its present form, by receiving various forms of foreign aid and having some access to global trade and modern technology, would have to explain why a more active engagement with the Islamic world wouldn’t be better suited to our need to find ways to defer the massive resentments of the West that is the motive force for an increasingly nuclear-tipped Islamic politics.
Tefft, like many counter-Jihad bloggers, takes issue with the Bush slogan, "war on terror”. "How can you declare war on a tactic?" they ask. Of course, many would not be happy if George Bush had simply declared a "war on terrorists", because what they really want to hear is that we are at war with Islam or with Muslims, and that we have given up trying to distinguish moderates from radicals, which is to say the relatively more passive from the more active Jihadis/Muslims.
But the thing is, if we were seriously at war with Islam, wouldn't we have invaded or nuked Mecca by now? Of course we are not yet in such a war. Bush declared the "war on terror" because he or his advisors rightly understood that they were in the somewhat novel historical situation of not having enough responsible state actors whom they could hold responsible for terrorist violence, and on whom they could thus declare war. We might invade Afghanistan and Iraq, but that would not come close to ending the terrorist problem, one that is endemic to most of the Islamic world and in fact takes the form of civil war in the Muslim countries. For example, bin Laden could have operated in such a way that he would not have given us the easy target of Afghanistan to make the object of a traditional war of state vs. state. Could we have successfully invaded nuclear-armed Pakistan if bin Laden had being operating there, prior to 9/11, without the consent of the Pakistani government? The fact that he has probably been in Pakistan for some time now suggests the answer.
Since American "realist" policy has for some time been to prop up various dictatorships in the Islamic world - like those of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that are at (civil) war with many of the terrorist elements, even as they may also be supporting some of them in various double games in which all Muslim parties are willing to scapegoat America and Israel for being free and successful societies - there were all kinds of pragmatic reasons for America and the West to maintain certain alliances and not see it in anyone's interest to engage a total civilizational war between the West and Islam.
More to my point, however, is that the “war on terror” refers to the idea that our enemy are precisely those believers in a fantasy ideology, premised on a complete rejection of the modern global marketplace, believers who cannot seriously hope to hold the reigns of power in any existing or readily imagined future state, with the possible exception of Afghanistan which is sufficiently isolated from global markets in all but opiates. In other words, our enemy are not "freedom fighters" in some war of liberation. They are fantasy players. What propels the present wave of Islamic terrorism is not simply the traditional Jihadi doctrines of Islam, but also the near complete failure of Islamic civilization in the modern era and its much less than stellar performance in the increasingly global economy. The losers in today's global game feel their lands are being invaded by Western business and culture, as to an increasing degree they are. In more confident times, Islam sent regular armies to the Gates of Vienna, now they send lonely immigrants full of hateful Islamist preaching and fantasies of a restored Caliphate – fantasies, that as I say, can only become more or less real if there is first a drastic reduction in the population and economy of the world.
We are not at war with Islam because we recognize that there is a civil war going on within the Islamic world and because our leaders still believe, quite rightly I think, that it reasonable to assume that it is in our interest to use the pressures that can be applied on those wanting to participate in the global economy to ally with us in choosing sides in that civil war, thus dividing “Islam” and conquering the serious Jihadi forces. Of course we have not yet found the resolve or imagination to do this at all well, or found the co-operation needed internationally.
But if there is any point to my present writing, it is to say that it is time we started to find the imagination, and not give in to our own pathological desires for some great act of violence - separationism, or civilizational war - to solve this mess.
In any case, our essential choice is whether we hope to continue to invade the Muslim world, in the form of the global economy and all the demands, restraints, and disciplines that puts on people determined to suceed in the global game, leaving questions of religious reform or apostasy and conversion for Muslims themselves to work out in their own minds, or whether we come to the conclusion that Muslims cannot be anything but a threat, no matter what their level of participation in the rational global economy. For example, we can find ways, if we have the will, to pressure Muslim countries to protect the right of people to leave Islam.
Time and again, we must return to the point of recognizing that Islam taken "literally", as many idealized readings (by both Muslims and anti-Islam people) would have it, i.e. the vision of a united Umma ruling the world under a successful Caliphate and Sharia, is pure nonsense, the height of Utopianism. All those Muslims killing each other aren't really doing it because one or another side is apostate - that's just an excuse for simple minds - but because conflict is inherent to the human condition and Islam is not a very sophisticated technology for mediating and deferring conflict and violence, however more sophisticated it is than the pagan and tribal faiths that it partially replaced.
What is real is that some Muslims are starting to undermine the Islamist fantasies of overturning the global order, by participating in it. I recently saw a BBC story on the new Turkish wine industry, which aims to compete with product from neighboring Bulgaria. The BBC pointed out that this was kind of strange in a Muslim country. No doubt those who tell us that you can't reason with a Muslim, and so those who participate in the reason-demanding global economy are not real Muslims (but more or less apostate) will also tell us that those Muslims who drink alcohol aren't real Muslims either, because of course it is forbidden in Islam. But in Turkey some “Muslims” do drink alcohol.
Should we tell our potential allies in the Islamic world that they are not real Muslims, or should we deny that we have any potential allies in the Muslim world, unless and until they become full-fledged apostates? Must we live forever in fear that all the “moderate” Muslims who want to participate in the global economy are but one brain cramp away from turning en masse to becoming fundamentalist Jihadis? Only if we don’t trust that reality, if well used by free people, can overcome fantasy. Only if we believe that fantasy can become reality (instead of simply death).
Declaring war on Islam, as a whole, will strengthen its resolve. Making friends with Muslims who drink wine and want to have comfortable lives with all the modern amenities is not a sure-fire way to avoid Jihad or betrayal by our friends - we all know that many of the active terrorists are precisely those among the Muslims most exposed to the modern world, its wealth and education - but it is nonetheless a pragmatic strategy.
Many Muslims who like a glass of wine will not turn out like the Muslim doctors who recently tried to let off bombs in Britain, or the young men of suburban Toronto who plotted various terrorist acts in this country. Many Muslims who like a glass of wine are on the road to rejecting terrorism, however much the terrorists may have a better grasp of orthodox Islam than the wine drinkers. People can and do live with contradictions. No one can be a pure Muslim because Islamic theology is untrue, unrealistic. Perfect Sharia regimes generally can't and don't survive many years of their attempted implementation, as an Afghanistan or presently crumbling Iran would suggest. When we in the West come to the rightful conclusion that we must make Muslims choose, at risk of their lives and freedoms, between harboring or supporting Jihadis, or living in fear of them, and participating in the global economy, many will choose to ally with us. And those who don't will be fair targets for our self-defense of the global economy.
But the larger point is, we don't know how many Muslims we are at war with until we define and prosecute the terms of our conflict in ways that make people choose sides between freedom and the fantasy ideologies of one world Umma and Caliphate. Right now we let many people get away with being all things to all people. And right now there are many counter-Jihad bloggers who don’t want to find the mental energy to think through how putting unmistakeable choices before Muslims could work. They’d rather deny any offer to Muslims to show good faith can work. They'd rather believe in some one great solution, like separationism or re-colonization or total war. But these are fanciful and impractical ideas in many respects. If we learn well to offer both the carrot and the stick we will go farther towards achieving something realistic.
Tefft, above, asks rhetorically if there were any good or moderate Nazis, as if to suggest the inanity of believing in moderate Muslims. But this is silly. First, if we distinguish all the Germans who wore uniforms and fought in the war, or worked for the state in some capacity, from those who gladly joined the Nazi party, of course we will discover that there were good German soldiers who refused to do just anything in the name of the Nazi movement. I dare to say there were even people with Nazi party cards who had some kind of conscience that troubled them. There will always be people who recognize basic human decency and who put it before overarching ideologies. Grand ideological or religious systems are latecomers to the game of structuring human consciousness and they simply cannot eliminate more pragmatic and more sacred modes of thinking that long predate them. What’s more, Naziism was a short-lived movement that people really had to make a choice about joining. Islam has been around 1400 years and those born into it today need make no commitment to the cause to be considered one of its number. It is thus entirely likely that many Muslims are less interested in Islam than in being decent or pragmatic human beings. That, of course, is no guarantee that pragmatism or decency can come to the fore in the Islamic world, given violent politics and the privileged status of Koranic forms of representation. But it is the basis for hoping that when “we” find the will, we can pressure the Muslim world to expand its forms of representation.
FP: So is Islam an ideology or a religion?
Tefft: That is a good question, a key question.
Islam is an ideology with religious trappings. The Koran can quite logically be viewed as Mohammed's "Mein Kampf" -- it lays out his justification for murder, rape, torture and military conquest on a daily basis. Since Mohammed made it up as he went along, it lacks some of the coherency and consistency of the "Mein Kampf" but it has the same effect. It is full of contradictions, but Muslims start from the premise that Allah can make no errors, and mere mortals cannot know what Allah really means. So if there are contradictions, the principle of "abrogation" is applied -- whatever Allah says last, trumps whatever went before. This leads directly to the example of the so-called "peace, love and tolerance" of Islam vs. it's holy war bloodthirstiness.
TP: It’s not a good question if you take it for granted that the difference between ideology and religion is self-evident. To any kind of traditional Muslim, without an understanding of Western ways of distinguishing secular metaphyisics from religion, the question would be incoherent. And that is perhaps the essential problem we face with Islam: the inability of Muslims to separate religion and ideology, the church and the state. Islam attempts to be an all-encompasssing ritual-legal order. But because it can’t be that in this day and age, if it ever could, it is increasingly open to fundamentalist "reform" ideologies, like those of bin Laden, which often rub the established clerical authorities the wrong way. The question remains whether more secularizing reform ideologies will also have their day, or whether the reform of Islam will entail its complete dismantling. I would prefer the latter, and imagine it will happen one day, but for pragmatic reasons I can’t suggest we put all our eggs in advancing that basket. Muslims will have to work through all the possibilities for reform first.
Tefft: Islam, unlike either Christianity or Judaism is not reformable. Christians are in general agreement that the Bible was written by humans, inspired by God; the primary and central tenet of Islam is that the Koran is the literal word of Allah. How does one 'reform', interpret or change, the Word of God (or Allah)? The answer is one can't and it would be blasphemous to try to do so and apostasy, in Islam, like so much else, is punishable by death.
Truepeers: Tefft is confusing the widespread desire to live as if one had the literal word of Allah, with actuality. In fact it is not possible to read any book, even the Koran, and to relate it to your actual life and experience, without doing a lot of your own interpretation. People, especially Muslims, need to be told this and we need to quit reinforcing the fantasy that Islam is some computer program running inerrably in every Muslim robotic mind. The problem with Islam is that interpretation has become codified for centuries by the Ulema, and there is very little original thinking going on in the Muslim world other than by radicals opposed to the established Islamic authorities. The fact that the traditional Islamic authorities, are increasingly less successful in interpreting Islam for a wider audience, than are the modern fundamentalists, suggests that the pressures posed by global conditions can and do change Islam. If the extreme fantasy ideology now has a hold, it is not proof that Islam is unreformable in more moderate directions, only that fantasy fundamentalism is the easy way out for many trying to come to terms with globalization.
This returns us to the question of whether, given the dangers posed to us by a lack of real thinking in any significant Islamic quarters - other than those of the fundamentalists of the bin Laden variety - do we follow a separationist strategy or do we think about ways of forcing Muslims to make choices about freedom or oppression that necessarily engage them in acts of interpretation.
For example, do we make immigration and residence in the West, the licensing of Mosques and imams here, dependent on a person’s demonstration of a consistent commitment to reform of Islam, e.g. the separation of church and state? Do we punish any links to violent Jihadi activity accordingly? Do we demand worldwide protection for Muslim apostates and converts to Christianity, and are we willing to back up such demands with a full range of sanctions, including force from time to time? Or do we just throw up our hands and say none of that will ever happen because Muslims must be inerrant in following the word of God?
The idea that a human must inerrably follow the word of God is actually a very basic idea, long pre-dating Islam, and grounded in a rather basic kind of religious consciousness and its corresponding language: the ostensive and imperative forms of signifying the sacred. These are things every primitve tribesman knows. And these forms of language cannot simply be stabilized by any attempt to codify the ostensive and imperative in a major text like the Koran. IN other words, there is an inherent freedom in our ability to signify “the word of God”. The existence of language, any human language, entails freedom. One can continually find new ways of signifying the sacred, new ways of pointing to something and saying “holy!", or “you must do this”. For example, imagine you are an Afghan today, and an Imam tells you to kill the infidel invaders, as the Koran demands. But these infidels are presently defending your clan against the local enemy, and they are feeding your village. What do you do? What is the imperative sign that you must recognize and share with your fellows? Once the infidels (or any competing sect within Islam) are in your country, you can’t avoid the freedom of choice, to hell with the pretense that it could ever be otherwise.
We must seek ways to bring this reality to bear on Islamic consciousness. We must make re-interpretation or apostasy the clear-cut choice that our God-given human consciousness demands of any person. That last sentence is a paradox, I know. We must all suck on the lime. Truth is paradoxical.
One can of course read the Koran as if its rambling sentences and paragraphs were ostensive gestures and imperative demands, as believers try to do. But one cannot avoid a world in which the need for new ways to make ostensive and imperative signs continually arises from emergent circumstances. Conflicts arise and they can’t be solved simply by someone chanting the same old party line. New conflicts always demand somewhat new forms of resolution. Muslims have no choice but to live in history like the rest of us.
Tefft: While the war with Islam is eminently winnable, it is very difficult to be optimistic at this stage when one sees political correctness rampant and the Western leftists supporting Islam (as they supported the National Socialists and Lenin/Stalin in the last century), to the point our leadership (where is Churchill, Thatcher and Reagan when we need them?) is either too frightened or too ignorant to name our enemy.
Islam is basically a regressive ideology, reflecting the evil ambitions of Mohammed, a 6th century brigand. Even if it were to succeed temporarily in bringing a new Dark Age to the world, eventually it will collapse from its own internal inconsistencies and anti-humanistic beliefs.
Truepeers: Here I agree with Tefft. The left is often the enemy of freedom, however much they often sincerely believe otherwise. But what are these internal inconsistencies and anti-humanistic beliefs? As I have been arguing, I think these are rooted in the fallacy that one can ever have the final and eternal word of God.
While I have my disagreements with Tefft’s formulations, this doesn’t stop me from requesting any readers with a few extra dollars consider contributing to Tefft’s legal defense fund. If we are to believe in the power of human freedom to turn the Muslim world around, we have to start by resisting all forms of Jihadist blackmail that are corrupting our society, and Tefft has become the target of one such victimary blackmailer. Read the details at Front Page. We must stand for freedom and have our door open to any Muslims wanting to be free. The rest should be given the choice in rather brusque terms that make the price of their false belief in unquestioning slavery to “Allah” clear. To be a slave to God is to think and to be free. That's not a theological idea, it's human, god-given, reality.