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Why We Fight

The Islamist dimension to the war on terror.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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The Grand Jihad

Why We Fight

Photo Credit: Corbis

How Islam and the Left Sabotage America
by Andrew McCarthy
Encounter, 464 pp., $27.95

The controversy over whether a 13-story building, called Park51, should be erected within 600 hundred feet of Ground Zero might have deflected our attention from who our enemies really are. They are not people who just happen to be American or foreign Muslims but people who subscribe to a deadly combination of ideological and religious attitudes that we ought, by now, to be able to recognize as “Islamist.” As Andrew McCarthy, the lead federal prosecutor in the case against the “blind sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman (convicted in the 1993 attempt to destroy the World Trade Center) makes clear, Islamism is the belief system that “Islam is the complete, obligatory guide to human existence, governing all matters political, social, cultural, and religious, from cradle to grave (and, of course, beyond).” In other words, it’s a totalitarian threat to American democracy.

Most American Muslims do not subscribe to Islamism and are successfully integrated into America’s constitutional democracy, in which individual liberty, and especially freedom of conscience, are considered sacrosanct and are protected by law. Indeed, many Muslims immigrated here precisely because they did not want to continue living in Islamic societies where alternative belief systems were unlawful. They do not appear to be perplexed by our political and social system which permits private citizens to distribute religious tracts, some of which warn against the danger of perishing in hell if the doctrines of the tract distributor are not followed. Ordinary American Muslims are no different from ordinary Americans; they accept the reality of a cacophonous marketplace of competing religious ideas as—well, “normal.” 

Islamists, however, whether foreign or native-born, believe that the ultimate goal should be to establish a regime, here in the United States and everywhere else in the world, where the rule of law is not constitutional democracy but sharia, Islamic religious law. Under sharia, women are considered in legal terms half as valuable as men, and can be legally beaten by their husbands. Even more menacing, people who refuse to accept Islam as the sole legitimate religion, and convert to some other belief system, can be arrested and put to death. Many Islamists, including those members of al Qaeda who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, also want to see the creation of a global Islamic caliphate which would enforce the implementation of sharia all over the world. 

How do we know this? Two reasons. First, it’s made clear in all of the writings by self-confessed Islamists: the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, for example, who hardened in his hatred for American constitutional democracy while a visiting student in Colorado in 1949, and his fellow countryman and spiritual forebear Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Second, at the trial in 2007 of the Holy Land Foundation, a front-group fundraiser for Hamas, documents seized by the FBI linked the conspirators directly to the Muslim Brotherhood. That organization, though founded and headquartered in Egypt, is in fact an international network of activists with global aspirations. The Muslim Brotherhood (in Arabic, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) made it clear in those documents that they had far-reaching ambitions for the United States: 

The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad, in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and “sabotaging” its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.

Other documents reported that participants in discussions in 1991 thought they were engaged in a “civilizational jihad.” 

The word “terror” hadn’t even been mentioned by anyone at that point; indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the phrase “war on terror,” freely employed by George W. Bush, was as unhelpful in enabling us to recognize our real enemies as it would have been for Winston Churchill to have proclaimed that the British were fighting a war on Blitzkrieg. Of course, Churchill had no difficulty acknowledging that he and his fellow Britons were fighting the Nazis, for whom bombing English cities was merely one among many tools deployed in the war against British constitutional democracy. The difficulty for Americans today is that we are sensitized to the need not to offend other religions and have difficulty recognizing that some religions, including Islam, can form the basis of a political ideology aimed at destroying our liberties. 

A better American understanding of Islamism is not made easier by the refusal of the Obama White House to use terms like “jihad” or “Islamic” when describing people who engage in, well, terrorist activities that just happen to have been planned by Islamists. As The Grand Jihad makes clear, the Army investigation of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who gunned down 13 fellow Americans at Fort Hood last November, refused to acknowledge that he had been in contact with known advocates of Islamic terrorism against the United States, or that Islam had any role whatsoever in his motivation to commit murder. McCarthy pins down the meaning of jihad nicely as “not violence for its own sake. It is to pave the way for the imposition of sharia.” 

While making a coherent case for the enemy of our constitutional rights as being Islamism and its acolytes, McCarthy seems on less sure ground linking Islamic objectives to those of the left. True, “neocommunists” (one of whom he thinks is Barack Obama) subscribe to a hatred of capitalism, of individual liberty and of constitutional freedoms. It is true also that the left and Islam both subscribe to a utopian belief that their ideologies would lead to a perfect, or near-perfect, society. But much of what the left usually supports these days—gay marriage, for example, and generic feminism—falls within the domain of behaviors that Islamists would punish, sometimes with the death penalty. McCarthy is correct in asserting that “visions [of neocommunists and Islamists] coalesce: They are totalitarian, collectivist, and antithetical to the core conceit of American constitutional democracy, individual liberty.” Despite overlapping disdain for American freedoms, however, “neocommunists” don’t really subscribe to anything that Islamists would embrace. 

How many Islamists are there in the world? No one knows for sure, but there are probably more than we should be comfortable with. A 2007 opinion poll conducted by the University of Maryland found that nearly two-thirds of Muslims polled worldwide favor strict application of Islamic law in every Islamic country. About the same percentage said they would like to see all Muslim countries assembled under a single global caliphate. 

Is this a worrying figure? Well, it means that the developing global civilization that has been led by the West for two centuries seems ambivalent about whether it wants to embrace all the human and constitutional rights for which brave dissenters and brilliant statesmen struggled to hammer together our nation. And those rights, by osmosis, imitation, or mere cousinly sympathy, have since spread to much of the world.

To much of the world, that is, but clearly not to enough of it.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.

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