The Magazine

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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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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