Cliff May

Despite that, Aboul-Enein argues that Islamism has “potential” as an “alternative to Militant Islamist Ideology.” His rationale: Islamists intend to achieve their objectives not through violence but “within the political and electoral frameworks of the countries in which they operate.”

This is where, in my view, he gets lost in the analytic woods. Islamists may prefer ballots to bullets. But is that because, as Aboul-Enein asserts, they “abhor the violent methodologies espoused by Militant Islamist”? Or is because they see elections as a less bumpy path to power?

Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, has said that Islam will “conquer Rome … not by the sword but by preaching.” But if you were to infer that he has a moral objection to violence, you’d be wrong. The proof: Qaradawi has praised Hitler for his “punishment” of the Jews, adding, “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”

What’s more, Aboul-Enein’s book is filled with examples of Islamists who became Militant Islamists – who picked up weapons when peaceful means failed to achieve the ends they sought, and who did so without remorse.

He devotes an entire chapter to Sayyid Qutb, who evolved from an Islamist intellectual into “perhaps the most influential Militant Islamist thinker of the late twentieth century.” Among the experiences that militarized Qutb: a fellowship in the U.S. in 1948-50. In the sleepy rural town of Greeley, Colorado, Qutb attended church socials where men and women danced together. Based on such shocking experiences, he developed an “utter contempt for American society, which he viewed as decadent.” (Given a chance to avoid execution in Nasser’s Egypt in 1966, Qutb told his sister: “My words will have more meaning if they execute me!”)

Aboul-Enein can’t quite decide whether Hamas, which is committed to the genocide of Israelis, “is an Islamist or Militant Islamist group.” He seems conflicted, also, in regard to Saudi Arabia, praising King Abdullah who, he writes, has “attacked terrorism, praised Saudi security forces in breaking cells, and exposed the realities of their ideology.”

However, Aboul-Enein also notes: “Saudis have unfortunately been heavily involved in Militant Islamist groups, even volunteering to fight American forces in Iraq.” And it was Saudi royals who gave refuge and teaching positions to such exiled Militant Islamists as Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad Qutb, and to Abdullah Azzam, whose slogan was “Jihad and the rifle alone.” Among their star students at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah was the young Osama bin Laden.

Aboul-Enein laments, too, the fact that “Saudi Islamist Wahhabism,” the ultra-orthodox variety of Islam that is the Kingdom’s state religion, is “colonizing Islam around the world through money and proselytizing” and that these efforts are changing “the character of Muslim nations such as Indonesia or Morocco, marginalizing Sufism or the Maliki school of Sunni Islam in North Africa” in ways that are “not in the long-term interest of the United States or other nations.”

Perhaps most difficult to square in Aboul-Enein’s analysis is simply this: On the first page of his book he describes Militant Islamists as Muslims who call for “the strictest possible interpretation of both the Qur’an (Muslim book of divine revelation) and the hadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s actions and deeds).” On the last page of his book, he endorses President George W. Bush’s charge that “Militant Islamists have hijacked Islam.” But can strictly interpreting Islamic scripture really be synonymous with hijacking Islam? If not, small wonder that so many American officials advised by Aboul-Enein and others sound confused.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.