Cliff May

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has described the Muslim Brotherhood as “secular.” Vice President Joseph Biden recently said the Taliban “is not our enemy.” According to John Brennan, assistant to the President for counterterrorism, terrorists who proclaim they are motivated by religion should not be described using “religious terms.” Where do such ideas come from? In large measure from advisors -- so perhaps it would be instructive to examine more closely what those advisors are actually saying.

U.S. Navy Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein “has advised at the highest levels of the defense department and the intelligence community” according to the jacket notes on his book, “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” published by the Naval Institute Press. Raymond Ibrahim, a young analyst for whom I have great respect, recently gave the book a withering review. My reading is less harsh. I think CDR Aboul-Enein, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Saudi Arabia, is grappling, seriously and sincerely, with the pathologies that have arisen from within the Muslim world and struggling to formulate a coherent American response. That should not suggest that his efforts have been entirely successful.

Aboul-Enein states that the “challenge to America’s national security in the twenty-first century” comes from “Militant Islamist Ideology.” Good for him for not defaulting to “violent extremism,” a term designed to hide rather than to reveal. He urges that policy makers adopt a “nuanced” approach to this challenge -- one that “disaggregates” Militant Islamism from both Islam and Islamism.

To charge that “all Islam is evil,” he says, is a mistake. For many Muslims, Islam is “a source of values that guide conduct rather than a system that offers solutions to all problems.” It is no less incorrect, he adds – with more intellectual honesty than many other analysts have demonstrated -- to “insist that all Islam is peaceful.” Islamic scripture provides ample justifications for hating, oppressing and killing non-Muslims. But it is neither accurate nor productive, he argues, to confirm the militants’ claim that theirs is the only authentic interpretation of Islam – that Muslims not waging a “jihad” against “infidels” are, at best, misguided; at worst, traitors to their faith.

As for Islamists, he confirms that they seek “unacceptable outcomes for the United States in the long run.” Allow me to offer one example: Muhammad Badi, Supreme Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said last year that that Muslims should strive for “a government evolving into a rightly guided caliphate and finally mastership of the world.”

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.