Cliff May

As for “legitimate Islamism,” that is meant to imply the Muslim Brotherhood whose members may indeed believe that elections are preferable to violence as a path to power. But if the Brothers differ with the jihadis over means, they sing from the same hymnal when it comes to ends. Both believe in Islamic supremacy; both are committed to the establishment of Islamic hegemony over the Middle East and, eventually, well beyond; both seek the power to silence critics at home and abroad; both are engaged in persecuting religious minorities in “Muslim lands”; both are committed to the destruction of Israel, the only Middle Eastern nation not ruled by Muslims.

And, as Andy McCarthy recounts in “The Grand Jihad,” American Muslim Brothers meeting in Philadelphia in 1991 produced an internal memorandum candidly proclaiming their mission: “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house …” Should we really be calling this “legitimate Islamism” -- and should we really be comfortable with it?

There are those who predict that the Islamists taking power in Egypt and elsewhere will become pragmatic once they have to pay bills, fill potholes and curry favor with voters. But that has not happened in Iran over the past 33 years – much as we’ve tried, from time to time, to convince ourselves such a transition was at hand. Nor has it happened in Pakistan and Turkey – both have become increasingly Islamized in recent years.

Others scholars -- my friend and colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht prominent among them -- argue that Islamism should be seen as a way station rather than a destination. They argue that Muslim-majority societies will learn soon enough that it’s not true that “Islam is the answer” to all the vexing questions of economic and societal organization. Once that happens, they predict, a process of liberalization and democratization will commence. But what is the basis for the belief that the Islamists will allow themselves to be voted out of power? Again, that’s not been possible for Iranians who, ample evidence suggests, long ago became disenchanted with theocracy.

That brings us to the most egregious way in which our thinking has been befogged. In 2009, President Obama visited Fort Hood to honor the 13 Americans massacred by Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army officer who proclaimed himself a “Soldier of Allah.” The Americans who were gunned down, Obama said, “did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great state and the heart of this great American community. This is the fact that makes the tragedy even more painful, even more incomprehensible.”

Such incomprehensibility not only persists – it is being reinforced by official U.S. policy. Last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered all military schools to make sure they are not including “anti-Islamic themes” in training courses. Dempsey’s order prohibits instructors and guest lecturers from “advocating ideas, beliefs and actions that are … disrespectful of the Islamic religion.”

Imagine if, during the 1930s, the U.S. government had prohibited ideas, beliefs and actions that might be seen as disrespectful of the German, Italian and Japanese nations. What if, during the Cold War, there had been a ban against ideas, beliefs and actions that could be seen as disrespectful of Russian culture – or of socialism since most socialists are not “violent extremists”?

To see through the fog of war, Clausewitz wrote, requires “a fine, piercing mind.” He probably took for granted that it also requires intellectual courage – something not often exhibited by Western leaders in the current era.


Cliff May

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