Cliff May
Google “Islamist” and you’ll get more than 24 million hits. Google “jihadist” and you’ll get millions more. Yet I bet the average American could not tell you what it is that Islamists and jihadists believe. And those at the highest levels of the U.S. government refuse to do so.

Why? John Brennan, the top counterterrorism adviser in the White House, argues that it is “counterproductive” to describe America’s “enemy as ‘jihadists’ or ‘Islamists’ because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children.” To describe terrorists using “religious terms,” he adds, would “play into the false perception” that the “murderers” waging unconventional war against the West are doing so in the name of a “holy cause.”

I get it. I understand why it would be useful to convince as many of the world’s more than a billion Muslims as possible that Americans are only attempting to defend themselves against “violent extremists.” By now, however, it should be obvious that this spin — one can hardly call it analysis — has spun out. The unpleasant fact is that there is an ideology called Islamism and, as Yale professor Charles Hill recently noted, it “has been on the rise for generations.”

So we need to understand it. We need to understand how Islamism has unfolded from Islam, and how it differs from traditional Islam as practiced in places as far-flung and diverse as Kuala Lumpur, Erbil, and Timbuktu. This is what Bassam Tibi attempts in his most recent book, published this year, Islamism and Islam. It has received nowhere near the attention it deserves.

A Koret Foundation Senior Fellow at Stanford University, Tibi describes himself as an “Arab-Muslim pro-democracy theorist and practitioner.” Raised in Damascus, he has “studied Islam and its civilization for four decades, working in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa.” His research has led him to this simple and stark conclusion: “Islamism is a totalitarian ideology.” And just as there cannot be “democratic totalitarianism,” so there cannot be “democratic Islamism.”

Cliff May

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