Jeff Jacoby

For years, terrible and violent crimes have been committed in the name of Islam. Does that mean Islam is inherently a religion of terrible violence?

The scholar Daniel Pipes has long argued that it is a mistake to attribute the evils committed by Muslim supremacists and jihadist killers to Islam itself, or to the text of the Koran and the hadith, the religion's sacred scriptures. Like every great faith, Islam is what its adherents make of it. Today, many of those adherents are influenced by Islamism, the militant totalitarian version of Islam that emerged in the 20th century. The Islamist ascendancy is reflected in the savageries of al-Qaeda, the brutal misogyny of the Taliban, the apocalyptic hostility of the regime in Iran.

But just as the nightmare of the Third Reich was far from the totality of German culture and character, so Islam's 1,400-year history is not encapsulated by the violent ugliness of the present moment. In other eras, Muslim society was known for its learning, tolerance, and moderation. "If things can get worse, they can also get better," Pipes writes in the current issue of Commentary. As recently as 1969, when he began his career in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Islamist extremism was all but unknown in world affairs. "If Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline."

Since 9/11, Pipes has summarized his approach to the threat from Islamist terror and oppression with the maxim "Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution." Obviously radical Muslims disagree — but even Turkey's Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, often held out as the face of moderate political Islam, rejects the distinction, insisting that "Islam is Islam and that's it."

Many non-Muslims disagree, too. The prominent Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who wants the Koran to be banned in Holland, maintains that Islam and Islamism are "exactly the same" and that moderate Islam is "totally nonexistent." Islam is not a religion like Christianity or Judaism, Wilders told me in a 2009 interview. "It's an ideology that wants to dominate every aspect of society."

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for