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The Ideology Whose Name Presidents Dare Not Speak

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Is there a “Bush/Obama approach” to talking about what drives and justifies terrorism? Michael Gerson says there is. I think he’s right. He argues that this approach is preferable to other options. I think he’s wrong.


Mr. Gerson, you’ll recall, was one of President George W. Bush’s top advisors and speech writers. Now a columnist for the Washington Post, he is smart, thoughtful and articulate. In his column last week he asserted that no president can be expected even to suggest a link between Islam and the kinds of attacks and atrocities taking place with increasing frequency in a growing number of countries – Denmark and Libya (also, with less publicity, Chad and Niger) most recently among them.

“Most of those urging Obama to assert that Islam is somehow especially flawed among the great faiths have never been closer to power than a fuse box,” Mr. Gerson chided. “There is no possible circumstance in which a president could say such a thing.”

He added: “Those who long for greater clarity in describing the peculiarly Islamic nature of terrorism should also be clear about something else. They are proposing a fundamental shift in the rhetorical strategy of the war against terrorism.”

Count me among them. A rhetorical strategy that obscures rather than illuminates can only lead to public confusion and incoherent policy-making – exactly what we have now. Anxious not to give offense to peace-loving Muslims, we’ve refused to identify -- much less seriously examine -- the ideology of bellicose Muslims, those waging what they call a jihad against infidels.

And so last week after jihadis slaughtered 21 Christians in Libya, President Obama referred to the victims only as “Egyptian citizens.” The Jews murdered in Paris last month were just “a bunch of folks,” random victims in the wrong “deli” at the wrong time. And this week the White House is hosting a “Summit on Violent Extremism.” The comedic potential would be enormous were the stakes not so high.


Is it really so hard to tell the truth in a way that doesn’t tar all Muslims with a terrorist brush? One reason I don’t think so: Three years ago, Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born, Germany-based, “Arab-Muslim” political scientist, published “Islam and Islamism.” Based on four decades of research in Muslim lands, Dr. Tibi concluded that there is an ideology called “Islamism,” and that it is drawn from Islam’s sacred texts and traditions. Nevertheless, Dr. Tibi makes clear, it does not follow that “fighting Islamism is tantamount to declaring all of Islam a violent enemy.”

A quick story may help illustrate the point. Last week, I was on a television program. One of my fellow panelists was Dr. Faheem Younus, a proud Muslim and a proud American, an opponent of terrorism and an advocate for tolerance.

Dr. Younus was born in Pakistan, a nation established as a separate homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. He happens to a member of the Ahmadiyya community. Ahmadis have a heterodox reading of Islam. Because of that, the Pakistani government subjects them to discrimination and persecution. They are prohibited from “posing” as Muslims, referring publicly to their places of worship as “mosques,” seeking converts and publishing their religious materials.

So is Dr. Younus correct or incorrect when he says Islam is a religion of tolerance? The answer, of course, is both. Ahmadis like him are tolerant; the government of Pakistan – officially the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” -- not so much.


Beyond the government is the Pakistani Taliban which last Friday attacked a Shia mosque in Peshawar killing at least 19 people. That follows by two weeks a suicide bombing that killed 61 worshippers at a Shia mosque in Sindh. Taliban members are Sunnis who regard Shiites as heretics deserving of death.

Similarly, the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic and jihadist interpretation of Shia Islam. Iranians who do not regard him and his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as reliable expositors of Allah’s will are brutally suppressed.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood wear ties rather than turbans but they believe in what Dr. Tibi calls the “Islamist claim to supremacy (siyadat al-Islam),” the conviction that Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists are inferior and that their inferiority should be reflected under the law.

At a recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama told Christians not to get up on their “high horse” in light of all the “terrible deeds” committed “in the name of Christ.” What soft bigotry leads him to believe that while Christians should contemplate the link between their faith and the Inquisition, Muslims are incapable even of considering a connection between the Islamic State and the Islamic faith?

The world’s many Muslim communities are – for now at least – diverse. King Abdullah of Jordan is fighting jihadis just beyond his border. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is battling jihadis in the Sinai and, now in Libya.


The Muslims of Timbuktu practice a version of Islam tempered by centuries of African culture. That’s why, when al Ansar Dine jihadis invaded in 2012, they immediately set about destroying the ancient city’s mosques, shrines and tombs.

And millions of Muslims in America and Europe would rather practice a Westernized Islam than live in an Islamized West.

This is a complicated reality. But it is not without precedent. In the 20th century hateful ideologies based on racial supremacy grew from European soil. Some Europeans embraced them, some remained neutral -- others helped defeat them. Today hateful ideologies based on religious supremacy have emerged from the deserts of the Middle East. Some Muslims embrace them, some remain neutral -- others will help defeat them. President Bush could have said that. President Obama still has a chance.

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