[Flemming Rose interview:] The Threat of Islamism
by Flemming Rose
Translation of the original text: [Flemming Rose:] Truslen fra islamismen
Translations of this item:
According to Daniel Pipes, the Muslim world at the moment is trying, for the third time, to define itself in relation to the West. The two first attempts aimed at (or resulted in) imitating various aspects of the West. The third represents a totalitarian ideology, commensurate to fascism and communism.
Philadelphia – There is no name sign on the door, and it is locked. The visitor must pop in at a neighbor's to verify that the address is correct. Yes, that it is for sure. The Middle East Forum and Daniel Pipes are on the tenth floor of an anonymous skyscraper, just a stone's throw away from the building where the Fathers of the Nation assembled in 1787 to set down the country's foundation. Down on the street, a few middle-aged women are trudging away with voting posters in favor of John Kerry, who is in town to kick off the finish of his campaign. Pennsylvania is one of the so-called "swing states" that may well determine the outcome of the presidential election next Tuesday.
For Daniel Pipes himself, there is no doubt where his sympathy lies. He will vote for George W. Bush and describes himself as conservative. The 54-year-old historian, whose areas of special interest are the Middle East and the Middle Ages, has since 1994 headed the think tank "The Middle East Forum" which aims at "defining and facilitating American interests in the Middle East." Pipes spoke and wrote about the threat of Islamists long before September 11. Already in 1995 he observed that they had initiated an undeclared war on the U.S. and Europe.
Pipes' voice is so quiet that it is almost drowned out by the buzzing noise of the air conditioner in the modest office, but nevertheless, this voice, soft as velvet, has caused an uproar in academic, left-wing and certain Muslim circles. When Pipes talks about militant Islam at universities, his critics threaten with uproar and boycott. His appointment last year by President Bush to the board of the government's think tank, US Institute of Peace, triggered great clamor, and it is not coincidental that there is no name sign on the front door of the think tank's office.
A totalitarian ideology
For 20 years, Pipes has written and talked about militant Islam as a totalitarian ideology, commensurate to fascism and communism. His perspective on ideas, history and politics does not stem from far away. Daniel Pipes' father is Richard Pipes, one of the 20th century's foremost experts on Russian and Soviet history, who, opposed to the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, insisted on the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime and its hostile attitude towards the liberal democracies of the West.
The son recognizes his father's influence. "The Islamists' agenda is way different from that of communists or fascists. It is about belief, and as opposed to communism and fascism, they don't have large countries such as the Soviet Union or Germany behind them; but if you look at their methods and their goals, the likenesses are striking," Daniel Pipes says. "All three ideologies are radical utopias which, at their core, have a theory for how the human race can be improved. No more, no less. All three are dominated by a small, chosen elite that shall bring substance to the great idea. They are ready to resort to all conceivable means; they are true believers, fanatics, and they don't hesitate to resort to force and brutality to accomplish their project. They do not respect other perspectives and wish to control all areas of life. Once they have succeeded in one country, their ambition is to extend their control to other [countries]", he adds. "It makes sense to look at the current conflict between the civilized world and militant Islam in the light of the two earlier confrontations with communism and fascism. One we managed to defeat in a total war over a relatively short period of time, whereas the other conflict, the Cold War, lasted for decades. In this third confrontation, militant Islam is the challenge. The core of militant Islamic ideology is hidden in the expression "al-Islam huwwa al-hall", which means: Islam is the solution. No matter the context - education, upbringing, romance, work, public or private matters - Islam has the answer. This is a recipe for a totalitarian ideology."
Other than terror
Daniel Pipes' fascination with Islam and the Middle East started when he lived in Egypt in the early 1970s. Back then, he did not perceive Islamism as a threat. That did not happen until the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the assassination of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat two years later and a surge of violations of American interests in the region.
Pipes thinks that it is misleading to speak of the current conflict with Islamists as a war against terror. He points out that wrong definitions and terms lead to erroneous proposals for a solution. When President Bush cites the numbers of killed Al Qaida leaders to state how well the war on terror is going, he misses the point. "It does not say anything - or at least very little. It is a euphemism, a paraphrase, to speak of a "terror threat" or a "war against terror". Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. We don't say either, here in the U.S., that the Second World War was against sneak attacks. It was a war against fascism", argues Pipes.
Moderates must be supported
He stresses that the conflict is not directed at Islam as a personal belief, but at militant Islam, an aggressive political ideology striving for the establishment of Islamic law, sharia, throughout the world. This difference bears in it the seed of the conflict's solution. "If militant Islam is the problem, then the opposite, namely moderate Islam, must be the solution," Daniel Pipes concludes. "I don't mean to say that Islam, once and for all, is condemned to be on a collision course with the modern world. The majority of Muslims do not wish to live the sort of life as under the Taliban in Afghanistan. We have millions of Muslims on our side. If you look deeply into this matter, the current conflict is one that must be fought out and won within the Muslim world." According to Daniel Pipes, it is now important to find alternative leaders and ideas that can take up the fight against militant Islam. "In the confrontations with fascism and communism, we were victorious because we managed to marginalize the enemy's ideology, making it look repulsive in the eyes of the majority. In 1991, the Soviet leaders no longer believed in their system. We are also obliged to convince the Islamists of the fact that they are wrong. We have to find alternative leaders in the Islamic world, in the same way that Konrad Adenauer emerged in Germany and Boris Yeltsin in Russia. There are two steps: on the one hand, we must overthrow the ideology by force of arms and by means of education, media, and information; and on the other hand, we must support anti-Islamist Muslims, who wish to keep their faith, but do not wish to live under Islamic law - in much the same way that we supported anti-Communists and anti-Nazis in the Soviet Union and Germany respectively. In the end, it is a battle between two conceptions of the Muslims' place in the world."
Not the true nature of Islam
Daniel Pipes recognizes that the current situation does not exactly give rise to optimism, but he is nevertheless convinced that the Muslim world will, sooner or later, define itself in a positive way in relation to the modern world. "The current situation does not originate in the true nature of Islam. In principle, Judaism is also a law-shaped religion, just like Islam, but it has managed to coexist with modern life. Islam's current situation is the result of a historical development. If you and I were having this conversation in the 1930s, we would have pointed at Germany's and Japan's problems with modern life, but those were temporary. We may also have focused on the Turk leader Kemal Atatürk's attempt to build an alternative secular model for the Islamic world. Unfortunately, at the moment this idea is not considered very attractive in the Middle East. The ideas of the Islamists sound much more timely and attractive," Pipes explains.
A third attempt
Pipes subsequently delivers a cram course in the history of the Islamic world. "During the first 600 years of the history of Islam, being a Muslim was like playing on a winning team. It was an advanced society that got along well, materially as well as spiritually. It was a rich, powerful and healthy world. During the next 600 years, the Islamic world shut itself in and lost all connection to what happened elsewhere, not least in Europe. When Muslims in the 19th century discovered the wealth and power of the West, they asked themselves, perplexed and shocked: What went wrong, and how do we fix it? During the first 120-130 years, i.e., until the 1930s, they tried to imitate the liberal West, most of all France and Great Britain. During the next 60 years, on the contrary, they tried to imitate the non-liberal West, i.e. fascist and communist movements. Today, for the third time, they try to respond to the challenge of the West, and this time they have turned to early, non-liberal Islam. This also shall have its time and fail, and then they will try something different again. I believe that the next attempt will resemble the first one - the imitation of the liberal West – more closely than the other two", says Pipes with moderate optimism.
But this should not give us reason to lean back and wait for things to happen by themselves, Pipes thinks. He is amazed that Europe is not more alarmed about the challenge that Islam poses, considering plummeting birth rates and a weakened perception of its own history and culture. "This is one of the biggest stories of our time. The reactions in Europe are bafflingly relaxed. There is much denial at work. It is paradoxical that Muslims, coming from countries that are weaker in economic and political terms, within rich and strong Europe show more cultural ambition than the Europeans themselves. That baffles me as an American. Europe has been the driving force of history throughout the past 500 years, but now it looks as though that era has come to a close. Here in the U.S., the situation is far less dramatic." According to Daniel Pipes, Muslims do not account for more than about one percent of the (U.S.) population, 3 to 4 million people, and their social status differs from that in Europe. "There are groups calling for Islam in schools and intimidating politicians and Muslims who insist on their right to freedom of speech. Militant Islam has an extensive non-violent agenda. Muslims in the U.S. consist of two groups, immigrants and Americans converted to Islam. Muslim immigrants have a higher social and economic status than they have in Europe. There are doctors, engineers and others with a professional education, making serious money."
Daniel Pipes has fallen out with a large part of the academic world. He is critical of much of the research undertaken in Middle East Studies and thinks it has neglected or ignored important movements, while in other areas it has too quickly ascribed a modernizing or democratizing effect to the fundamentalists. It has, he thinks, often politicized with a (liability to) penchant for a left-wing twist. "Left-wingers are dissatisfied with the societies formed in the West, while conservatives are content. The discontent and feelings of guilt among left-wingers often make them go too far in their accommodation of opponents. They seek understanding and compromise, whereas conservatives are more inclined to take on a confrontation. People in Middle East studies have not perceived the hostile and violent elements in radical Islam. They have ignored Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, widespread anti-Semitism, slavery in Sudan, cultural repression of Berbers in North Africa, and they have attempted to convey the impression that the word jihad means something entirely different than military efforts to extend Islam's territory. Some even believe that jihad is about becoming a better person. As if Palestinian Islamic Jihad uses the word in the sense of becoming better men."
Biographical facts ("Blue Book")
Daniel Pipes, 54 years. Educated in history at Harvard University. He has held positions in the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense. Since 1994, he has concentrated on the operation of the think tank "Middle East Forum", as well as on an unusually popular website, www.danielpipes.org, that receives more than 2 million hits per year. Pipes also has 20.000 subscribers to a free newsletter on the web. He established the Middle East Forum at his home with two friends, but today his office is run from a select address in central Philadelphia, has 15 employees, and a budget of more than 1 million dollars. Pipes has authored 12 books, the latest being Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics.
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