Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute began a debate with me on the subject of lawful Islamists in a June 2007 piece titled "Pipes v. Gershman," to which I responded on July 6, 2007 at "When Conservatives Argue about Islam." Muravchik initiated a second round in February 2008 with an article (co-authored with Charles P. Szrom), "In Search of Moderate Muslims."
Here is my reply to the latter, in the form of a letter to the editor of Commentary magazine, published in the May issue. The following version differs in many small ways from the published one; in three places, where the print version differed substantially from my original text, I added square brackets to show the contrast:
To the Editor:
As a contributor to your pages since 1979, I write unhappily to defend myself from an article in Commentary. But, to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, I suppose magazines have no eternal allies; so, reply I must to Joshua Muravchik and Charles P. Szrom's "In Search of Moderate Muslims," in the February 2008 issue.
[Print version: As a contributor to COMMENTARY since 1979, I write unhappily to defend myself from Joshua Muravchik and Charles P. Szrom's arguments against me in "In Search of Moderate Muslims."]
In policy terms, there are, broadly speaking, three kinds of Muslims. Violent Islamists, we all agree, are the enemy; in contrast, moderate, pro-Western, anti-Islamist Muslims are unarguably allies. Non-violent Islamists, however, represent the murky in-between. Policy battles royal have already taken place over them, with many more to come. Tariq Ramadan provides a useful symbol of this disagreement: excluded from the United States on account of his support for terrorism, he is employed by the British government in its "roadshow" to dissuade Muslim youth from terrorism.
Official U.S. government policy since 1992 has been to treat these non-violent Islamists (whom I prefer to call lawful Islamists) as friends. Liberals widely adopt this position, but a number of conservatives have also promoted it, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Reuel Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, Robert Leiken of the Nixon Center, and, of course, Muravchik and Szrom.
To make their case more convincingly, these advocates whitewash lawful Islamists; [Print version: But such advocates of dialogue can succumb to whitewashing the records of the Islamists.] thus do Muravchik and Szrom dub Kamran Bokhari a "former Islamist." But a closer look reveals he is actually a "former violent Islamist" who is today a lawful Islamist. He has journeyed merely from overt to covert enmity.
Muravchik and Szrom take issue with my term "moderate Muslim," calling it "perhaps unfortunate," and equating it with people who are "not too Islamic." But that is not what I mean by "moderate." Moderate Islam is fully Islamic, though not Islamist. It implies not a lesser quantity or quality of piety but an Islam at odds with the fundamentalists, radicals, literalists, Salafists, and other assorted extremists. By analogy, moderate leftists – Social-Democrats, Labourites, even Titoites – served as U.S. allies in the Cold War. Stalinism, like Islamism, represented a novelty, or in Islamic terms, bid`a.
Muravchik and Szrom also dislike my formulation that "mak[ing] a distinction between the mainstream Islamists and the fringe ones [is] like making a distinction between mainstream Nazis and fringe Nazis. They're all Nazis, they're all the enemy." Instead, they suggest that had there been Nazis "who clearly rejected violence. … Would they not have been meaningfully distinguishable from Hitler's crew?"
Such Nazis did not exist, but such communists did, so let us revert again to that analogy: Soviet and French parties differed deeply in their readiness to rely on brute force, but they shared a common goal and ultimately stood on the same side in the Cold War. To invest in lawful Islamists would be as foolish as having helped French reds seize power.
Muravchik and Szrom's gratuitous attack on the Center for Islamic Pluralism, a three-year old organization I helped put together, particularly dismayed me. Establishing the CIP required a full year of due diligence to ensure that it included only true moderates. To dismiss this small but worthy organization as "largely a one-man operation run by Stephen Schwartz, a former Trotskyist" is both offensive and inaccurate.
Indeed, Josh well knows its inaccuracy, having been critiqued by a joint letter signed by seven CIP members. He responded to it with a probing letter to 4 of the 7 co-signatories that attempted to pry them away from Schwartz. All four strongly rebuffed him, some with great verve. (The full correspondence can be found on the CIP website, at "The CIP-Muravchik File, 2007.")
[Print version: Indeed, Mr. Muravchik well knows its inaccuracy—a previous such swipe of his was subjected to criticism in a letter signed by seven CIP members. His subsequent attempt to pry them away from Schwartz was strongly rebuffed. (The full correspondence can be found on the CIP website.)]
The personal attacks on Schwartz also perturb me, so I offer two facts in his defense. His book, The Two Faces of Islam (2003) was banned in Malaysia, suggesting that he threatens Wahhabism in ways that Muravchik, Carl Gershman, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy do not. Also, about the time that Josh wrote a wide-eyed account of his "Saudi sojourn" as a guest of the sheikhs, Schwartz was working with the American Jewish Committee to organize two trips of moderate Muslims to Israel.
I hope Joshua Muravchik and Commentary will re-discover their stalwart and eloquent voices of old and re-enlist in the ranks of those who are fighting today's ideological enemy. It suits neither to be aligned with the accommodating left; and their current actions damage what I still hope is our joint cause.
Middle East Forum
Muravchik then begins the third round in his response to the above. Time availing, I will in turn answer him. (May 1, 2008)
July 8, 2008 update: Muravchik just now circulated a paper he presented to the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in May, "Islamism and Democracy." In it, he gives an unexpectedly realistic and thoughtful look at the relationship between these two ideologies, finding that "The two cannot easily be reconciled." He even calls Islamism a political program "surely the enemy of freedom, and probably of democracy, too." He concludes the talk by noting that "Islamism seems the ideology least conducive to the growth of freedom and democracy in the Muslim world,"
Comment: If Muravchik sees the problems inherent in Islamism, why then does he so strenuously apologize for Islamists?