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The Wolf in the Door
by James S. Robbins
National Review
November 25, 2002

MILITANT ISLAM REACHES AMERICA
By Daniel Pipes
309 pages. W.W. Norton. $25.95.

On September 13, 2002, southern Florida was closed down after a Shoney's customer told police she suspected that three of her fellow diners were Islamist terrorists. On the same day, FBI agents broke up a bona fide al-Qaeda sleeper ring operating out of Lackawanna, N.Y. People wishing to make sense of both events would do well to consult this new book by Daniel Pipes -- an extraordinarily useful compendium of basic information and analysis that is easily readable by the non-specialist, yet engaging for scholars as well.

Pipes is a non-Muslim writing for non-Muslims, and he achieves objectivity by being respectful without fawning. He brings forward copious quotations from those he criticizes, allowing them to make their own cases in their own -- sometimes shocking -- words. The book is a collection of essays written between 1994 and 2002 -- some of which originally appeared in National Review -- and they stand up very well; in fact, events have made them timelier. The book supplies the reader with an intellectual framework within which to assess the frequently unspoken -- and sometimes erroneous -- premises that underlie public discussions of terrorism. Like a good professor, Pipes poses questions the inquisitive person has yet to frame; he anticipates lines of inquiry and guides the reader to sound conclusions backed by solid research.

In the first half of the book, Pipes draws a strong -- and crucial -- distinction between Islam, the religious faith, and militant Islam (or Islamism), which he calls "the most vibrant and coherent ideological movement in the world today." This is no small point: Criticism of Islamism is regularly mistaken for an assault on Islam in general, when in fact Islamism is not a religion but a sociopolitical belief system, based on -- but separate from -- the Muslim faith. The tenets of Islamism are derived from a radical reading of the Koran as a blueprint for social order, not as a guide to individual piety. It is a revolutionary vision, the practical expression of which is Taliban-style totalitarianism. Moreover, as with any other extreme ideology, the fact that it is the fervent ideal only of a dedicated minority is no barrier to its being foisted on a society unable or unwilling to defend itself. The threat of Islamism cannot be measured in mere numbers (only an estimated 10-15 percent of Muslims actually are Islamists) but must be judged against its adherents' dedication, persistence, and willingness to engage in violence.

Pipes outlines the primary characteristics of Islamism: It is utopian, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and unwilling to coexist with other belief systems. Pipes observes that one critical failing of the West is not taking seriously public statements that reflect these traits. The Western liberal mind tends to discount the Islamists' more radical utterances as mere motivational boilerplate, and thus not a good guide to understanding Islamism. As 9/11 has shown, however, when the Islamists speak it is worth listening. They are, if nothing else, sincere.

Pipes is very effective in dissecting another widespread notion: the alleged link between poverty and Islamist extremism. This belief is repeated almost without question or challenge in the media and the academy. Yet Osama bin Laden was raised in luxury, and a profile of the 9/11 hijackers would lead one to conclude that the average suicide terrorist is a well-educated middle- to upper-middle-class twentysomething with good career prospects. In any case, Islamism in practice will not cure poverty and does not even promise to. It does not promote living well but rather living righteously. Islamist economics reads like utopian socialism in theory, and in practice is akin to Soviet economics without the vodka.

In the second half of the book, Pipes turns to the issue of the status of Islam -- and Islamist networks -- in the United States. His thesis in this section is that the U.S., in a creditable attempt to show tolerance of Islam as a faith, has practiced a form of unilateral disarmament on the ideological front, and given militant Islam a privileged status no other such ideology would enjoy. The author offers a frank discussion of the difficulties one encounters in trying to have a reasonable discussion about Islamism in America: Self-appointed defenders of the interests of the Muslim faith are quick to hurl charges of bigotry. Pipes singles out the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based interest group, for its "bare-knuckled" approach to silencing critics of Islamic radicals. (Other religious faiths are considered fair game, as was evident in the recent flood of negative coverage given the Catholic Church over the actions of a small number of criminal priests.) Pipes gives details of his own confrontations with CAIR. He has accused the group of having links to Hamas -- a view supported by Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former FBI associate director for investigative and counterintelligence operations, who has described CAIR as having had "intertwined membership" with "a front organization for Hamas that engages in propaganda for Islamic militants." In response to these accusations, CAIR has set up a webpage dedicated to denouncing Pipes.

This ideological struggle will continue to trouble the U.S. after al-Qaeda is neutralized and its members are dead or in prison. The Muslim faith is growing, and, to the extent that recent Muslim converts tend to gravitate to the Islamist doctrine, this becomes a matter of public concern. The Islamists have a decided advantage in morale, thanks to their unselfconscious spirit of moral rightness; when this is translated into a willingness to kill those who disagree, it becomes a serious national-security threat. In order to come to grips with this challenge, we have to appreciate that the war of ideas is not between competing religious faiths, but between contrasting and mutually exclusive visions of society. You may be convinced that "it" -- a Muslim theocracy -- can't happen here, but thousands of devoted Muslim militants are working hard to prove you wrong.

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