'Militant Islam Reaches America': Naming the Evildoers
by Judith Miller
New York Times Book Review
September 29, 2002
MILITANT ISLAM REACHES AMERICA
By Daniel Pipes
309 pages. W.W. Norton. $25.95.
The often bitter debate that raged among academics and national security analysts over whether militant Islam -- or "Islamism," as it became known -- threatened the United States presumably should have ended on 9/11. President Bush's warning to movements and nations that they were either with us or against us implied a worldwide campaign not just against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also against other Islamist groups that aimed to replace their own governments with Islamic states, that is, states ruled by Shariah, or Islamic law, as the Islamists defined it.
Bush's words alarmed many militant Islamic groups within the United States. Having denounced American policies and values before 9/11, and encouraged fellow Muslims to donate money to "charities" that financed terrorism abroad, they rushed to condemn the attacks, calling themselves patriots and stressing that Islam stood for peace. But even though Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for and received extraordinary investigative powers of questionable constitutionality, most of these militants need not have worried. The administration has resisted defining militant Islam as the enemy, particularly at home. Bush has been vague about the identity of America's enemies. They were not militant Muslims, nor Islamists who espoused violence, but generic "evildoers," "parasites," those "motivated by hate."
This vagueness is at the heart of the problem Daniel Pipes identifies in "Militant Islam Reaches America," a collection of essays he has written over the past decade. A scholar of the Middle East as well as a habitual polemicist, Pipes argues, in effect, that by failing to identify and target Islamism itself, particularly Islamism within America, the administration misses the point. Since the aim of all Islamists is to install autocratic, anti-Western theocracies in their quasi-secular countries, it does not matter whether they espouse peaceful or violent methods. Democracy for them is simply another means to an end. Once in power, he warns, Islamists would reject democracy, oppose other theological and intellectual views, restrict rights for women and religious minorities, ruin the economies of their countries and oppose Israel, world Jewry, the United States and the West.
In this harsh assessment, Pipes is supported by the miserable record of the militant Islamic regimes in Iran and Sudan, and formerly in Afghanistan -- the only places where Islamism has triumphed. He quotes Ali Belhadj, a leader of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, which was poised to win elections in 1992: "When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling." Such blunt statements encouraged Algeria's middle class to permit the army to cancel elections and accept harsh military rule, which continues to this day. An estimated 100,000 Algerians have been killed so far in the struggle.
Pipes is careful to distinguish between Islam, the faith practiced by over a billion Muslims, and Islamism, which he calls a 20th-century totalitarian ideology. He argues persuasively that scholars and officials should emphasize the differences -- that "the great majority" of Muslims disagree with the premises of militant Islam; that the United States should seek neither a "clash of civilizations" (a notion he rejects) nor a confrontation with Islam itself.
He also disagrees with many scholars and commentators -- Fouad Ajami, Olivier Roy and this reviewer, among others -- who have argued that the militant Islamic trend represented by Osama bin Laden has crested, at least in most Arab lands. On the contrary, he says, Islamism has been "on the ascendant for a full quarter-century," and is becoming ever more so.
Pipes often highlights similarities between the structure and methods of the Islamist groups and those of the fascists and Communists. While he cautions against seeing them as equivalent, his message seems to be that the new Islamic man should be combated with tactics similar to those employed during the cold war. He ignores the cost of America's obsession with Communism -- the perilous flirtation with nuclear annihilation, the violation of civil rights and liberties at home, the often mindless embrace abroad of any movement, however corrupt or autocratic -- including militant Islamist groups -- if it agreed to join the United States in its fight against the Soviet Union.
Complicit in Islamism's rise, Pipes argues, are the moderate Muslims, who have been silenced by the radicals with a combination of carrots and sticks. He cites not only the financial support that Saudi Arabia and others have provided to the militants, but also the Islamists' intimidation and murder of several of their most articulate critics. But surely the roots of modern Muslim passivity run deeper. Pipes pays too little attention to this key issue, which is a pity, since he argues that supporting moderate Islamic voices is critical to Islamism's defeat.
Close analysis, however, is not Pipes's goal. Unless we focus the war against terror on Islamism, and especially on the Islamists in the United States, he insists, the militants will triumph. Efforts by the two previous administrations to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Islamists -- though understandable given Washington's fear of offending Muslims in general -- were, in his view, self-defeating. He argues persuasively that Washington, in effect, ignored, and even courted, Islamic groups that knowingly fostered terrorism abroad, as long as they remained peaceful within the United States.
Pipes is at his best on the attack. He convincingly demonstrates that militants have gained legitimacy with the help of "bad advice" given to the United States government by Islamically correct scholars. In another essay he maintains that Islamism is not caused by poverty, citing Saudi Arabia, and he also shows how the Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan has fueled anti-Semitism among black Americans.
Still another essay deplores the extent to which some of the nation's most prominent -- or most vocal -- Islamic groups have defended and endorsed violence against Israeli civilians and used American freedoms to promote the Islamist agenda within the United States. But such sentiments are constitutionally protected speech and should not be confused with support for terrorism, a distinction that Pipes sometimes seems to blur. At the same time, his discussion of the extent to which Islamic groups have defended, and even praised, the criminal escapades of Jamil Al-Amin, better known to Americans over 50 as H. Rap Brown, should give readers concern. So, too, should his description of the government's inept, if ultimately successful, investigation of a Hezbollah cell in North Carolina.
Blunt and passionate, Pipes's book is occasionally inconsistent, and its policy recommendations sometimes appear ill considered. He endorses ethnic profiling -- "if it is true that most Muslims are not Islamists, it is no less true that all Islamists are Muslims" -- but he fails to discuss its potential dangers. And though he claims to respect Islam and its adherents, he finds that in the war on terror, "all Muslims, unfortunately, are suspect."
Pipes's intemperate tone can be forgiven because for over a decade now he has been one of the few scholars who have bravely warned of the Islamist threat, and he was often ridiculed for his alarm. Nevertheless, his prescriptions for what he calls the world's most dangerous movement barely mention the need to defend America's secularism, or the extent to which secular laws, values and traditions are under attack not only by militant Muslims but also by the Bush administration and its allies on the Christian right.
And Pipes devotes scant attention to Israel and the way in which Islamists have been able to capitalize on the outrage so many Muslims feel about what is happening to the Palestinians. While he is correct in arguing that a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute would not destroy Islamism or deflect Islamists' animosity toward Jews, it is worth noting that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Palestinian Islamist groups were deeply disconcerted by the 1993 Oslo peace accords between the Palestinians and Israelis. Islamism does not exist in a political vacuum.
In this book, Pipes provides what he believes are pragmatic ways to deter and contain Islam's militant trend -- like revising our immigration laws and watching our borders more closely -- while not alienating mainstream Muslims. But he cannot avoid raising the question of whether the problem of Islamism is inherent in Islam itself -- a profound issue on which this book does not dwell. The unpleasant fact is that no Muslim societies offer their people rule of law, economic development and active civil participation. Those that come closest, like Turkey and Malaysia, are the ones that have often brutally enforced secularism. While this is not Pipes's subject, even he cannot resist observing that the "hard work of adjusting Islam to the contemporary world has yet really to begin." Why that should be so remains to be explored.
Judith Miller is a senior writer for The Times and an author, with Stephen Engelberg and William J. Broad, of "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War."