After years of effort to promote the myth of a post-9/11 backlash against American Muslims, the left is breaking some new ground in the debate about terror. Instead of merely trying to make Americans feel guilty about defending themselves against radical Islamists, they have a new goal: banning the use of the term “moderate Muslim.”
That’s the conceit of a piece in the New Republic by Georgetown University’s Nathan Lean in which he argues that to attempt to differentiate between Islamists who seek to pursue a war on the West and those Muslims who wish to live in peace with non-Muslims is itself an act of prejudice. For Lean, any effort to ascertain whether Muslims are supportive of the radical ideologues that have supported not only al-Qaeda but also other Islamist terror movements is wrong because it feeds the “Islamophobia” which he believes is at the core of all Western attitudes toward Muslims. In doing so, he is attempting not only to discourage efforts to combat the radicals but to delegitimize those Muslims who choose to speak up against the Islamists.
Lean’s problem with the term stems from the criteria that he thinks are used to ascertain whether a Muslim is one of the many millions who support radical terror groups or subscribe to an ideology of perpetual war on the West whether or not they personally pursue violence. According to Lean, the best way to win the title of “moderate” is:
By supporting Western foreign policies in the Middle East, cheering continued military aid to Israel, and even rejecting certain Islamic tenets.
That definition tells us more about Lean’s belief that the U.S. shouldn’t be waging a pro-active effort to fight Islamist terrorists abroad and his animus for Israel than anything about Muslims. But by seeking to discredit the attempt, as he put it, to divide the Muslim world into “good” and “bad” types, he is attempting to both deny that there is a large segment of that population that support the radicals while simultaneously treating their beliefs as normative and inoffensive.
This is, of course, ludicrous. Violent Islamism is not the figment of a paranoid Western imagination or the preserve of an infinitesimal minority. It is backed, whether actively or passively, by huge segments of the Muslim population in the Middle East and Africa. It is manifest not only in the work of al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers but also in other terror groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban as well as movements that have attempted to straddle the divide between terror and politics such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It is also the ideology of governments such as that of Iran and Sudan and is supported by huge segments of the population and even ruling elites in nations such as Pakistan. Even in the West, where genuine moderates prevail, the network of Islamist mosques provide a breeding ground for home-grown terrorists as well as those willing to engage in fundraising or moral support for foreign radicals.
In other words, Islamism is a genuine threat and can count on a huge base of support around the globe. Lean’s farcical attempt to argue that just because the tens, if not hundreds of millions of Islamist supporters don’t personally engage in terror attacks on the West means that there is no such thing as a moderate/radical divide is the height of illogic as well as an insult to the intelligence of his readers.
Lean has an uphill battle in his campaign to convince even Americans who are weary of foreign wars that there aren’t a lot of radical Muslims abroad who support violence against the U.S. and its allies. But his goal is to alter the terms of the debate about this threat so as to intellectually disarm Americans to cause them to think there is no real threat.
Integral to this effort is the attempt to label the act of speaking up against Islamists as inherently prejudicial. An example of this kind of argument came earlier this month when the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank embarrassed himself by writing an account of a Heritage Foundation event that made false accusations about the panelists and audience taunting a Muslim woman. As it turned out the tape of the incident showed that while the speakers had some tough words about radical Islamists and those Muslims who don’t actively oppose them, the woman who spoke up in opposition to the prevailing view of the audience was actually treated respectfully. Both liberals and conservatives called out Milbank for this act of journalistic malpractice, with even Politico’s media columnist Dylan Byers describing his article as a “disaster” in which he “misrepresented” the views of the panelists.
But Lean takes Milbank’s false account as the starting point for his piece because it backs up the false narrative that he is promoting about anti-Islamism being a thin cover for anti-Muslim views.
This is, of course, somewhat odd. Since most of those who speak out against the rise of Islamism are always at pains to point out that the majority of Muslims, especially those in the United States, don’t support the radicals, it is curious that Lean is especially offended by the use of the term “moderate.” His argument is not to deny the existence of moderates but rather to pretend that there are no violent radicals, or at least not enough to care about.
Were several major Muslim countries not in the grips of the radicals or if there had been no 9/11, Benghazi, or a campaign of terror waged around the globe in countless places, he might have a point. Were radical mosques not filled with imams and congregants espousing support for these attacks and the movements that spawn them, it would also make sense not to differentiate between moderates and radicals. But, sadly, that is not the case.
To claim, as he does, that we don’t use the terms to describe Jews and Christians actually makes the opposite point from the one he intends to support. Were there a critical mass of violent radicals at war with the West within Christianity or Judaism, it would also be appropriate to split those groups up into radicals and moderates. But, again, that is not a reflection of reality.
But even if we ignore Lean’s more foolish arguments along these lines, the problem with this debate lies in one of the statements made by one of Heritage’s speakers that he found so offensive. At the event author and speaker Brigitte Gabriel said that it didn’t make a difference that the majority of peaceful Muslims were irrelevant to the discussion of 9/11 in the same way that peaceful Germans were irrelevant during the Holocaust.
Holocaust comparisons are almost always a mistake and the analogy probably confuses more than it illuminates. But at the root of this comment is the plain fact that if Muslims are not willing to speak out against those who wage war on the West in the name of their religion, they are allowing the radicals to define their faith. We don’t need “moderate” Muslims because of a compulsion to divide or categorize non-Western faiths or peoples. We need them because in their absence, the Islamists are allowed, as they have been in many places around the world, to define what it is to be a Muslim.
The West doesn’t need to be at war with Islam but it must be aware of the fact that Islamists are at war with the West and that it must, whenever possible, ally itself with moderates who oppose the impulse to legitimize jihad against non-Muslims. Contrary to Lean’s thesis, we aren’t trying to make Muslims fit into our notion of acceptable behavior but to embrace those who reject the seductive call of the Islamists.
Islamist terror is real but so is the existence of a large body of moderate Muslims who are often, even in this country, cowed into silence by the radicals. The real myth here is not the one about moderate Islam but the attempt by many on the left to promote the idea that awareness of the threat from radicals is something they call Islamophobia. Smearing those who attempt to remind us that the Islamists are still at war with the West is the objective of this line of argument. That the New Republic, which was once a bulwark of support for the defense of the West against Islamism, should become the soapbox for such dangerous idiocy as that of Lean is a disgrace.