Moderate Muslims must explain the substantive difference between Islam and Islamism. If they don’t, the rest of us will worry substantive differences don’t exist.
In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal on how to beat the Islamic State, Maajid Nawaz argues that Islam is a diverse religion but Islamism “is the desire to impose a single version of Islam on an entire society. Islamism is not Islam, but it is an offshoot of Islam. It is Muslim theocracy.” So too with jihad, which he says is a nuanced and multifaceted Muslim idea about struggle that’s been twisted by radicals into a doctrine “of using force to spread Islamism.”
Nawaz leaves it at that. He goes on to criticize President Obama and liberal commentators for oversimplifying the relationship between Islam and Islamism when they say the two have nothing in common. We shouldn’t refuse “to call this Islamist ideology by its proper name,” he writes, for fear that all Muslims will be blamed for the actions of a few.
That’s a great point, but it’s not enough just to call Islamism by its proper name. If Muslim theocracy is a distortion of Islam, Nawaz should explain why. But he doesn’t even try. In this, his essay is representative of the broad failure of moderate Muslims to explain the substantive difference between Islam and Islamism. If the leaders of Islamic State are wrong, and imposing Islamic law through force goes against historical and normative Islamic teachings, then a long essay in a major newspaper about how we can defeat ISIS would be a good place to explain that. But Nawaz makes no attempt to clarify how groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda could stem from what he believes is a correct understanding of Islam.
That’s too bad, because many of us in the West need to understand distinctions that moderate Muslims seem to take for granted. I recently argued that if ISIS and its underlying ideology are to be defeated, the Islamic doctrines that animate it must be discredited—not just by a crushing defeat on the battlefield but also by moderate Muslim leaders around the world arguing for a peaceful version of their faith. We in the West have no competency to judge which interpretations of Islam are valid and which are not—no matter what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say. If moderates have a compelling case to make, they’d better start making it.
Polls Say Radical Islam Is Mainstream
They don’t seem to be up for the challenge. After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Muslim groups like the American Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) were quick to condemn the attacks and distance themselves from “radicalism.” But none of these groups have ever addressed head-on one of the central claims of ISIS and other Islamist groups, which is that Muslim societies (including non-Muslim minorities) should be governed by Islamic law, or Sharia.
Setting aside who should decide the correct form of Sharia, is this something most Muslims believe? Is it a radical belief or mainstream? According to a 2013 Pew survey of Muslims, huge majorities of Muslims in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia say they agree that Sharia should be the law of the land.
Muslims in the West shouldn’t be offended if their fellow Americans or Europeans are uneasy about admitting large numbers of people who hold such a view into their countries. Combined with Islam’s political origins and its history of conquest, many westerners conclude, not unreasonably, that Islam is fundamentally illiberal and an Islamic “reformation” is impossible.
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Source: The Challenge For Moderate Islam