Interviewed by Fred Stella
I think we should probably start this conversation by getting clear on the terms that we’re using today. What is the difference between Islam and Islamism?
Well, that’s an extremely important question and it’s the basis for almost everything I do. Of course we shouldn’t deny that Islamism comes out of Islam, it is certainly a byproduct of Islam. In other words, all Islamists follow the Islamic faith, but certainly not all Muslims believe in or support Islamism. Islamism is a 20th century political ideology that seeks to impose a theocratic ideal upon the world, not just within Muslim lands, but in non-Muslim lands as well. It wants a caliphate, a supranational extremist state in which religious law is supreme.
Now, Islam, on the other hand, is a 1400-year-old faith that includes an enormous variety of sects and movements from quietest Sufis to vehement conservative Deobandis or Salafis to all sorts of obscure smaller Islamic sects that you probably would have never heard of, and certainly many that I haven’t heard of as well. It’s an enormously diverse religion.
Islamism is very specific, and there are five or six big Islamist threats in the world today that the West must contend with, both violent and nonviolent. At the Middle East Forum, we believe one thing very keenly – that if radical Islam is the problem, if Islamism is the problem, then moderate Islam is the solution. So we work with moderate Muslims. We support reformist Islamic projects. We believe the best way to challenge theocracy and to challenge extremism is to support moderates.
Well, it’s easy to see that Islamism is alive and well in nations around the world. We’ve not had any serious incidents on these shores, that is to say in the United States, for quite a few years. I occasionally will hear of a plot that’s been foiled, but what is it about the last five, six, seven years that we have not heard about that? We’ve heard much more about homegrown extremists who have nothing to do with Islam than we’ve heard about Islamist terrorists.
Hmm. Yes, this is a reasonable point. Firstly, let’s not diminish the threat of Islamism domestically here at the moment.
Yeah. Before you answer, I am aware that the FBI … Director [Christopher A.] Wray said that it is the most dangerous. Yet, you will agree, it’s just not in the headlines.
Yeah. I think he said that last April, last June, so almost a year ago, now. Certainly the FBI, as far as I’m aware, has yet to release a new ranking of threats in order of severity. But the fact remains, yes, it is an enormous threat. Not just the fact that plots are being continuously uncovered and unraveled and counteracted by law enforcement. But also let’s remember that behind Islamism, unlike every other form of extremism operating here in the US, behind Islamism are international terror networks, foreign state support, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in drug money and other forms of illicit income driving it. This is a very different type of threat to other extremisms, so that’s the first thing that should be pointed out.
Secondly, yes, you’re right. The focus is much less on Islamism these days, and that’s because of both a reasonable and a political interest in what’s called far-right extremism or white supremacist extremism at the moment. Whatever you think of the scale and the enormity of the threat posed by white supremacism, there’s no doubt that it exists. But Islamism remains the only threat, the only extremism as mentioned that is backed by an enormous international effort that has killed hundreds of thousands, not just thousands, over the last few decades alone, and that is constantly working internationally to secure weapons of mass destruction that could kill and injure and harm more people than we could possibly imagine. The threat is of an entirely different magnitude.
President Obama was called out by his critics for not using the word Islam or Muslim, et cetera, when he was talking about terrorism. But he did refer to ISIL or ISIS, and we know that the “I” in both of those words does stand for Islamic. And of course he could have said “Islamism” and then defined it the way you just did, but he chose not to. Do you agree that he should have been more forthcoming in identifying the extremism that we had to deal with during his time in office?
Yes. I think it was really one of the worst examples of the Obama administration failing to understand what the threat is and how to counteract it. There was one instance in which Obama spoke about the “perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam,” but as far as I’m aware, that is the only example in which he named the threat directly.
It is preposterous to censor oneself, for fear of upsetting who? The terrorists? The extremists? What reasonable Muslim is going to deny that there are extremists in his faith? There’s no purpose served [by] not using the word Islamism. …[T]o deny that it’s an extremism born out of a religion … [is] to deny moderate Muslims the chance to fight back against it by denying that they have any power over it.
So this is an appalling example of politicians imposing their ideas, their desire to be seen as liberal or virtuous, upon communities that are suffering from this extremism has hijacked their faith. It’s not just Obama, this is done all over the world. In fact, even the BBC still refers to Islamic State as the “so called Islamic State,” a phrase that makes my blood boil every time I hear it. And even under the Trump administration, a number of senior Trump advisors and members of his cabinet have encouraged officials and government bodies not to refer to ISIS as Islamic. This is not even limited to the left, this is a pan-political delusion.
It’s interesting because if I heard someone refer to the “so-called Islamic State,” I would think that they were referring to the fact that it’s not really a state, not that it’s not really Islamic. But you’re saying that when they say the so-called Islamic state, that they’re soft selling the word “Islamic,” not the word “state.”
Oh yes, no one tried to hide the reasons behind the use of “so-called.” It was very much about the “Islamic” and nothing to do with the “state.” Certainly when the BBC talks about Taiwan, it doesn’t call it a “so-called country” to pander to the Chinese. … This delusion, this sickness that stops us from referring to threats by what they are is very much limited to Islamism. It does occur with other things, but you find it most strongly when it comes to Islamism.
The one thing that Europe has realized in the last 10-20 years – and they’ve certainly been conducting counter-extremism and counter-radicalization efforts against domestic Islamism for much longer than the US – the one thing they’ve realized is that the worst, the worst thing you can do is downplay or deny the extent and the scope of the threat through politicized language and self-denial, and that’s what America is doing. It’s failed to learn from Europe’s mistakes. And there’s many other examples I can point to that bear me out in that.
Sam, how do you define Islamophobia? And tell us why you’re not one in case somebody just tuned in halfway through this conversation and might think that you are an Islamophobe.
Well, I think there are a number of problems with this word. If we assume “Islamophobia” does not mean fear, but criticism, which I think is the manner in which it’s usually applied, I have no problems at all with anyone who wants to criticize Islam, or criticize any religion. As a Jewish atheist who grew up in a sort of Christian upbringing, Christian school, I’m happy to criticize any religion, in fact, and I do.
“Islamophobia” is a terrible term as far as its literal meaning goes. It’s not a fear of religion. What I think it’s generally applied to is hatred or criticism of Muslims themselves, which does seem unnecessarily unpleasant and is often the tool of an unpleasant person. If we accept “Islamophobia” as a genuine term – and as I say, I have problems with definitions – then yes, it should be hatred or criticism of Muslims. It is not applied like that always, especially by Islamists, who … were somewhat involved with the creation of the word “Islamophobia.” Islamist radicals in the West, or what we call lawful or nonviolent Islamists, have long used the word “Islamophobia” to demonize their critics – not critics of Muslims, but critics of Islamism.
I cannot tell you the number of times I have been denounced as an “Islamophobe” on TV, on radio, in front of large crowds. It happens. My own view is that Islam is exceptionally diverse, there are good Muslims and there are bad Muslims just as in any other faith pretty much. I accept that there is bigotry against Muslims. I see it a lot. I speak out against it. I’ve gotten into trouble for speaking out against it on a number of occasions in certain circles. It is an appalling thing and sometimes that hatred of Muslims does veer into violence. That’s the most horrifying development of the last 5-10 years when it comes to the question of Islamism.
Not only is it proof that the far right is growing in power and venomous hate, but it also gives succor and power to the Islamists who can point to these acts of violence, these acts of hatred and say, “See? Only we, the Islamists, can lead the Muslim community against such violence, against such hate.” They use the real “Islamophobia” as it were, they use it to accrue more power, accrue more supporters to further their grip over Muslim communities. This is a complicated subject and “Islamophobia” as a term did not help to clarify any part of it.
Now, a lot of people, when they hear the word “Islamist,” if I say, “Oh, that person is an Islamist,” a lot of other non-Muslims would think that I was saying, “Oh, that person is a terrorist,” right? They assume Islamism and violence go hand in hand. But you talk about lawful Islamism. Let’s describe that for people. And these are people who by and large would not blow up buildings and kill innocent people and yet they are Islamists.
Right. Right. Let me start off by saying, I truly wish there were a better word than “Islamism” for what Islamism is. Because not only is it confused with “terrorists,” as we discussed it’s often confused with “Muslim.” If anyone can think of a better word I’m listening. I haven’t yet heard one, but the terminology does need to be improved. By an “Islamist,” as I said at the beginning, we refer to anyone who wants to impose religion as law, as a political ideal. Anyone who wants to eventually introduce a theocratic mindset, a theocratic imposition upon Muslims and non-Muslims all over the globe.
First, let me start off by going back to Islam very briefly. Islam is very diverse. It is not just Sunni and Shia. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim sects and groups delineated by schools of jurisprudence, schools of theology, ethnicity, culture, adherence to certain spiritual beliefs such as Sufism, for example. And then, of course, all the different political strains. Then tiny spinoffs of all of those things in a thousand different directions.
Islam is exceptionally diverse. Islamism is also diverse. There isn’t just one group. In other words, Islamism isn’t just Al-Qaeda. It is not just the Islamic State. Islamism is all sorts of ideas. I said earlier it’s a 20th century ideology and that’s the way it’s usually referred to. But in truth, the first modern Islamists as we know it came about 19th century. And then in the 20th century, you had people like Sayyid Qutb, the great Egyptian Islamist whose writings inspired the Muslim Brotherhood, which some of your listeners may have heard of. Or Abul A’la Maududi in South Asia, who built Jamaat-e-Islami.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami are not examples of violent Islamist groups as we know them, although they are sometimes involved with violence. But more importantly, they have spawned around the world dozens of entirely lawful political parties and activist groups who support the ideals of these luminaries – who support the ideals, the writings of Syed Abul A’la Maududi. But unlike ISIS and Al-Qaeda, they don’t use violence to get there. At least they don’t use violence to get there right now. And one of the big debates over lawful Islamism is the extent to which they truly have eschewed violence and whether it’s merely a temporary tactic.
But that said, there is no doubt there are hundreds of nonviolent Islamist movements throughout the globe, including here in the US. Let’s also not pretend all Islamists are inherently violent themselves. As odd as this may sound, I have a number of Islamist friends. I regard them like I do Marxists – entirely wrong. They are not the kind of people that would ever turn to violence but I do believe their views will cause violence.
Islamism in the US is almost entirely non-violent. Almost entirely lawful. When people ask me about the main Islamist networks I usually give them five or six examples. The one violent one is the Salafi jihadists, for the moment. … The Salafi jihadists are Al-Qaeda, they are ISIS.
Then you have groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that I’ve mentioned. You have groups like Jamaat-e-Islami. You have hard line conservative sects like the Deobandis, which are generally counted as Islamists. You then have all sorts of other Salafi groups who are not jihadists but still adhere to the same ideals just without the same methods. Then, of course, you have Shia Islamists, you have those networks connected to the Iranian regime. You have those who also support Tehran but are more closely connected to Hezbollah. And in fact you have other state sponsors such as Islamists associated with Qatar, which is technically a Wahhabi regime, then also with the Turkish regime, which has its own kind of Islamism.
Then, of course, you have all the Islamists opposed to those regimes, as well. The best example when it comes to Turkish regime is the Gülen movement. The Gülen movement, another Islamist movement, is based here in the US, mostly in Pennsylvania but it’s involved with charter schools and other institutions all around the country. These are just a few, I could go on. There are a lot of Islamist movements operating and they almost all disagree with each other. Never violently, at least not for the moment, they disagree with each other enough not to work together most of the time. This is a really complicated subject. Much more so than people realize.
And so Islamism is a very broad term and can mean a wide variety of things. It’s not just violent and lawful or violent and nonviolent. It’s also the degree to which they might get involved in politics at all. There are Islamists who completely eschew any involvement with politics despite theocracy being their ultimate aim. One does wonder how they hope to pursue that if they reject politics and violence, although some seem to think merely by living an exemplary, pure Islamic life, others will follow. And so there a wide of variety of methods, a wide variety of funding, ideologues, literature and writings and different methods, different understandings.
And also, there’s certainly no consensus on what a successful Islamic state, a Caliphate if it is ever set up, even would look like. This is a very confused, very broad movement and its sheer diversity is its great undoing. Islamism has stalled because it cannot unify. It cannot bring multiple Islamists or multiple Muslim communities under its wing because there’s too much disagreement.
One of the very interesting developments – this is a little off topic, but I’ll mention it quickly – one of the very interesting developments with American Islamism in recent years has been attempts by what we refer to as modernist Salafis – Salafis who are more forward thinking, more modern facing – their attempts to dilute their religious dogma in order to form broader political umbrellas, bigger tents for Islamists everywhere. This seems to me to be the direct response to the problem of division within Islamism, especially within American Islamism. What I expect to see over the next 10, 20 years is an increasingly unified American Islamist movement, whether that be violent or not is something we’re yet to find out.
You started answering the question by saying, “But I have Islamist friends.” I’m assuming that these must be very nice people if they’re your friends. Are these friends in Britain or here in the United States or both?
I’m thinking of two people. They’re in the United Kingdom back in Britain. I call them Islamists because they are supporters of certain Islamist movements. This is one of the curious things about Islamism, this is why it’s so poorly defined and often misunderstood. They don’t actually advocate an Islamic state, which in some ways doesn’t make them fit the usual definition of Islamists. But the fact remains that they think the world would be a better place if there was some sort of religious law inspired by Islamic law in place and imposed. However, they’re nice enough people to never want to actually impose that themselves on anyone else.
The worrying thing about Islamism in the West is that while Islamist networks are fairly clear-cut, and while reformist anti-Islamist Muslims are clear-cut, there’s a worrying group in the middle, which is the majority, or at least the plurality of Muslims in the West, who are not specifically Islamists, perhaps, but they certainly have some sympathy for some Islamist ideas. This is why Islamism finds a home in too many Western Muslim communities. There is this sympathy among some, and it’s the same sort of sympathy that will lead regular Americans to support a slightly more radical political agenda one year. It’s the idea that change can bring improvements.
Islamism for the most part is, as I say, a very clear-cut threat, but it certainly does prey, like all political dogma, it preys on fears and anxieties of ordinary Muslims. It turns people’s ordinary political concerns into Islamist vote-winning power.