The debate on both sides of the Atlantic about Islamism and terrorism is robust — but interestingly distinct. Both debates occur within rich cultural traditions of free speech, but the way the debates are framed reveals much about the difference between Europe and America.
Perhaps the most hilarious pseudo-sincere, rhetorical question I’ve witnessed is this from a British moderator to Anjum Choudary, a fringe British radical who refuses to condemn either 9-11 or the 7-7 attack in the UK, and who promotes a Muslim Caliphate that would include the UK. In a January 2010 discussion, the moderator asks him casually, “and how’s the campaign to move Britain over to Sharia law coming along?”
It is not possible to conceive such a dialogue in America. Not because Americans talk about fewer issues, but because Americans don’t generally think of certain notions as worthy of elevation to the public square — even for the purpose of ridicule.
There is a natural American filtering, a kind of seriousness and sincerity missing in the UK. Anjum Choudary is largely a joke in the UK — but a joke trotted out repeatedly and given a broad audience — who then engenders sympathy when he is derided by all those right-thinking Brits who laugh and clap when he is attacked.
He then becomes a Muslim reviled by “the West,” and achieves precisely the victim status that feeds the radical Muslim narrative of what the West has done and continues to do to Muslims.
Choudary’s counterpart in the discussion was the very interesting Maajid Nawaz. Nawaz is all about challenging the Muslim narrative of what the West has done and purportedly continues to do to Muslims. And he knows whereof he speaks. He is a British Muslim who became radicalized in his teens, joined a radical Muslim organization, and became a recruiter and evangelist. Dispatched to Egypt for the cause, he got arrested and spent several years in an Egyptian jail, where he was tortured, and encountered other Islamist radicals — including members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had participated in the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
As it develops, many of these radicals were no longer radicals. Nawaz’s first thought was to re-convert them. But as he engaged them, and as he studied Islam more seriously, he came to recant his radicalism, to see “Islamism” as a political perversion of Islam.
CBS’ 60 Minutes recently aired a report about Maajid Nawaz. It is well worth the watch. It says much about the kind of courage and clear thinking that is urgently needed in the peace-loving Muslim community — and also about American timidity.
Nawaz’s interviewer, Lesley Stahl, comes off as rather wide-eyed and naively shocked that there would be such hateful notions — or torture in Egyptian jails! When engaging Muslims at a seminar in Pakistan, she doesn’t contribute a single thought or profess a single defense of America — even when directly questioned by seminar participants who insist that America orchestrated 9-11 so that it could justify attacking Muslims. She is simply there to soak up, and be stunned by, anti-Americanism.
It is possible that Stahl’s deer-in-headlights posture ironically endears her, and Americans, to Muslims, for such people as Stahl and we are surely not capable of perpetrating any conspiracy or aggression against Islam.
But her interview subject would not, I think, commend Stahl’s naiveté as a formula. Quite the contrary, Nawaz is refreshingly forceful and forthright: Islamists are fascists, indeed, comparable to Nazis. That is, in his view, a critical message.
These are people, he says, “who subscribe to Islamist extremism, in other words, a form of Muslim supremicism, like how Nazis used to believe that white people are superior, Aryans are superior, to all other races. Islamism is where Muslim fascists believe that Muslims are superior to all others and must conquer others and rule over them.”
Not that Nawaz has any truck with conservative thinking in America — he’s careful to disavow that. When his anti-extremism think tank, Quilliam, is accused of being “another neoconservative foundation,” Nawaz takes umbrage, challenges the man to identify any view he has as “neoconservative,” and generally discloses great distaste for neoconservatism — which is evidently unpopular in the UK. The gentleman cites as evidence “condemning Hamas in Palestine — these are neoconservative, pro-Israel ideas.”
These are different political and cultural milieus, the UK and America. But importantly, Nawaz does not hesitate to speak words like “Islamism,” “fascism,” and, comparatively, “Nazi,” in describing the threat we confront. In fact, he considers such language essential in the battle for hearts and minds the West must wage.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration conducts a war on the language of terror by banning any use of these words, and here again is American timidity on display. Nawaz understands from within what our president declines: frank labeling matters. Call it what it is. Anything short of frank labeling engenders cynicism, intellectual confusion, and perception of American weakness.
After all, sincerity is our American virtue. We get to be ridiculed by Europeans for being so sincere and witless — but secretly admired for doing the right thing based upon that sincerity.
Kendrick Macdowell is a writer and lawyer living in Washington, DC.