We’ve all heard this refrain ad nauseam since 9/11: “Islamists are at war with the West. They hate us for who we are.” The fact is, though, that they don’t hate us for who we are. They hate us for who we’re not: we’re not Muslim, and that’s a characteristic we share with billions of people outside the West. If we could only get over our Western self-absorption, we could do a much better job of uniting with our natural allies to combat the global Islamist threat.
When I say that “we” in the West are “not Muslim,” I am of course referring to the overall character of our societies. I have no intention of denigrating or alienating the millions of Muslims who are very much a part of Western societies, most of whom are, like me, Westerners with roots outside of the West. When I refer to “Islamists,” I am not referring to practitioners of the Islamic faith generally, but rather to proponents of the political ideology followed by radical Muslims who are intolerant of other faiths.
For all the talk of Islamists being at war with the West, almost all of the suffering caused by Islamists has been outside the West. This is certainly true in Muslim-majority countries, where Islamists have brutally persecuted Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Baha’is and — a religion that few Westerners had ever heard of until this summer — Yazidis. Christians, for example, have been brutalized throughout the Muslim world, from the Pacific Islanders of West Papua and (now independent) Timor-Leste in Indonesia, to the Arab Christians throughout the Middle East and North Africa, to the West African Christians in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.
Hindus in Bangladesh were the victims of one of the worst genocides in recent history at the hands of Pakistani Islamists; an estimated 2.5 million were slaughtered in 1971. The murderous persecution of Yazidis by ISIS is a genocide in progress — and as a Jew, I don’t use the term “genocide” lightly. Indian politician and economist Dr. Subramanian Swamy noted recently that Islamists, when in power in Muslim-majority nations, “do not practice what they demand when they are minorities.”
Islamists are involved in armed conflicts in many Muslim-minority countries, including the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, China, and Russia. And Islamists also fight other Muslims: Sunnis and Shias have battled for centuries; Ahmadis and Balochi Zikris are repressed in Pakistan, as are Sufis throughout the Muslim world. In Iraq and elsewhere, Sunni Arabs fight Sunni Kurds.
To say that the global Islamist movement is at war with the “West” is thus restrictive to the point of mischaracterization. The “Islam against the West” construct improperly casts the conflict as a brown versus white affair, with all the colonial baggage that comes with that. That fosters the sense of victimhood that Islamists doggedly cling to in every conflict, even when they are clearly the oppressors. And it might partially explain why the international left acts as apologists for the Islamists, even though Islamists absolutely reject almost every value leftists claim to stand for — tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, respect for minorities, etc.
Islamists should not be cast as underdogs in the struggle against Western colonialism, but rather as bigots whose supremacist ideology is every bit as noxious as that of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. And their victims are overwhelmingly brown and black. Of course, white leftists have a certain narcissism which only enables them to be offended by white bigotry. People functioning without such ideological blinders, however, should be able to see the situation with greater moral clarity.
Appreciating the truly global threat of Islamism, rather than viewing it through a West-centric prism, will enable us to form a much broader and effective coalition to counter it. India, for example, has been on the front lines against Islamism for over a millennium. As the world’s largest democracy, it is a natural and valuable ally.
The shock value of ISIS’s barbarism has gotten the world’s attention. Many have been slow to appreciate, however, that ISIS’s ideology is indistinguishable from that of other Islamists — Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jemaah Islamiah, and many others. Several governments, including that of Iran, also espouse the same ideology. That is not to say that all of these groups get along, but they all share a violent intolerance for people of other faiths. The democracies of the world must unite against this type of intolerance — not against Islam, but against the radical political ideology that promotes the subjugation or destruction of everyone, including Muslims, who does not believe what the extremists believe.
The Islamists benefit when each conflict is viewed in a vacuum. That makes it easier for them to characterize themselves as the aggrieved party. When one steps back, however, and processes the astounding number of conflicts that Islamists are involved in, it becomes less plausible to conclude that the Islamists are consistently the victims. Taking a global view also makes it easier to spot commonalities. Hamas, for example, was not satisfied that Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005. When the terror group subsequently came to power, it focused its resources not on building up Gaza, but rather on attacking Israel.
There are parallels between Hamas’s behavior and that of the government of Pakistan, which was carved out of India to create a Muslim homeland. Rather than respecting the partition that gave them self-determination, the Pakistanis have constantly made violent incursions into India. They sponsored a savage ethnic cleansing campaign that chased the Hindu Pandit community from its ancient homeland in Kashmir, on India’s side of the border. Operating thousands of miles apart, Hamas and the Pakistani government nonetheless manifested the same Islamist creed: what’s ours is ours, and we will continue to fight for what’s yours.
This type of radical ideology must be opposed, and American leadership is required to do it. In order to lead effectively, however, we need to step out of our skin and appreciate the very large number of people — from East and West — with whom we have common cause.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.