Debate over “Radical Islam” Misses the Key Distinction between Theocratic and Secularized Islam

Donald Trump is wrong about nearly everything, but he is right about this: America’s political leaders properly may refer to the movement motivating terrorists to act in the name of Muslim beliefs as “radical Islam.” However, as we’ll see, Trump misses the key distinction between theocratic Islam and substantially secularized Islam, and he therefore draws the wrong policy conclusions related to Muslims.

First let’s briefly review recent discussion on the matter. On June 12, following the murderous jihadist assault on the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Trump said:

In his remarks today, President Obama disgracefully refused to even say the words ‘Radical Islam.’ For that reason alone, he should step down. If Hillary Clinton, after this attack, still cannot say the two words ‘Radical Islam’ she should get out of this race for the Presidency. . . .

We need to protect all Americans, of all backgrounds and all beliefs, from Radical Islamic Terrorism—which has no place in an open and tolerant society. Radical Islam advocates hate for women, gays, Jews, Christians and all Americans.

In response, Clinton essentially agreed with Trump, saying “you [can] call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.”

Obama struck a similar note as Clinton regarding the significance of the terminology, although he used the phrase “radical Islam” only to discuss why he normally does not use it (or the related term “radical Islamist”). After describing the various concrete actions his administration has taken against Islamic State (he uses the acronym ISIL), Obama directly confronts Trump’s criticism and explains why he doesn’t use the term “radical Islam”:

What exactly would using this label . . . accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to try to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this?

The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.

Since before I was president, I have been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism. As president, I have called on our Muslim friends and allies at home and around the world to work with us to reject this twisted interpretation of one of the world’s great religions. . . .

Groups like ISIL and Al Qaida want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion of Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.

They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda, that’s how they recruit. And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims as a broad brush, and imply that we are at war with the entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Where Trump and Obama agree (and where Clinton disagrees) is that there is a substantive issue at stake with whether we refer to terrorists who claim to be motivated by their Muslim beliefs as “radical Islamists.”

For Obama, Islam properly understood is a “great religion” that does not inspire terrorism. He sees a sharp dividing line between Muslims and terrorists; once a person becomes a terrorist, he no longer acts on genuinely Muslim beliefs, whatever his claims. If Obama drew a Venn diagram, the circles of “Islam inspired actions” and “terrorism” would not overlap. Thus, he concludes, it makes no sense to equate (Muslim) terrorism with Islam, “radical” or otherwise.

For Trump, Islam can be “moderate” or it can be “radical,” but it is still Islam. If Trump drew a Venn Diagram, the circle of “radical Islam” would be inside the circle of “Islam.” Thus, he implies, terrorists who claim to be motivated by their Muslim beliefs are part of “radical Islam” and therefore part of Islam, and to avoid the phrase is to avoid the essential nature of what motivates these terrorists. (Please, no one ask Clinton to try to come up with a Venn diagram here.)

As Clinton might ask, what difference does it make?

Whether one sees “radical” jihadism as an aspect of Islam or a perversion of it very much influences how one evaluates the religion as a whole and how one views America’s “moderate” Muslim allies.

In Obama’s view, Islam is a fundamentally wholesome and peaceful religion, and generally we should consider Muslims and Muslim-led nations as trusted allies of the West. Moreover, we need to go out of our way to build bridges with “true” Muslims so that fewer Muslims jump the wall between Islam (properly understood) and terrorism (which is antithetical to Islam). I think this view helps explain Obama’s attempts to make nice with the Iranian regime, for example.

In Trump’s view (at least the view his statements seem to imply), Islam is a fundamentally troublesome religion, and the difference between nonviolent and violent Muslims is one of degree, not category. In this view, a Muslim is more likely to be nonviolent the less Islamic he is, and a “radical” Muslim is violent precisely because he takes his religion very seriously.

Notice that the terms “radical” and “extremist” in this context imply that Islam can be embraced to various degrees. The idea that terrorists are “radical” and “extreme” implies that they embrace their religion in a full-throttled way; they are “extremely” religious as opposed to “moderately” religious.

What is Obama doing, then, when he uses the term “extremist” to refer to terrorists who say that they are Muslim but who (in his view) are not truly Islamic? What is it that they are “extreme” about, in Obama’s view? It can’t be their religion, because an “extremely” Islamic person is an extremely good one, in Obama’s view. (By the same token, an “extremely” Christian person is an extremely good one.)

What are the premises that seem to underly Obama’s choice of terms? When Obama talks about an “extremist,” he is not thinking about religion at all. Rather, he seems to be thinking something along the lines that many people around the world are pissed off at the West (and at America in particular), and the people who are “extremely” pissed off tend to resort to “extreme” measures and become terrorists. Thus, the term “extreme” as Obama uses it seems to refer to a person’s level of anger (or something like that), not to a person’s level of religiosity.

Back to Trump—not only does Trump see “radical Islam” as part of Islam, he sees the lines between them as very porous. That explains, for example, why he wants to restrict all immigration from Muslim nations, irrespective of the background and expressed beliefs of particular potential immigrants.

I think Trump is right, and Obama is wrong, about the relationship between violent jihad and Islam: The former is an authentic expression of the latter (although obviously not the only possible expression). It is no accident (for example) that the Islamic regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia promote violent jihad around the world.

But something clearly is missing from Trump’s account. (Partly I’m using Trump here as a proxy for the beliefs of many conservatives, particularly evangelical conservatives.) As is obvious to anyone who has actually read the published comments of Muslims in the West (and even in the Middle East), there is a vast difference between Muslims to whom terrorist violence is unthinkable and Muslims to whom it is thinkable. So what is the essential difference that Trump misses?

Consider an example that points to the relevant distinction. A recent article at Reason reviews polls indicating that American Muslims are more likely to support gay marriage than are American Protestants. Of course, most people who do not support gay marriage never would become terrorists. Yet it seems glaringly obvious that support for gay marriage is the sort of commitment indicating that a (psychologically normal) person could not possibly do anything other that consider religiously motivated terrorist acts with revulsion.

The key difference is not between Islam and “radical Islam,” but between theocratic (or traditional) Islam and secularized (or Enlightened) Islam. Theocratic Islam and secularized Islam are different in kind, not in degree.

This is odd terminology in a way; “secular” means non-religious, so no religious person can be considered fully secular. Yet religious beliefs can be relatively secularized when they are subverted to the universal liberal (Enlightenment) values of individual liberty and the separation of church and state.

Roughly, secularized Islam is comparable to the sort of secularized Christianity prominent during America’s founding. Sure, Thomas Jefferson admired Christian teachings—and he also felt at liberty to cut apart the Bible and throw out the parts he didn’t like. Today, most Christians in America and around the world are secularized to a substantial degree—which is why (as examples) hardly any American Christians call for laws to punish homosexuality and no Christian nation executes people for their sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

I am not claiming here that religion and secularism ultimately are logically compatible; they are not. Yet people seldom are logically consistent, and billions of people in our world manage to hold ultimately incompatible beliefs.

For a given person, the break between theocratic Islam and secularized Islam may not be a clear line. Undoubtedly lots of people have some theocratic tendencies and some secular tendencies, and they may go back and forth in the relative strength of their loyalties.

Yet, even if we cannot exactly place the line, there is a vast difference between a fundamentally theocratic Muslim (or Christian) and a fundamentally secularized one.

So what difference does all this make in terms of policy? Consider three examples involving major debates.

1. Obama, self-blinded to the dangers of theocratic Islam, appeases the Iranian regime; Trump distrusts Iran because it is Islamic; I distrust it because it is theocratic.

2. Obama thinks America should accept immigrants regardless of their religious beliefs; Trump wants to ban Muslim immigrants because (he thinks) they might be or become violent; I want to distinguish between theocratic Muslims who sanction terrorist violence and secularized Muslims—many of whom are brutally victimized by the theocratic regimes under which they survive—who do not.

3. Obama thinks American Muslims, as practitioners of a “great religion” comparable to Christianity, should receive no greater police scrutiny; Trump thinks Muslims automatically should receive greater police scrutiny; I think only those Muslims who express support for the tenets of theocracy (particularly violent jihad) should receive greater police scrutiny. (I point out here that the Orlando murderer gave out all sorts of warning signs that he sanctioned violence in the name of religion; here the problem is that he was not investigated intensively enough.)

In terms of cultural activism, how one views the relationship between Islam and violent jihad greatly affects how one approaches the religion. Obama thinks that Islam is great and that Muslims should be encouraged to celebrate their faith; Trump thinks that Islam is inherently suspect and that all non-Muslims can do is try to keep Muslims from radicalizing; I think that theocratic Islam is inherently evil and that Muslims should be encouraged to abandon it in favor of secularized Islam (if they will not abandon their faith outright).

Ultimately, I see the secularization of religion as an important step on the pathway to the eventual cultural abandonment of religion. But the secularization is critically important even if the full abandonment never takes place.

So, yes, call it “radical Islam” when Muslims turn to violent jihad. But remember that distinguishing between “moderate” Islam and radical Islam isn’t what most matters. What matters for the future of human civilization is the difference between theocratic Islam and secularized Islam.

When the worst that homosexuals worldwide have to fear from Muslims is that they may resist baking a cake for a gay wedding, that will be a good indicator that the shift among Muslims from theocracy to Enlightenment is well under way. Frighteningly, at least in many parts of the world, that seems a very long way off.

· Why James Taranto is Clueless on Mohammed Drawings
· ‘Only’ 90 Million Islamic Supporters of 9/11?
· Trump, Cruz, and Freedom of Speech

Image: Orlando Police Department

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