Word from the diaspora
I am an Islamismophobe. There, I said it. I know this might upset some people. Especially those who don’t read especially carefully. Because what I just wrote is not what they likely think I wrote (namely that I just professed to being an Islamophobe, which I did not, and am not, I promise). Their upset stems from Islamophobia’s status as a watchword we have collectively been sensitized into reflexively and unquestioningly rejecting as inexcusably ‘bad’. Islamophobia and antisemitism are accorded broadly equal social taboo status. The word I used, in contrast, is Islamismophobia, one that I admittedly made up, consisting of two roots: the latter — ‘phobia’ — hardly needs any introduction, and the former — ‘Islamism’ — is the belief that Islam should guide not only personal life, but also influence political systems. And yes, I am an Islamismophobe. I rationally fear Islamism and Islamists. And, dear reader, so should you, as I am about to expound.
But first, let’s take a short step back. I do not profess to be an expert on the Muslim religion. I have my own religion, and that’s a handful, thank you very much (I consider myself a Jewish atheist, by the way). My best friend from medical school is a Muslim, and I love him like a brother. When he and I get together we talk about women, music, medicine, our children and our dreams. We do so with the abandon that perhaps only the oldest of friends can. He has excelled in his career as a clinician and an academic, and, though I can take no credit for his achievements, I am fiercely proud of him; I saw what it took. When we laugh, we laugh like children – unguarded, unpretentious. He does not particularly care for the religion of his parents (we have that in common), but he does consider himself to be a Muslim. For his sake alone, not to mention social and philosophical objections, Islamophobia — that is, a general dislike of, or prejudice against, Muslims — repulses me. The idea that under its mantle, and by virtue of his simply more pigmented skin and eyes, he might one day be prejudiced against by a patient or get clobbered on his way home by some skinhead yobs in a dark inner city alley in the north of England where he lives and practices, is abhorrent to me. I would want to be right by his side so they’d have to take on both of us. If all this sounds to you a lot like a version of the old trope “I have a lot of Jewish friends, but…”, I am about to disappoint you: my denunciation of Islamophobia is unqualified.
Experts in Islamic texts may take issue with my view that I do not need to know much about Islam to reject Islamophobia. They may be tempted to school me that verses from the Koran or teachings from the Hadith render Islam a religion that is inherently problematic with Western values. I would retort that this apparent incompatibility is also true of other religious texts, including Jewish ones. However, over time all religions evolve in their interpretation and levels of adherence to the letter of their law. Even the most Orthodox of Jews, for example, thoroughly reject the stoning of sinners, as several passages in Deuteronomy and the Mishna – if taken literally — would fairly routinely demand of us Jews. So it is with the vast majority of Muslims who practice a version of Islam compatible with the modern world. Call it ‘à la carte’ observance if you will, but the fact is that it is the accommodation needed to render ancient religions palatable to modernity. Identifying as a Muslim, and the practice of Islam in a modern context, are not in and of itself incompatible with our democratic Western values.
While my knowledge of Islam is fairly limited, I do know a good deal about Islamism. And that’s a whole different story. A story of religious fundamentalism, of Islam as a political power striving for supremacy. A story in which the blood of non-believers and moderate Muslims is freely dispensable in pursuit of a special brand of ‘peace’ that will come about only once Islamic domination has been achieved. A story whose happy ending is a fever dream of sharia law, strict female subjugation, and a Muslim caliphate. In which martyrdom in the act of jihad against infidels promises the ultimate exultation. A story whose details are so gory that I won’t repeat them here for fear of turning your…oh wait, never mind. Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past nine weeks, you’ve almost certainly already seen at least some of the footage from October 7 for yourself, and had your sensibilities thoroughly affronted by Hamas’ calling card.
What does Hamas have to do with Islamism? Only that above everything else, Hamas is an Islamist terrorist organization. Its name is an Arabic acronym meaning “Islamic Resistance Movement.” Hamas’s charter is full of references to Islam and religiously rooted Jew-hatred. The October 7 terrorists – drunk on their power over defenseless Israeli civilians, amped up on Captagon, and high on religious ecstasy — repeatedly shouted “Allahu akbar” as they killed, burnt, raped and beheaded their way through Israel’s south. The name they gave to their Black Sabbath pogrom was “Al Aqsa flood”. And they refer to their fallen as ‘martyrs’.
Kindred spirits of the outright October 7 deniers are those who refuse to see the atrocities for what they were: depravities committed in the name of Islam. Hamas claims it is committing terror under Islam’s banner; we would be well advised to take its word for it.
Those, despite all that, still on the fence about whether Hamas is an Islamist phenomenon may want to hearken to this statement by Mosab Hassan Yousef, the “Son of Hamas”: “Hamas is beyond a terrorist organization. They pose as a national resistance movement with the intention to liberate what is so called “Palestine”. And I think this is Hamas’ first lie – because they’re NOT a resistance movement. Hamas is a religious ideological movement raging a war, a holy war, against a race, against a nation; they’re not a political party…They want a global state.”
As a regional Islamist terror group, Hamas is by no means unique in the Arab and Muslim world. Hamas is to Gaza what the Taliban are to Afghanistan, and the Houthis (also known – somewhat more informatively – as Ansar-Allah) are to Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood is to Egypt, Hizbollah to Lebanon, Al Quaida to Pakistan, Isis (aka Daesh) to Iraq, Boko Haram to Nigeria. What all these groups have in common is that they are regional Islamist terrorists. There is a great deal of national diversity across the world’s 22 Arab states and some 50 Muslim majority countries, but a feature common to many – indeed a near constant – is their spawning of Islamic terrorist organizations, several of which are financed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. There are, according to ChatGPT at least, instances around the globe of Islamism being expressed without resorting to terrorism (the AKP party in Turkey and Ennahda in Tunisia, to name but two), but these are exceptions rather than the norm, and debatable ones at that.
If these Islamist groups are native to the Arab and Muslim world, why should we in the West care about their political aspirations? Because – as evidenced by a macabre list of Muslim fundamentalists ‘greatest hits’ that include 9/11 in Lower Manhattan, 7/7 in Central London, November 2015 at the Bataclan Theater in Paris, May 2017 at the Manchester Arena, and most recently October 7 in the South of Israel – Islamist terror rarely stays confined to the Arab and Muslim world. Immigration policy what it currently is in Western Europe, Canada and Australia (and a porous Southern US border) means that Islamism is being exported from the Muslim world to the West.
Terrorism is not, of course, unique to Islamists, nor did they invent it. But the jihadists do have somewhat of a monopoly – in the modern age, at least – on beheadings, suicide bombings, religious exultation during their slaying of infidels, and a fervent belief in a glorious afterlife that awaits Muslim martyrs.
The paving stones on the road to the Islamic theocracy these fundamentalists seek are slicked with the blood of non-believers, including moderate Muslims. But in the jihadists’ eyes not all infidels are created equal. Jews – forever the chosen people – are singled out as an especially deserving target. In a recent episode of the “Saad Truth” podcast by Lebanese-born Canadian academic and author Gad Saad, his guest Cynthia Farahat – in discussing her book on the Muslim Brotherhood – recalled that morning prayers in her native Egypt would routinely begin with the phrase, spoken of the Jews: ”Turn their wives into widows and turn their children into orphans”. Israel would only ever be referred to as the ‘Zionist Entity’. It was apparently not until 2013, some 34 years after the 1979 peace treaty, that Egyptian State media could bring itself to call Israel by its name. Another commentator – Luai Ahmed, a Yemenite Arab now living in the West – explains that the Houthis’ trademark chant is “Allahu akbar, death to America, death to Israel, curse be upon the Jew, victory to Islam”. He goes on “Where I grew up in Yemen, they never taught us about the Holocaust. If anyone asked about it, they were told: “The Holocaust didn’t happen, it’s just Jewish propaganda. But we wish it did happen.””
Curiously, the number of Jews nowadays living in Egypt and Yemen combined is close to zero – so what is this Muslim obsession with Jews? The answer that immediately comes to mind for many is ‘Israel’, obviously. But this is a complete red herring. Muslim and Arab Jew-hatred long preceded – in reverse chronological order – the Gazan wars, West Bank settlements, the post -1967 ‘occupation’ of disputed lands, the Naqba, the creation in 1948 of the State of Israel, Deir Yassin, the 1947 UN partition plan, the waves of Jewish immigration to British Mandate Palestine in the 1920, ‘30s and ‘40s, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, 106 years ago. It is called the world’s oldest hatred for a reason.
As for Muslim hatred of America, self-flagellators on the far left may assume it has its origins in a long history of ‘oppression’ – seemingly the explanation du jour for any modern grievance – and in the United States’ close alliance with Israel, but they would be verifiably mistaken. The late Christopher Hitchens recounted in a September 2005 guest appearance on the Bill Maher show ‘Politically Incorrect’ that as far back as 1786, the newly independent United States dispatched a delegation consisting of none other than Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to London for an audience with Abdul Rahman, the ambassador of Tripoli. Their mission was to plead for a cessation of the piracy and enslavement that the Barbary States (the Ottoman Empire and the countries along the North African Coast, namely Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya) were committing against American vessels and their crews. When they enquired “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury” (in other words: “Why are you doing this to us?”), the ambassador replied: “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.” Ultimately, the US waged two crushing naval campaigns against the Barbary States (between 1801 and 1815). Hitchens called the idea that Islamic fundamentalism is created by American democracy ‘a masochistic lie’. Unfortunately, this chapter of US history is hardly taught in American schools and colleges nowadays, so most Americans – of all ages, but especially the young – are ignorant of it.
There are distinctions without a difference, but the distinction I strenuously made earlier between Islam and Islamism, and – by extension – between Islamophobia and Islamismophobia, is the opposite of that; these differences are highly relevant and acutely topical.
The reason is that if we reflexively reject Islamophobia – which is indeed condemnable – but fail to distinguish Islam from Islamism, fail to recognize the dangers Islamism poses to liberal democracies, and fail to resist it, then the inevitable outcome is our eventual submission to it. Continued conflation of Islamismophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice renders Islamophobia – as Sam Harris, the author of five New York Times best sellers, recently quoted in a blog post – a word “invented by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons”. The ‘cowards’ here are too to chicken to criticize Islamic extremism for fear of a violent backlash amid accusations of Islamophobia. The unthinking masses are thus confused about what is and isn’t permissible criticism of Islam. Not that the cowards are paranoid or otherwise deluded. “At this moment in history, there is indeed only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence”, writes Harris, and the purpose of the term Islamophobia “is to conflate any criticism of Islam with bigotry against Muslims as people”.
If we can – without any apparent difficulty – differentiate between alcohol and alcoholism, we should be able to do so between Islam and Islamism. So why does the relationship between Islamophobia and Islamismophobia seem so intricate?
To further illustrate, allow me a brief diversion to set up an analogy.
A most fascinating discovery in the realm of cancer biology over the last 25 years has been an adaptation that frequently allows cancer cells to evade the immune cells expected to destroy them. They evade these cells through the increased production of a protein, PDL-1, which binds to receptors on the surface of immune cells, causing them to turn a blind eye to the cancer cells they are supposed to kill. The result is that the PDL-1-producing cancer cells proliferate unchecked, grow into tumors and metastasize. I am happy to report, in my capacity as an institutional investor in biotechnology companies (my day job), that the development of antibodies to interfere with PDL-1 has emerged as a revolutionary front-line treatment for a long list of cancers. One such antibody, Merck Inc.’s Keytruda, has kept at bay for about a decade President Jimmy Carter’s malignant melanoma with brain metastases.
The analogy I am striking is between a protein that blinds the immune system to cancer, and our reflexive rejection – on erroneous grounds that it is Islamophobic – of valid criticism of Islamism, blinding us to its dangers. Just as PDL-1 blockers unblind the immune system to cancer, so a forceful rebuttal of the notion that it is Islamophobic to denounce Islamic fundamentalism might enable us to take steps to combat it.
What does a robust rejection of Islamism in Western civil society look like? When Imams in our capitals preach jihad, and call on their congregants to ‘stand with Hamas’ or otherwise support terrorism in the name of Islamic fundamentalism, we prosecute them under laws against hate speech and incitement to violence. When recent immigrants import Islamic radicalism and emerge as the leaders of local chapters of terrorist organizations, we strip them of their nationality and deport them. When Muslims who are verifiably radicalized against the West, the Jews and liberal values apply to immigrate to liberal democracies, we enforce our immigration laws and reject them. When protesters rampage on our streets, deface property, spread hate and commit violence against peaceful marchers, we arrest and charge them. When well-financed Islamist organizations aggressively fund marquee American and British universities, and cultivate student organizations in their image, we insist that – at a minimum – these academic institutions publicly declare their foreign sources of funding, and that they ban from their campuses student clubs whose mission encompasses the spread of antisemitism. And when the Muslim Brotherhood consistently funnels – as it has done for many years – financial support to Islamic terrorist groups, we declare it too a terrorist organization, just as several other countries outside of the US already have. Only once we stop conflating a wholesome rejection of Islamism with Islamophobia, do these actions become available to us.
What is at stake is nothing less than the survival of the West as we know it. With the benefit of hindsight that the aftermath of Nazism afforded my native Germany, the powerful slogan “Wehret den Anfängen” (“Resist the beginnings” in English) became the wise watchword of a new generation calling for vigilance against an early resurgence of that evil ideology. Although, as evidenced by recent events, it is too late to speak of the rise of Islamism in the West as just beginning, it is not too late for us to necessarily develop a fine antenna for jihadism when it presents itself in our midst, and to forcefully push back against it. If, for example, we allow open calls for ‘intifada’ on our streets to go unchecked, then we are doomed. As Dani Buller, a politically liberal, Israeli creator of social media content asks: “Intifada is a violent and armed resistance by a terrorist organization. Is this what you really want?”
Because my answer is an unequivocal ‘no’, I declare myself an Islamismophobe. Join me; you should declare yourself one too.