Militant Islam has been at war with America for more than two decades. Its attacks range from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the 1998 twin embassy explosions in East Africa. Why, then, were Americans so surprised by the horrors of Sept. 11?
A broad survey of books published prior to the attacks, including both academic studies and journalistic accounts, could provide some answers. Many authors and scholars of Islam minimized the global threat or simply refused to face reality. Some asserted that the threat was an exaggeration. Others argued that militant Islam was a scapegoat, as America searched for new post-Cold War foes. Some claimed Islamism, the political outgrowth of the movement, was a stepping-stone to democracy.
In other words, militant Islam has quietly spawned a new generation of apologists. Their motivations are quite varied.
Journalist Milton Viorst, who once challenged the fact that Saddam Hussein used gas against the Kurds in Iraq, is an example of a journalist whose views have faithfully followed in the footsteps of the ultra-liberal academics and some of the liberal press. In his book, In the Shadow of the Prophet The Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Westview, 2001), he calls terrorism "a symptom" of social ailments, and rebukes the West for its shallow understanding of Islam.
Some, like Arab-American journalist Anthony Shadid, may have an agenda. Shadid's book, Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics of Islam, (Westview, 2001) often toes the party line of autocratic Middle East regimes.
Others, like John Voll and John Esposito, authors of Makers of Contemporary Islam (Oxford University Press, 2001), are ideologically driven. Esposito and Voll head up the Arab-funded Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University. Their quest to find common ground for Christians and Muslims goes so far as to excuse religiously motivated violence and to justify intolerance. This brand of thinking has broadly influenced America's academicians and even the way American policymakers approach the Muslim world.
One theme common among many of today's apologists is their praise for Hassan al-Turabi, the inspiration behind the 1989 Muslim Brotherhood coup d'etat in Sudan. In his heyday, Turabi ranked among the top exporters of Islamic terror, with ties to al-Qaeda, Egyptian terror groups, and the radical mullahs of Iran. He even invited Osama bin Laden to stay in Khartoum in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, his government forced scores of Christians to convert to Islam in an ongoing civil war that has left tens of thousands of Christians dead.
As Donald Petterson, former U.S. ambassador to Sudan, wrote in his memoir, "The frequency of firsthand accounts from disparate sources in different parts of the country made a convincing case that efforts at forced Islamization were widespread" during Turabi's time in power.
Despite all this, Voll and Esposito brand Turabi a "scholar," a "Muslim opponent of sectarian politics," and a believer in "the fundamental equality of men and women in Islam." Viorst lauds "Turabi's preference for a genial, non-rigorous, individualist Islam."
To his credit, journalist Anthony Shadid, calls Turabi a "shrewd, devious politician." Still, he takes a soft stance on other dangerous militants.
Specifically, Shadid is an apologist for Hizbullah, the Iranian-funded militia in Lebanon that detonated a suicide bomb in October 1983 killing 241 marines. Shadid lauds them for transforming "from militia to movement, running candidates in elections for parliament," and for providing "quality treatment at hospitals and clinics run by professionals."
He also legitimizes Palestinian Islamists for running "kindergartens, orphanages, sports clubs and libraries." Shadid, however, fails to point out that these facilities also train children to shoot AK-47s, and teach songs about martyrdom in the name of Allah.
Finally, he claims "the adolescence of yesterday's militants has yielded to the maturity of today's activists."
"Violence is on the wane," he adds erroneously, "despite the occasional outbursts."
In short, Shadid faults U.S. policy towards the Muslim world, as if it radical Islam is somehow America's fault. He calls U.S. policy "dangerous and remarkably flawed… The approach has helped bring about nearly two decades of enmity with Iran and conflict with Sudan."
Viorst follows suit. His anecdotes are excellent, based on extensive interviews, but he lauds Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi, the chief cleric for Egypt's al-Azhar mosque, for trying to "soften al-Azhar's Wahabbi-style message." Meanwhile, Tantawi has a history of offering religious rationale for suicide attacks. In October 2000, he said it is "obligatory for the entire [Islamic world] to support [the Palestinians] in their Jihad."
Similarly, Voll and Esposito's book is thoroughly researched and of high academic caliber, but apologizes for radical Muslims. The authors label American Muslim convert Maryam Jameelah as a significant "maker of contemporary Islam," while recognizing her as both radical and marginal. She attacks westernization as "the most pernicious and destructive force in the Muslim world," and for inducing "cultural schizophrenia," but the authors praise her for her "pioneering role as an activist Muslim intellect." There's also the Palestinian Ismail Ragi al-Faruqi, who deplored the "despicable Western virus," and borrowed from the "spirit" of the Saudi radical Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, but is somehow raised to "Scholar-Activist" status.
Indeed, the reader must suffer through six apologist essays for radical figures who embody the problem – militant Islam -- before arriving at three who represent a possible solution. The solution, of course, is a more moderate interpretation of Islam as envisioned by such figures as Iran's Abdolkarim Soroush, Indonesia's Abdurrahman Wahid, and Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim.
Thankfully, Fatima Mernissi's book is a welcomed departure from this morass of misinformation. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (Addison-Wesley, 1992) unabashedly roasts Arab despots for fearing the changes that must occur if the Arab world is to blaze ahead, globalize and defeat the radicalism that plagues the region today. She traces the roots of the backwardness that afflicts the Middle East with shocking honesty.
"Facing the militaristic, imperialist West," she writes, "Muslim nationalists were forced to take shelter in their past and erect it as a rampart… [they] banned Western humanism as foreign and ‘imported,' calling the intellectuals who studied it enemy agents and traitors to the nationalist cause."
At the same time, she notes, "they committed themselves to the massive importation of weapons from the West."
Mernissi unequivocally states that Muslims must let go of their fears – past and present – to demilitarize, humanize and perhaps even defeat militant Islam. After all, Islam and democracy do not have to be incompatible.
Stephen Kinzer, a New York Times journalist, agrees. In his book, Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), he notes that Turkey is on the precipice of fusing Islam with democracy. Admittedly, Kinzer's book is not about Islam, but it's significant in that Turkey's role in the war against militant Islam may prove crucial in coming years.
Indeed, Turkey has effectively defeated its radical Islamic opposition, secularized its population, and globalized to the extent that it can. The problem now is that Turkey's military, the cornerstone of Turkish society since 1923, has micro-managed the country for too long, and therefore can not relinquish enough power for democracy to flourish. "The self-perpetuating elite this system has produced," writes Kinzer, "is highly resistant to change."
Still, with hard work and a little luck, Turkey might become the poster child for the world's only secular, Islamic democracy. When it does, it could become the only alternative voice to offset that of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and millions of radical Muslims worldwide.
While Turkey should be viewed as a preferred model for a secular Islamic government, it may be more important to better understand – not whitewash – the regimes that still pose a threat to global security. It is to be hoped that more authors will now take a far more realistic look at the threat of radical Islam, and at those governments mired in systems that allow it to thrive.