Islamism: The Allure and the Cure

From the jails of America, Britain, and France to the plains of Syria and Iraq and the jungles of Africa and Southeast Asia, a violent brand of Islam is on the march, coercing and cajoling converts and winning territory.

It is led by The Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), Boko Haram, Al-Shebab, Hamas, Hizb’allah and others who think they have a monopoly on the "pure" version of Islam.

They have won vast tracts of land from Africa to Iraq. These physical conquests are matched by spiritual conquests seen in the changing dress codes of women and men who cover themselves with cloth and beards.

Some call it "fundamentalist Islam" or "militant Islam," but "fundamentalism" is really a term from the Christian church, and militancy is much too kind a term for groups that would just as soon cut off the heads of those with whom they disagree.

A better name is "Islamism" -- an aggressive doctrine that wants to impose a strict version of Islamic governance on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, using the seventh-century regime of Muhammad and his close followers as a model.

What is its allure, and is there a "cure" -- a way to stop it?

The short answer is that Islamism appeals to followers in many ways, including:

  • An activist and triumphal profile which contrasts well against the 256 shades of gray that one encounters among many of the West's "establishment" faiths;
  • A welcoming community or umma relatively easy to enter just by accepting God (Allah) and Muhammad as his messenger in front of witnesses;
  • And a relatively simple code of conduct with five basic commandments known as khamsat arkaan al-Islam (The Five Pillars of Islam).

Back in the seventh century, Islam's prophet, Muhammad, won his many converts not just with his faith and ideology but by his surprising success on the battlefield. Islam may like to be called “the religion of peace," but it was advanced by the sword.

"Sabil allah fi-al-sayf" -- the path of Allah is by the sword, as Muslims say, and the post-Millennial imitators of Muhammad use a similar formula.

For them as for Muhammad and his deputies or caliphs (Arabic: khalifa), nothing succeeds like success.

The divine and the authoritarian become one. Muhammad and the caliphs were the law -- both religious and temporal. Muhammad's practices or customs (sunna) were another source of law. This kind of authoritarian clarity can be especially intoxicating in areas that have experienced anarchy and tumult.

People like to side with a winner, especially in a tough neighborhood.

Another apparent secret of Islam is that it lends itself to the tribal and authoritarian background of "The Third World." Muhammad's faith community replaced the tribe, as anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman has shown, with members fighting for each other and against all those on the outside, putting loyalty to the group above all else.

What Salzman calls "the tribal spirit" produces an "us-versus-them" mentality or "rule by group loyalty, rather than rule by rules." This weakens modern concepts such as "civil society," while aiding a predilection to despotism and "might makes right."

Many Western leaders and pundits think that Islam -- even Islamism -- can be courted by concessions and sweet words, but they have so far been proved wrong. Just in the last months, Muslim mobs have led virtual pogroms against Jews in several European cities, attacking Jews in synagogues.

European leaders are politically paralyzed. Their police forces often stand aside rather than fight the growing Islamic communities made up of the descendants of Moroccan, Algerian, Turkish, and Pakistani guest workers who now dominate Europe's central cities.

What French, British, Belgian, or Swedish prime minister wants to alienate ten percent of his electorate -- the growing Muslim community -- just to protect a dwindling minority of Jews with minimal political clout?  

More than 20 years ago several academic analysts pointed to a "clash of cultures" or "clash of civilizations" -- Bernard Lewis, Barry Buzan, and Samuel Huntington, among others. Their comments were dismissed by politicians playing to electorates that were increasingly Muslim.

"Some Westerners, including President Bill Clinton, have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists," asserted Professor Huntington "Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise."

The Islamic terror situation worldwide has worsened in the years since Huntington wrote those words, even as the population balance in Europe has deteriorated.

For the West to defeat this Islamism it must do and realize a few things:

  •  It must be willing to fight and defeat Islamism on the field of battle and in other arenas;
  •  It must be confident and proud of its own culture and history and not apologize or try to rewrite history in a politically correct manner;
  •  And it must encourage its citizens to get married and have children, not just dogs and cats.

There’s a lot else that will be required. But these will serve as necessary first steps.

Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster.  He teaches at Bar-Ilan University , was strategic affairs advisor in Israel ’s Ministry of Public Security, and was the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14. Widlanski has been a reporter, correspondent and editor at The New York Times, Israeli Army Radio, Cox Newspapers/The Atlanta Constitution and The Jerusalem.

From the jails of America, Britain, and France to the plains of Syria and Iraq and the jungles of Africa and Southeast Asia, a violent brand of Islam is on the march, coercing and cajoling converts and winning territory.

It is led by The Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), Boko Haram, Al-Shebab, Hamas, Hizb’allah and others who think they have a monopoly on the "pure" version of Islam.

They have won vast tracts of land from Africa to Iraq. These physical conquests are matched by spiritual conquests seen in the changing dress codes of women and men who cover themselves with cloth and beards.

Some call it "fundamentalist Islam" or "militant Islam," but "fundamentalism" is really a term from the Christian church, and militancy is much too kind a term for groups that would just as soon cut off the heads of those with whom they disagree.

A better name is "Islamism" -- an aggressive doctrine that wants to impose a strict version of Islamic governance on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, using the seventh-century regime of Muhammad and his close followers as a model.

What is its allure, and is there a "cure" -- a way to stop it?

The short answer is that Islamism appeals to followers in many ways, including:

  • An activist and triumphal profile which contrasts well against the 256 shades of gray that one encounters among many of the West's "establishment" faiths;
  • A welcoming community or umma relatively easy to enter just by accepting God (Allah) and Muhammad as his messenger in front of witnesses;
  • And a relatively simple code of conduct with five basic commandments known as khamsat arkaan al-Islam (The Five Pillars of Islam).

Back in the seventh century, Islam's prophet, Muhammad, won his many converts not just with his faith and ideology but by his surprising success on the battlefield. Islam may like to be called “the religion of peace," but it was advanced by the sword.

"Sabil allah fi-al-sayf" -- the path of Allah is by the sword, as Muslims say, and the post-Millennial imitators of Muhammad use a similar formula.

For them as for Muhammad and his deputies or caliphs (Arabic: khalifa), nothing succeeds like success.

The divine and the authoritarian become one. Muhammad and the caliphs were the law -- both religious and temporal. Muhammad's practices or customs (sunna) were another source of law. This kind of authoritarian clarity can be especially intoxicating in areas that have experienced anarchy and tumult.

People like to side with a winner, especially in a tough neighborhood.

Another apparent secret of Islam is that it lends itself to the tribal and authoritarian background of "The Third World." Muhammad's faith community replaced the tribe, as anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman has shown, with members fighting for each other and against all those on the outside, putting loyalty to the group above all else.

What Salzman calls "the tribal spirit" produces an "us-versus-them" mentality or "rule by group loyalty, rather than rule by rules." This weakens modern concepts such as "civil society," while aiding a predilection to despotism and "might makes right."

Many Western leaders and pundits think that Islam -- even Islamism -- can be courted by concessions and sweet words, but they have so far been proved wrong. Just in the last months, Muslim mobs have led virtual pogroms against Jews in several European cities, attacking Jews in synagogues.

European leaders are politically paralyzed. Their police forces often stand aside rather than fight the growing Islamic communities made up of the descendants of Moroccan, Algerian, Turkish, and Pakistani guest workers who now dominate Europe's central cities.

What French, British, Belgian, or Swedish prime minister wants to alienate ten percent of his electorate -- the growing Muslim community -- just to protect a dwindling minority of Jews with minimal political clout?  

More than 20 years ago several academic analysts pointed to a "clash of cultures" or "clash of civilizations" -- Bernard Lewis, Barry Buzan, and Samuel Huntington, among others. Their comments were dismissed by politicians playing to electorates that were increasingly Muslim.

"Some Westerners, including President Bill Clinton, have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists," asserted Professor Huntington "Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise."

The Islamic terror situation worldwide has worsened in the years since Huntington wrote those words, even as the population balance in Europe has deteriorated.

For the West to defeat this Islamism it must do and realize a few things:

  •  It must be willing to fight and defeat Islamism on the field of battle and in other arenas;
  •  It must be confident and proud of its own culture and history and not apologize or try to rewrite history in a politically correct manner;
  •  And it must encourage its citizens to get married and have children, not just dogs and cats.

There’s a lot else that will be required. But these will serve as necessary first steps.

Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster.  He teaches at Bar-Ilan University , was strategic affairs advisor in Israel ’s Ministry of Public Security, and was the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14. Widlanski has been a reporter, correspondent and editor at The New York Times, Israeli Army Radio, Cox Newspapers/The Atlanta Constitution and The Jerusalem.