Last Friday, a Bosnian Muslim named Mevlid Jasarevic walked up to the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo with a rifle and opened fire, terrorizing the city center until he was wounded by a police sharpshooter. Media reports identified him as a “radical Islamist.” What made him an “Islamist”? The fact that he shot up the embassy. On Thursday, Mevlid Jasarevic was simply a Muslim. He became an Islamist with the first shot from his Kalashnikov.
To be sure, the media have also identified Jasarevic as a Wahhabi — but that signifier likewise offered no clue before Friday as to what he was going to do on that day. After all, Wahhabi Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, and no one thinks that every last Saudi citizen is likely one day to start firing at infidel embassies.
My point is that while my friend Andy McCarthy is quite right that there are some Muslims who are interested in implementing Islam’s supremacist political program and some who are not, the “Islam/Islamism” distinction is worthless to distinguish one group from the other. This is precisely because, as Andy quotes me as saying before, the distinction is artificial and imposed from without. There are not, in other words, Islamist mosques and non-Islamist mosques, distinguishable from one another by the sign outside each, like Baptist and Methodist churches. On the contrary, “Islamists” move among non-political, non-supremacist Muslims with no difficulty; no Islamic authorities are putting them out of mosques, or setting up separate institutions to distinguish themselves from the “Islamists.” Mevlid Jasarevic could and did visit mosques in Austria, Serbia, and Bosnia without impediment before he started shooting on Friday; no one stopped him from entering because he was an “Islamist.”
So if Muslims do not generally make this distinction among themselves, should non-Muslim analysts make it? The problem I see with doing so is that for all too many it is a way of implying that Islam itself has no political or supremacist elements, and that those Muslims who do hold political and supremacist aspirations constitute a tiny minority of extremists who have twisted and hijacked the religion. This is not only false, but misleading; it can and does make for wrongheaded and foolish policies that have wasted American lives, money, and matériel, and led us into numerous alliances and agreements with entities we would have been wiser about, had our analysis of Islam been more realistic and accurate.
All too often, American analysts have assumed that Muslim individuals and groups who have no open involvement with terrorism fully accept pluralism, constitutional values, and Western notions of human rights, including the freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and equality of rights for women. And all too often, they have been wrong in that assessment, often disastrously so. The billions that the U.S. has given to a duplicitous Pakistani government is a large-scale example; the tour of security procedures at O’Hare Airport given a few years ago to the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a smaller one. In these and many other cases, however, the foolishness of the authorities in question stemmed from their assumption that the people they were dealing with were not “Islamists,” and hence were natural allies.
We have been fooled by too many because of our haste to make this distinction where it cannot be legitimately made. We assume that Muslims who aren’t in al-Qaeda reject the al-Qaeda program, and certainly many do. But for some, the rejection is of al-Qaeda’s tactics, not of its goal.