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Islam: Unmentionable in D.C.

The recent suicide bombing against Pashtun tribal elders in Mohmand, a region not far from Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, made my mind return to conversations I’d had in Peshawar in 2000. Westerners could then roam the non-restricted areas of the province without much fear. Peshawar, which was a hotbed of Islamic militancy, still offered the full range of Pashtun cosmopolitanism: international hotels where VIP natives and foreigners could get alcohol; lots of Internet shops where locals emailed their relatives abroad and scanned porno sites; and video-and-DVD stores where you could easily get contraband copies of newly-released Hollywood blockbusters or, with a bit more effort, skin flicks. It was a lively, dirty, dilapidated, but relatively well-organized city (the British empire lived on) swamped with Pashtun Afghans who greatly preferred life there to the boredom, poverty, and religious unpleasantness of Taliban rule north of the border.

What I liked best about the place was how easy it was to have conversations about Islam. Westernized businessmen and officials, journalists, imams from neighborhood mosques, the ordinary faithful after prayers, rug merchants, taxi drivers, soldiers, and die-hard Islamic militants pumping iron in god-awful gyms would all proffer their opinions about the faith, America, Christianity, Jews, and Osama bin Laden (most applauded the man). Pakistanis become intellectually serious pretty quickly. And even among the hesitant, it didn't take that long before you could have an energetic conversation about what many Westerners would describe as sensitive issues. After the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000, everyone there knew that bin Laden and the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar had found some common ground. By and large, the Peshawaris saw jihad against the United States as understandable and acceptable, and those who agreed, and those who didn’t, weren’t offended when an American asked them about the earthly manifestations of their faith.

I haven’t returned to Peshawar since 2000, but it’s a good guess that the same conversations are to be had, though undoubtedly in greater variation, since jihadist violence has now savaged Pakistan. It’s an odd situation: Throughout the greater Middle East, frank discussions about Islam are easier to have than they are in Washington, D.C.—especially among government officials. Ask someone in the Obama administration about jihad and, unless the official knows the conversation is off the record—and sometimes even if it is off the record—that official likely will become a bit panicked, nonplussed, and try to change the subject.

It’s been 18 months since Mr. Obama became president; thirteen months since he gave his Cairo speech and rolled out his “New Beginning” approach to the Muslim world. Primary result: In the nation’s capital, conversations have become boring, lightweight, and sometimes inane.

Although it’s deeply politically incorrect to say so, intellectually, things were better under the Bush administration. President George W. Bush struggled briefly with the issue of whether it was okay to use the word “Islamofascism.” I’m against its use but it’s not philosophically absurd to use this term in describing some of the modern Islamic movements that sprang from the Egyptian Hassan Al Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood and the subcontinent’s great modern theologian Abul Ala Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami (Maududi was quite open in his admiration of fascism’s inspirational capacity). President Bush’s public use of the term one time provoked considerable debate in the West and in the Middle East. Mr. Bush’s more adamant embrace of democracy-exporting rhetoric provoked even more discussion. Such controversy was all for the best. Muslim-versus-Muslim debate is always more robust when the West, especially the United States, is also actively engaged in the discussion. Whether the invidious subject is slavery, female genital mutilation, Sharia’s draconian corporal punishments (hudud laws), women’s rights, corruption, jihadism, “oriental despotism,” or representative government, intra-Muslim ethical deliberations on most of these subjects have been provoked by Westerners and Westernized Muslims taking issue with prevailing practices.

President Obama’s operating philosophy toward the Muslim world appears to be that being “offensive” towards Muslims can’t be good for Muslim–non-Muslim relations. Mr. Obama’s dispensation more or less follows the arguments made by a wide variety of liberal intellectuals while Mr. Bush was president. To wit: The Iraq war (though not the Afghan war), Guantanamo, rendition, waterboarding, and Mr. Bush’s existential presence (his Christian Evangelical essence) accentuated the Muslim–non-Muslim divide, thereby contributing to anti-American anger and the manufacture of holy warriors. We never knew how many holy warriors Mr. Bush produced, but the implication was lots.

And the black Barack Hussein Obama would do wonders to fix all this. In the immortal words of The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, Mr. Obama’s “face” would be “the most effective potential rebranding of the United States since Reagan.” In December 2007, Mr. Sullivan asked us to consider this hypothetical: “It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image,

America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm…. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close.” What does one do with this extreme mirror imaging of one’s one biases into the minds of foreigners? Senator John McCain obviously didn’t know how to handle it. (But I have a suggestion: In 2010 Mr. Sullivan and I should travel together through Pakistan, visiting the Pashtun and Punjabi breeding grounds of jihadism and see how President Obama’s “face” is doing.)

The history-annulling quality of this “New Beginning” line of thought (Islamic militancy has a very long history; it attracted many of the Muslim world’s best minds to its standard long before President Bush destroyed Saddam Hussein; being a black Christian son of an African Muslim is much more important and estimable in America than in the Middle East) really should have encountered a bit more resistance from those who knew the Muslim world.

But time is quickly cruel. Although Mr. Obama could make a recovery among devout Muslims, he appears to have become more or less irrelevant to fundamentalist discussions—except on the issue of Israel/Palestine where there is considerable disappointment. (President Obama was supposed to come down hard on the Jewish state; that he has not done so has significantly diminished his “change” appeal among both religious and secular Arabs). Radicalization among

American Muslims seems to have actually increased during Mr. Obama’s presidency and, if this is true, it would be dubious to suggest that anything Mr. Obama has done provoked that increase. The radicalization of Europe’s Muslim community—probably still the greatest jihadist threat to the West—doesn’t seem to have changed course because Barack Obama is in the White House.

The number of die-hard jihadists may have gone down in the Muslim world since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but if this is so it is undoubtedly because (1) the United States military and allied armed forces have killed and imprisoned jihadists more quickly than they could reproduce and (2) Arabs and Pakistanis—the two big constituencies for Al Qaeda and like-minded organizations—have seen so much Muslim-on-Muslim bloodshed in the Middle East and Central Asia in the last decade that they have begun to recoil from the organizations that once fascinated so many of them. Muslim militants aren’t children. They know a hell of a lot more about their faith than do American presidents who assert that “Islam is a religion of peace.” (What Islam is, as with Christianity and Judaism, is an evolving question, but it’s not just Muslim holy warriors who don’t care for the Prophet Mohammad being depicted as a pre-modern peacenik.)

Since the inauguration of Mr. Obama, the Saudis certainly haven’t reformed their massive, state-financed export of virulently anti-Western Wahhabi ideology, or their own school books, which still depict Jews and Christians as being pretty far down the evolutionary ladder. Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was certainly used as a rhetorical battering ram by Iran’s pro-democracy dissidents; but these dissidents no longer shout "U ba ma" (“he is with us”) in Persian since it became obvious that the president really only wanted to talk to Mr. Khamenei about his nukes, not about representative government. Needless to say, the supreme leader’s Islam is not the Islam of Barack Obama, who declared in Cairo, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” (Is it possible that President Obama discussed the “negative stereotyping” in his private correspondence to Khamenei?)

Now it’s possible that President Obama’s play-nice approach to the Muslim world won’t leave us in any worse shape than we were in when he arrived in the White House. It is, however, questionable. When Mr. Obama’s attorney general twists himself into knots trying to avoid juxtaposing the word “Islam” with the word “terrorism,” and when the president’s senior counterterrorism advisor gives speeches on Islam that would be more appropriate on “Sesame Street,” you gotta wonder whether the dumbed-down level of public Washington discourse is the visible sign of internal bureaucratic rot. In any case, we would do well to remember the observation that Princeton historian Michael Cook made about Islamic history:

"It was the fusion of … [an] egalitarian and activist tribal ethos with the monotheist tradition that gave Islam its distinctive political character. In no other civilization was rebellion for conscience sake so widespread as it was in the early centuries of Islamic history; no other major religious tradition has lent itself to revival as a political ideology—and not just a political identity—in the modern world."

Osama bin Laden, a rebel if there ever was one, is much older than he appears. We would do well also to remember that the libraries in Iran’s dissident-rich universities and the homes of the country’s increasingly secular intellectuals are full of books that are chapters to the exquisitely invidious but enormously productive dialogue between the West and Islam. And great books, like great statesmen, are almost never nice.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.