IN FEBRUARY, The New York Review of Books’ website hosted a debate in which several prominent feminists criticized Human Rights Watch for issuing a report that whitewashed the record of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists poised to take power in the Middle East. Human Rights Watch responded by stating that this critique amounted to, among other things, “intolerance for Islam.” A year and a half earlier, numerous right-wing American activists launched a fierce campaign to stop the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. In doing so, many of them argued that Islam was to blame for the attacks of September 11 and rejected the idea that Muslims could also have been victims on that fateful day. At first glance, the views of these right-wing activists and those of Human Rights Watch appear diametrically opposed. In fact, they have a good deal in common. Most importantly, both consider Islam and Islamism to be indistinguishable. Only on that basis can they consider the construction of an Islamic cultural center to be a threat, or regard opposition to an Islamist political party to be the same as opposition to Islam as a religion.
Bassam Tibi takes up this problematic misconception in his new book. As an Arab Muslim who has lived in the West for several decades (first in Germany and now in the United States), he makes an important argument against conflating his religion with the political ideology of Islamists. As he aptly states, “It is no contradiction to defend Islam against prejudice and to criticize Islamism.” Thus he spends most of the book bravely arguing against Islamism from a liberal Islamic perspective. The meaning of “bravely” here is not to be confused with its normal usage in Western intellectual discourse. Tibi is brave in that as a prominent Muslim critic of Islamism, religious fanatics have threatened to kill him (a threat that likeminded extremists have carried out against others in the past).
Tibi is successful in demonstrating that the Islamic tradition contains seeds which could form the basis of a modern humanistic Islam. Yet this humanistic understanding of Islam’s past and potential future has been routinely undermined by Islamists who have been somewhat successful in monopolizing Islamic discourse. But Tibi’s arguments are undercut by a lack of nuance when describing Islamism. This ultimately undermines many of his claims and, I fear, will turn off many of the people who ought to take note of the difference between Islam as a religion and Islamism as, what Tibi terms, “religionized politics.”
Tibi leans heavily on the theories of Hannah Arendt as well as more recent scholarship from historians such as Jeffery Herf to demonstrate that Islamism clearly shares an intellectual heritage with European totalitarian movements of the last century. He correctly stresses that Islamism is not a “revival” but an invention of an Islamic past. In fact, many of the terms that Islamists employ, such as “Islamic State” or “Islamic System,” are neologisms that do not exist in traditional Islamic sources. In the twentieth century, Islamists borrowed many of these concepts from totalitarian movements in Europe and then Islamized them. Following Arendt, Tibi also links totalitarian tendencies with anti-Semitism, and he includes a long and useful discussion of how many Islamists have appropriated the worst of European views toward Jews. At a time when Islamists are vying for power in several Middle Eastern states, this discussion is incredibly important, but unfortunately all too rare in Western academic circles.
Despite these valuable insights, however, Tibi’s depiction of Islamism is problematic. Most importantly, he fails to recognize any distinction between the vast array of Islamist organizations. Thus he argues that Islamists who espouse violence and those who denounce it are essentially the same, insisting that they “only differ over the means to be employed, not the goal itself.” More crudely, he wishes to discourage “the assumption that there is a distinction between ‘moderate Islamists’ and ‘terrorists.’” Thus whether Islamists act peacefully or violently is unimportant to him. But if it is not the actions of Islamists that one should use to judge them, then surely it is their words? Not for Tibi. He warns the reader to “be extremely cautious about taking Islamists’ words at face value.” One is left dumbfounded. If neither their words nor their deeds properly reflect Islamists’ “true” intentions, then on what basis can one make an assessment? Tibi offers no way out of this puzzle.
Since he assumes all Islamists are essentially the same, he sees no difference between al-Qaida and Turkey’s Freedom and Justice Party (AKP), which rules a NATO member-state currently fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Nor does he distinguish between intellectuals such as Tariq Ramadan and the Taliban. To be clear, Tariq Ramadan is certainly a problematic figure. In the pages of this magazine and then in his book, Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman has clearly demonstrated that Ramadan engages in doublespeak on liberalism and fails to condemn abhorrent acts. Similarly, the AKP has shown troubling authoritarian tendencies and has opened space for anti-Semitism in Turkey. Still, one does not have to be an apologist for Tariq Ramadan or the AKP to recognize that they are not analogous to Al Qaeda. Women are not beaten for immodesty on the streets Istanbul as they were in Kabul, and the AKP has not called for anything even remotely resembling Taliban-style rule. The difference between various Islamists is not, as Tibi would have it, simply a debate on the means to achieve a shared goal. The goal itself is very different.
Tibi’s lumping of these groups and intellectuals together results from his failure to take his own argument about Islamism as an “invented tradition” to its logical conclusion. If Islamists neologisms such as “Islamic State” and “Islamic System” did not exist in classical Islam, then it follows that they have no intrinsic meaning. One cannot look to Islamic history and find an example of an “Islamic system.” Therefore Islamists need to define these terms. Yet most Islamists have not attempted to do so, and they generally employ them to avoid the messy business of suggesting concrete policies or defining their ideology. It is much easier for everyone to simply agree that “Islam is the solution” and not discuss the divisive details.
Tibi falls into their trap by assuming that everyone who employs the words “Sharia” or “Islamic State” is using them in the same way. This is not the case. Feisal Abdul Rauf, of the Ground Zero Islamic community center, has argued that the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are the embodiment of Islamic values and the Sharia. Therefore, Rauf asserts, America is a “Sharia compliant state.” It should be obvious that Rauf’s definition of Sharia is worlds apart from what the Taliban proposes in Afghanistan. Rauf may be significantly more liberal than Ramadan or the AKP, but his example makes clear that using the same terms does not equate to shared policies or even shared ideology. This is as true in the language of Islamism as it is in other political language. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea clearly has a different conception of democracy than most Americans.
Tibi’s understanding of Islamism as possessing an essential and unchangeable nature is not just problematic theoretically. It also leads to bad analysis and forces him to bend facts. For example, he states that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt “disguised” itself as the Wasat Party. In fact, the Wasat Party was formed by a group of Muslim Brothers who were dissatisfied with the Brotherhood’s hardline tendencies. They broke off to form their own significantly more liberal, though far less popular party. This was not a debate over the means for achieving an Islamic state. Both the Brotherhood and the Wasat Party favored elections, not violence. They disagreed over what the Islamic state would be. Tibi’s conception of Islamism, therefore, possesses no way to explain the existence of the Wasat Party.
Probably the most problematic aspect of Tibi’s depiction of Islamism is the future it portends: there is no way forward except conflict. What else is the reader to infer about his depiction of a totalitarian movement that he equates to Nazism and Stalinism; a movement which he claims is by its nature incapable of reform or moderation, and with which engagement is impossible? He never says it, but the only future one could resonably imagine is drenched in violent confrontation. That conclusion is neither favorable nor necessary. Thankfully, Islamists have shown that they can and do moderate themselves (though the unfortunate flipside of this is that they can also become more extreme). Those who have demonstrated this propensity, and have eschewed violence, can and should be engaged on all levels. The alternative can only lead to perpetual conflict and will not empower the more liberal and humanistic Islam that Tibi espouses. Nor will it ease the Western suspicions and Islamophobia that he correctly condemns.
Samuel Helfont is a Ph.D candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.