By Barry Rubin
When I first heard the story that President Barack Obama was barring from national security documents the use of terms like “Islamism,” “Islamic fundamentalist,” “Islamic radicalism,” or any reference of any connection between Islam and terrorist or revolutionary groups; al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hizballah; Iran’s regime or al-Qaida, I said to myself, oh that’s nothing new. That kind of policy started under Bush.
But then I realized–and this isn’t obvious in the coverage but is the most important aspect of all!–that this policy applies to internal government documents not just public statements. That’s both scary and shocking. Because the implication won’t be lost on career officials that along with not using these words it isn’t going to help their future prospects to use these concepts.
I don’t want to overstate the situation. In internal government discussions, people do refer to “Islamic radicals,” for example. It is the written work that is more likely to suffer. And are things going to tighten up under this administration in the years to come?
Suppose I’m an intelligence analyst in the State Department, Defense Department, armed forces, or CIA, and I’m writing about one of these groups or this ideology. How can one possibly analyze the power and appeal of this ideology, the way that ideas set its strategy and tactics, why it is such a huge menace if any reference to the Islamic religion and its texts or doctrines isn’t permitted?
Indeed, it is worse. Can you refer to the claims of these groups about Islam, even while insisting that they are wrong? Remember it isn’t just a matter of forbidding officials from doing something, they are going to get the signal that it is better for their careers not to do so.
And if one cannot talk about “Islamist” groups can you identify them as a huge threat or is the analyst tempted to suggest that they can be won over and moderated rather than they need to be combatted? Perhaps, say, the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might not be such a bad thing, or Hizballah is something the U.S. government can work with?
How could one even talk about a coherent Islamist movement, which is possibly the most single significant feature of international affairs today, at least in the Middle East–if I cannot use the “I” word even as part of a different word?
Suppose I’m reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Could I say without fear:
Yes, of course, Islam is a religion of peace but these people want to hijack and distort it. So what they do is look at certain basic texts and important Muslim theologians and interpet their statements to mean that ultimately no compromise is possible, Egypt must become an Islamic [oops] state, America is going to be their enemy, and Israel must be destroyed. Of course, this is just a distortion of Islam [which is a religion of peace] but many people believe it because they have been taught an interpretation similar to the one the Brotherhood is using.
Or would I have to say:
Since Islam is a religion of peace and is really moderate and there’s nothing in it that lends itself to a radical [mis]interpretation, therefore, the Brotherhood will realize this and become moderate or the Muslim masses–who, of course, understand their own religion–will inevitably reject the Islamists [oops!] false interpretation. In short, no worries and every little thing’s gonna be all right. [Footnote: Bob Marley.]
After all, this is the name of the doctrine that triggers so much terrorism; destroyed the World Trade Center; overthrew the shah of Iran; seized power in the Gaza Strip; is killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; and is trying to mount revolutions in countries as far-flung as Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, and Somalia to India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Yet that revolutionary Islamist doctrine itself is exploiting every advantage possible from the fervent belief of millions of people in Islam and the fact that its ideology arguably does coincide with some of that religion’s most important features.
In contrast to the “official” view that Islam is a religion of peace which a few heretical desperadoes is trying to hijack, my image is one of a fight over the steering wheel between two rivals which each have a claim to ownership of the vehicle. We know who we want to win, but the battle’s outcome isn’t going to be determined by pretending that an Islamist ideology doesn’t exist or that all the Muslim onlookers are laughing at the ridiculous pretensions of obviously outlandish heretics to their religion. After all, if that’s true, the Islamists have no chance of gaining power, right?
But while the Islamists are not “the” or the only embodiment of Islam, they are an embodiment of Islam who can make their case for legitimacy, and must be understood as such. The danger is that the Islamists will in future be accepted as the definers of Islam by huge numbers of people. The Islamists may disillusion people if they become rulers–as did the Communists–but once they have control over a country and its weapons it’s too late to debate them into defeat.
I’m less bothered by the fact that the U.S. government won’t allow officials to speak that way publicly. There are two arguments for this stance: so as not to “insult” Muslims by associating them with Islamists and to avoid giving Islamists legitimacy as claimants to being normative Muslims. Both have a certain public relations’ value but are sort of silly at the same time since many Muslims embrace Islamism while Muslims don’t care what non-Muslims think about anyone’s credentials. At any rate, these don’t apply so much to the phrase “revolutionary Islamist” for example.
Those of us who know how government bureaucracy works understand that officials don’t do things that jeopardize their careers and promotion hopes. For example, few in the U.S. army are going to look seriously for budding Islamist terrorists in their own ranks because–despite the Fort Hood massacre–to do so risks being called racist, Islamophobe, and–worse, lieutenant-for-life. And–may I be blunt here?–if officer bureaucrats and officials have to choose between getting into trouble and endangering lives, a lot of them will choose the latter.
For without an ability to discuss these matters frankly, analysis and reporting cannot be accurate. In effect, whole arguments and ideas will be swept from people’s minds. Already, the U.S. armed forces is too intimidated (and individuals too concerned about their careers) to examine soberly and seriously the potential development of Islamist terrorists in its own ranks. My sources tell me nothing has improved in this respect since the Fort Hood massacre.
To extend this intellectual malpractice further to international affairs and intelligence reporting within the government may go down in history as the most dangerous thing the Obama Administration has ever done. Imagine trying to analyze the USSR without being able to talk frankly about Communism; Nazi Germany without a serious analysis of its fascism. The analysis of samurai culture and the sanctity of the emperor in Japanese religion were absolutely vital for the U.S. conduct of World War Two.
How can one have a good discussion of what differentiates moderates from radicals or whether, say, Turkey’s government is a center-right family-values’ regime or an Islamist one? In what manner can somebody understand how a revolutionary Islamist group might quickly pick up support from millions within a country by using Islamic concepts and texts to justify itself in a persuasive manner? How can you figure out how to dispute Islamist claims if you don’t even acknowledge their existence and at least partial validity?
The above probably overstates the case. For example, there is still plenty of talk about “Islamic radicals” but very little longer-range or broader conceptualizations of what it all means. If you were a diplomat or intelligence analyst would you write a dispatch or report, for example, saying that the gaining of power in any Middle East country by revolutionary Islamist groups is a threat to U.S. national interests?
Yet the pressure is on for them to treat Islamist regimes and movements as rational, realist, national-interest-oriented, pragmatic entities whose ideas, methods, and behavior have nothing to do with Islam. Or, in the case of al-Qaida and others, the alternative is that they are insane heretical groups that have nothing to do with Islam?
Will officials be intimidated into shutting mouths and minds, altering strategic proposals, censoring out timely warnings? And that is a potential catastrophe for U.S. interests and is possibly going to be very costly in lives lost.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.
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