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Who Says Islam Is Totalitarian?


Not long ago, Bernard Lewis sounded almost like Geert Wilders.

Who says Islam is a totalitarian doctrine? Well, Geert Wilders does, of course. As the editors point out in Monday’s superb National Review Online editorial, the Dutch parliamentarian has even had the temerity to compare Islam with Nazism. Strong stuff indeed, and for speaking it, Wilders has earned the disdain not just of the usual Muslim Brotherhood satellite organizations but even of many on the political right.

Though they support free-speech rights, and thus grudgingly concede that Wilders should be permitted to say such things, they want you to understand they find his sentiments deplorable. Taking the politically correct view, they assure you that Islam is not a problem at all — it’s just those bad extremists and Islamists who have, as the Bush-era refrain went, “hijacked one of the world’s great religions.”

#ad#Emblematic is the estimable Charles Krauthammer, who has described Wilders’s views as “extreme, radical, and wrong.” Dr. K.’s complaint, expressed on Fox News back in March (and published on the Corner), was that Wilders conflates “Islam and Islamism.” The latter, Krauthammer insists, is “an ideology of a small minority which holds that the essence of Islam is jihad, conquest, forcing people into accepting a certain very narrow interpretation [of Islam].”

As I take a backseat to no one in my admiration of Dr. K., I wonder what he’d make of Bernard Lewis’s take on this subject. Professor Lewis is the distinguished scholar widely and aptly admired, including by Wilders’s detractors, as the West’s preeminent authority on Islam.  At Pajamas Media, Andrew Bostom has unearthed a 1954 International Affairs essay in which Professor Lewis quite matter-of-factly compared Islam with Communism. The essay, in fact, was called, “Communism and Islam.”

In it, Lewis considered “the very nature of Islamic society, tradition, and thought,” and concluded that its principal defining characteristic is the “authoritarianism, perhaps we may even say the totalitarianism, of the Islamic political tradition.” Expanding on this, he wrote:

There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law.#…#For the last thousand years, the political thinking of Islam has been dominated by such maxims as “tyranny is better than anarchy,” and “whose power is established, obedience to him is incumbent.”

But what about the conceit that undergirds current American foreign policy, the notion that Islam and Western democracy are perfectly compatible? Lewis dismissed the idea as so much elite wishful thinking:

Many attempts have been made to show that Islam and democracy are identical — attempts usually based on a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy or both. This sort of argument expresses a need of the uprooted Muslim intellectual who is no longer satisfied with or capable of understanding traditional Islamic values, and who tries to justify, or rather, restate, his inherited faith in terms of the fashionable ideology of the day. It is an example of the romantic and apologetic presentation of Islam that is a recognized phase in the reaction of Muslim thought to the impact of the West.

Clearly, the ensuing half-century has found Western intellectuals — regardless of political bent — joining romantic forces with their uprooted Muslim counterparts. Thus the accusation by Dr. Krauthammer, to take a prominent but by no means singular example, that Wilders fails to perceive the distinction — I’d call it a hoped-for distinction — between Islam and Islamism. Yet this accusation itself conflates Islam with Muslims, as well as Islamists with violent jihadists. This confusion leads Krauthammer to surmise both (a) that only a small minority of Muslims believe jihad is “the essence of Islam,” and (b) that because most Muslims in the West are not terrorists, it should be “obvious” that they are not Islamists.

#page#This is wrong on several levels. First, as Robert Spencer explains, “Jihad#…#is a key element of the Islamic faith according to every single Islamic authority on the planet.” To deny that it is the “essence of Islam” — which is how the prophet Mohammed regarded it — is to deny a basic fact. And though, as Spencer acknowledges, jihad is subject to varying interpretations, Lewis is clear on the preponderant construction. As he has recounted several times, most recently in The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, “The overwhelming majority of early authorities#…#citing relevant passages in the Qur’an and in the tradition, discuss jihad in military terms.” This jibes, to quote Ibn Warraq, with “the celebrated Dictionary of Islam,” which describes jihad as an “incumbent religious duty,” and defines it as “a religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad.”

#ad#Spencer echoes Lewis when he elaborates that “all the mainstream sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence teach as a matter of faith that Islam is intrinsically political and that Muslims must wage war against unbelievers and subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law.” The fact that most Muslims do not engage in violent jihad, whether out of practicality, indifference, or what have you, does not change what Islamic doctrine says. Nor does it mean these Muslims are “rejecting” that mandate. They are ignoring it.

Moreover, as I’ve noted on several occasions, the point of jihad is to spread sharia, the Islamic legal system whose installation is the necessary precondition to creating an Islamic society. That need not be done by violent means. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential Islamist organization, maintains that America and Europe will be “conquered” not by violence but by dawa­ – the proselytism of Islam by non-violent (or, more accurate, pre-violent) means, such as infiltration of our institutions. Spencer calls this phenomenon “stealth jihad.”

Consequently, one can be an Islamist without engaging in violent jihad, which is precisely the case with the vast majority of Islamists. The fact that they are not terrorists does not mean — as we wish it would mean — that they are not extremists. While they abstain from the use of force (particularly against other Muslims), staggering majorities of Muslims throughout the world favor the implementation and strict application of sharia. Andrew Bostom’s essay demonstrates this, citing polling done in 2009 by World Public Opinion in conjunction with the University of Maryland.

Back in 1954, Lewis recalled “the political history of Islam” as “one of almost unrelieved autocracy” that was “authoritarian, often arbitrary, [and] sometimes tyrannical.” Besides this, the most interesting part of his essay is its focus on “certain uncomfortable resemblances” between “the Ulama of Islam” and “the Communist Party.” Though “very different” in some ways, the two, he stated, “profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth.”

Those answers, of course, are worlds apart in their particulars. Nonetheless, Lewis saw them as strikingly similar in

their finality and completeness, and in the contrast they offer with the eternal questioning of Western man. Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers, who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong. Both offer an exhilarating feeling of mission, of purpose, of being engaged in a collective adventure to accelerate the historically inevitable victory of the true faith over the infidel evil-doers. The traditional Islamic division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, two necessarily opposed groups, of which the first has the collective obligation of perpetual struggle against the second, also has obvious parallels in the Communist view of world affairs. There again, the content of belief is utterly different, but the aggressive fanaticism of the believer is the same. The humorist who summed up the Communist creed as “There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet” was laying his finger on a real affinity. The call to a Communist Jihad, a Holy War for the faith — a new faith, but against the self-same Western Christian enemy — might well strike a responsive note.

In light of this scholarly comparison of Islam to Soviet totalitarianism, is it really so outrageous for Geert Wilders to compare Islam to Nazi totalitarianism? One needn’t agree with the analogy — and, agree or not, one needn’t think it a useful analogy — in order to understand why someone who is not intimidated by political correctness might employ it.

#page#In thinking about how to argue the depth of terrorist depravity to the jury while prosecuting a 1995 terrorism trial, I must confess it crossed my mind that jihad literally means “struggle,” the same word found in the title of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). I quickly dismissed any thought of mentioning this as too explosive — nothing provokes a mistrial motion faster than a prosecutor’s comparison of defendants to Nazis, and when your evidence is damning, it’s always better to let it, rather than your rhetoric, do the talking. But I certainly didn’t think the point was beyond the pale. As noted by Daniel Pipes (who does not agree with Wilders’s analogy), no less a figure than Winston Churchill described Mein Kampf as “the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.”

#ad#In the middle of the 20th century, before suffocating political correctness took hold, it was not all that controversial to say such things. Note that in 1954, Bernard Lewis obviously felt no need to resort to such devices as “Islamism” — a device I adopt myself in The Grand Jihad — to conform to today’s obligatory but unproved assumption that there exists a moderate, tolerant Islam, scripturally based and doctrinally distinguishable from the Islam of the “extremists.”

In those bygone days, the term “Islamist” was usually used to identify a scholar of Islam — akin to a Sinologist or an Arabist. There was another usage, dating back to the 1920s. It was the one coined by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna to denote a person who urged Islam as a complete way of life and favored installation of the sharia system. For Banna, there was no difference between Islam and Islamism.

That, by the way, is not only the Brotherhood’s view. It is the adamant opinion of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey who continues to be regarded by the U.S. government as a great moderate, just as he was during the Bush administration. “Very ugly” was his take on the term “moderate Islam” in a 2007 interview. As Erdogan fumed at the time, “It is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam.  Islam is Islam, and that’s it.”

Islam is Islam. That is Erdogan’s position, it seems to have been the position of Bernard Lewis a half century ago, and it is Geert Wilders’s position today. Not that Muslims are bad, but that Islam is a dangerous ideology. Wilders summed up his views in a 2009 interview with Jeff Jacoby (also quoted in Andrew Bostom’s piece):

I have nothing against the people. I don’t hate Muslims. But Islam is a totalitarian ideology. It rules every aspect of life — economics, family law, whatever. It has religious symbols, it has a God, it has a book — but it’s not a religion. It can be compared with totalitarian ideologies like Communism or fascism. There is no country where Islam is dominant where you have a real democracy, a real separation between church and state.

These claims are materially indistinguishable from points Professor Lewis’s made in 1954 — other than, perhaps, Wilders’s assertion that Islam “is not a religion,” although by that, I take him to mean Islam is not merely a religion or a set of spiritual principles but a comprehensive system controlling all of life.

From those premises, Wilders concluded that “Islam is totally contrary to our values.” That is a bracing conclusion. I think the problem people have with Wilders is that he is bracing. He says out loud what they fear is the case, or what they refuse to examine for fear of discovering that it is the case. That makes him inconvenient. It doesn’t make him wrong.

– Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.

Andrew C. McCarthy

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