Back in 1990, the historian and commentator Bernard Lewis opined that the Muslim world was gearing up for a clash of civilizations with the west. At that time, the flashpoints of concern were Iran and Lebanon as opposed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya remained a constant thorn in the US’ side throughout this period and into our era with or without Gadaffi at the helm.
With the Iranian revolution still fresh in his mind, Lewis believed Muslims were returning to a binary view of the world divided between the House of Islam and the House of War. A war to be prosecuted against all unbelievers.
This he saw as a one thousand five hundred year clash between Islam and Christianity. Up to the 17th century, Islam had been in the ascendant. After that, it retreated miserably in the face of western expansion. The result of this humiliation was burning hatred that Lewis believed was turning to outright hostility. Hence the rise of what was termed ‘fundamentalism’ in the 90s and early 2000s and is being termed ‘radical Islam’ now.
But even Lewis conceded that fundamentalism wasn’t the full picture when it came to Islam. And his rather doom laden analysis ignored the efforts by secular governments in the Middle East to modernise their societies in the 20th century. It also portrayed Muslims as irrational and messianic – prone to red mist moments that sent them over the top. This orientalist view was rightly seen as insulting by a majority of law abiding Muslims.
Worse, the clash of civilizations view mirrors the ideology of extremist Islamists who tell Muslims that the west is engaged in an apocalyptic war against Islam. Daesh, AQ and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood depict western democracies as utterly hostile to Islam. It is impossible, they claim, for Muslims to live under such conditions and they must strive to create a caliphate that will eventually dominate the world.
President Bush, after 9/11, realised that it was important to separate out Islam from Islamism. He said the following:
Some call this evil Islamic radicalism, others militant jihadism. Still others Islamo-fascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.
Obama also realised that it was important not to bolster the jihadi narrative of a war by the west against Islam. Words had to be chosen very carefully. Trump’s circle dislike Obama’s refusal to recognise the influence of Islam. But there is a path that can be trodden between those who want to attack Islam in its entirety and those who refuse to recognise the role of theology. That is to say that yes, indeed, the building blocks of Islamist and jihadi ideology can be found in Islam – it’s just that most Muslims have chosen to build something very different with the building blocks on offer.
By all means recognise the theological influence in Daesh propaganda. Dabiq, the terrorist group’s magazine, is littered with Quranic references. Then ask yourself whether Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, is going to exercise a positive influence on Muslims round the world when he says something like this:
We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture.
This is pure Bernard Lewis and music to the ears of Islamists everywhere. The binary choice is being forced on Muslims by Daesh on one side and the political right on the other. In the middle, the “grey zone of compromise” is being extinguished. That phrase was dreamt up by Daesh and they rejoice when the middle path of reason and hope is squeezed a little narrower.