In the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which left 130 dead and hundreds more maimed and wounded, pressure has mounted on the Obama administration for a change of strategy in the protection of the homeland, and the fight against Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL). Yet the president and his national security team seem to have doubled down, insisting their strategy was working, and suggesting a war of words may now be in the offing, part of some formidable secret arsenal, a state of the art plan of attack aimed at defeating IS in words rather than deeds. And so we witness a recent morphing of IS into Daesh in the puzzled and puzzling taxonomy of the president’s clumsy foreign policy.
Daesh, we are led to believe, is the Kryptonite of Islamic State, a word it abhors, bound to weaken it and ultimately defeat it. Yet, it matters little that Daesh is the Arabic acronym of exactly the words President Barack Obama and his administration refuse to utter: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; ISIS, not ISIL! In the end, not calling the problems of our times by their names may be at the very heart of the problems of our times. The question of whether or not the Islamic State group and its fellow travelers are “Islamic,” “Jihadist,” “Islamo-fascist” and the like – difficult descriptives that may otherwise be supremely accurate – has come to define the language of public, intellectual and political discourses on Islam in the United States.
Orwellian escapisms have therefore become the euphemisms of choice of polite society, in American foreign policy circles and in a feckless academe concerned less with the pursuit of knowledge and more with political correctness and the unease that it may offend or stigmatize “moderate Islam” by attaching “Islamic” to violent acts committed by self-proclaimed “Muslims.” Yet, otherwise honest “moderate Muslims,” uninterested in the infantilizing rhetoric of the politically correct, may not necessarily be offended by a franc-parler when many of their own are the prime targets and the first to be stricken down by unnamed (or misnamed) abominations drawing legitimacy from Islamic traditions.
Sufism, a mystical aspect of Islam, may be argued to be supremely Muslim and Islamic. Averroes, a twelfth century “founding father” of Western secular enlightened thought, is likewise Muslim and Islamic. But so are IS and Osama bin-Laden Muslim and Islamic. Not admitting this reality is ultimately suppressing a difficult, painful conversation that needs to be had. Not heeding this reality, not recognizing the diversity of Islam and not giving peoples and events and concepts the names that they themselves arrogate to themselves is not only mendacious, unscrupulous and misleading; it is grotesque, insane, and may be suicidal.
Muslims are indeed a varied lot. Islam is not merely a matter of “divine” revelation and guidance; Islam is an historical human phenomenon, and as such, it has been applied differently in different places, at different times, and by different peoples.
Unlike Christianity, Islam is not only a means of existential “salvation”; it is also the beginning of history and the pinnacle of human experience.
Whatever came before Islam is not worth remembering or safeguarding; it belongs to the age of jahiliyya, “ignorance.” Whatever may come after Islam can never measure up. Therefore, the differences in the application of Islam can be quite extensive and acute in places, among peoples, and amid societies, rituals and ideas identified as Islamic.
Yet all applications of Islam are part and parcel of Islamic traditions, and the devastation visited on our world today by IS is as much in conformance with Islam’s iconoclastic beginnings as it may be an aberration.
In that sense, one may ask if Avicenna, an eleventh century Islamic philosopher, was a true Muslim? His Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic rationalism led him to the notion that there exists a superior “Divine Truth” that belongs to the human intellect, and a “Lesser Truth” communicated by religions and prophets – Islam and its prophet included.
Indeed, Avicenna the Muslim cast doubt on the divinity of Koran, arguing that the material world was eternal, that God had no interest in mankind, that there is no Judgment Day and no Resurrection, that there is neither Heaven nor Eternal Hellfire, and that the revealed “Truths” of scriptures (Koran included) were not superior to, or more valid than, human rationalism.
The preceding is “kufr” (blasphemy and apostasy) according to Islam. Yet, Avicenna defended himself claiming that “it is not so easy [...] to call me an unbeliever; no faith is better founded than my faith; [...] and if I’m an unbeliever, [then] there is no single Muslim anywhere in the world.” It may therefore be argued that Avicenna was a Muslim, and a legitimate Muslim at that, simply because he said so. Likewise the bin-Laden and IS types ought to be deemed Muslim simply because they view themselves as such. Not recognizing that much means rejecting the very foundations of Islam – the Koran and the Sunna, where both Avicenna’s and IS’s creeds are on solid historical and theological grounds.
Like Christianity (but unlike Judaism,) Islam is a millenarian triumphalist creed, with behind it 13 centuries of colonial military conquest that took it from a small oasis town in today’s Saudi Arabia to the Iberian Peninsula, and on to the gates of Vienna and the Great Wall of China. Like most Christians, most Muslims have abandoned the hegemonic militaristic aspect of their faith in favor of a humanist facet as advocated by Avicenna, Averroes and others. Unfortunately, it remains the case that a “fringe” – a violent, determined and supremely learned and authentic fringe – is the most visible and vocal representation of Islam today; a representation that dismisses and apostatizes others who do not share its views.
One fights this “fringe” by admitting that its worldview is as authentic an interpretation of Islam as any, but an interpretation that the majority of Muslims might have long since relinquished. Mere claims that IS is “a misrepresentation of Islam,” or a “distortion of Islam,” or that “Islam is a religion of peace,” simply no longer obtain in the context of mounting violence in the name of Islam. Islam may indeed be a “religion of peace,” but it is likewise a religion that has waged war, made battle, conquered, subjugated, victimized and colonized.
Islam did not spread peacefully, in a vacuum.
“Noting with clarity today that Jihadism is a deadly disease of Islam and a major danger of our time, is not an accusation,” wrote recently French religious scholar Henri Tincq. Calling things and events by their names, he argued, is a statement of fact, not slander; acknowledging the anxieties of non-Muslims vis-à-vis Islam and the way Islam presents itself in our times is not an attempt at stigmatizing Muslims.
Likewise recognizing the sense of betrayal that Frenchmen and other non-Muslims may feel in the face of what Islam has wrought is part and parcel of legitimate and warranted concerns that Muslims ought to recognize, stressed Tincq. “Let it be said in all clarity,” he concluded: “You [Muslims] have not been up to the task; you have been lax in shutting out your own radical imams; you have been slow in distancing yourselves from the dwelling-places of Jedda’s and the Muslim Brothers’ radicalisms, and all their bankrollers in Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia [...] You have gone astray over secondary and trifling matters, attentive to endorsing what may or may not be deemed ‘halal meat’ or the correct start date of Ramadan. You have been slow in taking charge of the crucial issue pertaining to the training of your imams and your religious leaders so as to confront the radicalization of Muslims....”
In the end, IS is not merely a terrorist transnational group of barbaric misogynist religious fanatics bent oppressing and killing those they deem different. IS is a millenarian triumphalist apocalyptic group of Muslims. Admittedly it is a small group of Muslims, but a group of Muslims nonetheless, who continue to do great damage, armed with an eschatological vision of the world, determined to bring about the end of times. Not defining the Islamic State group for what it is and for what it claims to be only accelerates its doomsday scenario and escalates the violence that its worldview foretells.
“Naming things badly adds to the evils of this world” famously wrote Albert Camus in La Peste.
Indeed, noted Camus, humanity’s greatest misery stems from its normalization of evil and falsehood; and Man’s noblest task ought to be to challenge and combat and counter falsehood with truth.
This sentiment was echoed in a Le Monde editorial published in the aftermath of the November 13 rampage in Paris. In it, Panthéon-Assas University professor Jean-François Daguzan wrote that the challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalism today is not only military and terroristic; it is in the main political, strategic, intellectual, universal and perhaps more importantly linguistic and philological. Failure to call an abomination by its name leads to failures of analysis, interpretation, policy and strategy.
And so, a hundred years or so from now, weighing in on this surreal phase of our history, when human voices got muffled and humanity got herded into collective mass intellectual (and in many cases physical) suicide, future historians may come to the conclusion that our verbal promiscuity and “selective mutism,” proud children of a fashionable moral dithering, were as irresponsible and as pharisaical, and ultimately as deadly, as the evaders who invented the modern language of political correctness.
The author is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is series editor of Lexington Books’ The Levant and Near East; A Multidisciplinary Book Series, founding editor-in-chief of The Levantine Review, and author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington, 2010) and Charles Corm: An Intellectual Biography of a 20th Century Young Phoenician (Lexington, 2018).