Daniel Pipes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Militant Islam: Conversation with Daniel Pipes, Director, Middle East Forum, 2/10/04 by Harry Kreisler

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Militant Islam

You pointed out that 9/11 changed the general perception of Islam and the threat, and in some ways was an event that helped us get over some of the obstacles to seeing what is going on in that world and to seeing the distinctions that are worth being made. I'd like for you to talk a little now about this problem of militant Islam, which is a substantive issue that you came to very early because of the scholarship you had done. I say early, I mean in the sense you were there to talk about it after 9/11 because you were building on the scholarship and also the work you had done at the Middle East Forum. Who are the militant Islamists, and what is it we need to know about them?

Militant Islam is a twentieth-century reading of Islam. It has its roots in earlier variants of Islam, but it is very much a reflection of the 1920s and '30s, a reflection of the optimism and hopes that were invested at that time in the totalitarian model, such as the fascists and Marxist Leninists. The militant Islamic thinkers took these ideas and applied them within the context of Islam. Thus, it is usefully seen as the third major totalitarian challenge. As in the prior two cases, the supporters of militant Islam, the Islamists, believe they have the unvarnished truth and no one else can compete. They're brutal towards those who would disagree with them. They seek to take power of governments. Once taking power, they impose their views on the population and aggress towards others, and ultimately see themselves engaged in a cosmic conflict with the West, the United States in particular, over the future course of the human experience.

All these ways comparable to Marxism, Leninism, and to fascism -- different in detail, of course, very different, different in being an outgrowth of the non-Western civilization, different in having a religious component to it. But very usefully seen as a totalitarian challenge, threat, much as the prior two. In that sense, World War II was ultimately about fascism. The Cold War was ultimately about Marxism-Leninism. This war is ultimately about militant Islam.

I think that focusing on terrorism is a misnomer and a euphemism, and a very superficial mistake. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. The enemy is militant Islam -- not Islam, the personal faith, not terrorism, the tactic, but militant Islam. I believe it's very important to see it this way. Among the benefits in seeing it this way is that you will see what the answer is. If terrorism is the problem, what is the solution? Counterterrorism? That's not a military goal. But if militant Islam is the problem, then one can formulate, as I do, that moderate Islam is the solution.

You make some very interesting points in Militant Islam Reaches America, which was published after 9/11. One of the points is that, surprisingly, the recruits, the leaders in militant Islam, are not the poor, the disenfranchised.

Again, if you look at the other totalitarian movements, you find the same thing. The cadres of the totalitarian movements are the ... I don't want to say the elite, but those with ability and potential. They're not at the bottom of society, by any means. They're not the losers. They're the winners. They get absorbed by the goals of the totalitarian ideology. They devote themselves. They're willing to give up their lives for it. That's what makes these movements so threatening -- they're not the movements of losers, but the movements of winners. And so, too, with militant Islam -- whether one looks at the nineteen suicide hijackers, or virtually the leadership of any militant Islamic group, one finds that these are affluent, educated, and privileged people.

You and others argue that they are, in essence, trying to, as you say, "navigate the shoals of modernization." In other words, their personal problem is also Islam's problem, which is the problem of confronting the West and the defeats that Islam has suffered. That is, the defeat, maybe psychological but also military, in their relative standing vis-à-vis the West.

Right. I summarize it with the term "civilizational frustration." It's not the personal circumstances that are necessarily bad; many are not. But it is a perception that the Muslim world is not doing as well as it should; that it was doing gloriously in the year 1004 and is doing badly in 2004. Finding an explanation for this and adjusting circumstances to meet that explanation is the militant Islamic project to fix the Muslim world. The way it's done is by turning to Islam, and in Islam finding the solutions to all the problems. The single phrase, a summary of militant Islam is el Islam wul hal, Islam is the solution. Whatever your question, private or public, Islam offers the answer.

Now, within Islam, help me understand the problem of its failure to modernize. As somebody who's not a specialist, I have come to the conclusion that the lack of separation of church and state is somehow key. That's an oversimplification. But help me and my audience understand why Islam has failed with regard to internal modernization.

Separation of church and state is one important aspect. But the more fundamental problem is an inability, so far, to come to terms with modernity, vis-à-vis the law of Islam. Islam, like Judaism and unlike Christianity, is a religion of laws. Christianity is ultimately a religion of faith, and doesn't have this particular set of problems. But Judaism did, and the great challenge to Judaism of the past few centuries has been how to come to terms with modern life. What to keep and what do you discard? We can see it under way all the time, whether it be female rabbis or new thoughts on circumcision, or the many other ideas that one sees about the nature of the law. Does one drive on Saturday or not? Well, in the Muslim world, there are comparable questions. And even more, because in Judaism, they are basically private, but in the Muslim world they're private and public -- they deal with justice, and military affairs, and politics. That has not been satisfactorily resolved. The relationship of the Islamic law, the Shariah, to modern life is the great challenge, and it's not been solved.

You said earlier, and I want to pick up that theme, that the key battle is the battle within Islam itself. Explain what you meant by that.

There are notions of the clash of civilizations, it's us against them. I'm saying no, it's not us against them, it's them against them. It is an intra-Muslim battle. It is a battle between those who believe in the Islamist approach, that we reject what comes from the outside world and you find in Islam the answer to everything. Admittedly ... well, I would say, they find everything in Islam, but they're bringing to it a very modern sensibility. And then there are those who are open to the outside world and wish to adjust to it and modernize, reform. And that is the key battle.

We, the West, the United States, are an auxiliary. We are helping our side. We don't know that yet. We don't realize that we are in the service of modern Islam. I'm arguing we are, because ultimately, it is not an American message of free enterprise and democracy, but rather it's a Muslim message of modernizing that we will support. We are amiss in not seeing that, ultimately, it is a modern Islamic message, anti-Islamist Islamic message that is the solution, not an American message.

Islam is a global religion, a global force, and there are states that occupy the terrain where Muslims are. You point out in one of your essays, and I want to know if you still think this is the case, that these two sides are embodied by the regime in Iran and the secular regime in Turkey. Talk a little about that. Is that still the case after the Iraq War that Turkey is a model for the course that moderation must take?

Yes, it's a very interesting case because here you have to Turkey, which is the republic founded by Kemal Ataturk in the twenties, secular, even laic, more than secular, anti-religious. And over there you have the Islamic Republic of Iran, founded almost twenty-five years ago to the day by Ayatollah Khomeini, with a militant Islamic outlook. And yet, if you look more closely at recent developments, you will see that the Prime Minister of Turkey is an Islamist, a very cautious one, but an Islamist. And you look at popular sentiment in Iran, it's wildly anti-Islamist. So the question in my mind is, who's going to get where first? Is Iran going to abandon its militant Islamic orientation? Is Turkey going to adopt it? I'm not sure, but these are the two clearest models, even though they're quite muddled in the sense that each of them has internal dynamics. But as states, each of them stands for something the way that no two other countries in the Muslim world do.

What should the role of the U.S. be in all of this? Is a campaign like the war in Iraq a positive movement towards supporting and identifying the moderates in Islam, and bolstering their position within Islam?

I didn't see the war in Iraq as related in any basic way to the issue of militant Islam, in that Saddam Hussein, for all his horrors, is not in support of militant Islam. He's not in support of anything, except his own rule -- a totalitarian thug, he stood for nothing. But that said, Iraq post-Saddam Hussein, wide open, is becoming a primary battleground for militant Islam. I believe our strategic goal must be to defeat militant Islam, to render it marginal and weak. As we did with fascism in 1945, as we did with communism in 1991, so we must do with militant Islam.

Now, mind you, in 1945 the war ended in total war; it was a total war, the destruction of Germany and Japan. 1991 was a peaceful development -- there were few deaths associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socioeconomic, intellectual collapse. So these are two very different models. How this third one will develop, I don't know, but I suspect elements of each.

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