Taking questions after his national security speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday, Newt Gingrich was confronted by Frank Gaffney, who we last saw on the op-ed page of the Washington Times suggesting that President Obama “might still be a Muslim.” Gaffney praised Gingrich’s speech as “a tour-de-force,” but wanted to know why Gingrich “didn’t specifically address sharia.”
For a little background, Gaffney is maniacal on the issue of sharia, or Islamic religious law, which he maintains is a “mortal threat” to the United States. He has developed a baroque set of ideas about sharia and “authoritative Islam”, a term he uses to suggest a single, monolithic understanding of Islam and the application of religious law, which of course does not exist. In as much as Gaffney’s arguments cannot be disproved — if you disagree with his claims about sharia, either you don’t know the truth about Islam (something he’s said to actual Muslims who’ve tried to explain to him that his ideas are ridiculous) or you’re involved in “stealth jihad” — they essentially amount to a conspiracy theory.
Gingrich seemed a bit unsure at first how to deal with Gaffney’s question, but then noted that he drew “a sharp distinction between Muslims who are part of the modern world and Muslims who are committed to a worldview so fundamentally different that it is literally irreconcilable with modernity.” Gingrich continued:
And I think, that this is part of why I said a while ago if you look, whether you want to start in ’79 or ’83 or ’93 or 9/11, we have now been engaged in — if you go back to ’83 — the longest war in American history. And we still haven’t, we still don’t have the intellectual tools to discuss it honestly. […]
But I think all you have to do is describe in a positive sense the world we hope to create and the folks who believe passionately in sharia are almost automatically in a mortal struggle with you because it is literally antithetical to their worldview. And I think this is at the heart of why we have had a hard time dealing with this because we keep underestimating how fundamental the problem is and so we keep bouncing off of it.
We’ve obviously spent a lot of time in the U.S. since 9/11 talking about the threat of Islamic extremism. And while I think there’s still a lot that’s wrong with what continues to be said and believed, I think we’ve come a long way from post-9/11 hysteria and the dark days when nonsense about “Islamofascism” generated by Gaffney and associated neocons was taken more seriously than it is now.
Which is why it’s a bit embarrassing to see Newt still peddling these sorts of ideas in 2009. Gingrich’s claim that “we still don’t have the intellectual tools” to discuss the threat of extremism is really just a smart-sounding way of complaining that conservative ideas about the nature of that threat have been discredited. We have, I think, in the years since 9/11, developed many tools to better and more accurately understand our enemies — their intentions, capabilities, and their political appeal to certain target populations — and thus better protect the U.S. against the threat as it actually exists. President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is evidence that he gets this, and we already have evidence that Islamic extremists perceive Obama’s approach as far more dangerous than George W. Bush’s clumsy crusaderism.
None of this seems to have penetrated Newt’s consciousness. When Newt wonders aloud whether “the longest war in American history” started either in “’79 or ’83 or ’93 or 9/11,” — referring to, respectively, the Iranian revolution and taking of American hostages in Tehran, the Hezbollah bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut, Al Qaeda’s first attack on the World Trade Center, and 9/11, combining Iran and Al Qaeda into a single enemy — he’s admitting that he hasn’t paid much attention to the debate that’s actually occurred. One of the key conclusions of this debate is that it’s highly preferable to disaggregate ones enemies whenever possible. While Iran and Al Qaeda may both represent a threat, it’s both wrong and counterproductive to behave as if they represent the same threat. In doing so, Newt pretty clearly shows that he’s allowed the debate to pass him by.
GAFFNEY: Newt, thank you for what can only be described as a tour-de-force presentation and covering really so many issues, on so many topics in such a comprehensive and effective way. I don’t think I disagree with anything you said, the only thing that I wonder that you didn’t specifically address — and I wonder if you might — is sharia. The program that seems when you reduce it down to animate most of the problems that you identified in those attacks, that justifies jihad both the violent and the stealthy kind; and what would you suggest we be doing to counter sharia?
GINGRICH: Well I have done a lot of work and a lot of talking about what I would describe as the irreconcilable wing of Islam. And I draw a sharp distinction between Muslims who are part of the modern world and Muslims who are committed to a worldview so fundamentally different that it is literally irreconcilable with modernity. And I think, that this is part of why I said a while ago if you look, whether you want to start in ’79 or ’83 or ’93 or 9/11, we have now been engaged in — if you go back to ’83 — the longest war in American history. And we still haven’t, we still don’t have the intellectual tools to discuss it honestly. And I think this is a very significant challenge and it is also a huge lost opportunity. I think if we had made women’s rights and the most basic sense of dignity one of the key provisions of what we were doing. For example, just the act of saying honor killings are illegal is a fundamental conflict with sharia, which allows honor killings in which husbands can kill their wife or daughter, brothers can kill their sister or mother. Well I think 90% of the world, 94% of the world, that’s not an acceptable behavior. And it shouldn’t be that hard. Shooting teachers at girl’s schools, which is what is going on in Afghanistan, shouldn’t be that hard for us to condemn. You know, but it does mean you don’t bow to the Saudi king and you don’t tolerate the Saudis lying about who they are. And you take this issue head on. But I wouldn’t–Sharia is a piece of it. But I think all you have to do is describe in a positive sense the world we hope to create and the folks who believe passionately in sharia are almost automatically in a mortal struggle with you because it is literally antithetical to their worldview. And I think this is at the heart of why we have had a hard time dealing with this because we keep underestimating how fundamental the problem is and so we keep bouncing off of it.