Condemning ‘Islamism’ Denies Ourselves A Valuable Tool

The Washington Institute for near East Policy has a new report, Fighting the Ideological Battle: The Missing Link in U.S. Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism, that looks at the need to commit more resources to counter violent Islamic ideologies. While recognizing that the Obama administration has done some good work repairing America’s image by rejecting the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” rhetoric, the report argues — convincingly, in my view — that it’s a mistake for the Obama administration to simply avoid mentioning the role of Islamic faith when discussing violent extremism.

It’s also worth noting a shift from the administration on this. Speaking Tuesday about the recent Uganda terrorist attacks, President Obama acknowledged that a radical version of Islam views as anti-Islamic “any efforts to modernize, any efforts to provide basic human rights, any efforts to democratize.”

The WINEP report’s arguments about what the administration can to highlight and isolate offensive Islamic ideologies are seriously undermined, however, by one of its very first “core recommendations”:

Ensure that Islamism — a radical political ideology separate from Islam as a religion — is recognized internally within the U.S. government as the key ideological driver of the violent extremist threat posed by al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups. Meanwhile, U.S. public diplomacy efforts should sharpen the distinction between the Muslim faith and the violent political ideology of Islamism.

This is a pretty astonishingly reductive rendering of Islamism, one that seriously undermines the rest of the report. For example, one of its own “strategic recommendations”:

Build upon defections and disillusionment among ranks of radical extremists, including former al-Qaeda members and other ex-jihadists such as “Dr. Fadl,” an Egyptian ideologue who broke with al-Qaeda after years of justifying the group’s radical ideology and tactics.

Good idea. Problem is, Dr. Fadl and many other ex-jihadists who’ve since renounced terrorism still consider themselves Islamists. Despite having moderated their views on the uses of violence, they still believe that Islam is not just religious faith and practice but a complete political system. Some on the right, like Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes, deem the conservative practice and political application of Islam to be a threat in itself. But casting “Islamism” writ large as inherently violent and irretrievably hostile to the West deprives us of a potentially valuable tool for doing exactly what the report recommends — building upon defections and disillusionment among ranks of current and former radical extremists, and isolating and dividing violent Islamists from non-violent Islamists. This is a key distinction that has yet to be embraced by the Obama administration, though the Cairo speech nodded in that direction.