Making Distinctions: Islam Is Not Islamism


I attended the official New York City Jewish community memorial service, Sunday evening, for the 17 murdered victims of the attacks in Paris last week. Perhaps 500 people crammed the sanctuary of Lincoln Square Synagogue, with some overflow reported on the outside. Dignitaries in attendance included the French consul-general, the French ambassador to the United Nations, the Israeli consul-general, Senator Charles Schumer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the local member of the House of Representatives Jerrold Nadler, the City Public Advocate Letitia James and the City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Schumer made the commonplace assertion that the terrorists hate us for "who we are" and "what we stand for," not for what we do (not for "our policies"). I disagree somewhat, although not 100 percent. There's a more complex reality that's conveniently left out in such speeches, which are meant to convey our outrage and sorrow rather than to provide a thorough analysis.

It was gratifying, however, to hear the executive vice president of the city's Jewish Community Relations Council, Rabbi Michael Miller, read from the message emailed by Richard Prasquier, a leader of the French Jewish community: "We have to give a name to the enemy: it is not 'terrorism' it is radical Islamism. It is necessary not to mix it up with Islam in general, and it is necessary to fight against it [radical Islamism] with the help of those Muslims who take risks in order to defend values: These are the righteous ones . . ."

Schumer is correct that radical Islamist terrorists are not policy wonks who are reacting directly to one policy decision or another. They are completely committed to their violent course of action. But it stands to reason that increased violence in the Middle East, whether Israel responding to Hamas by heavily attacking the Gaza Strip, or Western forces killing Muslims in a number of its military engagements from Syria to Pakistan, feeds their narrative that the West is attacking Islam. 

I also disagree with Israel's consul-general, who garnered huge applause for lumping in Hamas and Hezbollah with al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists. Clearly, Hamas and Hezbollah are movements that use terrorism and do not hesitate to target civilians as their primary mode of warfare. In doing so, they are criminals. But they also broadly represent constituencies in the government of Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip. They are religious nationalists with goals that are primarily nationalistic. Hamas and Hezbollah do not have ambitions that extend beyond what they regard as Palestinian lands and Lebanon respectively.

Hamas has also entered into tactical agreements with Israel at times, and occasionally trots out its notion of a long-term "hudna" or truce with Israel. It has also endorsed in principle, or at least pledged not to automatically oppose, a peace agreement negotiated with Israel by the Abbas leadership of the PLO. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah support the concept of a trans-national Islamic caliphate, and both have even fought Islamist radicals who proclaim such an agenda. It is also very much in the Jewish tradition to make distinctions and to look at issues in nuanced terms. 

Still, I do not agree with the “politically correct” stance of much of the left today that Islam is simply “a religion of peace,” as George W. Bush (ironically enough) stated in an effort to cool domestic anger in the wake of 9/11. (See The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg  and The New Yorker’s George Packer for pithy putdowns of this naiveté.)

Nor do I agree with many commentators on the right who regard Islam as inherently evil. All three Western religious traditions have their demons, but they’ve evolved differently.

Some writings in the Tanach can be read as supporting acts of genocide. But Judaism has never promoted itself as a universal faith; it’s the religiously-informed way of life of a small people living as a minority community everywhere but in the historic land of Israel.

In its earliest incarnations, Christianity was radically pacifist and suffered through more than two centuries of persecution, before it was transformed by the Emperor Constantine into the predominant religion of Rome and the Western World. It also was somewhat restrained by the realization — after the Reformation of the 16th century and the Thirty Years War of the 17th century — that Catholics and Protestants must peacefully coexist.

By contrast, Islam emerged into a vast empire almost overnight, soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, to the point where it was more militarily powerful and more advanced technologically and culturally than Christendom, until roughly the same point in the 17th century. Many Muslims have never quite come to terms with this decline.

Nobody can honestly deny that so many Muslim and mixed-population countries are in conflict because of Jihadist movements like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram. But there also are moderate voices in Islam that need to be acknowledged. Indonesia, for example, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, is not ruled by extremists. It was very important for Rabbi Miller, as head of the JCRC that co-sponsored the memorial event, to have emphasized this point in distinguishing between Islam and “radical Islamism.” 

Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, from a left-Zionist perspective. He is currently administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel Blog.