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Separating Violent and Peaceful Islam

A diabolical logic prompted Donald Trump to propose a travel ban on Muslims: if the US government can't distinguish between peaceful and violent Muslims, then shut the door to all of them. Trump's instinct for political-as-reality-television buoyed his standing in Republican polls, as Americans put terrorism at the top of their concerns. According to Rasmussen, US voters support Trump's idea by a 46-40% margin. Among Republicans, the margin is 66%-24%.

Americans by and large aren't bigots, but the outbreak of Instant Jihad Syndrome last week convinced them that something was broken, and that the whole mechanism of Muslim immigration should be mothballed until the problem was fixed. They know perfectly well that some Muslims want to live in peace with non-Muslims and other Muslims want to burn down the world, but they don't know how to tell the difference. As information about the couple's longstanding terror connections trickles into the press, the public doesn't trust its guardians to tell the difference, either. That was the lesson they learned from the jihadi Bonnie and Clyde of San Bernardino.

The American public doesn't trust its guardians to tell peaceful and violent Muslims apart.

Trump chose his words carefully: "Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life." That is mischievous. The Obama administration like the Bush administration before it embraced Muslim organizations that play coy with the line between peaceful advancement of Muslim interests and terrorism. At the center of these organizations is the Muslim Brotherhood, as I reported earlier this week. Trump knows perfectly well what the Obama administration is doing, and says in effect: "If our elected leaders can't distinguish between peaceful and violent Muslims, let's keep all of them out."

I never thought the day would come when I would admonish Americans to show understanding and forbearance towards Islam. In fact, Islam is neither a religion of violence nor a religion of peace: it is an ambiguous set of doctrines from which Muslims may choose peace or violence as they will. To penalize all Muslims for the actions of those Muslims who choose violence is as morally misguided as it is strategically stupid: It repudiates those Muslims who explicitly embrace a peaceful interpretation, for example the president of the largest Arab country, Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Western countries in their own self-defense need to draw a bright line between peaceful and violent Islam.

Islam is neither a religion of violence nor a religion of peace.

It isn't hard to separate the sheep from the jihadist goats, because open war is underway between the two interpretations of Islam. The trouble is that the United States has been on the wrong side of the war: the whole US foreign policy establishment, Obama liberals and Bush neo-conservatives, believed that democracy in the Middle East would arise from political Islam and replace the old Arab dictatorships. US intelligence failed because it was fitted with political filters.

Westerners seeking to make sense of Islam should consult a short book by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, a Jesuit of Arab origin who advised Pope Benedict XVI. 111 Questions on Islam (Ignatius Press, 2008) explains that both the violent and peaceful interpretations of Islam are legitimate within Islam's own terms, and that the peculiar character of Islamic tradition makes it impossible to exclude either on purely theological grounds. Like many Arab Christians, Fr. Samir is hostile to Israel, and I abhor his view of Middle East politics. As an scholar of Islam, though, he has an important insight. He explains:

Many Westerners fear Islam as a "religion of violence". Muslims often call simultaneously for tolerance and understanding as well as for violence and aggression. In fact, both options are present in the Qur'an and the sunna. These are two legitimate manners—two distinct ways to interpret, to understand, and to live Islam. It is up to the individual Muslim to decide what he wants Islam to be. . . . (p 18)

. . . If the Qur'an was indeed "sent down" by Allah, there is no possibility of a critical or historical interpretation, not even for those aspects that are evidently related to the customs of a particular historical period and culture. In the history of Islam, at a certain point, it was decided that it was no longer possible to interpret the text. Hence, today, even the mere attempt to understand its meaning and what message it aims to communicate in a certain context is regarded as a desire to challenge it. . . . (p. 42)

. . . In modern times as well, many efforts have been made in this direction but almost always in vain. The weight of the tradition and, above all, the fear of questioning the acquired security of the text have created a taboo: the Qur'an cannot be interpreted, nor can it be critically rethought. . . . (p. 43)

. . . I speak about the violence expressed in the Qur'an and practiced in Muhammad's life in order to address the idea, widespread in the West, that the violence we see today is a deformation of Islam. We must honestly admit that there are two readings of the Qur'an and the sunna (Islamic traditions connected to Muhammad): one that opts for the verses that encourage tolerance toward other believers, and one that prefers the verses that encourage conflict. Both readings are legitimate. . . . (p. 65)

. . . Consequently, in the Qur'an there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is a need for an authority, unanimously acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: From now on, only this verse is valid. But this does not—and probably will never—happen. . . . (p. 71)

President al-Sisi during his New Year's Day speech at Al-Azhar

President al-Sisi speaking before a clerical audience at Al-Azhar University last Jan. 1 demanded that Muslims repudiate violence and choose peace with non-Muslims:

The problem has never been that of our faith. The problem lies in our ideology, one that has been sanctified by us...We have to take a painful and difficult look at our current situation. It is inconceivable that the ideology that we have sanctified helps make our nation a concern, danger, killings and destruction throughout the world it is inconceivable that this ideology – I am not referring to religion, but ideology – that is to say, the corpus of ideas and texts we have sanctified in the centuries – is rendered to a point where it is almost impossible to challenge. This ideology has reached a point where it is a threat to the world. It is inconceivable that 1.6 billion Muslims want to kill the rest of humanity, or 7 billion people to live only among themselves... Let me say it again: we must revolutionize our religion. Honourable imam of the Grand Mosque Al Azhar, you wear this responsibility before God. The whole world awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is falling apart and destroy itself. It goes directly to his loss and it is we who are responsible.

Egypt's leader walks the walk as well as talks the talk. He suppressed the violence-prone Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is fighting a low-intensity civil war with Islamists in the Sinai and terrorists in Egypt's major cities. He has contained Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, and improved security cooperation with Israel. Al-Sisi represents a mainstream current of peaceful Islam (as opposed to some minor sects, e.g. the Turkish Sufis, who are peaceful but irrelevant).

President al-Sisi spoke frankly of an "ideology we have sanctified," the ideology of jihad. That is a statement of immense courage. Islam is not necessarily violent, but it has a proclivity for violence, unlike Christianity or Judaism. As the great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote nearly a century ago, "following the path of Allah means in the narrowest sense propagating Islam through holy war. In the obedient journey upon this path, taking upon one's self the associated dangers, the observance of the laws prescribed for it, Muslim piety finds its way in the world."

The Muslim Brotherhood is the elephant in the parlor. Both the George W. Bush administration and Obama onboarded Brotherhood operatives as advisors on counterterrorism and outreach to American Muslims, as Clare Lopez, a former CIA officer, documents in a report for the Gatestone Institute. Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official, has produced a series of Internet videos on the subject. The Brotherhood tries to blur the line between propagating Islam through peaceful and violent means. In Egypt and Gaza, it employs violence; through its front organizations in the US, it claims to employ nonviolent methods.

As veteran defense reporter (and Asia Times contributor) Bill Gertz wrote earlier this year in the Washington Times:

President Obama and his administration continue to support the global Islamist militant group known the Muslim Brotherhood. A White House strategy document regards the group as a moderate alternative to more violent Islamist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The policy of backing the Muslim Brotherhood is outlined in a secret directive called Presidential Study Directive-11, or PSD-11. The directive was produced in 2011 and outlines administration support for political reform in the Middle East and North Africa, according to officials familiar with the classified study.

The directive outlines why the administration has chosen the Muslim Brotherhood, which last year was labeled a terrorist organization by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as a key vehicle of U.S. backing for so-called political reform in the Middle East...

The UAE government also has labeled two U.S. affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, as terrorist support groups. Both groups denied the UAE claims. Egypt is considering imposing a death sentence on Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed former president who was ousted in military coup in July 2013.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood is fighting a bloody civil war with the al-Sisi government. That is, the Obama administration has allied itself with the embattled enemies of Muslims who propose a peaceful interpretation of Islam.

Trump's approach is demagogic; Ted Cruz, by contrast, proposes a workable policy solution. On Nov. 4 he introduced legislation "urging the Secretary of State to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization," according to a campaign press release. "The US has officially listed individual members, branches and charities of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, but has not designated the organization as a whole." The release adds:

This bill recognizes the simple fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical Islamic terrorist group. For years, American presidents of both parties have correctly designated the Brotherhood's various affiliates, such as Hamas and Ansar al-Sharia, as terrorist groups. They have designated individual Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as Shaykh Abd-al-Majd Al-Zindani, who was complicit in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and Sami Al-Hajj, who was captured on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2001 running money and weapons for al Qaida, as terrorists. Now we can reject the fantasy that their parent institution is a political entity that is somehow separate from these violent activities," Sen. Cruz said. "A number of our Muslim allies have taken this common-sense step, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. As this bill details, the Brotherhood's stated goal is to wage violent jihad against its enemies, and our legislation is a reality check that the United States is on that list as well.

Designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization along with America's Arab allies would turn the intentionally blurred line into a bright line. Marco Rubio has attacked Cruz for opposing more authority for eavesdropping on domestic telephone calls, but this is a secondary issue. The great intelligence failure is not due to lack of data but refusal to look at the obvious

David P. Goldman is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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