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OpinionOpEd

Islamism choking freedom everywhere

Qanta A. Ahmed

The Charlie Hebdo massacre demands that we at last acknowledge that the secular pluralistic democratic world is imperiled by Islamism, the dastardly impostor of Islam.

Painful scenes have transfixed us as we watch in dismay our tongue-tied administration unable to name our nemesis. Owning the narrative is key in any ideological battle, and as President Barack Obama's administration struggles to name our enemy -- oscillating between "radicals," "extremists" and "terrorists" -- Islamism in its variegated forms shows neither fear nor hesitation in declaring war.

In contrast, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi calls a spade a spade. Putting into words what all Muslims have long known, Sisi has confronted clerics at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, appealing for their help in slaying Islamism, the parasitic ideology that imperils the world and Islam.

Islamists -- whether violent as the Islamic State, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Hamas and Hezbollah, or nonviolent as institutional Islamists -- do not represent Islam. By exposing them, Islam is shielded from blame for their heinous acts, an unwanted burden the faith has borne. (Those straitjacketed by politically correct aphorisms struggle to convince us otherwise.) In avoiding the term Islamism, we shelter it within Islam's bosom.

Understanding the Quran as two documents -- a historical account which must be read in the context of its revelation, and a contemporary document agile enough to move through the ages -- I and many other Muslims understand that "jihad of the sword," though mentioned in the Quran, holds no place in our modern world, or in our modern Islam. But distorting jihad is far from the only deception Islamists achieve.

 

Islamists seek war on secular democracy. From Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1989 Valentine's Day Fatwa on Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" to the stabbing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 to the 2006 protests of Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to Charlie Hebdo today, freedom of speech has been collapsing under Islamist assault across continents.

The time to set aside our disbelief has arrived. It is time to believe. Islamism is global. And for liberal secular democracies, Islamism is very much here.

Muslim scholar Bassam Tibi has devoted his 40-year career to studying Islamism. Tibi must become mandatory reading for U.S. political and military leaders, foremost his sentinel book, "Islamism and Islam." Avoiding ideological content in the guise of religion, while understandable, and now a hallmark of the Obama administration, has emboldened the Islamist position because of the lack of challenge to its authenticity and ideals.

Tibi defines Islamism as Islamists define themselves. Islamism comprises several foundational principles:

Islamism seeks to restructure the world order into a global caliphate or "dawla" (state).

Islamists insist Islam can exist only as an Islamic caliphate, a fictional deceit appearing nowhere in the Quran or in the history of Islamic civilizations.

Islamism demands Islamists hold in cosmic enmity all Zionist and Jewish entities, disregarding the Quran's mandate that Muslims revere Moses, Aaron and the Torah and recognize the Jews and "People of the Book." Harboring genocidal anti-Semitism, not mere judeophobia, is a paramount founding principle of Islamism.

Islamists pursue their caliphate through barbaric conflicts evolving jihad from Islam into terrorist jihadism -- think the Islamic State in Syria.

Islamists pursue their ideals through democratic organs -- such as parliamentary elections, constitutions, and legislation sympathetic to their values, for example, blasphemy laws -- which they will exploit for their own purposes and to which they deny access to opponents.

Too long, those of us, whether Muslim or not, who value the secular pluralistic democratic world have remained subdued in the shadow of the Islamist viper. Defeating Islamism will require we meet its venomous stare, a defeat which will never be wrought without engaging true Islam and its followers.

Who will do this work? Tibi sees liberal civil Islam as a ray of hope. Conferences in Morocco and Indonesia have been held on "Progressive Islam," which seeks separation of mosque and state.

There are opportunities for others in secular democracy to step up to the challenge. Islamism claims enmity toward the fundamental guarantor of human rights -- the liberal democracy. It is time we mounted a defense of our values, which are core to pluralistic democracy -- freedom of speech, self expression and religious identity.

In their book, "Silenced," examining how apostasy and blasphemy codes contract freedom, Paul Marshall and Nina Shea propose interventions. The authors advocate the sacrosanct status we should accord our ideals of individual freedoms of religion and expression.

They write that the West "must abandon attempts to diplomatically and legally finesse proposals to protect religion per se . . .," noting this to be a "dangerous game" that privileges Islamists -- above all beliefs. The pursuit of UN Resolutions on Blasphemy against "Islam" is an Islamist pursuit, an example of nonviolent institutional Islamism. Perhaps most important, Marshall and Shea write that there must be a defense of religious freedom itself, not only of individual religions, but a defense that must include the right to debate religion. Through intimidation and the chilling of discourse, Islamism has evaded scrutiny through the powerful claims of Islamophobia -- an Islamist creation to shield it from inspection.

 

Unless we defend the debate of religion and Islamist ideology, jihadist "prosecutions" of blasphemy will result in more Charlie Hebdos and build not only victories but significant arsenals fueling Islamist ideology, at the expense of weakening our democratic ideals.

Once we name Islamism as the beast it is, the best offensive against the assault of Islamism is to buttress the extraordinary assets that define America and Americans: our democratic and extraordinarily powerful ideals.

Qanta A. Ahmed, author of "In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom," is a 2014 Ford Foundation public voices fellow with the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter@MissDiagnosis.

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