In contrast to others, I confirm Radical Islam exists. Political scientists, including Muslim political scientists, know it as Islamism. Only part of Islamism expresses violence – violence frequently identified as terrorism. Much of Islamism pursues non-violent ambitions devoted to a new but entirely 20th Century totalitarianism, which is now the preeminent threat of our age. Islamism is the new totalitarianism.
ISIS, and other such organizations, self-identify as Muslim, offending sentiments of believing Muslims everywhere, including my own. Raised a Muslim by birth and observing Islam life long, I maintain that ISIS’s values in no way represent Islam because like its fellow Islamist groups, al-Qaida, Jamaat Al Nusra, al-Shabbab, Hamas, Hizballah, the Pakistani and Afghani Taliban and others. ISIS shares a rank disregard for Islamic morality as shown in its salacious appetite for human rights violations. For now, ISIS merely exceeds others in barbarity.
As I mentioned on CNN last week, words matter.
Most Muslims are not Islamists. But all Islamists are incontrovertibly Muslim. Even so, the most numerous subjugates of Islamism, including its violence, are Muslims. Islamism is connected to Islam while representing no aspect of Islam. Islamism is connected to Islam at Islam’s expense. Without Islam, there would be no Islamism which steals both legitimacy and shelter from Islam. This parasitization is not to be blamed on Islam, but it is to be blamed on Muslims who are Islamists, and on Muslim patrons of Islamism.
Muslim patrons of Islamism include several Muslim majority countries. The deliberate nurturing of jihadists in defeating the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – the mujahideen, cultivated as violent Islamists – served political interests of superpowers, including the United States and regional geopolitical heavyweight, Muslim Pakistan. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are either explicitly Islamist in government, or support Islamism. Until recently the same could be said for Egypt. Saudi Arabia finances Islamist ideology in a tacit agreement to keep Islamism from disrupting the Kingdom internally. Pakistan has long abandoned its secular democratic ideals in favor of the Islamist hybridization through a “Sharia-ization” which has led to the erosion of pluralism in exchange for political expediency.
Muslim states have very much reared Islamism, as the viper in our bosom, for their own self-interest, never thinking their own status might ultimately be threatened by such venom.
To suggest Islam and Islamism are not connected, as a denial of Radical Islam requires, is at best amateurishly simplistic and at worst intellectually dishonest. There is a further risk in simplifying the discourse whether because of ignorance or deliberate evasion. By asserting there is no Radical Islam offering ‘there are only terrorists who are Muslim’ deception confines Islamism to one dimension- the pursuit of evolutionary terrorist jihadism. This is false. Islamism has equally lethal non-violent ambitions- the weaponized version of blasphemy, for one, which directly inspired the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Islamism benefits from the intellectual confusion which surrounds its debate. Critical scrutiny of Islamism is all too often smeared as Islamophobia, serving only to shield Islamism from exposure and preserve a convenient falsehood – that Islamism is Islam.
Totalitarian regimes crave an external appearance of legitimacy, the veneer of being a legitimate state. Unsurprisingly Islamism has as its central tenet that Islam can only be expressed as ‘Dawla’ (‘state’). Islamic expression mandated as statehood cannot be found in the Quran but is well documented in the charters of Islamist entities, including that of Hamas, and has been the hallmark of ISIS since its outset.
ISIS makes its intentions for statehood obvious. The Arabic acronym for ISIS, ‘Da’esh’ is in fact “ad-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-‘Irāq wash-Shām,” which translates as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Statehood is both in ISIS’ self-declared name, as well as its deeply held political ambition. Seeking to express Islam in the form of a State is a specifically Islamist ambition.
Terror is integral to any totalitarian state. Its appetite for terrorizing violence defines ISIS. Like all totalitarian powers, ISIS monopolizes all communications, appropriates a monopoly on all armaments, and holds central and absolute control on the economy. A year into its nascent state, ISIS has clearly expressed its totalitarian intentions in all these sectors. Part of ISIS’s absolute power is expressed through total domination of its population which is daily terrorized and indoctrinated by ISIS’s appetite for evolutionary jihadist terrorism.
The immolation of Jordanian pilot Lt. Col. Moath Kasasbeh, far from being dismissed as ‘medieval barbarism,’ is in fact the ghoulishly principled use of terror in line with totalitarian Islamism. ISIS’s use of terror to dominate, as well as to propagandize, is deliberate. Through such terror, ISIS seals absolute control over its subjugated population through a pall of fear and the perverse allure (to sympathizers) of pornographic violence.
While the Jordanian pilot’s murder has rightly triggered an intense global reaction including in the Muslim world, this outrage is long overdue. Sadly other atrocities have long failed to mobilize sentiment in the same way. Perhaps this is because the viper is now uncomfortably close to home, its venom readily apparent, and Muslims long sedated to the beast that parasitizes us are finally ready to admit Radical Islam exists, nesting in our midst.
Qanta Ahmed, M.D., author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, is 2014 Ford Foundation public voices fellow with the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.