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October 24, 2005


Martin Kramer

A thoughtful response, but a bit thin on the conceptual side. It was never my position that there are no differences among Islamists. It has always been my view that they don't fit the categories we have built for them, that we don't have any reliable metrics for measuring the differences, and that too much of this business is in the hands of people who think "Islam is the solution," no matter what. I articulated my view in a piece I published back in 1997 (go back to the original for the footnotes to quotes):

Obviously there must be differences among Islamists. A scholar has repeatedly urged that the U.S. government "distinguish between Islamic movements that are a threat and those that represent legitimate indigenous attempts to reform and redirect their societies." This seems an eminently reasonable objective on paper, but in practice it means going out, measuring each movement, and classifying it. What instrument of measurement do we use, and what do we measure?

One might immediately say, why not do content analysis of what Islamists say? These are blueprints; perhaps we should read them? But the paradigm builders resist this, especially when those texts threaten violence. One political scientist warns that knowing "who the Islamist groups are and what they are doing" is impossible if the West "is preoccupied with content analysis of the Islamists' frequently contradictory statements." Content analysis is denounced as "new Orientalism," a preoccupation with texts that have nothing to do with what Islamists are truly about. Whatever violence the Islamists deploy in speech or print, this must not be allowed to disqualify them from potential classification as "moderates." One must go out and watch them. And it must be admitted that the paradigm builders can never be accused of misreading political Islam; to misread, one must first read, and this they adamantly refuse to do.

But when one begins to watch "what [the Islamists] are doing," other paradigm-builders proclaim that this is no reliable guide either, especially when it is violence that is on display. A political scientist has explained to a U.S. congressional committee his own system of classification, which employs the acronym "NINA"--"Nonviolent Islamists in North Africa." These are defined as "moderate" advocates of the "non-violent transfer of political power." Now as it turns out, Islamists do not have to practice non-violence to qualify for "NINA" status. Even when they "degenerate" into violence, determines this political scientist, violence "does not constitute a structural component of either their strategic thinking or tactical actions." And so they remain "non-violent" "moderates" however many bombs they set off and intellectuals they kill--since they don't tell us explicitly why they are doing it. Instead, we are sent running back to the texts, looking for thought structures--like "new Orientalists."

In the end, the paradigm builders are profoundly indifferent to what Islamists say or do. To know the paradigm itself is to know what the Islamists are, and what they must become. It is a privileged tool of divination, allowing only its masters to separate the real "extremists" from the real "moderates." Not surprisingly, given this disdain for what normally constitutes evidence, many believers in the paradigm are prepared to declare all the major Islamist movements and their offshoots to be essentially or potentially "moderate," even when they say violence and make violence. The paradigm builders, having promised to make useful distinctions, end up making none whatsoever.

If there is anything more simplistic than lumping Islamists together, it has been the attempt to divide them into the neat categories of "reformist" and "extremist." William Zartman has pointed to "the usual division of Islamic parties into a moderate, usually visible leadership and a radical militant wing, often underground." If this is the usual division, then how does one classify an Islamic movement that is simultaneously a political group, a militia, and an amalgam of terror cells? How does one classify a formation that seeks recognition as a political party even as it sets off car bombs in public streets? The murky combination of political party, armed militia, and terror cell is hardly the usual constitution of a "reform" movement, and is virtually impossible to classify along simple lines.

The U.S. has tried to draw these distinctions, with predictable results: America's past Islamist partners in dialogue are today imprisoned in the U.S. for terrorism, listed as terrorists by the State Department, or virtually banned from entry as undesirables. The search for the "moderates," who exist in theory, continues; U.S. diplomats meet with Islamists in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey. But can these diplomats reliably separate, classify, and categorize the Islamists on their beats? Leaving the question of diplomatic competence aside, the task is an impossible one, because these categories are paradigmatic ideal types, not existing realities.

Back then, I also gave my own explanation for why meaningful differences do arise:

Power, rather than "moderate," would seem to lead Islamists to make ever more elaborate rationales for denying it to others. A far more sustainable
assumption would be this: Islamists, who are rational people, "moderate" when they face overwhelming counter-power. But the more power they themselves
possess, the more faithfully they revert to their core agenda, dominated by elements most in the West would regard as "extreme." All the evidence is
that power does not "moderate." Weakness "moderates." Islamists have been "tamed," coopted into political systems, only when it has been absolutely clear
to them that the rules preclude them from acquiring a monopoly of power.
My latest posting pretty much rests on the same idea.

Abu Aardvark would privilege dialogue as a way of getting to that which is hidden. I see no particular reason to privilege it over any other method--private dialogue is only one more form of indoctrination, in this case of outsiders. I still tend to believe that actions speak louder than words, and that people are the sum of their experience. But in some contexts, words are also acts, or expressions of intention to act, and they can't be dismissed. Calculating their significance is an art, not a (political) science. On my panel with Crooke, I said I had no objection to his meetings, since he's not an official. For an official, of course, dialogue is itself a political act, not a disinterested inquiry, and it can't be divorced from its political meaning, which is recognition and legitimacy. The PLO didn't get to sit down with the United States until it uttered certain words and made certain promises. I see no reason to exempt other groups from doing precisely the same thing.

Personally, I've never used the term "Islamofascism," although if I were forced to choose between revivalism (Esposito-talk) and fascism, I'd prefer the latter. The peddling of far-out analogies definitely began on the other side of the aisle, and it continues with that one-man analogy factory, Juan Cole (who I heard most recently compare the Wahhabis to the Amish). By all means, let's have a debate over categories and metrics, but let's allow that we may be using screwdrivers to drive nails, which may not even be nails but pins.

A good example of a loaded term in this debate is "conservative." One of the great ironies is how a hopeful reading of Islamism has migrated from the Esposito camp to the neo-conservatives, where it is needed if the democratization theory is to hold up in Iraq and elsewhere. You'll even find it at the American Enterprise Institute (horror!) Here, for example, is a sharp debate over Islamism between two analysts who Abu Aardvark might call "conservatives." I would suggest to him that this debate has nothing to do with the neat categories of "liberal" and "conservative," and we might want to check those at the door.


Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't HA and Hamas, um, already joined the political process? You know, running local governments, having seats in the cabinet ... and it's also the case that the IDF has been coordinating w/ Hamas on local issues. So ... does he think these policies should be reversed? Because in my view its their enmeshment in nonviolent politics that will eventually lead those two groups to disarm.

Ed Marshall

He also lumped in Hezbollah (I'm assuming he means the organization of Hassan Nasrallah) which exists as very little other than a poltitical party these days. It compares rather favorably in terms of recent villiany to his new friends at the Dawa Party. Hezbollah fires off an ancient ass anti-aircraft piece at Israeli planes that overfly and sonic boom Beirut, the Badr Brigades have been mass murdering Sunni's.

Given that, you can throw out all the pretend analysis.

Ed Marshall

or at bottom conclude what he really means is that Islamist groups who are useful to U.S. policy goals get an automatic out to his above preachy rules about who he talks to.


here's my question: why is it whenever conservatives enter into an argument in the comments of a blog they inevitably employ some version of the "liberals did it first" argument?

i've seen it whenever people argue about whether extraordinary rendition is an acceptable policy ("it originated with the Clinton administration" someone inevitably says, as if that is relevant to the question of whether it is the right thing to do) and now kramer falls back on that as well ("The peddling of far-out analogies definitely began on the other side of the aisle, and it continues with that one-man analogy factory, Juan Cole (who I heard most recently compare the Wahhabis to the Amish).") does the fact that someone on "my side of the aisle" made a bad analogy first (assuming that's actually true) make any difference at all in the debate over whether or not the term "islamofascist" is really fucking stupid?

David Kane

Marc claims that "It is conservatives who lump all Islamists together as "Islamofascists," in my experience - and attack people like me for making distinctions between, say, Qaradawi and Bin Laden."

Can you provide a link to a *single* prominent conservative who 'lump[s] all Islamists together as "Islamofascists"'? I am skeptical. Prominent supporters of the war in Iraq have plenty of faults, and they may not make all the distinctions that you do, but a blanket caricature of their views does no one any good.


Speaking of lumping together, take a look at Juan Cole's incomprehensible "fundamentalist crescent."


Speaking as a non-liberal (and leaving aside idiotic American domestic politics dressed up as other commentary) it is certainly my impression from reading the illiterate 'islamo-fascist' blather, when they come across my desk Kramer's attacks on other scholars, etc. that as a general matter American 'conservatives' do indeed lump all and one into together.

Of course it is rather hard to tell as the sweeping and loosey goosey usages among the US chattering commentator class with respect to the Middle East is usually at once both so illiterate and so unclear as to be able to envolope just about any post-facto moving of goal posts.

As such, while my politics are not Aardvarkish, I share his impression and furth find the whinging "oh wait, we didn't really bloody mean it that way" bloody dishonest (althogh with the amusing "cite" request).

the aardvark

Martin - I agree with you that this approach isn't a major departure *for you*... which is one reason I've always found you more interesting than some of your cohort! And I agree that liberal / conservative isn't particularly helpful... not when British "liberals" are going insane over Qaradawi and AEI is plumping for a Shia Islamist Iraq! And last, I agree that there are meaningful distinctions among so-called conservatives about the various brands of Islamists - Reuel Gerecht, who you linked to in your reply and to whom I've linked approvingly in the past, has made arguments not far from mine about the need to engage with moderate Islamists.

But all that said, no reasonable person could deny that the "Islamofascist" line is far stronger and more consistent on the right side of the aisle. David, in comments, wants cites - just google "Islamofascism", for examples, or visit Daniel Pipes's or Robert Spencer's websites or even some of the Winds of Change authors. As for attacks on those who make distinctions, scan the comments and trackbacks on some of my old Qaradawi posts. People like me generally push for distinctions to be made - between moderate and radical Islamists, between political and social Islamists and so forth - and argue against one size fits all categories.

In the interests of a productive dialogue here, I'd like to push further on two key points I raised. First, Martin, don't you have to admit that any and all of your arguments - the poor track record of judging intentions, the folly of lumping groups together - would apply equally to both "left" and "right" analyses? Isn't your talk a call for skepticism rather than certainties? Perhaps that would then lead for some towards a default hawkishness - if we don't know we can trust them, then better just not - but for others (like me) the stakes are too high, and the potential payoffs to engagement too high, to write it off without trying.

The second big point is the relative value of direct dialogues. I agree that they are no panacaea, and couldn't by themselves provide decisive evidence. But why let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Direct dialogues provide more information, and potentially unique information, which should supplement close observation of behavior and public rhetoric. You make a good point about such dialogues being a "reward" of sorts, a carrot to be offered for good behavior - a point well taken. But I would say that it isn't a one way street - both sides get something out of it.

Martin Kramer

Abu Aardvark: Well, I will leave aside the debate over where the "Islamofascist" line is strongest. Personally, I think it's been used most persuasively and effectively not by those you've named, but by Christopher Hitchens. In fact, he's generally believed to have coined it, but if he didn't, he's probably done the most to popularize it. And I would have a hard time swallowing the notion of Hitchens as a "conservative."

On the default hawkishness, you're quite right. After the first World Trade Center bombing (1993), I wrote this piece in Commentary, with his passage:

Two bits of truth lying beneath the bomb rubble and should be embedded in the wall of Western defense. First, no one has the clairvoyance to sort the "moderates" from the "extremists." Those Arabs who waged jihad in Afghanistan, including some eventually convicted of the World Trade Center bombing, were supposed to be America's domesticated fundamentalists. They were often cited as prime evidence that not all Muslim fundamentalists are anti-American, that they are a "politically 'tamable'" force, in the words of one former CIA analyst. But as the bombing suggests, the conduct even of those fundamentalists who were once American allies and clients cannot be predicted, even in the short term. In dealing with Islamic fundamentalism, the United States now has an obligation to its own citizenry to err on the side of caution.
(I also wrote that the U.S. radiated power through the "endless footage on Arab and Muslim television of the skyline of New York, unaltered by the bombing. In the end, ironically, one lasting effect of the bombing and trials may be to fill Arabian nights with many more dreams of Manhattan." It certainly did--with dreams of trying to bring the towers down again. And I alluded to the possibility that they might try again, in the very next line: "But Manhattan's own nightmare could recur.")

So you're right: caution, if not hawkishness, should be the default position. Islamists have a reputation, and they deserve it.

You write that "the stakes are too high, and the potential payoffs to engagement too high, to write it off without trying." It could just as easily be argued that the potential costs of engagement are too high to embrace it without thinking. But you'd have to agree that while payoffs are potential, the costs (of official dialogue) are real: the people you need in existing regimes, and the liberals you'd really like to see empowered, will think you are playing a double game.

So my method is simpler. Plot a straightforward road to legitimacy for Islamists. The greatest global power ever has a full appointment book. If you want to talk to it, you have to establish your bona fides as someone who isn't out to wreck the peace. You can remain a part of the problem, and remain on the receiving end of nastiness. Or you can say and do things, in advance, that persuade someone that your file doesn't belong only in the Pentagon and CIA backrooms. For that, you have to start by saying something like caduc. (And given what the last caduc-sayer wound up doing, that's only for openers.)

So I don't object to Alastaire Crooke's mucking around with Hamas and Hezbollah (in the company of other people I know, like Graham Fuller and Frederic Hof). You know what? They haven't returned with anything interesting, and I'm not surprised. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who I also have known for many years, does claim to have come back with something new from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I think it would be interesting to hear more. What repels me is the notion that we should be willing to talk to any and all of them, and especially the scruffiest ones. Come on. You only get to see the Wizard if you bring the broomstick.

John Penta


Someone define/explain, please?

Von M.

Non-violence or "non-violent transfer of political power" is not at all a criterion of moderation. If an Islamist group is willing to take power through non-violent means and is not willing to give back this power through non-violent means (meaning: if it loses an election), then it cannot qualify as a partner for the 'west'.

Any group that advocates that "Islam is the solution" is totalitarian in essence. The correct criterion here should be "Islam is part of the solution" meaning that the political program of that group shouldn't be limited to Islamic rules or Islamic morality.

In my opinion, the 'moderate' Islamist label must be limited to conservative Muslims parties such as Turkey's AKP. A party like the Lebanese Hezbollah that reluctantly participates to the political process without adopting the values of democracy is still an extremist party.

Finally, as Mr. Kramer stressed, an Islamist group can't be a real partner to the west if it doesn't implement some kind of theological reforms. The current state of Islamic theology is fundamentally incompatible with the respect of non-Muslims.


Whether Islamic theology today needs some kind of fundamental change, who knows? The problem, though, is that, as long as the changes are demanded by the nonbelievers of the West, they would only be deemed as illegitimate or worse.

Martin Kramer


John Penta

Thanks, Martin.

yuval Brandstetter

Hamas has proven beyond the shaddow of a doubt that political power, coupled with the might of arms and personnel does not lead to moderation, but rather to hyperbole. The opposite is true of the jewish democracy where the acquisition of political dominance leads to the dampening of rhetoric and action (unless severly provoked) No real engagement is possible between such opposing consciousnesses. Except for war, that is.

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