The revision of President Trump’s travel ban continues his (gradual) trajectory away from bombast toward moderation. Even his seven-nation ban wasn’t the blanket ban he’d “suggested“ during the campaign, since Pakistanis and other Muslims weren’t covered. Though manifesting more a tonal than a substantial change, his first speech to Congress did mention “our allies in the Muslim world”. The elephant-in-the-room question now is this: Will Trump move toward his predecessors’ moderate stance and embrace the warmer, fuzzier rhetoric about not being “at war” with Islam?
One senses this is bound to happen eventually, and it isn’t necessarily “politically correct” to say it should. In the current global ideological war, America should abandon the Obama administration’s political correctness in large measure. In eight years, Obama wouldn’t even use the term “Islamist“ to refer to the terrorist threat emanating from groups like ISIS. It was as if he either hadn’t pondered the notion or just thought the lowbrow US public, “clinging to guns or religion“, wouldn’t understand. Obama’s chief diplomat John Kerry favoured the term “Daesh” for the so-called Islamic State, one suspects because it let him avoid the word “Islamic”. But “Daesh” is simply Arabic for “ISIS”, and one also suspects Kerry may not have known that. Hillary Clinton cautiously used the term “Islamism” quite late in her campaign, by which time Trump had stolen so much of her fire that her star was fast fading. The Obama administration’s refusal to call a spade a spade was an amazing display of homegrown American PC. Even the BBC – tribune of political correctness – has been using “Islamist” in its reports for years.
That said, whether or not Trump wants to keep up the “tough guy” persona, he – like all Western leaders – will have to conduct his offensive in a thoughtful and civil way. Any leader worth his or her salt should be able to clarify a threat to society while resisting the temptation to frighten their citizenry. In this vein, we’re once again reminded of Trump’s ill-fated first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whose successor heralds a significant policy shift. Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, supposedly known for “respecting Muslims“, is a disappointment to many Trump supporters, who see him as another kowtower to PC tyranny. But McMaster need not be seen this way, and in the interests of optimism, it might be more useful to deconstruct Flynn’s controversial ideas on Islam – and safely dismiss them.
At times during the presidential campaign, Flynn appeared to acknowledge Islam as a religion, describing Islamism (a supremacist sectarian or theocratic political ideology) as “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion [Muslims]” that must be “excised”. But elsewhere he took a more extreme view, saying he did “not view Islam as a religion” at all, but as a “political ideology that will mask itself as a religion globally” to “hide behind freedom of religion.”
Flynn’s book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, notes:
“I firmly believe that Radical Islam is a tribal cult and must be crushed. Critics get buried in the details of sunna, hadiths, the umma, and the musings of countless Muslim clerics and imams. These so-called Islamic scholars keep their message so complicated so as to create chaos, to confuse in order to control. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mussolini were more transparent. Sharia is a violent law that is buried in barbaric convictions.”
In reality, the “message” isn’t complicated, and some of Flynn’s “so-called Islamic scholars” were making the point long before he ever started talking about “Radical Islam” (a tragic misnomer, but now the Trump administration’s anointed phrase to identify the “cancer”). Bluntly put, the challenge facing the West is to see Shari’a (Islamic law) removed from the public realm throughout the world.
Conceived and developed from the 8th to 10th centuries, Shari’a was never designed to be the public or constitutional law of a nation-state, since no “nation-state” existed at the time. But the “divinity” of Shari’a became an enduring historical misconception. The ancient legal corpus isn’t part of the “revelation” or the Prophet Muhammad’s utterances, meaning Shari’a isn’t “divine”, even by the yardstick of Islam itself.
The credibility of Shari’a suffers further from the fact that, in the 10th century, all juridical analysis, reasoning and development of the law (progressive for its time) was halted by the top legal scholars of the day, who somehow felt no need to develop any more rules, principles or precedent, as happens naturally in modern legal systems. We are thus faced with the curious museum piece that is Shari’a today.
Also significant, while the Medinan verses of the Qur’an took precedence in interpreting and implementing Shari’a because they were “revealed” later than the Meccan verses, the Meccan are more than three times as numerous and arguably contain Islam’s basic principles. When Shari’a was being devised, the violent Medinan parts “abrogated” the “warm and fuzzy” Meccan bits. This was to the grave misfortune of Muslim-majority countries whose regimes superimposed Shari’a on their states.
In The Field of Fight, co-authored with scholar and prolific author Michael Ledeen (himself a former adviser to Reagan’s National Security Council), Flynn describes as “incredibly brave and bold” Egyptian President Abdel Fatta el-Sisi’s call for “de-sacralizing” Islamic texts and ideas. This is fine, of course. But what Flynn doesn’t do is bring pressure to bear on all Shari’a-governed countries, especially those he views as allies in the war against “Radical Islam”. In this, he is almost certainly being deliberately selective.
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For example, Flynn doesn’t mention “Wahhabism”, a sect of Sunni Islam originating in Saudi Arabia and a highly puritanical, literalist strand of the already-draconian Hanbali school of Shari’a. Yet since the 18th century, the dynasty of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has openly allied itself with Wahhabism and today funds the construction and operation of Wahhabi mosques worldwide, including in non-Muslim majority countries. Does Saudi Arabia – a “vital ally” for Flynn – merit no scrutiny, particularly if its mosques contribute to the “radicalization” of attendees? Oddly, while Saudi Arabia officially opposes ISIS, the Islamic State’s leaders embrace Wahhabism and disseminate Wahhabi literature. Wahhabi textbooks are used in the schools ISIS controls.
The main focus for pundits like Flynn (they are many in America) is the Shi’a Muslim-majority, Shari’a-governed, Islamic Republic of Iran. While all of Shari’a is better suited to glass museum cases than current-day legal code books, the Shi’a Islamic legal corpus is also bound up with a belief in the “infallibility” of the “imam”, the religious and political leader of the Muslim community. As if the “infallibility” of anyone wielding political and military power in the modern age weren’t disturbing enough, the historic brutality and misdeeds of imams over the past several centuries certainly should be.
Iran’s official Shi’a doctrine – the “Twelver” school of Shari’a – holds that the “Twelfth Imam” (twelfth caliph after the Prophet to Shi’ites) disappeared in a cave as a boy in 847 A.D. This imam – the Mahdi – is the “Messiah”: he is not dead but only invisible, and will reappear at the end of time to redeem the Earth as it is being destroyed. The Iranian regime, led by Twelver clerics with ultimate authority on what is legal, has designs on the holy lands not only of Saudi Arabia (Mecca and Medina) but also of Israel and Palestine (Jerusalem). The “self-fulfilling prophecy” potential of the Messianist worldview, combined with the Teheran’s regional ambitions, makes Iranian Islamism worryingly unpredictable.
Simply put, Shari’a-governed Iran feels more immediately dangerous than its Sunni counterparts, and this is especially true for America’s most conspicuous non-Muslim-majority ally in the region, Israel, which lies in striking distance of Iranian ballistic missiles. Saudi Shari’a, while still barbaric, feels subdued compared to Iran’s, and the House of Saud has at least committed to (very slow) reform, even if little of substance is visible thus far. The Saudi kingdom is also an open rival of Iran. For these reasons, primarily, Flynn and others in America cherry-pick in expressing outrage about Islamism.
Flynn actually calls urgently for “complete reformation of the Islamic religion”, but “reformations” can take many decades. The “church-state” divide in Western legal and constitutional systems stems from the Gregorian Reformation, which began with Pope Gregory VII’s bid for power in Europe in 1075 and didn’t really end until agents of King Henry II assassinated Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Against this timeframe, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is a short, prefatory episode in a long-term, global process – brutal and barbaric, but “normal” in the context of apocalyptic civilizational change.
There is a sense that an Islamic “reformation” is now underway, but some in the West are blurring the distinction between Islam and Islamism to advance their agenda. While they may succeed in pulling America into another war, spreading panic about a shadowy, ill-defined global enemy among fear-prone provincial Westerners probably won’t change hearts and minds anywhere for the better. Bringing criticism and questioning of Islamic practice into the global public arena, by contrast, could do just that.
The most constructive role America can play in defeating Islamic supremacism is in promoting enlightened Islamic reformation theory around the world, making Muslims and non-Muslims unafraid to critique Shari’a and the rigidly dogmatic religious orthodoxies employed by some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. The world’s third great Abrahamic faith should be neither immutable nor unquestionable, and we should by all means encourage global debate on the fate of Shari’a, not shy away from it. When adulterers or blasphemers are sentenced to death anywhere, America should condemn the executioners – Iranian, Saudi or other – and urge our allies to do the same.
How we confront those of the world’s Muslims who view Shari’a as divine law is the most momentous trial of our age. But confront it we must. Trump’s next ideological metamorphosis should be toward reinforcing the image of America as a sanctuary and beacon of free and independent thought, not a nation of fearful gun-toters whose population is less than one percent Muslim. The American sanctuary must include Muslims who reject the infallibility of Shari’a, who are prepared to openly analyze and deconstruct their religion, and who cherish the Western, secular way of life.
Chad Nagle is an attorney and freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area.