The Difficulty of Definitions

by Steven R. Corman 

Writing in the CT Blog, Jeffrey Imm argues that “any blueprint strategy for national security must define Jihad, must address it within the national security threat, and must also define a national policy on the ideology of political Islamism.” But, Imm says, we have no such definition, and Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood fall into what he views as a dangerous grey area.  He describes the case of Major Stephen Coughlin, who was apparently fired from a Pentagon job for taking too hard a line toward Muslim groups linked to the Brotherhood. 

This is yet another example of the difficulty of drawing clear contrasts in our conflict with Islamist terrorism.  Though the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist group that is an ideological progenitor of al Qaeda, it also says it supports democractic principles, which the U.S. is keen to support in the Middle East.  Writing last year in Foreign Affairs, Leiken and Brooke point out that , “Even as Western commentators condemn the Muslim Brotherhood for its Islamism, radicals in the Middle East condemn it for rejecting jihad and embracing democracy.”  McDonald and Derk, writing in this blog, concluded that the Brotherhood’s web site “is instrumental for decision makers to track issues of import within the Islamic world and provides another avenue to awareness of those hostile to, as well as sympathetic, to our policy goals in the region and around the world.” 

The Brotherhood is hard to classify because of its ambiguous position, supporting Islamist principles but rejecting its violent methods, and giving voice to those for and against U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Some critics like Robert Spencer argue that this ambiguity itself is a strategy designed to confuse the West about the true intent of  Islamists.  But in this postmodern world, how is it possible to understand the “true” intent of groups like the Brotherhood?  Perhaps they do not themselves know what their true intent is.