Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — a couple of courteous debates on topics of considerable interest ]

I’d like to draw your attention to two recent conversations:

The first begins with Mark Jacobsen‘s Armed Forces Journal piece, How to teach about Islam, and continues with a guest post from Tim Mathews at Abu Muqawama, Insha’Allah they learn something useful. Mark then responds to Tim at his own blog, Building Peace.

Mark lays out the problem:

Much of the debate now hinges on which voices educators should trust. The question is no longer “What is Islam?” but “Who should teach about Islam?” Government agencies struggle to answer that question, because they often feel compelled to choose between two camps: those who believe extremism is intrinsic to Islam itself, and those who see no relationship whatsoever between Islamic doctrine and extremism. Although much thoughtful and scholarly discussion of Islam does exist, it is these two camps who now dominate the popular conversation.

Government agencies will never escape their dilemma if they continue searching for an authority who can speak for “true” Islam. Islam is a deeply contested religion, even among Muslims, and the arguments of both extremes are shot through with truth, falsehood, exaggerations, omissions and assumptions. Much of the debate about Islam in the United States is intellectually dishonest. Rival voices are less concerned with sincere discussion than with heavy-handed tactics to dominate the conversation, such as efforts to control government classrooms. The only way out of this dilemma is also the most intellectually honest one: to understand the battle for American perceptions of Islam, to map out the topography of the debate and to teach students to critically evaluate rival arguments.

Tim responds:

As should be clear, I agree with problems that the author identifies in the US. However, I fail to see what this has to do with the issue of educating our personnel. We are not training our personnel to be foot soldiers in a culture war fought on cable television and weblogs in the United States. We are training our personnel to conduct operations in foreign countries.

[ … ]

The problem that he identifies is not relevant to preparing our personnel for deployments to conduct, and provide support for, operations in majority-Muslim countries. What the author has advocated is a program to help our educators avoid being pulled into battles of a culture war on US soil and, along the way, educating our personnel. The primary focus should be educating and the secondary focus on mitigating public pressure from fringe organizations.

Mark’s response:

I’m very glad to see your thoughtful response to my article. More than anything, I had hoped to spark some discussion about how Islam is taught in various government agencies, so am glad to see you carrying the discussion forward.

[ … ]

One reason you might disagree with aspects of my article is because you viewed it primarily through the lens of preparing deploying soldiers. That is an important part of what I’m writing about, but I actually intended the article to encompass a much broader range of government needs. Government employees have many different reasons they might need to understand something about Islam. Congressmen and their staffs are trying to make sense of the alleged “shariah threat” and calls for anti-shariah legislation; law enforcement agencies and the FBI need a way to understand and delineate between “moderates” and “extremists”, so they can hone in on real threats while respecting the civil liberties of ordinary Muslims; military commanders concerned with preventing the next Ft. Hood want to know how they can recognize extremist ideology; government agencies involved in any sort of outreach to Muslim communities struggle to find partners they can work with, because the largest American-Islamic organizations that claim to speak for American Muslims are tarnished by alleged links to extremism and terrorism.

All three pieces are worth reading in full — it was hard to pull quotes that did any of them justice, they’re all packed! And FWIW I do think Mark is right in ranging beyond the constraints of “preparing our personnel for deployments” — Tim’s more focused concern — because the war of ideas is won or lost as much in terms of how the US is perceived WRT Islam as it is by the behavior of troops, village by village, “in the field”.


The second begins with a David Briggs piece in Huffington Post, Is It Time to Reconsider the Term Islamist?, which leads Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Lauren Morgan to respond at Gunpowder & Lead with Islamism in the Popular Imagination — which in turn generated Bernard Finel‘s post On Islamists and Rick Santorum. Daveed then comes back with Islamists and Rick Santorum: A Response to Bernard Finel.

I’m not going to quote Briggs, whose piece strikes me as light-weight, except to note that he introduces the question of comparisons between Obama and Rick Santorum (potential “Christianists”) with “Islamists”:

At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama said his policies were grounded in his Christian beliefs. In a 2008 speech, former GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum said America was in the middle of a spiritual war in which “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.”

Are Obama and/or Santorum Christianists?

The answers to those questions would depend on how the term is defined. But it is unlikely you will hear any Christian politician or activist referred to in that way.

What American and western audiences are increasingly hearing, however, since the political and social upheaval that accompanied the Arab spring, is the term Islamist.

Daveed and Lauren:

You would be hard pressed to find anything beyond a few fringe commentators who are worried about Islamism because politicians representing this movement refer to Islamic principles in their rhetoric. Rather, it is the specific relationship between religion and state that worries observers. (I mean, really, does Briggs think that Obama will make canon law the law of the land if given a second term?)

Briggs bolsters his case by quoting Mansoor Moaddel, an Eastern Michigan University sociologist, as saying that in his interviews, he found that “‘in some respects, Mr. Santorum is more extremist’ than leading figures of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” Nor is Briggs the only Western commentator to fatuously compare Santorum to Islamic extremists. To actually approach the claim being made by Briggs and others — that Islamist politicians possess an agenda that is less extreme than that of Rick Santorum — a better approach is to look at the practice in Middle Eastern states, as well as the policies advocated by Islamist politicians with significant audiences (as opposed to mere fringe players). That is what we do in this entry.

And do they indeed do — detailing with bullet points and commentary the practical behaviors of a variety of Islamic nations in respect to apostasy, blasphemy, the rights of women, and gay rights in the rest of their lengthy and instructive piece.

Enter Bernard Finel, who draws a fine distinction:

GR argues convincingly that policies put in place by Islamist parties throughout the Middle East are more extreme than Santorum. And indeed, on issues like religious freedom, women’s rights, and gay rights, GR is quite correct. Islamist regimes are worse than anything Santorum has proposed.

But I’d argue this is an apples to oranges comparison. Santorum’s limits are defined, I think, more by the limits imposed by American institutions rather his ideology per se. In other words, GR is comparing institutionally unconstrained ideological positions with those heavy constrained by institutions. It actually is not at all difficult to find actors on the right who would like to see religious freedom severely curtailed. Indeed, there is even a “Constitutional theory” out there among right wingers than Muslims should not receive First Amendment protections because either Islam is a “cult” or because it was not extant in any significant way in the United States when the Bill of Rights was ratified.

I’ll get into the issue of “actors on the right who would like to see religious freedom severely curtailed” in an follow up to this post — and touch on the usage “Christianist” there also — here, I’ll just say that Finel is articulating something I’ve “felt but not thought” or perhaps “thought but not articulated” myself quite a few times, and while I’m not entirely satisfied with his phrasing about “constraint by institutions” I think there’s a serious point in there, and I’m glad to see it surfaced.

Back to Daveed:

In comparing the relative extremes of Santorum versus those of Islamist parties, we were not trying to offer a moral judgment on the relative righteousness of those two actors (to be clear: we use “actor” in the loosest possible sense here, since Islamist politicians are by no means a unified actor). Rather, we were comparing exactly what we have just specified: the policies Santorum has advocated or implemented versus those that Islamist parties have advocated or implemented. It is true that institutional constraints play a role in defining said policies, but our goal was illuminating policies that are likely to have an impact on anyone’s life, and not judging Santorum’s “heart of hearts.” Hence, it is a direct apples to apples comparison of what policies are advocated by these two different actors. It would only be an apples to oranges comparison if our goal were moral judgment.

Fair enough: then there are at least two kinds of comparisons to be made… one between policies advocated by the respective parties, and one between the political realities constraining those whose ideals may be comparable.


Again, with such rich material it is difficult if not impossible to pick quotes without cherry-picking them — and I must repeat that my intention here has not been to summarize these debates so much as to lead you into them…

Finel actually has a further post today in which he characterizes Daveed (and Laurel) as making “an ill-conceived and pointless attempt to haul Rick Santorum into the mix” on the way to another discussion. For the record, it was Briggs, not Daveed and Laurel, who introduced Santorum into the discussion.

I’ll have two follow-ups to this post, one adding a couple of points to the Gunpowder & Leaf / Finel discussion in regard to “Christianism” and the theological underpinnings of a contemporary movement for church-state fusion, the other adding a couple of other intriguing details to the mix.