It seems that conservatives have enormous difficulty getting along. Often we see them at odds with each other and dismissing the very groups trying to defend conservative ideas and assumptions. Some identify as neo-conservatives, others as paleo-conservatives, still others labor to distinguish themselves from libertarian conservatives. Fiscal conservatives set themselves apart from social and religious conservatives. Some are anti-Bush conservatives, some are RINOs. Many jumped on the Arab Spring bandwagon; others, far more prescient, warned of the disaster it portended. Some see major conservative figures like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Tommy Robinson, Ann Coulter, and Geert Wilders as stalwart defenders of Western values; others regard them as inflexible bigots and warmongers.
Recently, I hosted a dinner for a few conservative friends, well-known and influential people in the political community and doing much good work in promoting freedom, justice, national security, sane immigration policy, Zionism, the sovereignty of the individual, and resistance to tyrannical ideologies. And yet, as the evening progressed, basic divisions began to be exposed, especially with respect to the axial distinction between Islam and Islamism — a necessary differentiation, according to my friends. The equation of Islam and Islamism, they argued, arose from ignorance. In fact, it conceded ground to the radicals and extremists, as one of my cherished friends put it in a subsequent letter to me, “by accepting the Islamists’ view that they are the sole representatives of Islam.”
Islamists, from my friend’s perspective, are barbarians, Bedouin outriders to the faith, marginal entities who “clothe themselves in the texts of Islam” instead of recognizing, as do their “moderate” brethren, that a renewed and “open reading” of the Koran is perennially possible and that the more offensive passages can be historicized and legitimately abrogated. Like any other religion, on this view, Islam is not “immune to the dialectics of history,” and can be reinterpreted and brought into a productive relation with the current era. All people of good will should therefore support these moderates and must be on guard not to alienate them through loose talk about the dangers of Islam.
For myself, though I would wish to eschew controversy among the ostensibly like-minded and cease throwing lead downrange, the dinner-party conversation struck me as evidence of how such divisions over the nature of Islam create a crippling discord amongst conservatives. The meliorists discriminate between a “good Islam” and a “bad Islam,” accusing those with whom they disagree of a perilous conflation of incompatibles. This “bad Islam,” apparently, is the product of a grievous misinterpretation of the primary documents and historical lore on the part of those who have “hijacked” the faith. It is not really Islam.
But the point is, as Anjem Choudary, head of the radical al-Muhajiroun (“the immigrants”) movement in Britain, assures us , the division between moderates and extremists is a “classification [that] does not exist in Islam.” Similarly, after the recent terrorist attack on a BP natural gas plant in Algeria, costing 81 lives, one of the perpetrators announced: “We’ve come in the name of Islam, to teach the Americans what Islam is.” And they have the liturgy and consecrations with them. As Robert Spencer comments , “mainstream media coverage has followed the usual patterns, downplaying or ignoring outright what the attackers said about what they were hoping to accomplish, since these statements lead to questions about Islam that they would prefer not be asked.”