It’s time to Confront the ‘Counterjihadists’

For years, a group of American authors, bloggers, pundits and activists have mischaracterized the conflict with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations as part of a broader “clash of civilizations” between Muslims and Western society.

This clash, they claim, is not just about preventing terrorist attacks but about stopping a global Islamic movement that threatens the very foundations of Judeo-Christian society.

The consequences of this way of thinking have come to roost in the bombing and shooting rampage in Norway. The self-confessed killer, Anders Behring Breivik, endorsed their world view. Indeed, the footprints of their thinking are all over his manifesto.

This clash-of-civilization ideology, as espoused by self-proclaimed “counterjihadists,” needs to be strongly confronted before more damage is done. These propagandists explicitly reject the idea that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are fringe movements motivated by a faulty interpretation of Islam. Rather, they say this violence flows directly from the holy texts of Islam.

Global Islam, they assert, is inherently aggressive, anti-Christian and committed to world domination. And they believe it’s their calling to save the world from this dire threat.

While it’s true the “counterjihadists” aren’t calling for violence as a means to further their goals, there can be little doubt, as terrorism expert Marc Sageman has said, that “their writings are the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.”

Clash-of-civilization thinking has deeply penetrated American public opinion. A recent study by Erik Nisbet from Ohio State University has found increasing distrust of Muslim Americans, even after the death of Osama bin Laden. He reports that more than half of all Americans believe that Muslim Americans “undermine American culture,” and that two-thirds believe that Muslim Americans have “beliefs and values that are not compatible with the beliefs and values of most Americans.”

Clash-of-civilization thinking has also seeped into mainstream political discourse. It spiked last summer in response to the planned building of an Islamic centre three blocks from Ground Zero. It’s reflected in legislation enacted or proposed in numerous states to prevent the consideration of shariah law principles in courts. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, a Georgia businessman, has said he would not be “comfortable” with a Muslim in his cabinet and recently argued that Islam is not a religion deserving of protection under the First Amendment.

While these critics of Islam are not overtly advocating violence, they’re advancing the dangerous idea that Islam is a threat to America and traditional values. Mainstream endorsement of these ideas can be latched on to by an angry, politicized individual with a delusional view that he can make a difference by taking matters into his own hands. The vitriolic thinking that inspired Mr. Breivik is present in America.

So, what’s to be done?

• Security officials must take this threat seriously. Resources must be dedicated to the surveillance and infiltration of radical anti-Islamic groups that have expressed a credible potential for violence.

• Political leaders need to speak out forcefully against anti-Islamic sentiment. They should explain that the conflict is with radical extremists who distort religion to justify violence, not with the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

• Muslims need to be more aggressive in confronting mistruths about Islam that appear in discourse, whether they come from radical Muslims or anti-Islamic demagogues. The public is uneducated about Islam. This vacuum is being filled by the clash-of-civilization cheerleaders. Muslims need to tell a different story.

• Religious leaders should engage in an aggressive program of interfaith dialogue. Studies suggest that such experiences can be powerful educational tools, especially for young people.

What happened in Norway shows us that clash-of-civilization thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence. It’s well past time to start confronting this false narrative.

David Schanzer is director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and Associate Professor of the Practice at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. 

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail on Jul. 28, 2011.