It is important for the United States to tackle radical Islamist ideological indoctrination — dawa — before it takes root to the extent it has in Europe.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently escalated his feud with the German and Dutch governments, accusing them of being Nazis. At issue is Mr. Erdogan’s desire to have his government campaign among the Turkish diaspora in favor of a referendum that would give him nearly unlimited powers. The Dutch and German governments have so far denied the Turkish government’s requests to campaign inside their borders.
More problematic, though, is the influence that Mr. Erdogan and his government wield among Turks living abroad through Diyanet, Turkey’s official religious affairs institution. Diyanet has sent hundreds of clerics to preach at mosques throughout Germany, although many do not speak German. The aim of Diyanet preachers is not assimilation into Germany’s civic institutions and values, but a type of cultural and religious separatism for Muslims of Turkish descent. As Mr. Erdogan increasingly implements political Islam in Turkey, his government’s spiritual influence in Europe is a cause for concern.
There is an important lesson here for the United States. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials have focused on countering and disrupting individual acts of violence committed by Islamic extremists, but they have not countered the ideology that justifies and encourages such acts of violence and rejects assimilation into American civic ideals.
By focusing on the tactic of terrorism, successive U.S. administrations have largely ignored organizations whose primary function is the dissemination of radical Islamist ideology in the United States.
Although many Americans have heard of jihad, few have heard of dawa. In theory, dawa is simply a call to Islam. As Islamists practice the concept, however, dawa goes far beyond an invitation. Islamist dawa is a process of methodical indoctrination — brainwashing — that rejects assimilation and places people in opposition to Western civic ideals. If the indoctrination is severe enough, dawa can place individuals on the path to militant jihad.
Take Imam Suleiman Bengharsa, a cleric in Maryland. He has openly endorsed the Islamic State, posted gruesome videos, and praised terrorist attacks overseas. As of February, however, he remains a free man and U.S. authorities insist nothing can be done against him because he has not yet plotted to commit a specific act of violence. How many followers will Mr. Bengharsa “inspire” before one of them engages in violence?
The Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) has hosted numerous extremist preachers, such as Yasir Wadhi, Salah Soltan and Abdul Nasir Janga. A lawsuit initiated by the ISB in 2005 led to the disclosure that the organization had received over $8.6 million from Wahhabi, Gulf and Muslim Brotherhood sources. Over the past decade, no fewer than 12 congregants, supporters, staff members and donors of the ISB have been imprisoned, deported, killed or are on the run.
U.S. officials should acknowledge that Islamists who do not engage in violence themselves are not necessarily “moderate.” Islamists can and do preach the virtues of unreformed Shariah law, undermining the equal rights of women, Jews, Christians, to say nothing of freedom of expression and rights for gays, that we in the Western world take for granted in the 21st century. The Islamist worldview is not compatible with America’s constitutional order, its civic institutions or the principles of the open society.
As jihadist attacks in Western countries have continued in recent years, a growing number of voices are calling for a shift in strategy with regard to “radical Islam.” Speaking in Youngstown, Ohio, on Aug. 15, 2016, Donald Trump declared he would seek to counter Islamist ideology if elected president. In his words, the “hateful ideology of radical Islam [with] its oppression of women, gays, children and nonbelievers” could not “be allowed to reside or spread.”
It seems that President Trump has acknowledged that counter-terrorism is necessary but not sufficient. This marks a welcome change from prior administrations. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump’s calls for a change in strategy have been overshadowed by the uproar surrounding the hastily and poorly planned executive order on immigration. It is here in countering radical Islam as an ideology that the new administration can learn from the European experience. Yes, European countries have made mistakes, but there are also good policies that can be embraced in the United States.
In the 2000s, the British government was embarrassed to discover that “non-violent” Islamist groups it had funded were, in fact, espousing extremist ideology. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron memorably described the attempt to partner with Islamists to counter violent Islamists as “like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement.” Recognizing the link between radical Islamist indoctrination and violence, Mr. Cameron noted that of individuals convicted of terrorist crimes in Britain, “it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists,’ and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence.”
In the United States, many officials remain reluctant to engage in any battle of ideas with radical Islam, but it was not always this way. In the years immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, senators such as Jon Kyl, Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer held congressional hearings on the problematic role of Wahhabi ideology in the United States. Yet efforts to push back against Islamist ideology were not carried through to completion by either the Bush or Obama administrations.
Today, Islamist foundations and individuals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait continue to contribute to the dissemination of radical Islamic ideology in the United States and other Western countries. These funding flows should be mapped and curtailed. The U.S. should use all means of public diplomacy to give a voice to non-Islamist Muslims. And it should recognize, as the British have, that partnering with nonviolent Islamists is not a viable path toward winning the war against radical Islam.
• Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research associate at the Hoover Institution and founder of the AHA Foundation. She is the author of “The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It” (Hoover Press, 2017).
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