Do we have to destroy radical Islamism in order to save Islam?

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Is "Islamic democracy" a contradiction in terms, a big fat oxymoron? Years ago, a sympathetic French scholar wrote that Islam was inherently "totalitarian," and Bernard Lewis, when asked by President Clinton's speechwriters for an appropriate Koranic line about the blessings of peace, remarked that he only knew of one, and Clinton had already used it. From Winston Churchill to Elias Canetti, the literature on Islam's rhetorical and physical violence and hatred of infidels is enormous and authoritative.

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Until recently, Turkey was considered an Islamic democracy of sorts, but under Tayyip Erdoğan it has become an Islamist tyranny. Does this prove that Islamic states will inevitably reject freedom? Or does it only mean that democracies do fail, and that ambitious men can impose their will on a formerly free country?

For the most part, those debating this important question talk about a "possible evolution" within Islam, as if momentous changes in cultural history were inevitably gradual, the results of debate and discussion. But it is not always so. Momentous cultural and intellectual changes are often the results of war or violent revolution.

Freedom and democracy are new developments — when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1831, it was aimed at monarchical and aristocratic European elites — and they were torn from the grips of anti-democratic rulers through war. It's surprising how rarely we are reminded that American democracy required winning a revolutionary war against the British crown, or that the limitations on absolutist European Christian dogma came only after centuries of exceedingly bloody fighting.

Rather like today, with different Islamic sects slaughtering each other, and Christian infidels, with mounting savagery from the Middle East to north and sub-Saharan Africa.

I don't think we're going to get them to change their behavior by winning a debate, although we should certainly criticize them. I think the history of freedom strongly suggests that we're going to have to defeat them first. Then a productive debate will be a lot easier.

Defeat of a messianic mass movement like jihad does terrible damage to the appeal of its ideology. The likes of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and jihadis such as Osama bin Laden credit their victories to divine intervention. When they lose, it raises terrible questions: Has God abandoned us? Has He changed sides? What went wrong?

Look at the failed mass movements of the last century. Fascism and Nazism were effectively destroyed in war. Communism ceased to function as a dynamic mass movement when the Soviet Union fell. More recently, when we defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, the jihadis had a much more difficult time enlisting new recruits. They only revived when America retreated.

Or look at the transformation of Christianity during the Reformation. Most people think that "just happened" over a few centuries, but instead it was the result of world wars, the Hundred Years' War and the Thirty Years' War. To be sure, debates raged about the proper content of religion and about its proper role in society. But for the most part, the winning doctrines were associated with the winners of the wars.

Does that mean we have to defeat the forces of radical Islam in order for Muslims to openly embrace freedom and democracy?

Maybe not. There are lots of modern Muslims in the West who accept democracy but have been intimidated by the jihadis. They'd love to be secure enough to speak out. Here again, thwarting radical Muslims would encourage moderates to come forward.

So while defeating the jihadis on real and virtual battlefields might not be the whole answer, it would surely be a good start.

Ledeen, the author of more than 30 books, is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was special adviser to Secretary of State Alexander Haig and a consultant to the national security adviser during the Reagan administration.