The recent video image of Akayed Ullah, the accused New York bomber, facing federal terrorism charges from a hospital bed, is a visual metaphor on the confusion of how the U.S. addresses Islamism and Islam — at once both cautious and swift.
An admitted ISIS follower, the 27-year-old from Banladesh, reportedly posted on Facebook prior to the attack, "Trump you failed to protect your nation."
Looking at the bigger picture, the actions taken during the first year of this administration show a profound misunderstanding of Islamism and Islam. Seeking simple answers to complex questions, the Trump administration resolves to seal Islamism out at the border. If only it were so easy; Islamists’ narratives need no passports; Islamist imaginations, no visas.
As an observing Muslim woman devoted to combating Islamism, I have spent the past decade and a half seeking to understand Islamism — a journey that has taken me from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to East London to North West Pakistan and beyond.
The battle against Islamism is not merely waged on the expanding global battlefield — it is increasingly a white hot, raging ideological cold war.
Extreme vetting plays into this ideological war, dangerously complicating U.S. confusion around Islam and Islamism. Worse the travel ban while certainly pragmatic, fuels the false impression that combating Islamism is anti-Muslim xenophobia and stokes fears that anti-Muslim xenophobia is official American policy.
On closer examination when it comes to Islamism, American ambivalence towards Islamism is on full display.
This past summer’s announcement of troop surges in Afghanistan “until there are no safe havens for terrorists,” offers jihadists more fuel- sixteen years on America still appears to be at war with Muslims in Muslim lands.
General H.R. McMaster, National Security Adviser, is on record with an aversion to naming Islamism as a threat. McMaster fired a senior National Security Council official who proposed Muslim Brotherhood Islamists may have undue White House influence. But more recently, McMaster may be considering revising his position, confronting Erdogan's Turkey along with Qatar with propagating Islamism. This may or may not translate as an administration wide policy position.
Official disengagement with Islamism is not merely confined to the Oval Office- U.S. Senate hearings on Islamism in June were dismissed by legislators themselves. Senators refused to interact with my colleagues — both female Muslim victims of Islamism — testifying on the dangers of Islamism on the basis that the discussion itself was considered “Islamophobic.”
The vacuum of both expertise and intellectual curiosity at the highest levels of American government pertaining to Islamism offers a huge advantage to American Islamists.
They are keen to propagate the false narrative of anti-Muslim xenophobia emanating from the White House, emboldening the Islamist propaganda that Muslims are victimized by the West, even as we live and thrive here.
Such a gap in public discourse surrounding Islamism is amplified by the dominating pro-Islamist narrative of Western Islamic studies.
In a brilliant 2013 essay, Muslim author, political scientist Bassam Tibi critiques the Western Middle Eastern Studies denial of the distinction between Islam and Islamism. Instead, they portray non-violent Islamists as “moderates” within Islam and wrongly reduce all Islamism into mere violent Islamism. This prevalent academic assertion discounts the nonviolent ideological underpinning of evolutionary jihadist terrorism, or Islamism, as any threat.
Similarly Islamists were handed another victory when Islamist evolutionary jihadist terrorism was neutered as mere “violent extremism,” under the Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden ahead of pace Trump set for days away from White House: CNN The Senate is setting a dangerous precedent with Iron Dome funding Obama says change may be coming 'too rapidly' for many MORE administration. Semantics suddenly severed jihadism from both political science and religion — an incredible gift to Islamism.
Such biases naively fast-track Islamism (mistaken as a religious minority) to an American belief that feels compelled to shield Islamism from “persecution.” Through this marriage of Islamism and what is perceived as liberalism, Islamism becomes perversely stronger than even in many Muslim majority countries lacking what may be called democratic liberalism.
Unsurprisingly a deep reluctance to examine Islamism follows, advantaging only Islamists’ while anti-Islamist thinkers, including Muslims like me, risk being discredited as Islamophobes. What results is a silencing of many Muslims from speaking of Islamism in this country.
Certainly anti-Muslim xenophobia is appalling, contemptible and unlawful in the United States, as is any hate speech or act against any group based on its religious or other core identity.
But exposing and criticizing Islamism is not Islamophobia, it is a criticism of a totalitarianism. Stripping Islamism of the veil of Islam is a defense of Islam proper. Exposing Islamism is not only a defense of Islam, it is a defense of secular liberal democracy.
While it would have done nothing to stop the bombing recently in New York, the recent travel ban may be a small step in attenuating the entry of Islamists seeking to exploit human migrant streams. Still, their main battlefields are not on our borders, but in the battle of ideas in the public space.
Qanta A. Ahmed is member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom. You can find her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.