What is it that radicalizes Muslims, including American Muslims? Is it American foreign policy? Israeli “occupation” of the ancient Jewish territories of Judea and Samaria? Cartoons depicting the warrior-prophet as a warrior? Korans torched by obscure Florida pastors? The life of Osama bin Laden, or, perhaps, his death? Any of a thousand claimed slights, real or imagined, that purportedly provoke young Muslims to “conflagrate” — if we may borrow from the forgiving rationalizations of Faisal Rauf, would-be imam of the would-be Ground Zero mosque?
Here is the unsettling but sedulously avoided truth: What radicalizes Muslims is Islam.
Political correctness requires that we becloud this simple truth with a few caveats that, in most any other context, would be regarded as distractions by sensible people. So it is necessary to say that there is more than one interpretation of Islam. We must further note that the fact that Islam itself is the radicalizing catalyst does not mean that all, or even most, Muslims will become radicals. But here is another disquieting truth: Even the terms “radicalization” and “radical Islam” get things exactly backwards. The reality is that the radicals in Islam are the reformers — the Muslims who embrace Western civilization, its veneration of reason in matters of faith, and the pluralistic space it makes for civil society. What we wishfully call “radicalism” is in fact the Islamic mainstream.
These are the principal takeaways from an important study just competed by Israeli academic Mordechai Kedar and David Yerushalmi of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. As detailed in a just-published Middle East Quarterly essay, “Shari’a and Violence in American Mosques” (available here), the authors’ “Mapping Sharia” project surveyed 100 randomly selected mosques across the United States. Onsite, fully 81 percent of the mosques featured Islamic texts that advocate violence. In nearly 85 percent of the mosques, the leadership (usually an imam or prayer leader) favorably recommended this literature for study by congregants. Moreover, 58 percent of the mosques invited guest lecturers known for promoting violent jihad.
Kedar and Yerushalmi sought to study two intimately related sets of correlations. The first focused on sharia, the Islamic system of law that is based primarily on the Koran and the Sunnah (i.e., the words, deeds, and traditions of Mohammed). The authors homed in on observable sharia-compliant behaviors. These are not actions unique to terrorist groups but conduct reflective of the broad consensus of sharia jurisprudence that cuts across the Sunni/Shiite divide — for example, women wearing the hijab or niqab (respectively, the head covering or full-length covering of the entire female form), the segregation of men from women during communal prayer, and the enforcement by imams of the requirement that male worshippers form up in tight, straight lines during mosque prayer.
The survey probed whether there was a statistically significant correlation between these sharia behaviors and the availability at the mosque of “violence-positive” literature. Significantly, although violence pervades Muslim scripture, the authors did not include scripture (the Koran and the Sunnah) in this violence-positive category. Instead, they confined it to “normative and instructive tracts,” because “a believer is free to understand scripture literally, figuratively, or merely poetically,” unless it has become an Islamic norm or a legal obligation through incorporation in sharia.
Thus the focus on violent-positive tracts, which are interpretive of scripture. They were ranked in accordance with their promotion of violence as “severe,” “moderate,” or “nonexistent.” The “severe” is easy enough to spot: It includes tracts that affirmatively call for brutality against non-Muslims (and deviant Muslims) by such 20th-century ideologues as Muslim Brotherhood theoretician Sayyid Qutb and his fellow polemicist Abul Awa Mawdudi. Similarly straightforward is literature that does not approve of, much less incite, violence. Most disheartening is the “moderate” category. These are tracts written by widely respected sharia authorities that, though predominantly concerned with “the more mundane aspects of religious worship and ritual,” express “positive attitudes toward violence” — implicitly endorsing it even if they have not incited it in the manner of Qutb and Mawdudi.
The authors found that 51 percent of the mosques featured severely violence-positive literature; an additional 30 percent distributed moderately violent tracts; and 19 percent offered nonviolent materials. What’s more, there was a strong correlation between sharia-compliant behavior and the presence of severely violent (as well as moderately violent) tracts. And while the mosques that were not as sharia-compliant (e.g., mosques that did not segregate the sexes during prayer or enforce straight prayer lines) featured less in the way of violent materials, the percentages of even these mosques that had violence-positive literature on site was disturbingly high. (See Table 2 of the MEQ essay.)
The second, related correlation the study examines is between the presence of violence-positive materials at a given mosque and the recommendation of these materials to worshippers by the mosque’s imam — a direct promotion of violent jihadism. To cut to the chase, if these materials are on site, the imam is nearly always found endorsing them. The more observably sharia-adherent the imam, the more certain this conclusion. For example, 93 percent of imams who sported the traditional full beard were found to recommend violence-positive literature. Nonetheless, more than three-quarters of imams who did not manifest similar indicia of sharia-compliance were still found to endorse the pro-violence literature if it was on site.
Perhaps the most jarring finding in the study involved mosque attendance. As the authors observe, “mosques that contained written materials in the severe category were the best attended, followed by those with only moderate-rated materials, trailed in turn by those lacking such texts.” We are not talking small divergence here: Severe-material mosques were found to have a mean attendance of 118 worshippers at services, while no-violence mosques had 15. The moderate-violence mosques came in around the middle, at 60.
In this aspect of the study may lie whatever modest silver lining there is. The Kedar-Yerushalmi survey examines what goes on in the mosques. It does not account for what happens outside the mosques or for how many American Muslims actually attend mosques with any regularity. That is to say, the fact that only 19 percent of mosques actually reflect what Islamic apologists portray as a vibrant, predominant brand of “moderate Islam” does not necessarily mean that only one in five American Muslims is a moderate.
Thousands of Muslims pray privately, as Islam permits. They visit mosques rarely, if at all, and when they go it is more for social or cultural purposes than for instruction. If they are Westernized, pro-American Muslims, they may resist the mosques precisely to avoid the influence of rabble-rousing clerics who have been recruited or trained by Saudi-backed Muslim Brotherhood elements. The study does not account for these Muslims. Their number would edge up the percentage of Muslim moderates, perhaps considerably.
But that is not the Islam Muslims are getting in American mosques. In sum, the study shows: The more sharia-compliant the mosque and its imam, the more virulently anti-Western is apt to be the Islam being preached there. Nor can it be ignored that this promotion of a pro-violence and anti-Western Islam in more than 80 percent of American mosques is of a piece with polling conducted of Muslims living in Islamic countries. As Messrs. Kedar and Yerushalmi remind us, a 2007 survey conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that substantial majorities in Morocco, Egypt, and Pakistan — and a majority even in reputedly moderate Indonesia — favored the implementation of sharia law and the insulation of their countries from Western values.
It is time to stop pretending that there is some other cause for this. Many things can prompt a tinderbox to conflagrate, but it has to be tinder in the first place. Islam is the tinder. We can hope that brave Muslim reformers can build on the small but far from invisible havens where a nonviolent, pluralistic Islam has taken root. But to deny an obvious nexus between the mainstream Islam of the mosques, the violent jihadism of the terrorists, and the stealth jihadism of Islamist organizations is to remain willfully blind.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.