Interview with the American Islamic Scholar Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes is one of the best known American writers on Islam and Islamism. He is the founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank, and was a political advisor to Rudolph Giuliani. Citizen Times spoke with him about the difference between Islam and Islamism, integration of Muslims in Europe and Muslim reformers. 1
Citizen Times: Mr. Pipes, you head various organizations concerning the Middle East and Islam, and are one of the best known American writers on these subjects. How did this all begin for you?
Daniel Pipes: I am a historian of Islam with a special interest in the role of Islam in public life. I received my Ph.D. in 1978, just as Ayatollah Khomeini appeared. For the first time in modern history, Islam had a large and obvious role in Western public life. What had been in the 1970s an abstract interest turned very practical. Islamic matters subsequently became very topical. That prompted me to transit from medieval history to current events. While I cover many other topics besides Islam, Islam remains central to my interests. I have a perspective I hope is useful to understand the role of Islam in politics.
Citizen Times: And what is that perspective?
Daniel Pipes: That Islam is deeply important to the public lives of Muslims. That Islam is a religion of laws, and those laws are quite permanent and universal. That they are not the same everywhere at all times, but the basics are consistent. That there are times of greater emphasis and times of lesser emphasis but Muslims always come back to these laws. Now, of course, is a time of greater emphasis. Islamic laws have far greater power than they had when I entered this field over forty years ago. How does one understand this change; how do Muslims view it, and how does the West respond to it? – these are some of the questions that I focus on.
Citizen Times: You emphasize the difference between Islam and Islamism. Why?
Daniel Pipes: It is a mistake to see all of Islam as Islamism. Islamism is a trend within Islam, at the moment a very powerful one. People who have just arrived at the topic often think Islamism is all of Islam. As someone who followed Islamic issues forty years ago, when Islamism barely existed, I have a different perspective. Further, plenty of Muslims hate Islamism. So, it is a mistake to equate Muslims with Islamists, to assume that all Muslims agree on applying Islamic law to become strong and rich or to achieve social justice.
Citizen Times: What does Islamism mean to you? Is it just a very traditional way of Islam or the terrorist way like Al-Qaeda does or the political Islam way like the Muslim Brotherhood?
Daniel Pipes: The Muslim Brotherhood is the most important Islamist organization. Hassan al-Banna in Egypt modernized Islamic ideas in the 1920s and adapted them to how we now live. He and others turned traditional Islam into an ideology. The 1920s was a period when totalitarianism looked like the way of the future in Germany, Russia, and especially in Italy. Banna took basic totalitarian ideas and applied them to Islam. He inserted Islamic content into a totalitarian structure. Islamism is modern, just like fascism and communism are modern.
Al-Qaeda comes out of a quite different tradition, the Wahhabi one, originating in Arabia.
Citizen Times: Why do Islam and totalitarianism combine so successfully?
Daniel Pipes: For some decades the combination wasn’t that successful. It eventually prevailed thanks to much work by many Islamists over a long time – plus a felt need for this outlook. The great challenge to Muslims in the modern period is to explain what went wrong: Why are Muslims, who believe they should be the wealthiest and most powerful people, in fact the least wealthy and least powerful? What went wrong? Especially from the 1970s forward, Islamism has provided a widely convincing answer to that question: If you want to be successful, comes the reply, then apply Islamic law. Live by the law. Spread the law.
Citizen Times: But this is a quite similar view to the Jewish one. And Jews are not at all dangerous to the world …
Daniel Pipes: Islam and Judaism are similar in that both are based on laws, unlike Christianity. But Jewish law as understood the last 2,000 years is limited to private law. In contrast, Islamic law is both private and public. There is no Jewish law about warfare; but there is an Islamic law of warfare.
Citizen Times: Is Islam a religion?
Daniel Pipes: Yes, Islam is a monotheistic religion like Judaism and Christianity. Islamism is a radical utopian ideology like fascism and communism.
Citizen Times: We defeated fascism and communism through wars. Is there a chance to defeat Islamism and just have Islam the religion?
Daniel Pipes: Yes. World War II ended fascism as a world force; it’s not been a serious phenomenon since then. The Cold War effectively ended communism. The Islamist challenge must be defeated in similar fashion. 1945 resulted from blood and steel; 1991 resulted from complex factors, but it was in its final stages not violent. These are the endpoints, total violence and almost no violence. The way to victory against Islamism will surely fall somewhere in between.
Citizen Times: What does this mean practically? Do we have to fight wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran to bring them democracy and finally stop Islamism?
Daniel Pipes: In principle, yes to democracy, but at this time, go slow, slow, slow because, ironically, democracy at present strengthens Islamism. I agreed with George W. Bush’s change in policy in 2003 to focus on building democracy but warned then of the need to proceed cautiously. He wasn’t careful and therefore created new problems.
Defeating Islamism requires the use of every means from bombers to radios, from fighting a hot war to fighting a cultural war. We should use economics, diplomacy, and all else. Wars are not just fought on the literal battlefield anymore but often are principally about ideas. There is too much focus on violence, especially terrorist violence. People tend to reduce the problem to a “war on terror.” Of course, terrorism is part of it, but not the whole of it.
Citizen Times: Is terror not necessary to promote Islamism?
Daniel Pipes: Not at all. The record shows that Islamists succeed more with non-violent means than violent ones. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Islamist organizations in the West have greater success than Khomeini or Al-Qaeda. They achieve more by working through the political system, the schools, the media, and the law courts than do their counterparts by blowing things up. How can killing people get you to the top when you are as weak as the Islamists are? In contrast, it is not hard to see how working the system gets you to the top. I watch with fascination and horror as that process takes place in the West, and most rapidly in the United Kingdom. Turkey and the United Kingdom are particularly significant countries to watch.
Assuming Iranians do not acquire or explode atomic weapons, Turkey is the greater long-term threat, say in 20, 30 years. Iran will not be such a long-term problem because Iranians resist Islamism. Turkey is the greatest problem going forward because Islamists are working through the system there and doing it right. Note: There is no terrorism coming out of Turkey.
Citizen Times: But how can we win this war of ideas in our countries? We show our free life every day to the Muslim communities, but they seem to get more and more distant.
Daniel Pipes: Two steps are necessary to win this war. First, non-Muslims must use the many means at their disposal. Second, Muslims must offer an alternative to Islamism. One needs an Adenauer, one needs a Yeltzin, who will offer something better. These are not perfect analogies, but they give an idea what I mean. It is not enough to defeat the totalitarian regime; someone has to offer an alternative vision. That’s where reform Muslims play a crucial role. They are just beginning this work and it’s going to be a long time before they have a full program to offer. It is critical that they get help and encouragement from non-Muslims.
Daniel Pipes: I respect her very much, but I also disagree with her on this point. We need a policy to move Islam in our direction. Denouncing Islamism is not enough; we need a program to defeat it, a mechanism to take us to victory. Anti-Islam critics like Ayaan Hirsi Ali do not offer such a program.
All religions, including Islam, have histories, meaning that they change over time. I saw this in my own career, for Islamism was almost nonexistent when I entered the field of Islamic studies in the late 1960s. Today it dominates. If Islamism can rise, it can also fall. In contrast, Hirsi Ali sees Islam as always static and unchanging.
Citizen Times: She would say her program is education: education about the secular state and humanistic values. Isn’t that a program?
Daniel Pipes: Two points: First, she’s partially restating what I am saying about reform Islam. Teaching Muslims humanism ultimately means reforming Islam. By the way, that was the situation that prevailed in the Muslim “liberal age” of 1800-1940.
Second, the Islamist idea is so powerful that Western secular education does not succeed. We see this in Europe, where state schools teach secularism but largely fail to convince Muslim students who believe they possess a superior idea, indeed a superior civilization. You can’t fight Islamism with secular, humanist ideas coming out of Europe. Only something from within Islam can defeat it; ideas coming from Muslims must argue with other ideas coming from Muslims. It is an internal Muslim civil war, except the one side hasn’t deployed any troops yet, giving it a lopsided quality.
Citizen Times: This means, Geert Wilders is wrong in saying Islam is unchangeable?
Daniel Pipes: Yes. I consider him a heroic figure and have written that he is the most important politician in Europe. He and I are in the same trench. We are fighting the same enemies. But we have a different understanding of the future of Islam. I don’t see that he has a feasible program within a context of a liberal democracy. One cannot, and I do not want to, throw away all that we have achieved to deal with the Islamists. I wish to deal with them consistent with who we are.
Muslims have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. They just don’t have special rights. I want them to be regular citizens, not worse or better off. We have legislatures because things change. You can’t have laws that continue forever. I am perfectly willing to adapt to Muslims and Islam in a reasonable fashion. I am not willing, however, fundamentally to change who we are. When Muslims come to the West, they have to accept Western ways. They can request reasonable accommodation within the existing system; they can’t change the system itself. Islamists are trying to change the system. We must push back and say no, absolutely not.
Daniel Pipes: Pathologies abound among Muslims in Europe: poverty, unemployment, violent crime, drug trafficking, and so forth. Yes, Muslims are partly responsible for this set of problems but, frankly, it also results partly from actions by indigenous Europeans. Europeans are often unwilling to accept, employ, and deal with Muslims as equals. Günter Wallraff, a German reporter, pretended to be a Turk in 1985 and thereby demonstrated the troubles a Gastarbeiter faced. I would not want to be looking for a job in Germany, then or now, with the name Mohammed.
Citizen Times: Concerning getting a job with a Muslim name: Did Germans always reject those people out of xenophobia, or did they reject them because of all the problems connected to Muslim employees?
Daniel Pipes: Both: The situation results from bias and from behavior by Muslims.
By way of contrast, note the United States, where social pathologies barely exist among Muslims. The U.S. has problems with extremists and terrorists, to be sure, but no general “Muslim problem” exists there. No areas of Muslim geographic concentration have developed, with just one or two exceptions, and those are not particularly problematic. Americans more readily accept Muslims and employ them. Further, the lesser welfare system in the United States makes Muslims less dependent on government hand-outs and more entrepreneurial. The combination of bias and welfare explains much about the predicament of Muslims in Europe.
Citizen Times: The American journalist Christopher Caldwell wrote a book titled On the Revolution in Europe in which he argues that Muslim immigration will change Europe from its roots.
Daniel Pipes: I agree and believe Europe faces major problems and bleak options. I see either of two likely difficult futures for Europe. One is summarized by the word Eurabia, meaning an extrapolation of the trends of the last 55 years: more Muslims, more Islam, more Islamic law, and more Islamization, as symbolized by the Mosque of Notre Dame in Paris. The other future involves resistance to Islamization, as represented by your brand new political party, DIE FREIHEIT.
Actually, the latter trend is growing faster. If you draw a graph of Muslims and Islam since 1955, it goes steadily up. But if you draw a graph of anti-Islam since 1990 it ascends faster. Everywhere you look there is a growth in anti-Islamic feelings.
I worry in both cases. I don’t like Eurabia, and I fear that anti-Islamic sentiments will lead to populism, fascism, civil insurrection, and violence. The widespread reluctance by leaders to take up this topic only makes matters worse.
Citizen Times: So is this anti-Islamic movement just a new form of fascism or xenophobia, or is there really a danger in Islam?
Daniel Pipes: Reality inspires anti-Islamic sentiments, but I worry about them. I hope very much that Europeans will act responsibly. Right now, one finds a reluctance to deal with political parties critical of Islam. There is a political crisis over this in Sweden right now. When Jörg Haider was prime minister, Austria was treated like Rhodesia. I did not care for Haider, but there needs to be an acknowledgement of the fears he represented.
The more that legacy parties ignore such fears, the more extreme their expression might become. The old parties have a responsibility to acknowledge this set of issues and incorporate them, legitimize them so they do not become radicalized. The Netherlands is probably the key country because it is furthest along in this process. What is Geert Wilders going to do? What will the response to him be? This is an important precedent for all Europe.