The debate we must have.

Some months ago we learned something that should have surprised no one — at least no one in the least bit familiar with the stultifying intellectual paralysis that afflicts much of the Republic on the subject of Islam. We learned that various federal agencies, including Homeland Security, are expressly resisting the use of descriptive terminology — “jihadist,” “Islamic terrorist,” “Islamist,” etc. The reasoning here is plain enough: using these words, according to one Homeland Security memo, “glamorizes terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have, and damages relations with Muslims around the globe.” It goes on to counsel officials to “draw the conflict lines not between Islam and the West; but between a dangerous, cult-like network of terrorists and everyone who is in support of global security and progress.” The memo also makes a rather audacious assertion: “The fact is that Islam and secular democracy are fully compatible — in fact, they can make each other stronger. Senior officials should emphasize this positive fact.”

Unpacking the assumptions behind all this is a tedious business, but there is one assumption particularly worthy of note. It is the assumption of complete or final knowledge. The writer of this memo believes that he knows what Islam is, or more importantly, what it is not: and believes it with sufficient confidence as to counsel against giving even a contrary impression. Islam is not terrorism; there is no natural association between the two.

This is something that has long troubled me. To assert that Islam is peaceful and terrorism unrelated to it, is no less sweeping an assertion than its opposite. But men who assert the latter — that Islam is war and that’s that — are invariably rebuked in the most strident terms. Even men who argue, with greater care and nuance, that while Islam is not war merely, it cannot be overlooked that Islam contains a unique tradition enjoining aggressive war — even these men are rarely well-received in polite circles. There is a troubling irony here, which the memo aims to make policy: It is allowed that a man may pronounce on the true nature of the Islamic religion, so long as he pronounces it peaceful.The instinct that produces this situation is probably rooted in good nature or generosity (though we cannot preclude the possibility that it is rooted, rather, in cravenness); but it is worth taking note of its effect: namely, the announcement of a public preference, on a matter of pressing importance, for platitude over inquiry. “Regarding jihad,” explains the memo, “even if it is accurate to reference the term, it may not be strategic.”

This preference for platitude, I submit, must be set aside. Inquiry — tough-minded, rigorous, impassive — is our business. We face a threat that will not yield to our favored platitudes. It ought not be that, confronted with this threat from within Islam, we will allow no public discussion which tends toward the view more disagreeable to our good nature. It cannot be that a free people would submit to such a usurpation of the republican discourse. We govern ourselves here; the people are sovereign; and no sovereign can possibly govern wisely, justly, temperately, without undertaking the discipline of investigation into the questions and troubles that confront it.

One of those questions and troubles is the Jihad, which confronts us with some very ancient, tired and true methods of treacherous war — methods which it has put to effective use, before, during and (despite what people constantly tell us) after September 11.

In sum, the Homeland Security memo (and there are reports of others like it in other departments) very unwisely counsels American officials to participate in the shut-down of a debate we desperately need to have, specifically by removing important labels and descriptors from the vocabulary. It encourages us to close a question we have hardly even opened, a question of vital importance which, off at the end, could implicate the very preservation of our liberty.

* * * *

It is with some considerable satisfaction, then, that I read that Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan managed to succeed in passing an amendment to an intelligence bill stating:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used to prohibit or discourage the use of the words or phrases “jihadist,” “jihad,” “Islamo-fascism,” “caliphate,” “Islamist,” or “Islamic terrorist” by or within the intelligence community or the Federal Government.

The amendment passed 249 – 180 with 10 abstentions. Jeffrey Imm, writing at The Counterterrorism Blog, in addition to summarizing the matter quite elegantly, provides a list of the Congressmen who voted against the amendment. Most are Democrats, naturally, but some (for instance Georgia’s John Barrow and Texas’s Chet Edwards) are conservative Democrats in swing districts. I second Mr. Imm’s conclusion:

Whether or not this amendment to H.R. 5959 ultimately is part of an approved bill signed by President Bush, the greatest value of this amendment is that it gets most congressional representatives on the record on their position regarding the efforts of groups to remove any suggestion of Islamic supremacism or Jihad when it comes to “terrorism.”