Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jacob Laksin Interview at FrontPage Magazine

Jacob Laksin, the managing editor at Frontpage Magazine, is interviewed by Jamie Glazov, "The Threat We Face":
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jacob Laksin, the managing editor of Frontpage Magazine. As a fellow at the Phillips Foundation, he reported about the war on terrorism from East and North Africa and from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is co-author, with David Horowitz, of One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Weekly Standard, City Journal, Policy Review, as well as other publications.

FP: Jacob, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

I’d like to talk to you today about your view of the terror war, how the Obama administration is handling it and how a U.S. administration should preferably and ideally be handling it.

I would like to begin this discussion by talking with you about the nature of the threat we face in general. You and I have had a few disagreements (I think) in our own private discussions about Islam and to what extent it represents the “problem” in terms of the enemy we face. Tell us a bit about your thoughts on this issue, in terms of Islam and in what way you deem it to represent, or not represent, “the threat” to us in this terror war. And share with us some of your travels to the Islamic world that have, perhaps, influenced your outlook.

Laksin: First, thank you for having me, Jamie. It’s not often I find myself on this side of an interview, let alone in this space, but the honor is doubly great since one of my favorite interviewers is conducting it.

Islam is a complicated subject but I suppose where we disagree is in our definition of the threat it poses. You believe that Islam is the problem; I think there’s a good deal to that. Robert Spencer and others have made a convincing case that Islam is foundationally less tolerant, more supremacist, and more militant than other major religions and hence presents a unique threat. I’m willing to accept that argument, though more on empirical than doctrinal grounds: Wherever terrorism takes place today, Islam is usually connected. That is surely no coincidence.

But while I agree that Islam as such is a threat, I don’t agree that it is the threat. As I see it, Islamic texts may be immutable but Islam is not monolithic; it is a reflection of the society at large. Thus, Islam in Arabia is very different than Islam in Africa, and the differences are apparent even within the same continent. I’ve drunk boukha (a kind of fig liquor) with educated Muslims in Tunisia who have read the Koran, and I’ve been accosted and forcibly converted to Islam by a Muslim gang of young and likely illiterate thugs in East Africa. (I happen to be an atheist by persuasion, but when it comes to potentially life-threatening situations, I am not a stickler for principle.)

The lesson I draw from those experiences is that culture makes the difference. If you take the hothouse culture of, say, Saudi Arabia – tribal, puritanical, violent, sectarian – you are very likely to get something that resembles Wahhabi Islam. That also means that even if Islam ceased to exist tomorrow, the threat we associate with its terrorist followers would persist. I think this is what T.E. Lawrence was getting at when he wrote so lyrically of Wahabism that:

It was a natural phenomenon, this periodic rise at intervals of little more than a century, of ascetic creeds in central Asia. Always the voteries found their neighbors beliefs cluttered with inessential things, which became impious in the hot imagination of their preachers. Again and again, they had arisen, had taken possession, soul and body, of the tribes…the new creeds flowed like the tides or the changing seasons, each movement with the seeds of early death it its excess of rightness.

I see it similarly. So, while it may sound paradoxical, I think it’s simplistic to blame Islamic texts, which many in the Muslim world have not read – even in Egypt, a relatively modern state by the Arab world’s standards, almost half the population is illiterate – for the threat posed by Islamic extremism. Meanwhile, arguably the worst “Islamic” terrorist organization of the last half century, the Palestinian PLO, was at least notionally secular.

All that said, I think the points of agreement here are more important than the differences. Whether you think that Islam is the problem, or whether you think the culture from which it emerges is the problem, the same policy implications should follow: a reduction in immigration from Muslim countries; a skepticism about the Western world’s ability to transport its values and forms of government to that part of the world; a vigilance about Muslim extremism in the U.S.; and a steadfast support for democratic countries like Israel that live surrounded by the threat. If there can be some agreement on these points, I will accept that the rest is academic. Finally, though I don’t fully agree with the thesis that Islam as a religion is the main threat, I am dismayed that this is considered a fringe view while the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” enjoys the status of mainstream truth. In a saner, more observant world, that would be reversed.

FP: Thanks Jacob, the debate on whether “Islam is or is not the problem” continues in many places and, obviously, also here at Frontpage and at NewsReal. So, while we disagree on several realms, we aren’t going to engage in a debate on it here today — and that is also not our purpose. For those interested, Robert Spencer has recently crystallized his argument at Newreal, and my own position is pretty much synthesized in my debate with Dinesh D’Souza.

Let’s follow up on the policy implications that you mention should be put in place in countering the threat we face. You point to a reduction in immigration from Muslim countries. Why is this important in your view and how could it be administered, especially in a climate of political correctness – that appears to not only shape the boundaries of national discourse but also the policies of the country?

More at the link.