Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Offensive Ends

Apr 3, 2006 | External author

The Radical Politics of Islamic Fundamentalism

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Riots and protests about the Danish cartoons part of a larger trend

Political Islam – aggressive, totalitarian – is now fully on the offensive. On January 3, Iran announced it would restart its nuclear program, which, despite its formal denials, is transparently meant to produce a nuclear weapon. On January 25, Palestinians gave a resounding electoral victory to the Islamic messianic political party Hamas, which has now turned to Iran for assistance. And, in the last days of January and first days of February, four quiescent months after a Danish newspaper printed political cartoons of Mohammed, violent mass protests against Denmark and other European countries erupted in the Islamic world. However disturbing each of these three developments is individually, we would miss their greater significance if we did not see their fundamental relatedness. In fact, they are ominously more important than the sum of their parts.

Within a blink of the political eye, we have witnessed political Islam’s most widespread social mobilisation – from Europe, through the Middle East, and into Asia – in response to the cartoons; political Islam’s most significant assumption of political power since the Iranian Revolution a quarter-century ago, in the Palestinian community; and political Islam’s most threatening military development since Saddam Hussein’s attempt to put a stranglehold on the Gulf (and thereby the world), with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and contemporaneous nuclear weapons program.

Political Islam is on the march in the three loci of politics: the street, the halls of power, and the field of battle. Its targets are both domestic (to suppress freedom and dissent within Islamic countries; sharia is already becoming the rule in Gaza) and international (to spread its sway and impose its orthodoxy abroad). While its international power is still circumscribed, political Islam’s ambitions are extensive, violent, and frightening – with its members sensing its growing potential (fuelled also by America’s geo-strategic weakening in the Iraq quagmire). We must consider that we are witnessing the beginning of political Islam’s intensifying social and political mobilisation into a new multipronged, intercontinental intifada. A Sunni Muslim cleric, having helped organise anti-cartoon protests in his hometown and in Beirut, explained the protests’ significance: “The way I see it, the war [with the West] has already started.”

In the street, the halls of power, and the battlefields, political Islam flexes its muscles. Its physical aggressiveness is exemplified in its disproportionate, violent reaction to the cartoons. Cutting through the fog of charges and false apologetics, the outcry’s central feature – in addition to the reservoir of enormous popular hostility toward the West that it has tapped – is, for those spearheading it, its cynical politics. The cartoons, not very offensive by the standards of political cartooning, are tame by the Islamic world’s own vicious antisemitic and anti-American standards; they provoked no storm until Iran was about to be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions over its nuclear weapons program. Suddenly, a “spontaneous” Islamic explosion of protest spanned countries and continents.

The initial sites of anti-cartoon violence were in many of political Islam’s hotbeds. In Gaza, the cradle and fiefdom of the official (according to the United States and the European Union) terrorist group Hamas, the philo-Palestinian Danes (and other Europeans) were assaulted, their diplomatic mission being taken over by gunmen already on January 30. The first embassy torchings (Denmark’s and Norway’s) took place on February 4 in Islamist-supporting Syria, Iran’s close ally, under the blind eye of Bashar al-Assad’s all-seeing police state. The next day, in Lebanon, the province of Iranian-controlled Hezbollah and still thoroughly infiltrated by the political Islamist Syria, a mob set fire to the Danish consulate. In Iran, the epicentre of political Islam, the mass protests and attacks on Western embassies, the boycotts of European goods, and the denial of visas to all Danes speaks for itself. And the protests have gone on and on in Iran (including an attack on the German Embassy in response to a new cartoon), in orgies of rioting and burning in Pakistan, and in Libya, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. A good portion of the world has become unsafe for, of all peoples, the Danes.


Augmenting the physical violence is the rhetoric of violence – in the street, in the newly acquired halls of power, and on the current and prospective battlefields. In the street, around Europe, Islamic protesters threaten the West. Marching in London, they brandished murderous banners, including: “massacre those who insult Islam”; “butcher those who mock Islam”; “Britain, you will pay: 7/7 on its way”; and “Europe, your 9/11 will come.” In Gaza, demonstrators demanded the hands of cartoonists be cut off, and an imam at the Omari Mosque declared, to 9,000 of the faithful, “We will not accept less than severing the heads of those responsible.” More specific death threats against publishers and cartoonists alike, including a bounty of $1 million for the murder of the Danish cartoonists, seek to silence those political Islam has declared as enemies and intimidate others from speaking out.

This is not normal politics. This is not even the normal excess of normal politics. Imagine what European and American commentators would say if tens of thousands of Americans, Britons, Germans, or Israelis marched with calls for the murder of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iranians, or Muslims in response to a few anti-American, anti-European, or antisemitic cartoons appearing in one, or a few, Arab or Islamic newspapers. Yet Western politicians and commentators have mostly indulged this outpouring of violent hatred. Even when decrying it, they blame the cartoons’ publishers and express pious regret that the cartoons insulted the Prophet Mohammed and Muslims, as if there is any normal political cause and effect (let alone a proportionate one) operating here. This Western indulgence is extremely wrongheaded and self-injurious. It cloaks the political Islamic proto-intifada in a measure of legitimacy. It emboldens its instigators and its shock troops in the street, revealing the West’s unwillingness to respond resolutely to these verbal and physical assaults with moral, rhetorical, and political clarity.

In the halls of power, Hamas is in ascent, armed with the hallucinatory antisemitic and murderous political Islamic ideology and practice that is grounded in its charter. This manifesto – which Hamas has repeatedly reaffirmed, especially its core annihilative element – explains to Palestinians (and any Westerners who bother to pay attention) political Islam’s orientation toward Israel and the “imperialist” powers that support Israel. In a cascade of antisemitic accusations, Jews emerge virtually as evil incarnate (seeking “to demolish societies, to destroy values, to wreck answerableness, to totter virtues, and to wipe out Islam”), and they are calumnied as culpable for a vast catalogue of invented crimes against humanity (“there was no war that broke out anywhere without their [the Jews’] fingerprints on it”) and for planning to subjugate the entire Middle East as a stepping stone to the rest of the world. Israel, of course, must be destroyed. And not just Israel the country.

The genocidal and apocalyptic charter’s Article 7 declares: “Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise, whatever time it might take. The Prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!” For Hamas, Allah’s promise is the Palestinians’ – indeed all Muslims’ – command. And, showing that Allah’s promise is directed not only at Israel – but that it governs political Islam’s desired treatment of all non-Muslim peoples – Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas’ leader, declared to Italy’s Il Giornale on February 4 in reference to the cartoons, “We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet,” a principle that obviously translates into killing all those who ever offend the Prophet.

Some will want to believe that Hamas will tame itself now that it faces the responsibility of governing. Hamas, under crippling diplomatic and financial pressure, is seeking to do the minimum necessary to get the willfully gullible in the West to sign onto its political legitimacy. So it is making noises about possibly changing the charter, which, while adamantly remaining annihilationist in denying Israel’s right to exist, might tactically excise the hallucinatory antisemitism and genocidal language. One of those unofficially speaking for Hamas in this vein, Azzam Tamimi – an ardent proponent of suicide-bombing who, in 2004, said he would do it himself – specifically alleges that Hamas’s supreme leader, Khaled Meshal, doesn’t quote the charter because it doesn’t reflect his views. This is the familiar doubletalk among Palestinians dedicated to Israel’s destruction – a moderate face for the Western world, an antisemitic and murderous one when speaking to their own people. When addressing the Islamic world, Meshal (who was just in Teheran making deals) continues to emphasise that Hamas will never change its goals, but rather that, in a plan of stages and varying means, it will work toward its annihilationist end while singing a more acceptable tune to the West: “Hamas has a vision. Hamas has a plan. Hamas can manage the political battle, just like it managed the military battle, but in a different language, with different tools – and recognising Israel is not one of them.”

Meshal said this just a week after the election victory, in a long, chilling address after the Friday sermon at a Damascus mosque. After his audience was moved by his speech to interrupt him with the chant, “Death to Israel. Death to Israel. Death to America,” Meshal lapsed into a blood-curdling reverie: “Before Israel dies, it must be humiliated and degraded. Allah willing, before they die, they will experience humiliation and degradation every day…. Allah willing, we will make them lose their eyesight, we will make them lose their brains.” And, after the Hamas election victory on February 12, Hamas placed on its official website two Hamas suicide bombers’ video testaments, one of which said, “My message to the loathed Jews is that there is no god but Allah. We will chase you everywhere! We are a nation that drinks blood, and we know that there is no blood better than the blood of Jews. We will not leave you alone until we have quenched our thirst with your blood – and our children’s thirst with your blood.” So, after the election victory, from the “high” Meshal to the “low” mass-murdering bomber, when speaking among themselves, it all sounds the same – and a lot like Hamas’s genocidal charter.

The figure who most formidably exemplifies contemporary political Islam is not Osama bin Laden. It is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, with whom Hamas forms a tag-team of interlocking support. Ahmadinejad’s by-now-notorious Holocaust denial was no act of a rash militant. More than being merely antisemitic, it was a symbolic political gauntlet, a declaration to the West that he, Iran, and political Islam seek to overturn what is understood to be truth, who is owed moral respect, and who will determine the contours of acceptable politics. It should have been no surprise that Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial came as warp to the woof of his Hitlerian exhortation that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and his confrontation with the West over restarting nuclear production.

This rhetoric of mass murder, though shocking to Western publics and political Islam’s more naïve apologists, is entirely consistent with the genocidal rhetoric and proto-genocidal violence already long practiced by political Islam’s vanguard – especially Hamas and Iranian-controlled Hezbollah – euphemistically known as “suicide-bombing”.

No less than three successive Iranian presidents have publicly called for the annihilation of Israel and the effective mass murder of hundreds of thousands or millions. Falsely depicted in this respect as an Iranian “radical”, Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” – together with Iran’s insistent drive to develop nuclear weapons – echoes the “moderate” former president and current Iranian power broker Hashemi Rafsanjani’s more elaborate account from December 2001 of the Iranian political Islamic leadership’s underlying thinking. “If, one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill, because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.” Here Rafsanjani is dispassionately thinking through the implications of a genocidal policy in which one nuclear bomb dropped near Tel Aviv would effectively destroy geographically tiny Israel. He gladly declares to his nation and the world that the costs – including hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians dead as a result of nuclear retaliation from Israel’s invulnerable nuclear-armed submarines – would be worth it.


Political Islam is a transnational movement. Precisely because it cuts across countries and includes political movements and groups that, on some matters, are antagonistic to one another, it can seem somewhat amorphous and diffuse. But its common ideological foundation – and its overarching set of concerns – give it a shared purpose for which its adherents can singly, and in concert, work. Political Islam erases the distinction between politics and religion. It wants politics to be merged with, and subordinated to, Islam in a domestic and (for many) ultimately global rule of fundamentalist versions of Islam.

But by identifying political Islam, we emphatically do not implicate all Muslims or all Islam. The phenomenon includes only Islamic-grounded political regimes, organisations, and initiatives that share (whatever their other – sometimes internecine – differences, Shia versus Sunni, Arab versus Persian, et cetera) a common ideological foundation about Islam’s political primacy or its need to systematically roll back the West. It is a conviction that the modern world is fundamentally corrupt and must be reshaped, often through the annihilation of others. Therein, political Islam resembles the international communist movement in its heyday.

Political Islam is many things: totalitarian, aggressive, conquering, cocksure about its superiority and destiny to rule, intolerant, bristling with resentment, and only tenuously in touch with aspects of reality. But what marks it most distinctively are two things: its religious consecration of its tenets, emotions, and goals, which are putatively grounded in Allah’s will and to which slavish (indeed literally mindless) devotion is due; and its cult of death, which produces its extreme danger and has three central components.

First is the willingness to die (or at least to let political Islam’s duped minions die) for the greater earthly and heavenly glory of political Islam and for a martyr’s place in paradise. This is rhetorically and behaviorally manifest throughout the movement, including in the well-known glorification of suicide bombers’ deaths by the videotaped killers and their families, and in public ceremonies and speeches of political leaders, including Meshal’s broadcast to the world in the wake of Hamas’s election victory: “Today, you are fighting the army of Allah. You are fighting against peoples for whom death for the sake of Allah – and for the sake of honor and glory – is preferable to life.”

Second is the well-established willingness to slaughter entire categories of opponents and the drive to attain the weaponry to do so.

And third is the unabashed rhetorical ease and lurid excess of trumpeting fantasies of killing opponents, starting with Israelis, for any real or imagined bucking of political Islam. (In December, according to a poll conducted for the London Times, 37 percent of British Muslims said that British Jews are “legitimate targets as part of the struggle for justice in the Middle East.”) More than the members of any other major modern political movement, political Islamists, including their highest leaders, exhibit an archaic bloodlust of the kind quoted above, repeatedly speaking with evident relish and unmatched openness of killing their enemies, decapitating them, playing with their blood and body parts, and watching them suffer.

Rafsanjani combined all three components of this death cult with his effective public admission that he would contemplate suffering potentially millions of casualties of his own citizens in a nuclear exchange in order to destroy Israel for the greater glory of Islam. What leaders, other than from political Islam, have openly told such things to their people, including that they would sacrifice millions of them?

In the last 100 years, there has been no equal to this cult of death in major political movements, except Nazism and perhaps imperial Japan. And, like Nazism, political Islam acts irrationally upon its death cult’s violent maxims, no matter their frequent self-destructiveness.

What is political Islam’s game plan for triumphing? In Iran – political Islam’s greatest power – the leadership’s pronouncements lay out the contours of its aims. Like al-Qaeda, the current Iranian regime, led by Ahmadinejad, thirsts for revenge against the “arrogant” West. To them, the West has, for centuries, constricted, humiliated, divided, and dominated the Muslim nations. Ahmadinejad’s desire for revenge is coupled with a belligerent and global missionary zeal. A renascent and ascendant Muslim world would first acquire nuclear weapons and thus attain parity of power with the West. Then it would annihilate Israel. Aided by global Islamic forces (there are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world), which are already showing their strength in Europe, political Islam would proceed to assail the West, weaken it, and ultimately subdue it. In his speeches, Ahmadinejad sets forth his overarching ambition in unabashedly taunting and insulting terms. Western nations, he proclaims, “have stood against [the] resurrection movement of Islam. They think that they can undermine the world nations’ faith in Islam with desecration of Islamic sanctities. But the Muslim nations will give them a good lesson!” Eventually, he foresees a world “without the United States and without Zionism.”

The idea of Iran – together with sundry Islamic regimes, scattered bands of terrorists, and an activated Muslim street in Europe – defeating the West should not be dismissed as a Lilliputian megalomaniacal fantasy. Obviously, many Muslims and their countries will not sign on, and, in the end, political Islam cannot prevail against a resolute West. But, in the meantime, it can do enormous damage. The really bad news is that al-Qaeda is not the main problem. Iran is. As the most powerful political Islamic state, it exports terrorist violence through its proxies and, with diplomacy and petrodollars, supports other political Islamic regimes and insurgencies. And nuclear weapons, after all, are the great military equaliser. Even without them, al-Qaeda was able to inflict colossal damage on the American people and economy. Ahmadinejad’s brazen and cocksure pronouncements of the West’s impending doom echo Nikita Khrushchev’s bullying prophecy, “We will bury you.”

Such reveries appear common among political Islam’s ranks. A placard in the London anti-cartoon demonstration proclaimed, “Europe, you’ll come crawling when mujahideen come roaring!” Hamas dreams of reconquering Seville and extending Islamic power into Europe. And, after commanding Europe to apologise to the Islamic nation in his televised al-Jazeera sermon, Meshal warned, “Tomorrow, our nation will sit on the throne of the world. This is not a figment of the imagination, but a fact. Tomorrow we will lead the world, Allah willing.”


Some people will see the dark picture that I am painting as overdrawn. They will say that much of the Islamic world does not support, let alone take part in, these developments. They will say that the rhetoric of mass murder and annihilation is mere domestic political posturing or the harmless product of a hyperbolic verbal culture. They will say that the Islamic world is hardly threatening. Islamic countries are militarily and politically weak, and Muslims in Europe are a discriminated-against, though hardly oppressed, minority.

Such critics would be wrong. Much of the Islamic world is in the throes of political Islam, even if much of it is not. (It’s a big world.) Political Islam controls governments and threatens others, and it is being successfully deployed by cynics in a variety of countries and societies. It has highly motivated and effective terrorist groups. Anyone indiscriminately targeting civilians in so-called suicide-bombing, or applauding such proto-genocidal killing; anyone calling for the murder of cartoonists and those who publish them, or applauding such calls; anyone threatening mass murder in today’s world while working to conquer the territory or acquire the weaponry to make it possible, or applauding such threats, understands, in this age of al-Jazeera and the Internet, that this is all part of a widespread political Islamic assault on the West. The history of genocide in the modern era is that, in the rare instances that political leaders publicly threaten to annihilate enemy peoples, they mean it.

But there are grounds for hope. With the concerted assault on Danish and European freedoms, people, and buildings, and with the brazen, taunt-filled Iranian drive for an Islamic bomb, political Islam may have made a huge strategic error, born of the hubris of its fanaticism. Until now, political Islam was content to attack rhetorically and physically only Israel, the United States, and occasionally their most conspicuous allies (Great Britain and Spain for joining the United States in the war in Iraq). Most European countries (even if we acknowledge some real divergence from the United States in outlook) were content to free-ride on America’s willingness to be the front line against political Islam’s aggressiveness. But, now, political Islam has decided to abandon its self restraint in expressing and acting on its global hostility to the West. And it has gone too far. We may be witnessing a shake-up in European political thinking vis-à-vis political Islam and Israel’s role in the conflicts in, and emanating from, the Middle East.

Many Europeans finally get it. Although it is unlikely to appear overnight, there are encouraging signs. Merkel’s call to stop the Iranians, and her appropriate adoption of the Hitler comparison, has – in cautious, non-bellicose Germany – been generally greeted by politicians and commentators with approval. On February 23, leading members of Italy’s government issued a manifesto – “For the West, Force of Civilisation” – that begins, “The West is in crisis. Attacked externally by fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism, it is not able to rise to the challenge.” A few days later, Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, criticised “timid European political leaders” for their failure to respond resolutely to the anti-cartoon violence. “To stand firm,” the paper concluded, “when others are thrusting a war of civilisations upon you that you never wanted to fight is difficult. But to yield means definite ruin.” Even Great Britain’s Guardian, for long virtually a house organ for the Palestinians’ and political Islam’s assaults on Israel and the United States, has made a stunning about-face, alarmed by political Islam’s adherents’ calls for murder. After arguing, in a stinging editorial, for the prosecution of the “Muslim fanatics”, whose threat it describes as “real, present and serious,” the Guardian explained, “Ours is a tolerant way of life; we must be robust in defending it against its enemies.”

As political Islam has made clear in the last few weeks, the battle is to be fought on the three fronts of politics – the street, the halls of power, and the battlefield. Two of the fronts are relatively easy to engage. The West is powerful, and political Islam has no hope of prevailing should Europe stand united with the United States and Israel against the intimidation of the street and the machinations of political Islam in the halls of power. So the most pressing questions are: With what unity and determination will the West respond to political Islam? And on battlefields of whose choosing?

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, an affiliate of Harvard’s Centre for European Studies and author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, is completing a book on genocide in our time. © The New Republic, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


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