The question of Islamic extremism has more relevance to Muslims than to non-Muslims. It's mainly Muslims who are obsessed with Islamic extremism. And with good reason. As they so often point out; they tend to be its leading victims.
It's not that Islamic extremism doesn't exist. Islam, like every ideology, has its gradations. It's that for Muslims, there is a great deal at stake in the battle over Islamic extremism. That battle will determine whether they can listen to music, play chess or watch soccer games. Whether men can shave their beards, women can drive cars, little girls can go to school and little boys can grow up learning anything except Koranic verses.
Non-Muslims however remain unequal no matter which brand of Islamic theocracy is in charge. And either way they remain fair game in their own countries.
Every leading form of Islam agrees that an Islamic society is perfect, that its laws perfect man and that imposing those laws on society is a religious duty. They may differ on whether those laws allow Muslims to vote or fly kites; but that is small consolation to the non-Muslims who lose their civil rights either way.
Islamic extremism is primarily concerned with imposing the extremities of Islamic law on Muslims. As part of its Islamization campaign, it will also kill and subjugate non-Muslims; but in this it is no different than so-called moderate Muslims.
Islamic societies are built around an Islamic law that makes non-Muslims second class citizens. Whether Islamic law is the basis of all legislation, as tends to be written in the constitutions of most "moderate" Muslim countries, or whether it actually is the legislation, makes a great deal of difference to Muslims who fear losing the ability to sing or play chess at the snap of a fatwa; but has less impact on non-Muslims who are still doomed to an unequal status.
What Western secular liberals insist on describing as extremism is really a reform movement seeking to purge innovations from the modern Islamic admixture that date back to the ideas and customs that Islamic empires absorbed from the cultures and peoples they conquered and subjugated.
Reform means major changes for the descendants of the Islamic conquerors who have learned to like the living standards of Islamic empires and don't care for going back to the ways of their many times great-grandfathers who were desert nomads and violently suspicious of anything that resembled civilization.
It doesn't change things nearly as much for the non-Muslim minorities who were conquered by those Islamic empires. Life for them would become worse if the Salafists were to take over. But the difference lies in the degrees of subjugation. There is no Islamic option for equal rights.
The dilution of Islam through secularism made life more livable for the Muslim conquerors who wanted to enjoy life in their new dominions in Egypt, the Persian Empire, Byzantium or India. They were less concerned with the comfort of the conquered; the Christians, Jews, Hindus, Zoroastrians and others groaning under their rule. Their increased freedom is an unanticipated and undesired aspect of the general liberalizing of standards that is the first thing to go when the reaction begins.
Salafis are more likely to engage in acts of terror against Western targets. But they certainly weren't the first Muslims to do so. The leading edge of Muslim terror began with so-called moderates. That is true nearly everywhere. The so-called extremists have come to seem like the definitive terrorists and we now expect them to wear beards and recite Koranic verses in court, but they are only following in the footsteps of Muslim terrorists who were naturally clean shaven and whose Islamic nationalism did not need the rigid propping up of specific Koran verses, but who acted in its name nonetheless.
This may perhaps be more merciful than a prolonged campaign of slaughter, but it is still oppression by any other name. (Not to mention conquest and invasion). And there is no such thing as moderate oppression.
The Arab Spring posed the question to middle class Muslims whether a non-violent political conquest by the Muslim Brotherhood was better than an armed conquest by its Islamic Group splinter movement. The answer that came in the Tahrir Square protests was a resounding, "No!"
A political conquest may be less messy for the conquerors and the conquered, but it still takes away the rights and freedoms of the conquered and assigns them to their conquerors. If even the urban Muslims of Egypt didn't want Islamization on that scale, even on peaceful terms, why would any non-Muslim accept an Islamization that would remove far more of his civil rights?
A moderate theocracy is still a theocracy. Moderate inequality is still inequality. A multi-tiered legal system in which religion determines status is oppressive no matter how moderate it may be.
Western liberals associate moderation with secularism. Islam is indeed as moderate as it is secular. Like proofs of alcohol, Islam becomes more toxic and flammable the higher the percentage of "Islamic law" it contains. The purer the Islam, the more violent, oppressive, reactionary and brutal it becomes.
But the point that so many liberals miss is that even its diluted forms are still violent, oppressive and reactionary.
Distinguishing moderate and extreme Muslims is as useful as making distinctions between moderate and extreme Nazis and Communists. These distinctions did and do exist, but they are less relevant in the context of an overall ideology whose goals are war, dominance and subjugation.
A moderate Communist or Nazis was still a pretty terrible person. Likewise, a moderate president of Iran is still a political force in a theocracy that discriminates against non-Muslims, engages in regional religious wars and denies many civil rights to half the population.
Western liberals obscure this basic fact in their obsession with finding moderates to talk to. There is only so much common ground that can be reached with someone whose founding belief is that you are inferior and must be subjugated, whose holy book is a set of stories about its early conquests and whose religion is oriented toward the Jihad of the final conquests of the free world.
Moderate Muslims are still extreme by the standards of freedom in the West. They still support violence; the only difference is that they are more willing to try non-violent methods of conquest first. This doesn't truly make them more peaceful, only more disingenuous. In the long run, how much difference is there between the moderate slave owner who tricks his slaves into putting on their own chains and the extremist slave owner who makes them do it at gunpoint?
The end result is still the same. And that is the problem.
Post 9/11 concerns about extremism were focused on tactics with those who threatened the most immediate violence branded as extremists while everyone else was accepted as allies. This terrorist triage is misleading because while it can help fight the most immediate threats, it is only symptom management.
Islamic terrorism triage turned Saudi Arabia into an ally because its double game of working with us and the terrorists meant that it was more compromised and therefore somehow more moderate than the actual terrorists. The Muslim Brotherhood is likewise considered an ally because it is less overtly violent, at the moment and in our general vicinity, than its Al Qaeda branch.
Focusing only on the most immediate threats is a sensible tactic for law enforcement in an emergency, but is a disastrous strategy for political leaders who cannot afford to become so caught up in trying to stop the next attack that they can only see terrorists instead of mass movements that utilize a variety of strategies and tactics for the same end.
Islamic terrorism is not reducible to Islamic extremism. If it were, we could shut down a few websites, a few hundred mosques and bookstores, and have a nice long talk with the Saudis, Qataris and everyone else seeding Wahhabism around the world about what will happen if they don't stop. We aren't likely to find the courage to do this, but even if we did, we would only be postponing an inevitable conflict.
Terrorism is not the real threat. Islamic law is. Islamic terrorism is just one means of imposing it on us. Immigration is another. Political pressure is a third.
During the Cold War, we understood that Communism was a multifaceted threat. It was not only the soldiers and missiles behind the Iron Curtain; it was also the presence of covert organizations and the subversion of high officials. The Red Army and the Communist organization were just two means of accomplishing the same ultimate ends. Likewise the Megamosque and the plane hijackers are two means of reaching the same goals.
A clash of civilizations is approaching driven by a variety of factors, including the collapse of European, American and Russian world power and the demographic strength of the Muslim world. We could perhaps ignore the implications of Islamic law for our own countries if it were not for this sizable stream of settlers spreading across Europe and speaking openly of the day when they will become a majority and impose majoritarian Islamic theocracy on the native European minority.
It will not matter much if the civilization we know is lost and if the freedoms we are familiar with are taken away by the moderates who play the long political game or the extremists who play the short and violent game. It will make a difference to the great-grandchildren of our conquerors who will be able to play chess or fly kites; but our great-grandchildren will still be as fundamentally unequal as the Copts of Egypt or the Jews of Yemen.
An Islam that allows chess playing, but mandates the inequality of non-Muslims should be viewed as just as extreme as any other kind.