The importance of Newt Gingrich's speech at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday has been overlooked. Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino have embraced Islamophobia out of political expediency, and Sarah Palin can be expected to reflect the GOP's populist impulses, no matter how ugly. But Gingrich is considered an intellectual force within the party, and his mainstreaming of once-fringe conspiracy theories regarding Islam is an important development. It marks another stop in the transition from the GOP of George W. Bush, who even as the rubble at the World Trade Center smoldered, declared that "terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics," to a Republican Party that, in Gingrich's words, must be engaged in a battle not merely with terrorists, but with "radical Islamists, in both their militant and their stealth form."
In Gingrich's words, the "stealth radical Islamists" use "cultural, intellectual and political" means, but "the end goal (to impose Taliban-style sharia) is exactly the same." To Gingrich there are "three fronts" that are decisive, with the "central front" being the United States. More important, though, is that by situating the key "front" in the United States, and reframing the real fight as one between "stealth Islamists" and Americans, Gingrich is providing an intellectual justification for opposing the everyday actions of Muslims, from winning beauty contests to building mosques to attending amusement parks. And as far as I can tell, he's doing it for transparently cynical
The key concept here is the "stealth Islamist," which is as vague and unshakeable a label as "communist" in the 1950s. A terrorist can be proved a terrorist by his actions, but by Gingrich's definition, a "stealth Islamist" could be any observant Muslim who engages in religiously based political advocacy, no matter how benign. And because the "stealth Islamist" is seeking to impose sharia patiently through nonviolent means, anyone can be so labeled, because even if their actions are innocuous, it's only because they're acting judiciously as a means to hide their ultimate goal. Rhetorically, Gingrich makes a distinction between Muslims as a whole and "stealth Islamists," but as we've seen with the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, in practice it only takes a thin reed of evidence to justify an accusation that one is a "stealth Islamist." If America is a front in a war against "stealth Islamists," rather than a battle against a handful of extremists scattered across the globe, than by definition every Muslim in America is suspect -- and must be.
This approach, if adopted, would do active harm to national security. Al-Qaeda seeks popular legitimacy through its cultish re-imagination of Islam by casting the West as an oppressor of Muslims. An America that refuses to defend the freedoms of Muslims that reside within its borders is one that is handing al-Qaeda an unnecessary victory. This is why the Bush administration, for all its faults, was careful to distinguish between Muslims and extremists -- because the war against a handful of extremists and their supporters is one the U.S. will win. The one against more than a billion Muslims isn't one the U.S. should have any interest in fighting.