Disentangling myth from reality about the political Islamic movement—whose goal is to establish governments based on shari’ah (Qur’anic law)—is a challenge fraught with difficulties. For journalists, this challenge involves a willingness to recognize the complexity and diversity within this movement, which encompasses a broad spectrum of mainstream and militant forces, as they try to place their coverage of news and events (often involving violence and threats of violence) within a broader, more meaningful and accurate context. […]

From the 1940′s through the early 1970′s, the Muslim Brotherhood—the most powerfully organized of all Islamists, with local branches in the Arab Middle East and Central and South and Southeast Asia—flirted with violence.

Since then, however, they have increasingly moved to the political mainstream and aim to Islamize state and society through peaceful means. Although Muslim Brothers are often targeted and excluded from politics by ruling autocrats, they no longer use force to attain their goals. […]

Despite their historic opposition to Western-style democracy, Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation. They have formed alliances with their former sworn political opponents, including secularists and Marxists, in calling upon governments to respect human rights and the rule of law.

Mainstream or traditional Islamists are not born-again democrats and never will be. They are deeply patriarchal, seeing themselves as the guardians of faith, tradition and authenticity.

In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Islamists vehemently oppose efforts to give women the right to vote or to drive cars. In Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan and other Muslim countries, they denounce any legislation that would enable women to divorce abusive husbands, travel without male permission, or achieve full representation in government. […]

Although jihadism is lethal, it does not possess a viable broad social base like the Muslim Brotherhood. From the late 1960′s until the mid-1990′s, militant Islamists or jihadists were preoccupied with the fight against Al-Adou al-Qareeb (the “near enemy”) Muslim rulers.

The primary goal of modern jihadism is and always has been the destruction of the atheist political and social order at home and its replacement with authentic Islamic states. […]

Since September 11th, some critical questions have not been fully addressed in the United States. They include:

Why did bin Laden and his associates suddenly turn their guns on the “far enemy” after having been in the “far enemy” trenches with other Islamists during the 1980′s and 1990′s?

Are Islamists and jihadists united over attacking the far enemy, or are they splintered and divided over tactics and strategy?

What is the relative weight and influence of al-Qaeda jihadists within the Islamist movement and the jihadist at this time?

Would it be more effective to try to internally encircle al-Qaeda instead of expanding the so-called “war on terror” and declaring an all-out war against real and imagined enemies?

Rarely, it seems, do journalists approach their coverage of the so-called “war on terror” with any of these questions in mind. It is certainly possible that a political approach would have been more effective in combating extremism, and terrorism could have been reduced to an inconsequential phenomenon.