The dismissal of Major Stephen Coughlin from his position as a specialist on Islamic law and Islamist extremism to the Joint Staff became a hot topic on the blogosphere. His dismissal was blamed on his criticism of the official strategy that Islam was the 'religion of peace' and seen by some as censorship. Coughlin has since been reinstated, a positive development, not because it necessarily endorses Major Coughlin views but because it makes the issues he raises officially thinkable. To see why let's go back to Coughlin's unclassified thesis at National Defense Intelligence College, which says "it is the conclusion of this thesis that Islamic law forms the doctrinal basis for the jihadi threat that can only be understood through an unconstrained review of the Islamic law of jihad."
Coughlin repeatedly hammers on one theme: that Islam includes a body of law -- law as valid as any law can be -- that binds all faithful Muslims to a program of conquest and to resist all attempts to roll it back. He makes a scholarly effort to establish this obligation is rooted in mainstream, not variant Islam. He argues that current US doctrine refuses to incorporate this fact, preferring to assume that Islam itself is neutral in the War on Terror when this assumption cannot be supported by any reasonable reading of the texts.
Whether or not an explicit attitude towards Islamic doctrine has any practical effect on fighting Islamic terrorism is a question has been discussed in earlier posts. But the question of how to think about the issues Coughlin raises creates thorny issues. While it is certainly conceivable that Islam itself is hostile to Western civilization any official acknowledgment of the possibility would be politically explosive. So Coughlin's questions are examined in a parallel process. The concept, familiar to programmers, happens when multiple threads with different code executes on the same data. In this case official strategy is "constrained" -- as Coughlin puts it -- to process Islamic doctrines with a 'politically correct' algorithm. Meanwhile the same texts are examined around the water coolers, the Internet and behind unofficial closed door sessions in Western society in an unconstrained way. Two modes of thinking on the subject of Islam execute simultaneously with potentially undesirable results.
Parallel processing, following the analogy, has known pitfalls. Their outputs may clash when they attempt to merge. Or the conclusion of one thread pre-empts the other by finishing ahead, the so-called 'race condition'.
Whether or not Coughlin is substantively correct, his dismissal would have driven one thread underground, possibly producing the Western equivalent of taqiyya, an Islamic doctrine in which Muslims are allowed to lie in the interests of expediency. A Western taqiyya might produce a situation where Western politicians said one thing while their publics tacitly thought another. That would produce a climate of total deceit which would doom rather than facilitate any reconciliation.
Despite Coughlin's reinstatement the condition of mutual taqiyya may still be substantially in effect. The ideas contained in his thesis have achieved wide currency on Internet forums and similar venues, where they constitute a parallel thread of their own. Liberal society has probably tried to subconsciously manage this process through speech codes, "hate crime" legislation and similar mechanisms. But it is not a very good method and society will probably acquire a split-level character to some extent.
All the same, Coughlin's return to the Pentagon means his ideas can be examined openly in the free market of ideas. That is much healthier than banning cartoons or using Human Rights Commissions to persecute journalists who examine these issues. A world which forbids the clash of ideas makes a clash of men much more likely.