War on Iraq

Where Are the Islamic Moderates?

The best antidote to terrorism is an axis of empathy that challenges Muslims and Americans alike to pursue the highest ideals of our cultures.
As the war on terrorism expands to new fronts, a dangerous deterioration in relations between the United States and the Muslim world is proceeding apace.

Two explanations within U.S. policy-making circles have emerged to explain this hostility, yet both are seriously flawed. A more honest and promising approach requires rethinking our conception of Muslim moderation and adjusting our policies to accord with our highest principles.

The first view of the problem of Islam dominated the Clinton years. It was based on the self-evident "fact" that a once proud Islamic civilization has fallen far behind the West for reasons of its own doing. However, Muslims still have the potential to join the civilized world if, like other developing countries, they would only follow our prescription for establishing a free market and liberal democracy. However painful this cure, ignoring our advice would mean even greater poverty, inequality, and fanaticism.

Such an explanation at least carried the promise that development -- and along with it, a decrease in anti-Americanism -- was possible. It's a view that seems to have been disregarded by many senior members of the Bush Administration, who prefer an elaborated version of the "clash of civilizations" thesis which sees the civilizational blocs, notably the "West" and "Islam," as inherently opposed and deeply antagonistic. For them, the future of relations looks grim and mounting hostility unavoidable, which has culminated in a policy of preemptive full-scale -- even nuclear -- war in response.

Even as the President speaks of the peaceful essence of Islam, Muslims seem doomed to be modernized by force. Indeed, while our political ideology has shifted, the underlying foundations for U.S. policy has continued to include a commitment to Westernization in the guise of modernatization, a process that for most of the non-West has never occurred without significant violence. Yet this durable myth of only one path to the future is so pervasive that some of modernity's -- and conservative politics' -- most trenchant critics also see it as the solution to what ails the Muslim world.

Thus, for example, Salman Rushdie has recently called for "moderate" voices of Islam to "insist on the modernization of their culture and faith," lest heretics from within (aided by American marines?) break down the "prison doors" of a seemingly recalcitrant Islam. Rushdie should know better, as he has written some of the most acerbic critiques (most powerfully and ironically in The Satanic Verses) of the very modernity he now wishes imposed on the religion he was born into.

In fact, Muslim "moderates" do not hold these views at all, as "modernization" has long been seen as inseparable from European imperialism and colonialism, followed by nationalism and Cold-War superpower conflict -- each of which have wreaked havoc from Algeria to Indonesia. The belief that "Islam is the solution" emerged because of the failure of the West's model of modernity to bring the advertised freedom, justice, and development. In this context, while Secretary of State Powell's recent call for dialogue with "moderate" Muslims to build a democratic future for the Middle East is laudable, the U.S. cannot bribe or bully our allied "moderate" regimes and expect them to last. We might be able to compel the leader of Turkey's new Islamist Government to support the war against Iraq and leave unchallenged the power and corruption of the Turkish military, but these policies are contrary to the reasons for the party's popularity, and will likely further radicalize its constituents.

Similarly, Powell's seal of approval of the much celebrated recent Arab Human Development Report because it was "written by Arabs themselves" misses the fact that there is no such thing as a specifically "Arab" species of development, and that the authors (no doubt in order to be seen as moderates) conveniently ignored cultural issues or the long-term impact of centuries of Western domination of the region.

As important, the constant U.S. media attention on the most extreme and violent expressions of Islam obliterates the presence of moderate voices and movements who speak to their own peoples. This in turn marginalizes the "moderates" and stirs attention away from the courageous interventions of many Islamist figures who denounce extremist violence and the more routine forms of oppression within their societies.

An alternative approach to overcoming Muslim hostilities is within our reach, but it comes with stiff requirements. First, we must give up the idea that modernization means Westernization. Second, we must accept that moderation with staying power will be moderation on Islamic ground rather than any brand we could pay for or compel. Third, we need to pay attention to the existing authentic centrist voices in the Muslim world, understanding that the agenda of Muslim moderates will reflect the needs of their people and the dictates of their own culture, not ours, though we can reasonably hope for areas of significant agreement.

As it stands, Muslim advocates of non-violence and democracy have been hampered by two powerful forces: the Arab State system and decades of U.S. foreign policy. In this context, if the U.S. public wonders why there were no prominent Middle Eastern voices condemning the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, the reality was that such voices have been raised, and loudly so, but without receiving much attention in the American press.

Egyptian Yusef al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa condemning the attacks as a "crime against society," which was the latest in decades of often courageous positions against the extremists. Yet, because he does not tow the American line and condemns oppressive policies of American allies such as Egypt or Israel, this figure, perhaps the most influential Muslim cleric alive, will not be meeting with senior Bush Administration officials any time soon. Meanwhile, the desperate situation of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, the return of corrupt, oppressive and misogynist warlords in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan, and the likelihood that a post-Saddam Iraq will fall into similar chaos or dictatorship are all clear to Qaradawi's followers, and to millions of increasingly inter-connected Muslims (through al-Jazeera and the internet) around the world.

The fact is that authentic Arab and Muslim moderates support conceptions of progress, democracy and human rights compatible with our own -- that is precisely why they oppose U.S. policies in the region. In this context, U.S. Government efforts to use (self-described) propaganda funneled through American-financed pop radio stations or Defense Department-funded "Islamic schools" to win hearts and minds only trivializes those commitments and insults those whom we seek to persuade. And when moderates have not gone far enough to condemn the increasing anti-Jewish or U.S. rhetoric in their societies, our own hypocrisies leaves us little credibility to call for more honesty and courage on their side.

We need to listen and respond reasonably to authentic Islamic voices of moderation if we are to win durable allies and calm the increasingly hate-filled anti-Americanism that feeds al-Qa'eda and its amorphous allies. But to do so we must move away from a dangerously open-ended policy of war against evil, reject the axes of ignorance and arrogance upon which it rests, and build an axis of empathy that challenges Muslims and Americans alike to pursue the highest ideals of our cultures.

Raymond William Baker is Professor of International Politics, Trinity College, author of Islam Without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists, forthcoming Harvard University Press fall '03. Mark LeVine is Assistant Professor of History at UC Irvine and author of Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, forthcoming on UC Press.