Fighting for the Soul of Islam
How a decades-old crisis of authority affects the campaign against terrorism
The crisis has three related causes, Bulliet argues. The first is the gradual marginalization of the leading sheiks and muftis, in part because of their close association with authoritarian governments that control the purse strings of important mosques and other religious establishments. The second factor is the emergence of self-proclaimed authorities with little traditional learning but superior mastery of the media. And the third cause is the spread of literacy, which has created a huge and receptive audience for those new voices.
This is not the first crisis of authority in Islam, Bulliet explains. In medieval times, Sunni legal schools proliferated to the point of anarchy, but four schools finally emerged as authoritative. Typically, voices on the periphery eventually become the new center. Today, Bulliet says, the fringe consists of three parts. There are diaspora Muslims in Europe and America, whose voices range from the Swiss activist Tariq Ramadan to thinkers like Iranian legal scholar Afshin Elian, now teaching in the Netherlands. The second part of the fringe is found in the major universities in predominantly Muslim countries outside the Middle East that combine traditional religious and modern studies rather than separate each, as in the universities in the Middle Eastern core. The third part of the fringe consists of the Islamist parties.
Bulliet believes that the United States needs to engage with all of these new players, including the Islamists, among whom he sees great variety. Dismissing them all as advocates of Taliban-style regimes, he charges, is like saying that "every socialist was a Stalinist." Just as absurd, in his view, is the U.S. ban on Ramadan, who advocates an Islam fully compatible with western liberalism.
Shady. Such sentiments are dismissed by conservative activists like Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, as the dangerous products of political correctness. And sometimes they are. Scholars in some American university Middle East programs (often recipients of generous Saudi bequests) manage to smell almost nothing bad in Islamist groups or CAIR-style organizations, however shady they may be. The liberals, meanwhile, see the conservatives as pro-Israel shills who want all Muslims to be secularized Jeffersonian democrats. Not surprisingly, both camps have influenced different parts of the U.S. government, where conflicting ideological agendas often subvert consistent policies.
Yet some of the rigid positions are changing. Conservatives and neocon-servatives are at least entertaining the idea of engaging with the Islamists. Former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has argued that the road to democracy in Muslim states will inevitably involve Islamist groups. Other conservatives, including Robert Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center, are now making the case that some Islamist groups are modifying their views. He points out, in a coauthored article in Foreign Affairs, that the Brotherhood-founded Muslim Association of Britain has earned praise from Scotland Yard for "deradicalizing" young militants. Diversity within Islamist groups, he concludes, "suggests Washington should adopt a case-by-case approach, letting the situation in each individual country determine when talking with-or even working with-the Brotherhood is feasible and appropriate."