Fighting for the Soul of Islam
How a decades-old crisis of authority affects the campaign against terrorism
Other conservative scholars insist that engagement with Islamists is tantamount to legitimizing them. But retired Ambassador William Rugh counters, "They are already legitimized. Our not talking to them doesn't make a difference."
Some liberal Middle East experts say that we should be asking the Islamists to be more clear on what exactly they stand for. In a policy paper, three Carnegie Endowment associates, Amr Hamzawy, Marina Ottaway, and Nathan Brown, call for clarification in six "gray zones": application of sharia, violence, political pluralism, individual freedoms, minorities, and women's rights. So, for example, engaging the Brotherhood in Egypt should mean getting clear answers on whether it supports full tolerance of Coptic Christians and on what it means by sharia-a set of general ethical principles or a narrowly restrictive code of rules and punishments.
Turkish political economist Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Eurasian Policy, supports that kind of "engagement for a purpose," but she still fears that emphasizing Islamists can further imperil the plight of moderate, secular Muslims, who are feeling squeezed from every direction. Not that America has been deft in approaching them. "They don't want to be seen doing the bidding of the U.S. government," Baran says. "They don't want to become anybody's good Muslims."
So, what, if anything, can the United States do, even if it is simply to do no harm? Some have called for a radically different kind of organization dedicated to dealing with the war within Islam, an organization that is sensitive, above all, to the power of culture and religion. "Just as we created the OSS to deal with the challenge of the Axis powers in World War II, so we now need an organization to come to terms with this new, religiously grounded ideological struggle," says Ross Newland, a former CIA station chief. This outfit-call it, tentatively, the Organization of Islamic Affairs-would not be a government agency, though it would receive funding from the government. An independent think tank and advocacy group, it would employ a range of specialists, including foreign nationals, to give direction and coherence to government programs. Above all, its specialists would know how to listen to what is going on in the Muslim world. As things are now, says Williams College political scientist Marc Lynch, "we don't listen to the terms in which Muslims are carrying on their debates. Or we listen through American filters."
Terms of Conflict
Wahhabism: A puritanical strain of Islam set forth in the 18th century, now being spread by Saudi wealth.
Islamism: A variety of modern reform Islam that aims to "restore" the religion to political power.
Caliph: A successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Kemal Atatûrk abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. Some Islamists hope to create a new, transnational caliphate.
Sharia: Islamic law. Understood by moderates as broad ethical principles; by puritans, as a set of narrow prohibitions and punishments.