Fighting for the Soul of Islam
How a decades-old crisis of authority affects the campaign against terrorism
Americans have heard it repeatedly since September 11: The acts of terrorism inflicted on our shore were the murderous consequences of an ongoing struggle within Islam. At its most dramatic extremes, that conflict pits radical jihadists against moderate Muslims. But a quieter front in the struggle is probably of greater import. It involves the millions of Muslims who are being wooed by the proselytizers of a puritanical, and often highly politicized, strain of the faith. This volatile blend of Saudi Wahhabi Islam and political Islam-dubbed Islamism by one of its early-20th-century founders-is the assembly line of future jihadists, some experts hold, and its agents are busy indoctrinating young Muslims from Lahore to Los Angeles.
The outcome of this clash will bear directly on the course of the war on terrorism by answering the most fundamental question: Is mainstream Islam compatible with democracy and basic rights and freedoms established by international law?
While the stakes of this struggle are enormously high, American and European efforts to make sense of it have so far proved to be inadequate. A new Rand report, only the most recent such critique, charges that the U.S. government-almost six years after 9/11-still lacks a "consistent view on who the moderates are, where the opportunities for building networks among them lie, and how best to build the networks."
The difficulties of identifying who speaks for Islam-much less whom the West would like to be speaking-were on ample display last month in Florida, where two groups of Muslim activists and concerned experts assembled for conferences on opposite coasts.
In St. Petersburg, the Secular Islam Summit, sponsored by a humanist organization called the Center for Inquiry, featured Muslim speakers who ranged from angry ex-believers to devout reformers. They differed sharply on particulars, but all shared the conviction that Islam must be compatible with secular democracy. Their closing manifesto, "The St. Petersburg Declaration," affirmed the separation of mosque and state, gender equality in personal and family law, and unrestricted critical study of Islamic traditions.
Identity. On the same weekend, the south Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held its conference in Fort Lauderdale. Among its speakers, Geneive Abdo, a Lebanese-American (of Christian background) and author of Mecca and Main Street, discussed how young American Muslims have been strengthening their Islamic identity since 9/11.
At least as significant as the meetings themselves, however, were the denunciations hurled back and forth by attendees of the separate events. Repeatedly, speakers in St. Petersburg denounced CAIR as typifying fellow-traveling Islamism. Absorbed with grievance-group politics and hypersensitive to any criticism of Muslims, it receives, various speakers noted, generous funding from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. More disturbingly, as many in St. Petersburg pointed out, some CAIR officials have refused to denounce Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, while others have been too quick to declare who is, or who is not, a true Muslim.
Playing to type, the executive director of the Tampa chapter of CAIR, Ahmed Bedier, dismissed the St. Petersburg crowd as a bunch of "atheists and non-Muslims" with no standing in the Muslim community. Later, in the Washington Post, Abdo observed that despite the attention western media lavish on secularized Muslims, they represent only a small minority. By contrast, those Muslims associated with CAIR, she wrote, "more closely reflect the views of the majority not only in the United States, but worldwide."
Law of the land. And what does this majority want? Well, for one, Abdo explained, the implementation of Islamic sharia law as the law of the land for Muslim countries and even the restricted use of sharia within some western countries. Abdo concluded that Muslims living in the West are unlikely to be fully integrated into their societies, while nations in the Muslim world are likely to be "much more Islamic than western."
To speakers at the Secular Islam Summit, accepting such views is giving up the cause without a fight. Yet the frequent intemperance of the secularists' remarks, including the claim by the Syrian-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan that there is no difference between "radical Islam and regular Islam," played almost perfectly into the hands of CAIR. As its board chairman, Parvez Ahmed, noted, "The [Secular Islam Summit] drew an amalgam of extreme right-wing and neocon voices who touted as role models of 'reform' those who are deep in their hostility to Islam."
Such mutual mudslinging only hints at the complexity of what has been going on within the house of Islam for over a century. And unfortunately, American attempts to make sense of it have been handicapped by ignorance of Islam and by our own partisan divides and culture wars.
Take the seemingly simple matter of reform and reformation. Repeatedly called for by westerners, a reformation is precisely what Islam has been undergoing since the late 19th century, largely in response to the perceived causes and consequences of western domination of Islamic lands.
New caliphate. While this reformation has had many tendencies and fathers, the most militant of the reformers hope to reassert a dominant role for Islam in all areas of life and society, particularly the political. (This is one reason that liberal and secular Muslims say Islam needs an Enlightenment, not another Reformation.) Rejecting secularists like Turkey's Kemal Atatûrk and harking back to the age of the first caliphates, ideologues like India-born Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi, Egypt's Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), and fellow Egyptian Sayyid Qutb laid out the main lines of modern Islamist thought and action. Borrowing elements of European fascist ideology, they backed extensive social welfare programs while tirelessly promoting the idea of an Islamic state governed by Islamic sharia law. For some, the ultimate goal is the creation of a transnational community of believers, or umma, united under a new caliph. In addition to spawning organizations such as the Palestinians' Hamas and Jordan's Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood has seen the emergence of rival groups boasting more militant, if not quite violent, programs. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), nearly banned in Britain after the London subway bombing, is now active in more than 40 countries and openly boasts of its ambition. "The winner of this battle [the ideological struggle] will decide whether the future belongs to Islam or western secular liberalism," declares one official on the Australian HT website.
But the rise of Islamism is only part of what Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet calls, in a Wilson Quarterly article, "a crisis of authority that has been building within Islam for a century." The crisis, which grows out of the religion's decentralized and relatively weak authority structures, has undermined the power of the traditional ulema (the leading Muslim scholars), who once were able "to disqualify or overrule a man who does not speak-or act-for Islam."
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."
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.
This story appears in the April 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.