Defining Ideas

Engaging Muslim Communities

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The challenge facing the United States today is the problem of “us” and “them.” Although it is clear to us in Washington that our foreign and security policies are not directed against Islam or any other religious community, it is not as clear to many Muslims who see themselves as “them.” To engage more effectively, our first step must be to develop an accurate understanding of just who “we” are and who “they” are. Otherwise, the United States may continue to alienate Muslims and strengthen the Islamists. I also suggest some dos and don’ts that should guide U.S. policy going forward.

I believe the biggest challenge in outreach programs has been the United States’ inability to identify what it wants from Muslims; in other words, what is the purpose of engagement? Is it merely to stop terrorist attacks against Americans and their allies? Is it to learn about a religion and its many cultural, political, and historical aspects? Is it to genuinely try to improve the lives of Muslims, whether they live in Pakistan, Malaysia, Somalia, or North America? I argue that we will see an end to terrorism, radicalism, and extremism when our intention is to empower Muslims to achieve their full human potential.

For a long time, however, we have been trapped in a “war on terror” mind-set, neglecting the fact that terror is merely a tool in part of a bigger strategy that encourages division, separating the “West” from “the rest,” so that the rest will have no choice but to support Islamist political ideology. I have written extensively about the difference between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (the political ideology) and how we need to expose the extremists’ cynical exploitation of the religion as a means of convincing the moderate majority of their fellow Muslims that the current conflict is religious in nature—and that the only solution is for Muslims to come together as part of a single nation (umma) following its own legal system (sharia) in pursuit of a new and antidemocratic world order.

Why is Islamism a threat to democracy? Because, according to its interpretations, sharia regulates every aspect of an individual’s life; moreover, because it is considered God’s law, no compromises are possible. The holistic nature of Islamist ideology makes it fundamentally incompatible with the self-criticism and exercise of free will necessary for human beings to form truly liberal and democratic societies.

There is a difference between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the political ideology.

The Islamist movement is much stronger today than it was in 2001. And it will continue to get stronger over the next decade until we realize we are faced with a long-term social transformation project designed to make Muslims an angry and fearful people who can then be easily controlled.

Despite our denials, this destructive ideology is increasingly taking hold in the United States as well. Consider Islamization as being like smoking: one cigarette may not cause that much harm, but continued smoking will do terrible damage to one’s health. Some people die from it.

We were shocked about the beheading of a woman in Buffalo, New York, in February 2009, allegedly by her husband, who reportedly cited sharia as grounds for denying her a divorce. When FBI director Robert Mueller talked about the first known U.S. citizen to participate in a suicide bombing in Somalia, he said, “The prospect of young men, indoctrinated and radicalized within their own communities and induced to travel to Somalia to take up arms—and to kill themselves and perhaps many others—is a perversion of the immigrant story. For these parents to leave a war-torn country only to find their children have been convinced to return to that way of life is heartbreaking.” He is right.

Death and destruction lead to further death and destruction. We need to rebuild, above all, people’s imaginations, thereby freeing their creative powers to live with joy and passion.

So what should the United States do?

  • Let’s start with what not to do:
  • Don’t reduce Muslims to people whose main identity is their religious affiliation: they have hopes, frustrations, and aspirations just like the rest of us.
  • Don’t expect the silent majority to speak up until and unless it sees a clear sign that the United States has decided to win, which means empowering the true democrats and ending existing unholy alliances.
  • In choosing partners to engage, listen to what they say and look at what they do when they are with their own people, not what they say to you in private meetings, behind closed doors.
  • Don’t assume an individual or group that sounds moderate in fact is moderate.
  • Don’t look for “spokesmen” or “representatives” for Muslims as the solution. Most of these people speak solely for themselves or their organizations.

Moreover, Islam teaches Muslims that we are our own masters, that we submit only to God, and that no religious authority on earth can control our hearts and minds—unless we let them.

It is therefore critically important to shine a light on what is truly going on under the so-called Islamic regimes—so Muslims can see for themselves that life under a sharia-based legal system is not, in fact, better than under a liberal democracy. When asked why they want sharia, most explain that they want an end to crime and corruption and want to live with safety, security, and dignity; most believe it is possible to take only the good aspects of sharia and leave out the bad aspects. Maybe one day this will be possible; but today, the implementers of sharia do not allow it because, under God’s law, no compromises are possible.

Don’t believe the men, whose lives are not as affected as women’s, and don’t believe the women who have never lived under the sharia system. Just ask the women who have lived or still do live under a sharia system—ask them if their lives have improved. And ask them if they want their daughters to live under this system as well.

Throughout the world, liberal democracy is once again being challenged as a political system and, more fundamentally, as an ideology and as a set of beliefs. Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in an ideological struggle—and the United States is losing ground. The further spread of Islamism will leave the United States isolated and powerless to achieve its goals in security and foreign policy.

Faced with authoritarian threats in both religious and secular forms, the United States should not be questioning whether to promote democracy but how to promote it. A democracy promotion effort needs to be comprehensive, not piecemeal; a holistic challenge requires a holistic response. The whole concept needs to be redesigned with an eye toward constructing a time frame that lasts well beyond any one presidential administration. If not, the United States and its allies will continue to grow weaker as their opponents strengthen.

In general, the United States looks for short-term successes when a generational commitment is needed (as originally stated by the Bush administration). But because the United States had to demonstrate success quickly, it went for the “low-hanging fruit”—at points even sounding as doctrinaire about democracy promotion as those who oppose democracy. Now, as a result, we are back at the same point or worse.

Starting Point for Change Women need to be central to all efforts if the United States wants social transformation The empowerment of women is especially important when engaging with the Muslim world. Of all the various segments of Muslim communities, women need to be a primary focus. This is important because women are already the focus of Islamists, who have correctly identified them as the most important starting point of their social engineering project. Women are the nucleus of family and society; mothers raise the next generation; a woman kept ignorant and living in fear can be easily controlled. If we neglect the women, we neglect the next generation. So if the United States wants to see a different kind of social transformation, women must be at the center of all programs, not filed away under “women’s issues.” – Zeyno Baran

Despite more than sixty years of on-again, off-again efforts at democracy promotion in the Middle East and places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the binary model that forces a choice between autocrats in power and populist extremists out of power has never disappeared. Why does the United States not remain true to its own values and support the third option: the liberal democrats? Yes, liberal democrats in most parts of the so-called Muslim world are but a small minority today, but they will never grow unless backed by the United States; the other two sides already get all the financial and organizational help they could want.

The prevailing view—that Islamists should be co-opted into existing political systems—will not work. Often, Islamists are willing to make superficial concessions while continuing to hold an uncompromising worldview. The United States simply does not understand Islamism, even though it has been an active and increasingly powerful counterideology for more than three decades. Islamism is not compatible with democracy; Muslims can be democrats. There is a huge difference.

The academics, analysts, and policy makers who argue that a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood today is “moderate” disregard its ideology, history, and long-term strategy, even seeming to disregard the Brotherhood’s own statements. Although most affiliates of this movement do not directly call for terrorist acts, are open to dialogue with the West, and participate in democratic elections, they cannot qualify as moderate when their ideology is so extreme. Turning a blind eye to ideological extremism—even for the sake of combating violent extremism and terrorism—is a direct threat to the democratic order.

Unfortunately, since September 11, 2001, the United States has alienated many of its allies and strengthened its enemies in the Muslim world, which helps explains why the United States lost the support of the secular movement within Turkey, traditionally the domestic constituency most closely allied to the West. Turkey is also the only NATO member with a majority Muslim population. Today, a large majority of Turks have negative views of the United States, including people who have been educated in the United States. Why? Because they (correctly) perceive U.S. policy as promoting a “moderate Islamist” government in their country—one that can serve as a model for the Muslim world. Yet even the current political leadership, which has an Islamist past, opposes being called “moderate Islamist,” instead preferring “Muslim democrat.”

The United States should not be questioning whether to promote democracy but how to promote it.

Turkey is unique for nearly all its citizens being Muslim; the United States needs to first understand what makes it unique before trying to make it fit a particular democratization theory. The end of the caliphate and the Islamic sharia legal system were revolutionary moves, for most Muslim countries still have sharia law enshrined in their constitutions, which has impeded their democratic evolution. For its part, Turkey has evolved as a democratic country because it was founded as a secular republic and thus has served as a beacon of hope for liberal democrats across the Muslim world.

Since September 11, anti-American movements, groups, and leaders--from Russia to Venezuela—have come together in a shared hostility to the Western liberal system. The worldwide U.S. commitment to, and promotion of, liberal democracy must therefore not be tacked on as an afterthought but be at the core of the U.S. foreign and national security strategy. This means returning to the fundamentals of what America is about: defending and guaranteeing freedom and dignity.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that anti-American groups will continue to try to take advantage of open societies. Some intentionally provoke incidents to promote an “us versus them” mentality and also feed conspiracy theories. The Islamist narrative is about victimization and humiliation, part of a deadly mixture of feeling politically and economically inferior, on the one hand, and feeling morally and ethically superior, on the other.

I believe having President Obama in office will grant the United States only short-term relief. Islamists are working on new narratives and searching for new grievances; their need to undermine the United States and its democratic vision is incredibly strong. The Obama administration, one hopes, will not be so eager to reverse the unpopularity of the Bush years that it limits the emphasis on democracy so essential for advancing U.S. interests.

America needs to be true to its values and principles. The United States should not promote moderate Islam but liberal democracy. There is no Arab or Muslim exceptionalism; leaders make such arguments in order to retain their hold on their people. Even though people in different parts of the world may use different terms, the yearning for freedom and liberal democracy is universal.

If the United States does not show leadership, no one else will. We need to focus on building institutions to enable democratic cultures to take hold. Each country has its own path, based on its history, culture, and traditions, and it takes time; there simply is no shortcut. The United States seems patient with the democratization process in Saudi Arabia. Why is there a different approach to Egypt?

We need to make a long-term commitment, not look for short-term successes that jeopardize longer-term gains. Democracy is not merely about the electoral process; holding elections, however free and fair in a technical sense, without first undertaking the difficult process of building institutions will get us only one thing: Hamas. Hungry, fearful, and uneducated people cannot be democrats. They must not be killed just because they are from the wrong ethnic, religious, or sectarian background. People also need to be educated; illiteracy is a problem, but what is taught is equally important. If all students are taught is to memorize the Koran or to hate the West, how can they transcend such teachings? Without building critical-thinking skills as well as teaching civics and democratic values, we will continue to see Western-educated doctors and engineers becoming suicide bombers. People need to be able to feed and clothe their families, but material successes do not imbue one with a love for the liberal democratic system that makes them possible.

Clearly, the United States cannot do this cheaply, especially given how much everyone else is spending on antidemocratic agendas. It may help to develop partnerships with the Europeans and others who are similarly committed to democratic development. Moreover, compared to how much the United States is spending on wars and the military budget, the amount would be minimal, with huge returns. With the economic crisis hitting critical parts of the world, such as Pakistan, there is an even greater need for the United States to allocate large sums of money for education and institution building and to support organizations that would eventually lead to democratic civil society, particularly secular organizations (press, judiciary, women’s organizations, small and medium business associations, etc.).

In many parts of the world, following the shock of globalization and the resulting questioning of identities, countries are reconstructing their own national identities. The United States must influence this process so that destructive ideas do not take root.