Myopic Builders and Elusive Moderates

by Louay Safi


Aljazeera Discusses Syrian New Constitution with Louay Safi

Building Moderate Muslim Networks is RAND Corporation’s second attempt at devising a strategy to help prevent “some Muslim societies [from] falling back even further into patterns of intolerance and violence.” And to do that RAND reassigns Caryl Benard, the author of the first report Civil Democratic Islam, to join three more scholars for preparing its new report.

The present report makes little improvements over the previous one, and suffers from the same faulty assumptions and flawed analysis. The new report moves away from overtly relying on “lifestyle” for distinguishing friends from foes, and shifts the emphasis to a set of political values. RAND’s new research team uses a list of 10 criteria to separate moderate and radical Muslims. The emphasis is less focused on religious practices, as attention turns to ideology and commitment to free and open society.

The current study recognizes that the entrenched authoritarian governments and the decline of civil-society institutions in much of the Muslim world “have left the mosque as one of the few avenues for the expression of popular dissatisfaction with prevailing political, economic, and social conditions.” Yet the authors seem less concerned with the need to withdraw support from authoritarian regimes responsible for destroying civil society in much of the Muslim world. Rather, the authors are exceedingly obsessed with the goal of marginalizing social groups, even the most moderate of them, that appeal to Islamic values as the basis for sociopolitical reform. I have already discussed at length in my response to RAND’s early report why this obsession is counterproductive and will only feed into political radicalization, and have nothing to add to this point here.

One cannot help but notice that the report consistently places the blame on Muslim societies. It refuses to assign any responsibility for the radicalization of Muslim politics to the cynical strategies advocated by foreign policy experts. These strategies call for freedom and democracy simultaneously as they continue to urge support to friendly authoritarian regimes.

In discussing the Danish cartoon saga, for instance, the report directs the blame for this sad and unfortunate episode to the “Danish imams,” who the report asserts “caused the cartoon controversy to spiral into an international conflagration.” No blame is placed at the door of the newspaper that published the offensive cartoons, despite the fact that the newspaper was implicated in deliberate efforts to demonize the emerging Danish Muslim community. Blaming the Danish imams is the equivalent of blaming the Rutgers University women's basketball team for complaining about Don Imus’s racial slur and abuse, and for making their indignations known to the public, leading to his ousting from his job.

Among the many faulty assumptions on which the report builds its recommendations is that the Muslim World’s Moderates, defined as secularist and liberal Muslims, lack the resources they need to dominate Muslim societies. Moderates, the report asserts, “do not have the resources” they need to create viable networks to counter the radicals. They lack the skills to do that themselves and require an “external catalyst.” The United States can, the report continues, serve in the role of catalyst by utilizing the experience it gained “during the Cold War to foster networks of people committed to free and democratic ideas. The United States “critical role” consists in leveling the playing field for moderates.”

The reality is that radicals in most Muslim countries constitute small and fringe groups whose impact far exceeds their numbers because they are willing to employ shocking violence in pursuing their goals. Further, many of the Middle Eastern regimes are ruled by elites who are socially secular and liberal, but politically autocratic and authoritarian.

The radicalization of politics in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq was the result of deliberate efforts by Muslim secularists to impose modern practices on Muslim societies. The reliance on force and iron fist policies to impose “modern” institutions and practices by socially “moderate” but politically radical secularists, who held and continue to hold power in many Muslim countries, has led to the destruction of public debate, the disappearance of civil society, and the radicalization of politics. For instance, the use of violence by state security agencies to silence opposition during Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat of Egypt has paved the way to the rise of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s.

The report’s efforts to take a principled approach to defining the “moderate” proved to be elusive. For even though the report acknowledges that some Islamists satisfy the “moderate criteria,” it eventually sides with those who counsel against engaging Islamists. Moderate Islamists, the report contends, should only be engaged as “interlocutors,” but never supported even when they espouse democratic values.

The reason for refusing to embrace moderate Islam, the report insists, is that “the Muslim world moderate and liberal groups are organizationally weak and have been as yet unable to develop substantial constituencies, for the West to bypass these groups in favor of Islamist interlocutors would simply perpetuate these weaknesses.”

Perhaps the only significant contribution to stimulating democratic debate among grassroots organizations and groups is the one led by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy  (CSID), despite serious limitations in their resources. The majority of the initiatives carried out by other democracy promoting organizations were confined to academic and official debates. Participants in CSID programs involve democracy and civil rights activists that represent the political spectrum in the Middle East, including Islamists committed to democratic governance.

The report concludes by giving several examples of moderate Muslims, and surprisingly they include prominent Islam bashers. The list includes Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Irshad Manji, Basam Tibi, etc. Ultimately, it is not commitment to democratic values and practices, but proximity to Islam, that sets moderates and radicals is the eyes of the authors of the recent RAND report on moderate Islam.

It is not surprising, therefore, that RAND’s recommendations feed into the arrogant and unilateralist policies advanced by the neoconservatives in the last six years, policies that resulted in more chaos on the world stage and misery within Muslim societies.

Dr. Louay M. Safi writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. He is the author of eight books and numerous papers, including Tensions and Transitions in the Muslim word, published by University Press of America, 2003. His commentaries are available on his blog: