TCS Daily

The Six Dilemmas of the Moderate Islamist

By Michael Vlahos - October 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the first of a two-part series on moderate Islamists and American strategy. This emerged from a Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab meeting with moderate Islamists. It does not try to speak for moderate Islamists, but rather to how they talk about their dilemmas. The discussion was frank and open, so as a courtesy the guests are not named, and only sparely quoted.


Moderate Islamists could ultimately decide if America wins or loses its "War on Terror." Victory depends on their support, and thus also on our support of them, but in the end as well on the support of Muslims everywhere.


Why? Because Islam is in the throes of renewal and the Muslim World is changing. Moreover we cannot genetically modify Muslim societies so they become happy American replicants. The change must be in Islam itself, and the question is will it be a radical purification or a moderate reinterpretation?


But what exactly is a "moderate Islamist?" The moderate Islamist should not be confused with the moderate Muslim. The moderate Muslim is the kind of Muslim America likes. Americans are comfortable with moderate religiosity; so like the quiet churchgoer, we would prefer Muslims who are not above, for example, knocking back an occasional beer. But this is not what we should expect. Islam is a demanding religion -- and a demanding way of life. Islamic renewal will be full of piety and passion.


The moderate Islamist, like the radical Islamist, seeks to renew the Muslim World -- not help it relax. The Islamist is dedicated to the Islamic cause, and he is an active proselyte. Thus moderate Islamists like radical Islamists are dedicated to change within and expansion of the Muslim World. But unlike the radicals they reject the path of aggressive struggle, or Jihad. Moderate Islamists would renew their faith and their world instead through Islamic reinterpretation, or Ijtihad.[1]


Moderate Islamists are thus self-proclaimed leaders -- clerics and scholars -- in the renewal of Islam. The moderate Islamist is highly educated, in contrast to many radical Islamists. The moderate Islamist is also receptive to Western ideas -- but selectively receptive. Ultimately the moderate Islamist must compete with the radical Islamist for authority among Muslims. It is this competition that will decide how Islam changes.


But the moderate Islamist is at a disadvantage. Moderate Islamists face six dilemmas that threaten to undermine their cause.


The vision of Western Modernity vs. The Islamic Canon


Modernity has been a disaster for the Muslim World. Simply, modernity was the exuberant ideology of the Industrial West that rocked the Muslim World after decolonization. Its siren song: to throw off tradition and embrace the wonder of the new. Thus one of our guests described Syria in the 1960s. Damascus was like a European city where skirts and heels were a lá mode for women, and only grandmothers still wore the chador. But Stalin-like dictators perverted this hopeful metaphor. They pushed an un-Islamic cult of personality while at the same time ransacking their own societies. Theirs remains today a terrible legacy.


Thus the moderate Islamist must approach Western modernity with great care. The approach taken is a practical parsing of modernity -- to distance themselves from past, failed flirtations with modernity within the Muslim World. Thus they can embrace attractive (and some might say, necessary) Western values.


Some moderate Islamists say that the West has gone so far as to actually ditch "modernity" for an almost valueless "post-modernity" thus moving toward a belief system unacceptable to Muslims. This permits moderate Islamists to say they support traditional modern values like pluralism and democracy, while at the same time scolding the West as corrupted by its value-relativism.


But moderate Islamists must also deny the radical's assertion of the Islamic canon as pure and closed to interpretation. This means defining the radicals in the same way they define the West: something good that has gone astray. The West lost its grounding in guiding religious values, while radical Islamists lost their way through ignorance and zealotry. The West no longer knows its own true spirit, they say, while radicals no longer know the true spirit of Islam.


The problem is that both the West and the Jihadis are enterprises beyond such criticism: each is sure it owns the true spirit of its civilization. So the moderate Islamist -- at a minimum -- pleases no one.


One's identity as a national citizen vs. One's identity as part of the Ummah


Moderate Islamism is most creative among Muslims in the US and Europe. But such ferment among Muslims here brings an inevitable question:


Are they citizens first, or Muslims first? Their response is often like Tariq Ramadan's: "When I speak about citizenship, I am Swiss with a Muslim background. But when I speak of philosophy, my perception of life, I am a Muslim with a Swiss nationality."[2]


But Islamic tradition emphasizes Muslim over Citizenship, especially in an unbeliever society. Moreover, Islamic law is muddy over the issue of how Muslims should behave in non-Muslim lands. Thus, the situation exists where a large majority in some European countries consider themselves Muslim first, Euro-nationals second.[3]


This means that the moderate Islamist must be as pro-Ummah as he dare while still urging Muslims to be good citizens. But this means also calling for Muslim civic autonomy in Western societies, going beyond even the most liberal vision of "diversity." Furthermore, Muslims are charged to be active proselytes in a culture that is very cool to overt missionary activity. Thus the moderate Islamist in the West must try to dampen fears that Muslims put their religion above majority civic ideals and law.


This dilemma may seem irresolvable. Good Muslims can never truly accommodate to the Western ethos and its belief system without in effect becoming moderate Muslims -- meaning, bad Muslims. Thus the moderate Islamist must fight accommodation by the Muslim community and urge Islamic conversion throughout the West, while allaying suspicions in the larger society. The path some have chosen is to argue that both active proselytizing and civic autonomy for the Muslim community are good things for Western society as a whole. They promote true "diversity" and thus Islamic "pluralism" benefits everyone. But this is a very tough sell.


Islamic renewal vs. The New


Traditions of revivalism within Islam favor the radical over the moderate Islamist. In part this is because Muslim history is a repeated rhythm of renewal and purification, beginning of course with Muhammad himself, the first renewer, sweeping down from the mountain and out of the wilderness to rescue a people who had lost their way. This is the legitimated loom of History, of collective repetition and continuity through time, and it favors the radical Islamist.


There is also the lingering taint of an earlier flirtation with Western modernity. Moderate Islamists must paint this period as a failed and corrupted renewal, for two reasons.


The moderate Islamist must show that a very selective openness to Western values and practices does not suggest conversion to something so corrupting as wholesale Western modernity -- in contrast to the socialist Pan-Arabists of the post-colonial era. It was they after all who visited disaster upon the Muslim World, because they were not Islamists.


They must also describe the period of heavy Western influence as creating a complete break with traditional Muslim culture. This makes the very secular 1950s and 1960s a true discontinuity for Islam. Therefore the rhythm of renewal and purification was also broken: to be left behind with other long-lost traditions. Thus the Jihadi call is just a sort of marginal and archaic nostalgia, not an appropriate response to contemporary needs.


But the alternative response held up by the moderate Islamist -- Ijtihad -- is not as canonized in popular tradition as is purifying renewal. The task of the moderate Islamist is thus to argue that radical Islamism is both archaic and ignorant, and that Ijtihad is the only appropriate course. But Ijtihad is also historically untested (in Sunni Islam) and thus truly a break, truly something new. Moderate Islamists admit that Islamic history is all about the continuity of renewal. Pushing for something new -- especially including Western ideas -- brings back memories of the failed experiment with Western modernity.


So the moderate Islamist must represent Ijtihad as equal to Jihad as a path to Islamic renewal. But this is very hard to do when an increasing number of Muslims are uneducated in their civilization. Moderate protestations do nothing to diminish the siren call of the Jihadi.


Let us change ourselves vs. Supporting US strategy is the only way


Moderate Islamists also understand that there is another bringer of change to the Muslim World: the United States. Should the moderate Islamist hope the US achieves his goals too, or is this prospect so precarious and remote that it is better for Muslims to change Muslims, even if it is the radicals who bring the change?


But if the US is to successfully bring the change, then Americans must realize that this does not mean change according to their own desires and political agendas. Above all it means that the US must stop supporting "the despots."


American support for corrupt regimes, they say, makes the US a "lightning rod" for conflict. Rather than promoting stability America actually encourages Muslims -- as one Islamist academic said -- "to do resistance on their own. People say the US must be expelled, then we can fix the Muslim World." They say Mubarak's regime, for example, would not survive but for US billions. When a moderate calls America the "external barrier to internal reform" he is saying that the US is holding back reformation in Egypt -- and throughout the Muslim World.


But the moderate Islamist's best hopes depend on the success of American actions. The US has entered into an intimate relationship with the Muslim World, one that will not end soon and one that can only intensify the war. It is almost as if the moderate Islamist senses that there is an irrevocable choice approaching for Muslims everywhere: between a benevolent American order or an insurgent coalescence under the banner of Jihad.


They clearly would prefer American Empire -- but on their terms. "I'd rather have the US as the dominant player" -- but -- "America must see the Muslim World as a longer term partner." The moderate Islamist can see a triumphant path ahead, but it must go like this:


·         The US ushers in a democracy in Iraq, but according to Muslim traditions of civil society. Then it gives up control and lets Iraq go its own way.

·         The US must also push for real change in Arabia and Egypt, even if that means, in their words, "regime change" there.

·         Once democracy truly takes hold, with Iraq as a model, anti-American sentiment will begin to abate. Popular concerns will begin to shift to the performance of local Arab government.

·         "Muslim compliance" should not be the US objective. America will be secure only when Arab societies are thriving and feel that "their country is their country." Then US military presence there will become "irrelevant."


A happy vision indeed.


Upheaval is necessary to change vs. Enlightened policy brings gentler change


But even though Americans and moderate Islamists both want democracy to succeed in Iraq, how does the Muslim World as a whole get from here to there? The US talks "democratic reform" but does nothing about it with authoritarian regimes it continues to support. And moderate Islamists want these regimes replaced by popular Islamic government, but offer no alternative to violent revolution -- that is, change by radical Islamists.


Here moderate Islamists have a hopeful story. First, they insist that the Taliban was a "distortion of natural evolution in Islam." They suggest that Islamist revolutions in the "civilized centers" of the Muslim World (in contrast to uncivilized places like Sudan and Afghanistan) "would not inevitably be extremist in their true nature even if they appeared to be radical when they assumed power."


Notably, the Sunni Islamists at our meeting praised the Iranian Revolution for bringing true pluralism. As an example of this they say that demanding women wear the chador was not enslaving, but liberating. In the days of the Shah they say, only elite women participated in public life, but now all women did, as long as they wore the chador. Perhaps praising Iran is a sign that moderate Islamists feel that they must be prepared to join successful future Islamist movements -- even if more radical groups dominate them.


But they also have another story. Moderate Islamists complain how Muslims everywhere are uneducated and no longer understand Islam. This suggests that not simply the Taliban, but that Islam everywhere has become "distorted" -- hence, implicitly, the Taliban's appeal. In this degraded Islamic context the authority of the moderate Islamist would decline.


They tell the story of Al Fatah. As an Islamist movement it brought 20% of Palestinians to an Islamic identity, but then failed politically. Hamas then "hijacked the modest achievements of Al Fatah and radicalized Islamic fervor into terrorism. This is what is happening at the global level." In their own words, "peaceful Islamists historically have failed to deliver the vision of society they had been promising for 70 years." No wonder, they say, that Al Qaeda has had such success among Muslims!


Why have "peaceful Islamists" failed to deliver? They say the corrupt and apostate regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- "the despots" -- have not only "ruined Muslim economies and societies," but also have crushed "peaceful Islamist" movements from Algeria to Syria to Egypt. Only violent overthrow can remove them.


The moderate Islamist desperately wants to overthrow the corrupt and bring good Islamic governance to the Muslim World -- through enlightened means. But they confess that it can be achieved realistically only through unenlightened means. Moreover they must ultimately support such change even though the unenlightened radicals think of them as the enemy.


The moderate proclaims: "Islamists have the solution." But their words tell us that it is radicals who will do the solving.


And they believe change is inevitable. One Islamist academic put it in historical terms: "People in the Muslim world are not feeling as though they are defeated. In fact many people believe that things are moving in the right direction, and that the dictators will eventually be kicked out. There is a completely different mindset here. These people are willing to perish. As long as the current paradigm exists for the US, it will ultimately lose. Look at Israel: almost in retreat. Twenty or fifty years, it doesn't matter how long it takes. Palestinians refuse to submit even when controlled." The longer the US supports, say, Mubarak, the more certain "an initial extremist successor state" in Egypt. The US today is merely "delaying change."


Thus the United States is at once both the bringer of change to the Muslim World and its primary resistance. When things finally break -- in the historical-narrative-to-be of the moderate Islamist -- a choice must be made.


Truly Islamic yet still democratic vs. The only and stainless Right Path


This of course suggests a sixth dilemma: How does the moderate Islamist survive radical Islamist victory?


The moderate Islamist chants the deviance of radical Islam. The moderate would prefer a sort of Western-Islamic syncretism in politics, meaning a Western-style electoral system with traditional Islamic institutions forming civil society. Thus communities within society would have some internal autonomy. The ideal they describe is more pluralistic in some ways than in the West, and government is more limited.


One guest reminded us that moderate Islamists -- also called "reformist scholars" -- continue to be outnumbered by traditionalist scholars and clerics in Islam. Yet their influence is great. Not only have they helped to move contemporary Muslim societies toward pluralism, their democratic ideals have increasingly been adopted by "leading figures within the traditionalist schools." But the moderate Islamist must still reckon with and move within the architectures of old orthodoxy across Islam.


In contrast radical Islamists are not so encumbered either by Islamic tradition or respect for the West, and they grimly challenge the pluralistic ideal of the moderates. Moderate Islamists insist that ostensibly radical Islamic revolutions -- like the Iranian in 1979 -- were both less radical than they appeared while also open to democratic evolution. But it is much harder to address the unpredictability of future Islamic republics in a cultural and theological context where the "uneducated" have broken Islam into primitive or deviant pieces. The moderate Islamist may be confident, for example, that Iran is a good model of democratic evolution: "what is needed now is nothing more than to fine-tune this system, reduce the power of unelected officials, and suddenly, democratic Islamic society is possible! Western stereotypes of Islam prevent them from seeing democratic change."


This is a brave face to put on the great unknown of what even moderate Islamists admit is the prospect of "extremist successor states," where their own prospect would be simply physically surviving 20 or 30 years of "democratic change."


The moderate Islamist proudly paints himself the champion of enlightened governing traditions. Yet however enlightened, however congenial to American political values, the moderate Islamist must reckon with a changed world. The radical Islamist may be theologically ignorant and politically deviant in terms of true Islamic traditions, but the radicals are fighting on the frontline, and the radicals believe that theirs is the only and stainless Right Path. Moreover, millions and millions of regular Muslims, equally uneducated, believe in the legitimacy of their vision.


Some Thoughts in Retrospect


It is not difficult to find some sympathy for the moderate Islamist. He seeks a convergence both of interest and spirit with Western modernity, and yet knows that it nonetheless still threatens his faith and way of life. He would therefore like to change the West, making it more Islamic, but knows that to do so ultimately risks his appearance of loyalty there. He wants to lead Islam on a new path, but must always try to represent his efforts as properly steeped in tradition -- a weaker tradition than his rival radical Islamists.


He would even embrace US imposition of a new order in the Muslim World through force majeure, but only if it sought the same Islamist vision that inspires him -- and he knows that will never be.


He therefore must confront the possibility that change may in the end come to Islam as violent upheaval -- revolution likely to be championed and led by the most radical. He knows further that in such circumstance there will likely also be little place for him, or that it will be a fragile and perilous perch. In the relentless purgative of revolution, moreover, he might even become extinct.


Nonetheless the moderate Islamist is important to the United States, even if this Part-Western Islamist is today a diminished voice within Islam.


First, he reminds us that America has become inextricably part of a great struggle within Islam, and we appear to most Muslims to have taken the side of the tyrants, the apostate regimes.


Second, he tells us unequivocally that if the US wants to be a trusted change-agent in this struggle, that it must assert a sincere support of Islamism, and that it must wholly renounce the tyrants.


Third, the temperate theology and political philosophy of the moderate Islamist is the only sort of Islam that the West can live with over historical time. But if moderate Islamism goes under, the unlivable will prevail.


Fourth, the longer Americans persist in talking about "terrorism" instead of the broader struggle behind it, while at the same time both bringing and resisting change, the more certain will be the eventual coalescence of the Muslim world against us. In this instance the moderate Islamist would also, at last, turn against us too.



[1] Some Muslim reformists with moderate views were suggested by our guests -- Muhammad Abduh, Shakeeb Arsalan, Malik Bennabi, Fahmi Huwaidi, Saleem Awa, and Tareq al-Bishri. None of them of course were present at our meeting.

2 From an interview with the prominent Swiss moderate Islamist: Paul Donelly, "Tariq Ramadan: The Muslim Martin Luther? Tariq Ramadan was not a guest at our meeting.

3 In a British Sunday Times poll after 9-11, 80% of British Muslims said that they considered themselves Muslims first, and British citizens second.

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