Yes, there is a moderate Islam - let's support it

A new RAND study promotes reaching out to Muslim secularists, liberals, moderate traditionalists and some Sufis.

sufi dervishes 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
sufi dervishes 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'What moderate Muslims?" is the near-inevitable retort to my stating that radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam the solution. Where are the anti-Islamists' demonstrations against terror, their combating of Islamists, their reassessments of Islamic law? I am asked. Moderate Muslims do exist, I reply. Admittedly, they do not constitute a movement but represent mere wisps in the face of the Islamist onslaught. This means, I argue, that the US government and other powerful institutions should give priority to locating, meeting with, funding, forwarding, empowering and celebrating those brave Muslims who, at personal risk, stand up and confront the totalitarians. A just-published study from the RAND Corporation, Building Moderate Muslim Networks, methodically takes up and thinks through this concept. Angel Rabasa, Cheryl Benard, Lowell H. Schwartz and Peter Sickle grapple intelligently with the innovative issue of helping moderate Muslims grow and prosper. They start with the argument that "structural reasons play a large part" in the rise of radical and dogmatic interpretations of Islam in recent years - one of those reasons being the Saudi government's generous funding over the last three decades for the export of the Wahhabi version of Islam. Saudi efforts have promoted "the growth of religious extremism throughout the Muslim world," permitting the Islamists to develop powerful intellectual, political and other networks. "This asymmetry in organization and resources explains why radicals, a small minority in almost all Muslim countries, have influence disproportionate to their numbers." The study posits a key role for Western countries here: "Moderates will not be able to successfully challenge radicals until the playing field is leveled, which the West can help accomplish by promoting the creation of moderate Muslim networks." DOES THIS sound familiar? It resembles the late 1940s, when Soviet-backed organizations threatened Europe. The four authors provide a helpful potted history of American network-building in the early Cold War years, in part to show that such an effort can succeed against a totalitarian enemy, in part to glean ideas for use at present. (One example: "a left hook to the Kremlin is the best blow," implying that Muslims can most effectively batter Islamism.) Reviewing American efforts to fight Islamism, the authors find these lacking, at least with regard to strengthening moderates. Washington, they find, "does not have a consistent view on who the moderates are, where the opportunities for building networks among them lie, and how best to build the networks." They are only too right. The US government has a disastrously poor record in this regard, with an embarrassing history of twin delusions: either thinking Islamists are moderates, or hoping to win them over. Such government figures as FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, State Department undersecretary Karen Hughes, and National Endowment for Democracy head Carl Gershman wrong-headedly insist on consorting with the enemy. Instead, the RAND study promotes four partners: secularists, liberal Muslims, moderate traditionalists, and some Sufis. It particularly emphasizes the "emerging transnational network of laicist and secularist individuals, groups, and movements," and correctly urges cooperation with these neglected friends. In contrast, the study proposes de-emphasizing the Middle East, and particularly the Arab world. Because this area "offers less fertile ground for moderate network and institution building than other regions of the Muslim world," it wants Western governments to focus on Muslims in Southeast Asia, the Balkans and in the Western diaspora, and to help make available their ideas in Arabic. This novel stratagem defies a centuries'-old pattern of influence emanating from the Middle East, but it is well worth a try. EVEN THE generally hard-headed RAND study sometimes lets down its guard. Dismayingly, the quartet refrains from condemning Washington for dialoguing with lawful Islamists even as it cautiously endorses European governments treating some Islamists as partners. It mistakenly characterizes the US-based "Progressive Muslim Union" as promoting secular Islam, when it is really another Islamist organization, but with a hip tone. (No other Islamists dared host a feature called "Sex and the Umma.") Building Moderate Muslim Networks is not the final word on its subject but it marks a major step toward the systematic reconfiguring of how to implement Washington's policy to combat Islamism. The study's meaty contents, clear analysis and bold recommendations usefully move the debate forward, offering precisely the in-depth strategizing Westerners urgently need. The writer, director of the Middle East Forum, resumes his weekly Post column after teaching on 'Islam and Politics' at Pepperdine University the past semester.