An interesting piece in ‘Foreign Affairs’ journal. The writer argues that the US government should not be looking to cultivate ‘moderate Muslims’. The reason is that no one—including Muslims—knows what a ‘moderate Muslim’ is. Some are moderate on some issues, while actively extreme on others. Does the USG engage them or not? Of course, US political pressures and pressure groups will be quick to leap at any support given to Muslim groups or individuals whose views do not align with their own. US politicians usually try to avoid walking into hot fire zones.

The Myth of Moderate Islam
Supporting moderation in all things Islamic may seem like a no-brainer, but woe betide the policymaker who tries to turn a plausible idea into a workable strategy
Steven A. Cook

Of all the cures commonly proposed for the many ailments afflicting the Middle East, there is one tonic nearly everyone seems to agree on: boosting moderate Islam.

It sounds eminently reasonable. If Islamic extremism is the problem, moderate Islam must be the solution. It follows that Western governments should therefore find ways to make the moderates more powerful and encourage the extremists to become more moderate. Allow Islamists to compete and accumulate power, the argument goes, and they will have little incentive to radicalize. Furthermore, assuming the mundane tasks of day-to-day governance will compel even the most extreme groups to focus more on filling potholes than on destroying the Great Satan.

But this belief is dead wrong. Not only is it impossible to agree on a working definition of the word “moderate,” but there is scant evidence that extremists really do moderate once they assume power….

The summation of the piece is excellent and explains why the US, a secular state, should not be trying to involve itself in dialogues that need to be resolved within a religion:

… Given the wildly different criteria for what constitutes “a moderate,” policymakers will run in circles trying to determine who is a moderate and worthy of support, and who is not. One person’s moderate is another person’s radical, and another person’s moderate is little more than a patsy of the West. A policy built on support for moderate Islam is only asking for trouble.

A smarter position is to avoid theological discussions altogether. As with all faiths, there will be heated debates between competing groups within Islam over the proper interpretation of sacred texts and the relationship between religion and politics. Yet because these arguments are so opaque to outsiders, policymakers should resist the urge to jump in. Given that moderation is in the eye of the beholder, Washington should not have an ideological litmus test for whom it wishes to engage. Rather, policymakers should focus on identifying those who can contribute pragmatic solutions to the many problems we confront in the region, “moderate” or not.

June:19:2008 - 10:19 | Comments & Trackbacks (17) | Permalink
17 Responses to “US Foreign Policy and ‘Moderate Islam’”
  1. 1
    AbuSinan Said:
    June:19:2008 - 12:21 

    Besides, the assumption is that “moderate Muslims” would somehow be more pro-US or support US foreign policy. Condemnation of US policy is probably the ONE thing that “moderate” and extremist Muslim agree on.

    Also, any support from the US would instantly taint any activist and make them suspect.

  2. 2
    swedish Said:
    June:19:2008 - 14:45 

    I am writing from Turkey,and I must say, Muslims, in general, do not liked to be labled. Recently in Ankara, one of the political leaders was not very pleased when Pres. George Bush called Turkey a moderate muslim country.
    I have been around Muslims for most of life, and like any of the monolithic religions, one can be very conservative on one issue and liberal on the other. It is rather a subjective matter, what constitutes a “moderate muslim”. Personally, I think the US media should focus on areas such as Turkey, where it is very secular or UAE, where it is very free.
    Certainly, giving more positive attention towards the moderates will most likely bring more solidarity between the EAST and WEST.
    ( Again, we have to examine what constistutes a moderate, though)

  3. 3
    Anonymous(2) Said:
    June:19:2008 - 16:43 

    In my view, these are the general differences between a moderates and extremists:

    Moderates–Do not advocate military aggression unless it is used in self-defense, stongly discourage suicide missions especially against civilians, and tolerate other religions.

    Extremists–Advacate violence against civilians, encourage suicide missions, and want everyone converted to Islam.

  4. 4
    John Burgess Said:
    June:19:2008 - 17:26 

    I think those are good minimal requirements for being defined a ‘moderate’. I’d add ‘respect the human rights of all people’ and ‘tolerate differences, not only of religion, but of thoughts as well’.

  5. 5
    ratherdashing Said:
    June:20:2008 - 00:16 

    I draw the line at the treatment of the apostate of Islam. If you allow the apostate to live without punishment, then I say you’re a moderate. Kill the apostate and I say you are not.

    I’m kind of simplistic like that.

  6. 6
    John Burgess Said:
    June:20:2008 - 00:38 

    That’s not a bad line to draw, but I think it needs to be drawn much further in the direction of tolerance.

  7. 7
    Solomon2 Said:
    June:20:2008 - 13:00 

    A smarter position is to avoid theological discussions altogether…because these arguments are so opaque to outsiders, policymakers should resist the urge to jump in.

    I find this article somewhat offensive because it looks like a recipe for the not-so-competent to retain their jobs. This column could have been written a decade ago to describe then-current policy. Terror events up to and including 9-11 strongly suggest that this approach is a failure.

    There is another approach that the author didn’t mention, one that doesn’t contradict his argument, but supplants it. Maybe we can develop new policymakers, ones smart enough to engage in theological discussions because they aren’t ignorant of “opaque arguments”.

    Although these matters are commonly deleted from high school texts, developments in religion and theology were at the root of the American Revolution that liberated this country from tyranny. Why should American policymakers be allowed to ignore that?

  8. 8
    AbuSinan Said:
    June:20:2008 - 14:04 


    If you think Muslims are going to listen to AMERICAN policymakers on the finer points of their religion you are deluded.

    Americans cannot help this process, in regards to the religion, they can only hurt it.

    ANY intervention by American policy makers and leaders into Islamic matters will not be looked at kindly by 99.99% of Muslims.

    That is a FACT you must accept. Any theological questions that Americans attempt to impose or have any say on will be soundly rebuffed. It is a waste of time.

    What we could do, however, is come up with policy advisors that will craft American policy in the Muslim world with THEIR best interests in mind, as well as ours.

  9. 9
    John Burgess Said:
    June:20:2008 - 14:40 

    No, I disagree. The US, as a secular state, and especially the USG which is formally separated from religion, cannot play a role in religious dialogue. Not only is it unsuited to such a task, not only is it forbidden by the Constitution from undertaking such a task, it is political death to do so.

    Argue for one religion, one form of one religion, over any other and the constitutional barrier is breached. The USG does not need theologians. It need citizens who can speak for their own religions, including Islam.

    It needs to try and open doors toward tolerance of all kinds, including religious tolerance, but if it starts and ends with religion, it cannot but fail.

  10. 10
    AbuSinan Said:
    June:20:2008 - 15:13 

    You are right John. And those Muslims from the US who speak must do so without any attachment or link to the US government, or for that matter, right wing/pro Israeli groups.

    To a certain extent Muslims from the USA are so “tainted” that they will never be able to play a real role in the Muslim world.

  11. 11
    Solomon2 Said:
    June:20:2008 - 15:36 

    If you think Muslims are going to listen to AMERICAN policymakers on the finer points of their religion you are deluded

    Oh, they listen, but only rarely do they admit to this publicly. And if you think I’m deluded, that’s fine!

    Any theological questions that Americans attempt to impose or have any say on will be soundly rebuffed. It is a waste of time.

    Not in my experience. It does indeed take a large amount of time. It is too soon to say if it is a waste.

    the USG which is formally separated from religion, cannot play a role in religious dialogue.

    I do not read the First Amendment as being any kind of barrier, but Article 6 of the Constitution does strictly forbid religious tests of government officials. That makes selection and training difficult, but does not actually forbid government employees from engaging in religious dialogue, nor does it set any kind of limit on elected politicians.

    it is political death to do so

    Every revolutionary idea was once held by a tiny minority of society.

    The USG does not need theologians. It need citizens who can speak for their own religions, including Islam.

    That is another approach. It might be a good idea to send selections of U.S. citizens – imams, priests, rabbis, deacons – around the world to do so. However, it looks like Article 6 forbids the USG from doing this, too. Maybe a private foundation could help?

  12. 12
    Solomon2 Said:
    June:20:2008 - 16:09 

    To a certain extent Muslims from the USA are so “tainted” -

    What is this “taint”, exactly, and why is it so important as to rob American or pro-Israeli Muslims of their dignity in the eyes of their co-religionists?

  13. 13
    John Burgess Said:
    June:20:2008 - 18:06 

    No, the USG can identify and send followers of particular religions to events if there is no way around it. It’s the same as sending women to a women’s conference. It’s tricky, but it can be and has been done.

    The use of NGOs is definitely an option. Groups like the Endowment for Democracy or the Democratic or Republican Parties can do it either directly or through the various groups they control. The AFL-CIO already does this kind of work in a purely secular manner, but it can adjust, as I’m sure it does when it sends delegations to Israel, for example. Whether this is good or bad, is done correctly or incorrectly is always open to political second-guessing, of course.

  14. 14
    Solomon2 Said:
    June:20:2008 - 20:07 

    John, I’m talking about selecting people for a specified mission based on desired religious views, not just affiliation. Isn’t that the kind of “litmus test” that Article 6 forbids?

  15. 15
    John Burgess Said:
    June:20:2008 - 20:36 

    There are ways to ensure that you get a speaker who will be in line with what you want. It takes skill and discrimination to do it right. Do it wrong and it’s ham-handed and offensive to both other members of the target group abroad and members of the organization in the US. It’s handled through the RPF, where you spell out what you’re trying to accomplish with the program.

    But again I say that the USG is not best suited for doing this. Other organizations can do it far better and likely more cheaply. They might also have much higher credibility, as Abu Sinan points out. For some audiences, any suggestion that it’s coming from the government will kill it before it’s born.

  16. 16
    AbuSinan Said:
    June:21:2008 - 00:46 


    You clearly live in another world than the one I live in. You can sit outside the Muslim community and try to tell me what Muslims think, what they will accept and what they do, but clearly considering I have traveled to more than a dozen Muslim countries and have lived in the Muslim community for a decade and happen to be a Muslim; I can honestly tell you that your above observations have little grounding in fact.

    I suggest you stop reading Robert Spencer, Little Green FOotballs and Daniel Pipes. Spend some time around Muslims, travel to Muslim countries and spend some time there and you’ll see your current opinions for the rubbish that they are.

    Sounds like some sort of Fantasy Island type dream. The problem is some of our current government thinks the same way and that is why they have made a hash out of everything they have done with the Muslim world.

  17. 17
    Solomon2 Said:
    June:21:2008 - 22:34 

    You can sit outside the Muslim community and try to tell me what Muslims think -

    Nothing so broad. I am not confusing my little world of experiences with Jews and Muslims with the big world you are speaking of. But I do get the strong impression – from both on-line and in-person discussions – that Muslims feel they are “stuck” and may require some sort of kick before they can make an important intellectual advance, whatever that may be. Do you disagree?

    I think one of the saddest legacies of the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries has been the drop in intellectual exchange that enriched both parties. Do you really that could change if someone like me followed your prescription and traveled to Arab lands to sort out the rubbish (mine & theirs) from the gems? You do seem to believe it is a “Fantasy Island-type dream”. Are you scoffing, or is that a vision of hope?

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