Democracy Arsenal

« Lebanon and the Future of the UN | Main | No Marines to Send »

August 22, 2006

The War Within Islam and How We Can Help Fight It
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I attended a rather interesting sermon (or khutba) this past Friday at George Washington. It was a refreshing change of pace from the oratory, at once dicactic and incoherent, of Friday sermons in Egypt and other Arab countries (I just got back from Cairo last week).

At the end of the khutba, the imam will ask God for a variety of things and the congregation is expected to respond “amen” to each supplication or dua. In Egypt, I would have to listen closely so as to avoid saying “amen” to the anti-American, anti-semitic dua that are pretty much par for the course even in those countries that are supposedly at “peace” with Israel and have close relations with the US.

In any case, the prayer leader at GW on Friday was making a distinction between “human nature” and “Islamic nature.” Human nature, he said, is when you are nice to those who are nice to you. His argument was that “Islamic nature” – whatever that might be – is a cut above and takes things even further, that Muslims are supposed to respond with kindness, understanding, and tolerance even to those who mistreat them. He used examples of the Prophet Muhammad’s dealings with the Meccans (who tried to kill him and his companions) to illustrate the point.

I told a friend about this and she said it sounded a bit “Christian.” Maybe. Whatever it sounded like, it sounded good. This is the kind of message that European governments need to promote within ghettoized Muslim communities that find themselves increasingly isolated and alienated, particularly in Britain, France, and the Netherlands. As I argued last year in the Christian Science Monitor after the July 7th London attacks, we must tell young European Muslims that whatever grievances you might have, the answer is not radicalism, but rather peaceful participation in the democratic process and engagement – instead of withdrawal – from mainstream European society. Not only is this the sensible approach, but it is the Islamic approach, one that the Prophet Muhammad himself would have advocated if he was alive today.

Within the Islamic tradition (like any other tradition), one can find that which supports violence and intolerance and that which repudiates it. In today’s war of ideas, we must take the peaceful precedents in Islamic history and amplify and communicate them to a larger audience. This is something Muslims themselves in Europe and the Middle East can and must do more of. The political context, however, is not conducive to such moderation and this is where US policy can either help or hinder the situation. Unfortunately, today, with the ensuing mess in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s disturbing rise in popularity, Muslim liberals and progressives will find it more difficult to promote a moderate message.

As for the “new Middle East,” where Nasrallah is just about the most popular figure since Gamal Abdel Nasser (or maybe even Saladin), saying anything remotely pro-American or speaking out against anti-Semitism, suicide bombing, and other such despicable things is one of many ways to commit political suicide. On the other hand, if you want to ingratiate yourself with the masses, you have to resort to Manichean posturing, so that’s what Islamist groups are lately doing more of (and expanding their share of the electorate as a result).

In short, America and other Western countries must find ways to promote “moderate Islam,” or, failing that, “relatively moderate Islam.” The increasingly polarized political environment makes such an effort extremely challenging. After all, Muslims were asked to make clear whether they were “with us or against us.” Well, I don’t think its any secret which “side” they’ve chosen. The Bush administration should understand this counterproductive dynamic since its top NSC Middle East official – Michael Doran – wrote about it in one of the most compelling articles that came out post-9/11. With or without Doran, however, it has become abundantly clear that the Bush administration has absolutely no idea how to fight the war of ideas, a war whose outcome will determine whether the war on terrorism will be won or lost. As it stands now, we are losing pretty badly.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The War Within Islam and How We Can Help Fight It:


Well yes we must "promote moderate Islam" but you fail to address how we would achieve as much in the Middle East.

Yes it is well and good to solve potential terrorist problems in Europe, but how do we do that in the Middle East. How do we combat the fact Islam is hijacked in the Mid East? How do we try and change people who are so convinced God is on their side that they are willing to kill themselves.

I am afraid that promoting moderate Islam will help us in the long run more than armed conflict, but how would that prevent attacks in the near future?

I think that we should promote life over death. Nasrallah promotes death and there is no way to build a decent civilization when you encourage your best and brightest to die. Saniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, however, promotes life. He cried when he talked of the devastation.

Nasrallah represents terrorism, and Saniora represents a positive civilization. We must point out this huge difference.

Paul, how exactly would you suggest we "promote life over death"? Sounds a bit vague. In any case, Siniora's government includes two Hezbollah ministers and Siniora himself has largely avoided criticizing Hezbollah and actually praised the group while the conflict with Israel was still going on.

The problem is this: we, as Americans, have our own narrative. As I have tried to demonstrate in previous posts, Arabs do not share our narrative. They saw (and continue to see) the conflict from their own particular historical/political prism. This, obviously, makes promoting our point of view and ideas much more difficult. It is not a simple matter. It requires a greater degree of flexibility and dexterity on the part of both America's PR people and its policymakers.

Are you saying the West must promote Islam in order not to lose the war on terror?
Is this a threat?

Why don't you and the other 'moderate' muslims speak out to your Islamic-fascists counterparts?
If you can get thousands of muslims to rally against 'indignities' done to you by the evil West, it shouldn't be so hard to get a couple of hundreds of muslims to demonstrate against the murderers within you, shouldn't it?

Why should the West *have* to do anything?
YOU are the ones that started murdering non-muslims as early as the nineteen sixties.

YOU are the ones killing people all over the world. Notably: 9/11, Madrid, London, the aftermath of the Danish cartoon war and our own Theo van Gogh.

YOU do something.


"It requires a greater degree of flexibility and dexterity on the part of both America's PR people and its policymakers."

I don't think you mean to imply that the problem is primarily one of public relations or tactical dexterity. But to go beyond these things we need to determine whether there is common ground.

The key to that I think is to find out if there might be ways in which our world and the Islamic world (to the extent that they are separate) can sacrifice in the same way for some common good.

This is the kind of message that European governments need to promote within ghettoized Muslim communities that find themselves increasingly isolated and alienated, particularly in Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
In short, America and other Western countries must find ways to promote “moderate Islam,” or, failing that, “relatively moderate Islam."

Could you be more specific Shadi? What exactly can a Western country or government do to promote any specific version of Islam? How much influence over the doctrinal course of Islamic history can Western governments be reasonably expected to have? And how are they to exert this influence?

And should we in the West really be eager so to get our governments into the religion business? It is one thing for a government to make laws, or establish other incentives and sanctions, to influence people's behavior. It is another for that government to reach into people's hearts and minds to squeeze and massage them into the condition that government may prefer.

I can't see that it is any of our business to tell Muslims how to be Muslims. Our interest is to strengthen a sense of common humanity that at least in some respects takes precedence over religious identities.

A good companion piece to this post would be The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism by Abdulaziz Sachedina.

I can't speak for the governments of Europe, but it should not be the US government's job (or in its power) to push a movement a movement within Islam, or within Christianity or Judaism for that matter. Such interference would only serve to undermine the credibility of religious reformers within their communities. What the US can do however is to stop Saudi Arabia from funding mosques and schools within the US. The Saudi government places (or placed before 9-11) many brochures in American mosques on how newly immigrated Muslims should react and act in their adopted home. Some of the brochures focused on trivialities such as why it is wrong to wish "Merry Christmas" to Christians while others went so far as to suggest it is sinful to live in the same apartment buildings as non-muslims. Freedom House published a complete report on the material around June 2005. The US government should also try and disuade well meaning groups like the ACLU from placing brochures in mosques and in cafes frequented mainly by Arabs on how not to cooperate with the police. Before anyone gets furious over this ACLU point, the brochures that place misinformed many immigrants of the realities of talking to the police and served to incite hostility towards and mistrust of US authorities in urban muslim communities just following 9-11. DOJ published a report on this in 2003 and should be available on the DOJ website in the Ashcroft record section.

According to the Constitution, the government can not promote one religion over another and this can be expanded to be understood that the government can not promote one faction of a religion over another faction within a religion. However, the government can and should legally block funding destined for American entities (Churches, Mosques, Synagogues) from foreign entities whose activities are deemed hostile to the American way of life. Someone please cancel the cheques from Saudi Arabia and put an end to the spread of Hanbali-Wahibi-Saudi hate.

Where's Shadi Hamid?
Could he answer some of the questions?

I concur to the highest level. Muslim fundamentalism has gone too far.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use