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Posted by on Nov 19, 2007 in At TMV | 5 comments

Winning the War of Ideas: How Can We Best Support Liberal Islam?

Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute:

Rather than expend effort on winning Muslim friendship for America, our engagement with Muslim publics — what we call “public diplomacy” — should focus on identifying, nurturing and supporting anti-Islamist Muslims, from secular liberals to pious believers, who fear the encroachment of radical Islamists and are willing to make a stand. This strategy would involve overt and covert ways to assist anti-Islamist political parties, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, media outlets, women’s groups, educational institutions and youth movements as they compete with the radicals. It calls for marshaling government resources — our embassies, aid bureaucracies, international broadcasting units and intelligence agencies, as well as our commercial, educational and civic relationships — to give anti-Islamists the moral, political, financial, technological and material support they need.

Satloff’s article, which appeared in The Washington Post recently, is part of a large and growing literature that calls for the United States to directly support liberal Muslims against their radical counterparts. The RAND Corporation, for example, published a very long and interesting report on this same subject arguing that “the creation of moderate Muslim networks would provide moderates with a platform to amplify their message, as well as some protection from extremists.” Sounds good, right? The devil, unfortunately, is in the details.

There are a couple of problems with the popular discourse about supporting liberal Islam. First, although strengthening moderate elements within the Islamic world sounds good on paper, it becomes messy when we have to actually identify those pockets of moderation. This is easier said than done, since few Muslim networks fit the Western image of “enlightened” Islam. Many groups may support some progressive principles, but few fully fit the label of what Western governments would feel comfortably calling a moderate organization. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, supports democracy but is also hostile to Israel. Are they moderates that we’d be comfortable supporting?

Or take the large population of secular Turks. Although Muslim, secular Turks have fought hard to ensure that their state does not become a religious one, often going as far as to to back undemocratic coups by the military (1961, 1970, 1980, 1997) in order to maintain the nation’s “secular nature.” Given that their commitment to democracy is shaky at best, are they moderates? The point should be clear: it’s hard to define and identify “moderate Muslims,” few are likely to fit the Western ideal of what we would like to see Islam evolve into, and backing one or another of these groups would often result in indirect support for a range of principles with which we wouldn’t agree.

The second problem (assuming, for a moment, that we are actually able to identify moderate Muslim networks) is how we can directly support these groups without discrediting them. Given America’s standing internationally, any public support or financial assistance is more likely to undermine such movements than strengthen them. Consider the resistance of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to seriously engage with the United States, or the way in which Iranian pro-democracy activists have shunned the $15 million in American aid that had been allocated for their use. Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most well-known dissident, explained this conundrum recently in a Washington Post article:

Over the past two centuries, many Iranian politicians were paid or influenced by foreign powers. As a result, most Iranian intellectuals and democratic forces are deeply critical of external support. Iranians are viewed as discredited when they receive money from foreign governments. The Bush administration may be striving to help Iranian democrats, but any Iranian who seeks American dollars will not be recognized as a democrat by his or her fellow citizens.


There is no question that Islamic extremism is best fought by the rise and spread of moderate Islam. But can we play a role in this struggle? Definitely, although perhaps not with the direct financial or other material support that some analysts are arguing for. Rather than trying to identify moderate groups that are acceptable to Western standards, and then trying to funnel them money or resources, a better strategy would involve a more indirect approach.

Political reform promotion, the fostering of independent media outlets, and aid to civil society would be the centerpieces of such a strategy. These measure would grant liberal Muslims a greater voice in the public sphere, while avoiding any of the messy difficulties of direct American aid.

  • Democracy Promotion: Political reform promotion and a greater American emphasis on democratization would have the effect of institutionalizing norms of tolerance, inclusion, and pluralism. Furthermore, by providing an outlet for Muslims to express their grievances in a peaceful way, many will be less inclined towards adopting violence or radicalism. (See Shadi Hamid’s TAP article for more on this subject.)

  • Aiding Independent Media: By pushing authoritarian governments to reduce media restrictions, it would pave the way for a greater multitude of viewpoints to enter into the public discourse. In a similar way that al-Jazeera – with its controversial shows and discussion of taboo topics – has changed the way that Muslims think about their societies and their religion, encouraging a proliferation of independent media outlets could prove a highly effective way of spreading liberal norms. As RAND explains, supporting “moderate media is critical to combating media domination by anti-democratic and conservative Muslim elements.”

  • Building Civil Society: Bolstering civil society in Islamic nations is also key to spreading liberal values and providing space for moderate voices. The RAND report explains the need for civil society development in the following way: “The development of civil society and [moderate Islamic] network building are integrally linked: both mutually reinforcing and mutually dependent. In theory, as civil society emerges, moderate networks follow, and vice versa.”

Contrary to what Satloff and other analysts have argued for, an indirect approach would be the best way that we can support the rise of moderate Islam in the Muslim world. By not working directly with these moderate Muslim networks, we would avoid discrediting them and sidestep the difficulty of identifying ideologically similar allies. Instead, by working on the sidelines to promote democratization, independent media, and civil society, we will be most effective in laying the groundwork for the emergence of more tolerant and liberal voices within the Islamic world.

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • domajot

    I also think that direct air or support could be the kiss of death to moderate Muslim groups.
    The indirects route, as the post outlines, is more difficult, more long term and frought with its own dangers. Free expression covers free expression by jihadi propogandists, as well.

    I’ve often thought, although I don’t know how this could be accompliehed, that giving Muslims more access to secular education would be a powerful moderating force.

  • Rudi

    DJ – Since 9-11 we in the US are blocking students and harassing tourists in Boston. The immigration debate, a Republican focus, won’t help the situation either. When radicals in Bangladesh, Lebanon and Gaza put put hospitals and housing, our work is going to be more difficult. The GWOTGWOSM(Dan Pipes) also makes it worse.

  • domajot

    In view of the Banladesh cyclone, It occurs to me that disaster relief would be an excellent idea, whenever and wherever it occurs.
    The aftermath of the tsunami effort was very positive.
    The US health care effort re AIDS and other diseases is having a positive effect in Africa.

    Once the population is given an opportunity to see that we do more than just bomb and wage wars, they mey stop seening the US as the devil. That dimishes the arguments of the extremists.
    Eventually, they might begin to question what the extremists have to offer other than a place in paradise.

  • Montedoro

    We might be able to support Moderate Moslems, but there is no way that we can support “moderate Islam” — because there is only one Islam, based on the Koran and the Sunnah, and that Islam is NOT moderate. “Moderate Moslems”, even if they can be defined and identified (which is a very subjective exercise), cannot reform Islamic theology. As long as the basic premise of Islam is that the Koran is the literal word of Allah — complete, perfect, immutable and valid for all of eternity — there is no way to reform it. In fact, even the thought of reform is a logical absurdity: how can you reform something that is already considered complete and perfect?
    True moderate Moslems are trapped in a great, insoluble dilemma: On the one hand, they very much want Islam to be compatible with modern values as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the other hand, there is no way to square those UDHR values with Islam as defined by the Koran and the Hadith. That is why ALL Moslem-majority countries have rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and created their own Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam which makes all rights dependent on the sharia. All we can expect from truly “moderate Moslems” is that they go about their civilized lives in silent disobedience to the dictates of the Koran and the Hadith.

  • domajot


    You are presuming to define what Islam is – something only Muslims can rightfully to.

    Islam, at any given moment, is defined by how the Koran is interpreted and how its teachings are put intp practise- exactly like Christianity is defined by how the Bible is interpreted and its teachings put into practise

    Neither religion, nor any of its subgroups, has been static over the centuries. They evolve and change and go through phases. Both religions depend on the cultural societal beliefs of its members, and especially its leaders, for interpretation and application.

    Because of this, Chritianliy has evelved dramatically over time, while many within it are still at loggerheads over interpretation and application. This was so even as the books of the New Testament were being written. First Christianity was for Jews, then it embraced converts, and then it made converts superior to Jews, all as the milieux the practical necessities of the day and cultural contexts changed.

    The same is true for Islam. Its history is replete with phases and divisiona. When someone pretends to define Islam, the necessary follow-up question is: which Islam?

    To denomstrate the disconnect that can exist between the written word in a sacred text and the practice of a religion. it is only necessary to read Jesus’s words ‘turn the other cheek’ and then listen when Christian nations poclaim theri allegience to God as they set off to smite the enemy in war after war after war after war.

    If Christians can cherry pick among different verses in the Bible to justify their current actions as being particulary ‘Christian’, then the same privilege should apply to Muslims. They, in like manner, can cherry pick among the sections of the Koran that they need. When they do, they define the Islam that is true for them, while others pick different quotations and arrive at a different Islam.

    Therefore, I not only disagree wtih your conclusionas, I disagree with the rationale leading to those conclusions.


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