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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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