The Magazine

Selling Out Moderate Islam

Washington's misbegotten campaign to be loved in the Middle East.

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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For better or worse, expatriate and foreign-educated Middle Easterners have helped to shape decisively the secular and religious cultures that have dominated their homelands since World War II. Many of the best and brightest of the Middle East now live abroad. Many have sought greater freedom of expression and personal liberty in the West. Is it Presidents Clinton and Chirac's desire that Muslim satirists never develop because their work would be insensitive to less irreverent Muslims? In its heyday, Islamic civilization contained many heterodox and heretical strains. In particular, Shiism, always a vehicle for minority protest, was rich in movements and cultural experimentation that sometimes electrified and horrified the Sunni Muslim world.

It is possible that Muslims living outside the Middle East will have a substantial role to play in revivifying Islamic civilization--in shedding some light on the convulsive path that one may still hope will lead from dysfunctional dictatorship through bin Ladenism to more peacefully self-critical, democratic societies. If Westerners appease Muslims who countenance violent intimidation, we are doing a terrible injustice to the liberal and progressive Muslims among us, who really would like to live in lands where people can say about the Prophet Muhammad what they have said about Jesus, Mary, and Moses. Among the Muslims of the United States and Europe, if not in the Middle East, there are many who have Western cultural sentiments and wit. The irreverent, religiously skeptical Western elite has Muslim members and Middle Eastern counterparts of equal intelligence and similar tastes. Islamic civilization may yet produce its Edward Gibbon, a sincere religious voyager who ends up scrutinizing the foundations of his civilization with a skeptical, cynical, and, at times, profoundly unfair irreligious eye. It would appear that if President Clinton had his way, a Muslim Gibbon would not be welcome in the United States.

The fate of European Muslims is now openly in play. The militant Muslims of Europe who do not want their brethren to embrace the continent's liberal, thoroughly secular culture helped fuel this controversy by emailing and faxing the offending cartoons to their spiritual allies in the Middle East. Most European Muslims, like their non-Muslim compatriots, didn't notice and probably would not have cared about these caricatures, if it had not been for the activist imams in their midst.

AS IMPORTANT, the governments of the region also took sides. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted, somewhat tardily, the Syrian and Iranian regimes are trying to exploit this event for all that it's worth. Damascus and Tehran, more closely allied than ever before, are under pressure from the West for their terrorist and nuclear ambitions, respectively. Both have responded by inciting demonstrations in Lebanon and Syria. It is a bizarre spectacle to observe the heretical Shiite-Alawite Baathist regime in Damascus--which has in the past been on the cutting edge of anti-Islamic pan-Arab nationalist propaganda and slaughtering thousands in the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood--now defend the Prophet Muhammad from Danish despoliation.

Tehran has probably also been behind the demonstrations in Iraq. And the government-controlled media throughout the region, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have not been helpful. As the French scholar Olivier Roy acutely noted in Le Monde, Europe is now in the cross hairs of many Middle Eastern governments for its more activist role in the region since the invasion of Iraq. The French, British, and Germans have taken the lead in trying to thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions. France has sided with the United States against Syria in Lebanon. Most of Europe under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is now in Afghanistan, increasingly in combat roles against Taliban insurgents and the holy warriors of al Qaeda. And however timidly, Europe has joined the United States in calling for more open political systems in the Muslim Middle East. Democracy is an ugly word to most of the region's rulers. With official encouragement, anti-Europeanism is bound to rise throughout the area. Muslim autocrats, in conjunction with European and Middle Eastern Muslim militants, are likely to interfere increasingly in Europe's internal affairs to create fear and a more hesitant European community.