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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And the controversy over the Danish cartoons could conceivably betray the most important, though least remembered, player in this controversy: the average Muslim in the Middle East. Far more than most Middle Eastern Muslims and politically correct Western scholars of the region and Islam would like to admit, Western standards for individual liberty, curiosity, personal integrity, scholarship, and the political relations among men have become the defining benchmarks for Muslims everywhere, however resented or admired. If our standards collapse and give way to fear, theirs in the long-term have no chance whatsoever. The psychology of victimization--surely one of the worst gifts the Western anti-imperialist left has given the Muslim world--can only be made worse by Westerners who treat Muslims like children unable to compete and to defend their religion.

In the Middle Ages, Christian theologians said vastly worse things about the Prophet Muhammad than the Danish cartoons implied. Back then, Muslims cognizant of what the Christians were writing usually took it in stride, not too perturbed by the ruminations and calumnies of a superseded faith. Non-Muslims living beyond the writ of Islamic law were not expected to respect a prophet not their own. That is, after all, what it means to be benighted infidels.

To be healthy, Muslim pride and political systems need to be based on real accomplishments, where the average believer can feel that he is participating in a larger, productive enterprise. (In the classical and medieval Islamic eras, when Muslim armies usually defeated their non-Muslim enemies, manifestly fulfilling the divine promise that Muslims were God's chosen people, maintaining both collective and individual pride was much easier.) Western indulgence of supposed Muslim outrage over these cartoon insults to the prophet is pretty demeaning. It can only fortify the destructive, self-pitying impulses that all too often paralyze Muslim conversations and thought. (One of the more bizarre facts of the modern Middle East is to see the ruling Muslim elites of these countries--men and women of considerable influence and privilege--bemoan their powerlessness owing to the hidden, omnipresent, all-powerful machinations of the West, in particular, the United States.)

LURKING BEHIND much of the American response to the Danish cartoons is a difficult, probably impossible, and certainly unnecessary short-term foreign-policy goal: improving the image of the United States among Muslims. There is perhaps nothing more debilitating for the Bush administration than to believe that anti-anti-Americanism ought to be a key component in our overseas policy. Anti-Americanism in and of itself is not a catalyst for Islamic terrorism. There are many other, vastly more important things, both historical and personal, at work inside young Muslim men (and occasionally women) who decide to kill themselves and others to express their love of God and their hatred of the United States. Muslims who loathe these holy-war killers and want to see them extirpated from their societies can often themselves dislike, if not hate, the United States for a wide variety of reasons, some legitimate, some fictitious, some surreal. On the traditional side, Muhammad Sayyid at-Tantawi, the head of al-Azhar, Cairo's famous seat of Sunni Islamic learning, and Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, would probably fall in this category. So would the European Muslim "modernist" Tariq Ramadan and many members of the Arabic Al Jazeera television network, who can marry a real hatred for bin Laden with an exuberant loathing of the United States. Iraq is chock-full of devoutly religious Shiite and Sunni Muslims who abhor suicide bombers and religious radicals in their midst yet harbor--have probably always harbored--distinctly unfriendly attitudes toward the United States.

A greater liking for the United States would not enhance the counterterrorist credentials of any of the above. In all probability, more pro-American commentary by these men would do just the opposite. The spreading of democracy in the Arab Middle East will naturally increase, not diminish, anti-Americanism. The only exceptions to this rule may be Iraq and Syria.

Syria is the least certain, since the Syrian wing of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood would probably do very well in any free election there. And the Brotherhood--unlike Iraq's Shiite religious parties, which have seen an American-led war against a barbarous tyrant and the enormous rise in pro-American sentiment in Shiite Iran--is consistently and deeply anti-American, as is the Brotherhood mothership in Egypt. We should not, however, be alarmed by this phenomenon. There is just too much historical baggage for the United States to overcome it quickly or easily.

Before the Bush administration, Washington usually gave unquestioning support to dictatorships in the region. And there is the little fact, always near the surface in the Muslim world but often ignored or forgotten in the United States, of nearly 1,400 years of always-competitive, often intimately antagonistic and violent, history between Christendom and Islam. There is Israel, which even the most liberal and moderate Muslims often acutely dislike. (The Jewish state is, after all, an existential insult to both Arab nationalism and Islamic pride, even for Arab Muslims who view Arab nationalism as a cultural catastrophe and view the faith as irrelevant to their lives.) And there is the very tricky issue of women, which often animates progressive, traditional, and fundamentalist conversations.

America is seen by all as a force supporting change in the dynamics between Muslim men and women. Touching the well-ordered, paternalistic home, which Muslim men, poor or rich, have always seen as a bedrock of their identity, is unavoidably convulsive. There is no way to gauge how many recruits fundamentalists have made on the women's issue since the Muslim Brotherhood formed in 1928. It's a decent bet that it has been a more intimate and effective message than the fraternal appeals after 1948 to eject the Jews from Israel.

American foreign policy has long been in the odd position of trying to assuage Muslim anger at Israel by advancing the peace process even though a sober analysis should have told Washington's diplomats that the fundamentalist set--the young men who are most susceptible to making the leap to suicidal holy war--did not see this process as progress. (The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections has perhaps made evident what should have been obvious for years. But the sclerotic peace-process establishment in Washington, second in influence only to the transatlanticists, may not see what Hamas has tried to write as pellucidly as possible.)

And Washington has consistently advanced, especially in the Bush administration after 9/11, the women's agenda throughout the region, another sure-fire way of angering the young men who are most likely to transmute into jihadists. American foreign policy should never be tailored to appease the anger of Muslim men--though, if we are to be honest, this is in part what we've been trying to do in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation and in much of our Muslim-oriented public-diplomacy.

What is striking is that Washington has been doing the opposite of what it intends and doesn't know it. Americans have acted, at least on the issues of Israel and women's rights, as if the Muslim world had a liberal silent majority waiting to rise up and embrace these issues as we do. In all likelihood, this isn't so. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of the holy city of Najaf in Iraq, who has repeatedly saved us from potential disaster in Mesopotamia, wrote numerous fatwas after the fall of Saddam Hussein on the proper comportment and dress for female believers. In Western eyes, his conclusions would hardly be called liberal--yet his commitment to democracy in Iraq is real. (Concerning the cartoons, Sistani also strongly condemned the "misguided and oppressive" elements of the Muslim community whose actions "projected a distorted and dark image of the faith of justice, love, and brotherhood." Though no fan of the caricatures, Sistani is giving a slap to Tehran and its agents in Iraq.)

AS WE SAW IN EGYPT, the West Bank, and Gaza, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists are going to be among those pushing seriously for democratic change in the Middle East, and will, as in the Palestinian territories, surely be among those who benefit most from the collapse of secular autocracy. A rise in anti-Americanism throughout the region seems inevitable. And it is healthy.

With dictatorship giving way to democracy, Muslims of various stripes will make their best case to their brethren on why they should be given a chance to govern. The religious radicalization of the Muslim body politic, which has gained ground under autocracy, will likely lose speed, if not rapidly reverse itself. Young men who feel most acutely the injustices of their societies and have the testosterone-driven determination to do something about it will have broader personal experience and a wider range of political options than to embrace just the mosque, where Muslims have usually found brave and tenacious popular heroes when they could find them nowhere else. Let us be frank: For every Said Eddin Ibrahim, a courageous secular liberal who has seen the inside of Egypt's prisons, there are several religiously motivated dissidents who are willing to question President Mubarak's rule. Few of the Arab liberals and progressives one meets at conferences appear to have the intestinal fortitude of fundamentalists who are similarly opposed to their regimes.

What we have seen happen in the Islamic Republic of Iran under clerical dictatorship--the conversion of the most anti-American holy-warrior society into the least anti-American, probably most pro-democratic culture in the region--will likely happen elsewhere but even more rapidly if Sunni fundamentalists are given a chance to gain power democratically and demonstrate to their fellow Muslims how their interpretation of the Holy Law and Islamic history will improve their lives.

Correctly understood, anti-Americanism when it accompanies the loosening of political controls in the Middle East is a sign that the status quo that gave us bin Ladenism and 9/11--the perverse marriage of autocracy and Islamic extremism--is coming apart. Under dictatorship, Muslims cannot evolve politically. They will not be able to confront the "baggage" that all Middle Eastern Muslims have with the West, especially the United States, and come to a livable consensus on how they are going to absorb Western ideas, influence, and money. Even in Iran, where the bankruptcy of a virulently anti-American clerical dictatorship has done wonders for the democratic ethic and the prestige of the United States, a functioning democracy is probably the only way the Iranian people will find a sustainable, peaceful modus vivendi with their complicated love-hate for America. It is democracy, not dictatorship, that can best take Muslims through the difficult religious reformation that is well under way among both Shiites and Sunnis. (Correctly understood, bin Laden is an ugly expression of protest against the region's rot.)

This is all about internal Muslim evolution, about coming to terms with the centuries-long absorption of both good and bad Western ideas. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can somehow soon resume. When al Qaeda's princes--bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi--rail against the intrusion of Western democracy into the Muslim world, they know what they are talking about. If it succeeds, democracy will eventually kill them off. It will pull fundamentalist believers--the pool that bin Ladenism must draw from to survive--into the great ethical and spiritual debates that can best happen when free people fight it out in elections. Only Muslims--only fundamentalist Muslims--have the power to kill off bin Ladenism. Historically, there is no reason to believe this will happen under the dictatorships that gave birth to Islamic extremism in the first place.

Like Christendom before it, the Muslim Middle East will have to work out its relation to modernity. The faster democracy arrives, the sooner the debates about God and man can begin in earnest. It will probably be for both Muslims and Westerners a nerve-racking experience. But we have no choice, since continuing autocracy will only make the militants' message stronger and judgment day, as in Iran, a possibly bloody revolutionary event. The electoral victory of Hamas should not give us pause. It should give us hope and encourage us to push for real elections where our national interest stands to gain the most--in Egypt and Iran. We should also not neglect to defend vigorously Christian, Muslim, or Jewish satirists, be they clever, banal, or ugly, wherever they may be found. Both elections and satire are basic to the evolution of the Muslim world.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.