C. Holland Taylor doesn’t look like a man radical Muslims should fear. He is trim, unassuming, and speaks with a faint southern accent. His stylish blond haircut and trim suit give him the appearance of a fortysomething European businessman. He possesses no arsenal of weapons, holds no government post, and operates no intelligence service. Yet he runs the world’s most potent and innovative anti-extremist network and may hold a key to defusing the ticking bomb of Islamic terrorism.
Taylor, a multilingual former telecom magnate who has spent substantial time in Muslim countries since his youth, has a deep interest and expertise in Islamic theology, history, and culture. Over the last quarter century, he has observed the encroachment of radical Islam on previously diverse and relatively tolerant Muslim countries. He cofounded with the late Abdurrahman Wahid (the moderate president of Indonesia) a private foundation, LibForAll, which aims to increase and magnify moderate Muslim voices in combating Islamic extremism. “Ideology is more dangerous than bombs,” Taylor explains. LibForAll works to “identify, mobilize and encourage moderate Muslim leaders who generate a counter-narrative” to jihadism in theology, mass media, pop culture, and government.
As a child, Taylor recalls, he would rarely see an Egyptian woman wearing a head-covering; now many do. In his youth, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan exhibited few signs of radical Islam; they are now on the front lines of jihadists’ war against the West. He observes matter of factly, “In Gaza they would kill [those working with LibForAll]. We can’t do what we do in Gaza.” But not every Muslim country or region is Gaza, at least not yet. Where the jihadists don’t have a totalitarian grip on the population, they may still use intimidation and violence to perpetuate a “complicity of silence.” That complicity is what Taylor and his organization seek to disrupt.
LibForAll’s greatest success has come in Indonesia. In the spring of 2009, in anticipation of nationwide elections (and in concert with two high-profile Islamic organizations), LibForAll launched a book in Indonesia entitled Ilusi Negara Islam (“The Illusion of an Islamic State”). Based on two years of painstaking research, the book documented the Saudi Arabian Wahabbists’ efforts to export radical Islam to Indonesia and the Indonesian PKS party’s connection to international Muslim radical groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. It became the most widely discussed book in Indonesia, helping to undermine the candidacy of the PKS nominee for vice president. Moreover, it exposed radical Islam as a foreign influence, a reversal of the jihadists’ usual narrative that pluralism and tolerance are a type of Western infiltration of their societies.
To alter the country’s political discourse, LibForAll made use of Southeast Asia’s best known Islamic pop icon, Ahmad Dhani, who released a smash hit “Laskar Cinta” (“Warriors of Love”) drawing attention to the Islamic radicals’ message of hate and violence. (“No to the warriors of jihad! Yes to the warriors of love,” the lyrics implored.) Six to seven million copies were sold, Dhani’s press conference announcing the release drew international media, and his concerts sold out.
Western media greeted Taylor’s efforts with skepticism. In October 2009, the Washington Post reported that the Indonesian elections raised “a tricky question: Should Americans stand apart from Islam’s internal struggles around the world or jump in and try to bolster Muslims who are in sync with American views?” The article concluded that there was good reason for the Obama administration to “stay out” and back away “from overt intrusions into religious matters.” A USAID official sniffed to the Post that we should “avoid theology and help Indonesia ‘address some of the problems here, such as poverty and corruption,’ ” while derisively noting that LibForAll “jumped into the theological fray with gusto.” LibForAll meanwhile changed the course of the Indonesian election.
The impact of LibForAll’s Indonesia success still resonates. Says Taylor,
At its recently concluded national convention, the PKS declared that it is “moving to the center” and becoming a “nationalist,” rather than “Islamist,” party, open to people of all faiths. They’ve even adopted a new slogan, “PKS for All.” As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
While it is not clear this is anything more than strategic rebranding, it does suggest that LibForAll transformed Indonesia’s political landscape.