In Search of Moderate Muslims
Ever since his first post-9/11 speech summoning the nation to a war against terrorism, President Bush has stressed that “our war is against evil, not against Islam.” Indeed, his administration has branded the terrorists as “traitors to their own faith”—outlaws who are “trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of such pronouncements. But they also reflect a strategic imperative—namely, to prevent the jihadists from attracting wide support in the Muslim world. The goal of Bush’s policy is, rather, to call forth the Muslim majority against the acts and ideology of the terrorists. As the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes has put it: “radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam the solution.”
This is one facet of U.S. policy on which there has been virtually no dissent. But it begs the question: what exactly is moderate Islam, and where can we find it?
The term itself is perhaps unfortunate. “Moderate” implies a lesser quantity or degree of something. A moderate leftist, for example, is not too far Left. Is a “moderate Muslim” not too Islamic? To put it this way is to concede that Islam is, properly understood, antithetical to the West, and that at issue is only the intensity of the antipathy. By implication, this is to accept that terrorism is a natural corollary of an exacting fidelity to Islamic tenets—the very premise we presumably deny.
It is true that Islam’s fierce dogma of monotheism insists that the world in its entirety must come to acknowledge Allah and the teachings of his unique messenger. Passages of Islamic Scripture imply a relentless war until this goal is achieved. But, as always with Scripture, contrary inferences may be drawn from other passages. In any case, non-Muslims clearly cannot accept a Muslim doctrine of war against them and, if need be, will surely meet war with war. At the same time, it is scarcely the place of non-Muslims to tell Muslims how pious their practice ought to be or how intense their devotion to their faith. If the premise of our fight against terrorism is that Muslims must become less devout, then the prospects for success will be both poor and beyond our control.
When we speak of moderate Muslims as a counterweight to extremists, then, what we seek has nothing to do with the ardor of their religious convictions. Rather, it centers on the acceptance or rejection of pluralism. In this view, Muslims may still hope and pray for the eventual recognition by all mankind of the truth of Muhammad’s message. (Christians and Jews do something similar.) But they may not take up the sword to hasten the advent of that goal or pursue disputes among or within countries by violent means. That implies democratic methods and a spirit of tolerance.
But if this explains what we mean—or ought to mean—by moderate Muslims, where can we find them, and how can we tell the real thing?
Kamran Bokhari is a one-time adherent of Islamism who broke with its ideology and is now a student of radical Islam and the director of Middle East analysis for the private intelligence firm StratFor. Bokhari has developed a useful taxonomy to distinguish among four different groups who are often all identified as moderate Muslims.
The first are ordinary citizens of Muslim countries for whom faith but not politics is central to their lives. They pray daily, fast during Ramadan, make the Haj if they can afford to, but evince little interest in public affairs. Constituting a kind of silent majority, they do not participate in violent actions, and mostly do not support them.
The second group of moderates is made up of regimes, like those in Egypt or Jordan, whose “moderation” consists in alignment with the West. A third group comprises secular liberals who are largely in sympathy with the political and cultural values of the West; well-known examples include the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya.
Finally, there are various self-described Islamists who dissent from the violent ways or extreme doctrines of other Islamists. These “moderate Islamists,” so it is claimed, are searching for an analog to European Christian Democracy: to wit, a political stance that is in some sense inspired or informed by religious ideals but is neither dogmatic nor exclusionary.
Bokhari’s first two categories—the apolitical silent majority and the Western-allied regimes—are what they are. The former, precisely on account of their quiescence, are not likely to carry much political weight, and the latter, while valuable, not only are incapable of delivering victory in the war against terror but, through their denial of political freedoms, probably also feed terrorism. It is rather among the third and fourth groups—secular liberals and moderate Islamists—where new leverage or assets in the war against terror may perhaps be found.* And it is these two groups and, sometimes, the relationship between them that have been the focus of the greatest amount of conjecture and debate.
Secular liberals are of course the group with the greatest affinity for democracy and other Western values.† Unfortunately, the results of recent elections in Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority seem to have proved that their views command little allegiance in the Muslim Middle East, especially when stacked up against the apparently irresistible force of Islamism. Nonetheless, in Egypt, despite pervasive vote rigging, the secularist Ayman Nour won 8 percent of the vote for the presidency against Hosni Mubarak in 2005. The same year, in Iraq, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi List won a similar percentage, and other secular parties also won some seats in parliament. These groups represent minorities, but not negligible ones.
In the Palestinian Authority, the secular Fatah lost narrowly in 2006 to Hamas and, according to polls, would almost surely win a rematch today. While secular, Fatah is historically anything but liberal; in fact, it was a pioneer of terrorism. Yet today, while hardly purged of terrorists, it counts some important liberals in its camp, notably Prime Minister Salam Fayad and Foreign Minister Riad Malki.
The example of Fatah is a reminder that, for decades, the region’s dominant ideologies—Baathism, pan-Arab Nasserism, Arab socialism, Communism—were strongly secular and often anti-religious in character. In the 20th century, the Muslim Middle East embraced a variety of authoritarian secular ideologies; is it not conceivable that it might some day embrace democratic secularism as well? Although secular liberals are very much in the minority, and we cannot invest our regional interests in them alone, they are the embodiment of the values that we wish to nurture. Even as we seek other allies, it would be moral and political folly to abandon them.
This brings us to the Islamist movement, or to certain elements of it. Originating in 1928 in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Islamism took wing following the triumph of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which gave birth to the first “Islamic Republic.” As it has spread, so has it become increasingly variegated. Some factions, starting with al Qaeda, are violent in the extreme. Others eschew violence or, after having once embraced it, have now come to renounce it.
It is among these non-violent Islamists that moderates—genuine or illusory—have been sighted. Virtually everywhere in the Middle East, Islamist groups are in opposition, and often they are the most powerful opposition force on the scene. As victims themselves of human-rights abuses like arbitrary arrest and torture, they often espouse democracy and human rights, and at least in the near term they may be the ones with the most to gain from free elections. That is why, in the context of America’s turn to democracy promotion, they have appeared to be theoretically plausible allies.
Early advocates of such an alliance have included some (but hardly all) indigenous liberals. Anguished by their own weakness in the face of oppressive regimes, they have looked to the Islamists, with their larger and more devoted followings, as a counterweight. The thought is nothing new. In Sugar Street (1957), the third volume of his magnificent “Cairo Trilogy,” the novelist Naguib Mahfouz portrays two activist brothers, a Communist and an Islamist, in pre-Nasser times. To the dismay of the Communist, meetings hosted by his Islamist brother draw much larger crowds; but an elder comrade in whom he confides reassures him that, ultimately, the Islamists will serve the Communists’ objectives:
Don’t you see that they use our language when appealing to the mind and speaking of socialism in Islam? Even reactionaries feel obliged to borrow our vocabulary. If they pull off a revolution before we do, they will realize at least some of our objectives. They will not be able to stop time’s progressive motion.
The current iteration of this tale began with the 2000 imprisonment of Saad Edin Ibrahim, the dean of Egyptian dissidents. Conducting a jailhouse dialogue with Islamist prisoners, Ibrahim came away convinced that they could be valuable allies. He wrote:
Based on my 30 years of empirical investigation into these parties—including my observations of fellow inmates during the fourteen months I spent in an Egyptian prison—I can testify to a significant evolution on the part of political Islam. In fact, I believe we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim parties that are truly democratic, akin to the Christian Democrats in Western Europe after World War II.
By the time of the 2006 war in Lebanon, spurred perhaps by anger over Israel’s military actions, Ibrahim went further, depicting Islamists in general—not only peaceful ones—as the region’s true democrats:
The Arab people do not respect the ruling regimes, perceiving them to be autocratic, corrupt, and inept. . . . [M]ainstream Islamists with broad support, with developed civic dispositions, and with services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development party (AKP) in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and, yes, Hizballah in Lebanon.
Ibrahim’s openness to Islamists was echoed somewhat more continuously by the respected Egyptian scholar Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
In today’s Arab world, Islamists have assumed the role once played by national liberation movements and leftist parties. They are the mass movements of the 21st century. . . . Like all successful movements, Islamists have been able to distill a long, complex philosophical tradition into simple slogans that have quickly supplanted the pan-Arabism and socialism that dominated the region until the 1970’s. As a result, in most countries Islamists represent the only viable opposition forces to existing undemocratic regimes.
Hamzawy, like others, has in mind especially the Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of all Islamist groups and the one that in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections bested the ruling National Democratic party in most of the (carefully chosen) districts in which it entered candidates. The Brotherhood thereby demonstrated its potential to challenge the power of the incumbents. This result may have had something to do with the fact that, a year earlier, it had issued a “reform initiative” stressing “respect for partisan plurality, free elections, and the rotation of power” as well as (in the words of its spokesman) “complete equality in rights and duties” for Egypt’s Christian Copts and women. To underscore its new stance, in 2004 the Brotherhood even began to replace its traditional slogan, “Islam is the answer,” with a new one: “freedom is the answer.” (The change attracted more notice than the Brotherhood’s subsequent reversion to the original in time for the 2005 election.)
At first, the American government was unmoved by the arguments of Ibrahim and Hamzawy. Secretary of State Rice reaffirmed U.S. policy: “we’re going to respect Egyptian laws. . . . We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and . . . we won’t.” But others began to voice an interest in dialogue and even cooperation. According to Joshua Stacher, an Egypt specialist at Syracuse University,
Empirical evidence demonstrates that the Brotherhood is just as committed—if not more committed—to civil nonviolence than other democracy movements that the United States has belatedly supported in places such as the Philippines, South Africa, and Indonesia. Yes, the Brotherhood is socially conservative. But the group is also politically pragmatic, believes in institutional development, and responsibly opposes authoritarian government.
A less bold but more influential statement of the same perspective appeared in Foreign Affairs under the title, “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.” According to its authors, Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke, both of the Nixon Center, Egypt’s Islamists would not only speed democratization by counterbalancing authoritarian regimes but serve other U.S. policy goals as well. While, they wrote, “critics speculate that the Brotherhood helps radicalize Muslims, in fact it appears that the Brotherhood works to dissuade Muslims from violence, instead channeling them into politics and charitable activities.” Indeed, in Egypt, rather than “pursuing a divisive religious or cultural agenda,” the Brotherhood “followed the path of toleration.”
The Foreign Affairs essay grew out of a report commissioned by an arm of the American government and presented at a State Department seminar. This in itself signaled a new official interest in an opening to the Brotherhood—a group that, after all, held 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament. Last April, some Brotherhood legislators, including Mohammed Saad al-Katatni, the leader of the group’s parliamentary bloc, attended a reception for a visiting U.S. congressional delegation hosted by the American ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone. When Ricciardone came under criticism for this supposed faux pas, a “senior U.S. official” reassured Newsweek that “the invite to el-Katatni was ‘cleared’ by the State Department.”
And indeed the interest of the U.S. government in talking to representatives of the Brotherhood is easy to understand. Had not Washington hobbled itself in the Iranian crisis of 1979 by having previously acquiesced in the shah’s demand that we have no contact with his opposition? Nevertheless, to talk with the Brotherhood was one thing, to look to it as a force for democracy or moderation quite another.
In their essay, Leiken and Brooke make much of the Brotherhood’s participation in Egyptian elections, contrasting this to the stance taken by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, head of al Qaeda in Iraq, who threatened to treat all voters as “infidels.” Jihadists, they write, “loathe the Muslim Brotherhood . . . for rejecting global jihad and embracing democracy.” But how much is proved when a group that is excluded from power espouses democracy? As Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the Saudi journalist who now heads the al-Arabiya television network, has put it, “The problem is not in giving power to Islamists—the problem is that [afterward] it will be impossible to take it out of their hands by democratic means.”
In the case of the Brotherhood, one powerful reason to heed al-Rashed’s warning is the fact that the organization is not itself democratic. Instead, it is headed by a “General Guide” who is elected for life by the fifteen-member General Guidance Council. Nor is the council itself elected by the rank-and-file; rather, it perpetuates itself by selecting new members to fill vacancies as they occur. The entire structure of the organization is top-down, resembling the so-called “democratic centralism” of Western Communist parties. And the membership is secret.
It may be objected that the group is officially outlawed in Egypt and therefore forced into clandestine practices. But it enjoys enough breathing room to have run an open and highly successful national-election campaign, so surely it could democratize itself if this were among its priorities. A better glimpse into the group’s ethos was offered in 2005 when, splitting away from the movement, some members complained in a public statement that the Brotherhood’s internal dictum was: “I listen and I obey.”
As for the Brotherhood’s endorsement of women’s rights, the only female among the hundred-plus candidates fielded in the 2005 election signified her own views in an article she wrote for the Brotherhood website entitled, “Men are Superior to Women.” And as for minorities, when an Alexandria court ruled in April 2006 that the interior ministry should allow citizens of the Baha’i faith to list their religion on identity cards, Brotherhood members of parliament responded with outrage, arguing in debate a month later that adherents of Baha’i were apostates who deserved death. Finally, contrary to the Brotherhood’s protestations of democratic conviction, statements in its literature and by some leaders confirm that it aims to create a new caliphate over the Islamic world.
If the Brotherhood is lacking in democratic credentials, what of its claim to moderation? True, the group does not engage in violence and has strongly condemned terror bombings in Egypt and some other Arab countries. On the other hand, it applauds the killing of Israelis in general and of Americans in Iraq. In an interview with an Egyptian weekly, General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef formulated the position as follows:
The Muslim Brotherhood movement condemns all bombings in the independent Arab and Muslim countries. But the bombings in Palestine and Iraq are a [religious] obligation. This is because these two countries are occupied countries, and the occupier must be expelled in every way possible. Thus, the movement supports martyrdom operations in Palestine and Iraq in order to expel the Zionists and the Americans (translation by Memri).
This statement consciously makes no mention of a country called Israel. As Akef explained on another occasion, “There is nothing in our dictionary called ‘Israel,’” only “Zionist gangs that occupied an Arab land after kicking out its residents.” In a similar vein, Akef has called the Holocaust a “myth.” The symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood is a Qur’an bracketed by crossed swords, and its pronouncements—like the chants of its demonstrators—continue to affirm the importance of jihad. Its website, moreover, features an article explicitly rejecting any attempt to define jihad “in an apologetic way that stresses only the dimension of individual self-discipline.” Rather, jihad can, “of course, entail the use of force when peaceful means are not successful.”
Leiken and Brooke, among others, argue that some younger Brotherhood members hold more liberal views. No doubt; but as the Brotherhood worked on a new party platform late last year, the elders seemed firmly in control. The draft program, leaked to the press, contained a number of relatively liberal formulations, but it also explicitly advocated the exclusion of women and non-Muslims from the nation’s highest offices. More startling, it sought the creation of a Supreme Ulama Council as a supervisory body above Egypt’s civilian government—a Sunni version of the Iranian system of theocracy.
The Egyptian Brotherhood is the original Islamist group, but today there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of others. To start with, national branches of the Brotherhood exist all over the Arab world. The exact relationship among them is murky, both because of the group’s secrecy and because, although organized by country, the Brotherhood does not believe in countries but in a transnational caliphate. (When challenged on his statement that he would prefer to be ruled by a Muslim foreigner than an Egyptian Christian, the General Guide reportedly responded “toz fi Masr,” a colloquialism that translates roughly as “screw Egypt.”) Nonetheless, the national branches do appear to vary considerably in the degree of their militancy.
The Syrian version, for example, is probably the most moderate, and has allied itself strongly with secular forces—liberal and otherwise—against the long-incumbent Baathist regime. Its head, Ali Sadreddin Bayanouni, has publicly criticized the Egyptian Brotherhood’s draft platform, arguing that “adopting the democratic system means accepting its results. . . . We don’t need, in Egypt or Syria, an article stating that the president or prime minister should not be a woman.”
By contrast, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian version is the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Although some detect moderation even here (see, for example, “Hamas: The Perils of Power” by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books, March 9, 2006), Hamas revealed its true attitude toward democracy in its armed putsch in Gaza and its openly expressed ambition to repeat the act in the West Bank. As for “peace,” the group backs its implacable demand for the destruction of Israel with a war of terror against Israeli civilians checked only by Israel’s retaliatory assassination of its leaders. Hamas’s resistance to territorial compromise is embedded in its charter, which declares that
the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.
Nor is Hamas willing to stop once it has thrown the Jews into the sea. Its charter adds: “the same goes for any land the Muslims have conquered by force.” In other words, after Tel Aviv come Andalusia, Tours, and the suburbs of Vienna.
Still more diverse than the Brotherhood’s various branches is the array of splinter groups that have broken away from it. In Egypt, for example, the Brotherhood’s renunciation of violence in the 1970’s—a step taken under duress—led to the formation of Islamic Jihad and Jamaat al-Islamiya. The former, which spawned Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, carried out the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. The latter staged the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists at Luxor.
On the other hand, there have also been split-offs in a moderate direction. Most notable is the Hizb al Wasat (Party of the Center), which broke away in the 1990’s and applied for legal recognition. When the government refused to license it, a portion of al Wasat’s members returned to the Brotherhood, giving rise to suspicions that it had all along been a ploy to create a front (the Brotherhood itself not being allowed to act as a party). But for a decade since then, al Wasat’s top leader, Abu Elela Madi, and those of his followers who did not return to the Brotherhood, have tried repeatedly to become licensed and in the process have forged a profile at variance with the Brotherhood’s.
In the group’s latest application for official recognition, women make up a quarter of the “founders,” a list that also included a handful of Copts (although they later withdrew). Elela Madi himself insists that “we are against religious parties that are based on a religious basis and adopt the theocratic thinking of clergymen.” He has also denounced the “idea of a caliphate” as “not supported with a single decisively clear [Islamic] text.” In 2005, when one of us asked Elela Madi whether his party favored continued recognition of Israel, he replied that it had taken no position on the matter but that he himself did.
Aside from the various sections and offshoots of the Brotherhood, other Islamist groups have emerged out of the fanatical Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia, and from the various non-Arab reaches of the Muslim world, notably Iran, Southeast Asia, and Turkey.
Turkey’s Justice and Development party (AKP) is especially noteworthy because of the strategic importance of that country and its historic role, forged by Ataturk, as a model of secularization. In addition, this party provides the rare example of an Islamist group that has held power won democratically, having polled pluralities of 34 percent in 2002 and 46 percent in 2007.
In office, it is true, the AKP has peeled back some elements of Kemalist secularism. Thus, AKP mayors have imposed restrictions on the sale of alcohol, while Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has proposed amending the constitution to repeal its ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities. Some observers have warned of more subtle and potentially far-reaching measures of Islamization, such as seeding the judiciary with Islamist magistrates.
On the other side of the ledger, however, the AKP has improved the treatment of Kurds, enacted certain legal rights for women, and maintained Turkey’s alliance with the U.S. as well as friendly ties to Israel and the pursuit of union with Europe. On balance, then, the AKP’s performance to date arguably strengthens the thesis that there is little to fear from Islamists who are voted into office. Yet some caveats must be added. For one thing, the AKP had shed much of its Islamist skin before being elected. For another, it has governed under two powerful constraints. Externally, the EU’s criteria for membership leave little room for Islamization, at least as long as Turkey continues to pursue admission. Internally, the army continues to act as guarantor of the Kemalist tradition, having previously suspended democracy four times. Although the AKP’s strong electoral base may inhibit such military intervention today, the party is not free to disregard the sensitivities of the generals. Would it show a different face if free of these constraints? Who is to say?
As this incomplete survey suggests, the sheer number and variety of Islamist groups make it difficult to sort and assess them. So does the absence of any Rome or Moscow to unite them or set down a central line. Another problem is uncertainty as to whether their behavior in power would match their pronouncements in pursuit of power, or, in the case of Turkey, whether they would continue to rule as they do if the pressure on them relaxed. Still another complicating factor is that the groups have often evolved in their thinking.
One recent example: Abdel-Aziz el-Sherif, predecessor of Ayman Zawahiri as the chief of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and the author of Basic Principles in Making Preparations for Jihad, a canonical text for al Qaeda and other violent jihadists, has just issued a new work from his Cairo prison cell that recants his earlier opinions and proscribes violence against civilians. Although this is literally a jail-house conversion, it bespeaks an ideology lacking heavy theoretical anchors.
On top of this, Islamist groups have a certain history of dissimulation. Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and their ilk are quite frank in their mania, but others are cagier. The Muslim Brotherhood’s website sometimes says one thing in Arabic and something quite different in English. And, in common with much of the rest of the Muslim world, these groups play monotonous semantic games with the word “terrorism,” claiming to reject it but applauding the murder of Israeli infants as “resistance.”
Such habits of dissimulation extend even to the U.S. In this country there are few avowedly Islamist organizations, but several groups have abetted or fronted for the radicals The American Muslim Council (AMC), for example, defines itself as “a political movement for the civil rights and justice for all Americans,” and its representatives have been feted at the White House and delivered benedictions for the House of Representatives. But the AMC evidently prefers Islamic theocracy to the American system of government. Using what is almost certainly an apocryphal quotation, one of its publications explains:
As America today touts democracy as though it is morally engraved, it might do well to remember the astute observation of the esteemed British scholar and philosopher, George Bernard Shaw, who said about Muhammad: “I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving the problems in a way that would bring much-needed peace and happiness.”
The AMC has gone so far as to include a paean to the mastermind of 9/11 on its website: “Osama bin Laden has said he seeks the liberation of the Muslim world from American dominance. He is one man, sitting silently in a cave, praying five times a day to a force unseen, believing in the power that delivered to the others the freedom of their nations.”
All of the difficulties of assessment would disappear if, at bottom, all Islamists were alike. Daniel Pipes has suggested that “mak[ing] a distinction between the mainstream Islamists and the fringe ones [is] like making a distinction between mainstream Nazis and fringe Nazis. They’re all Nazis, they’re all the enemy.”
Is this the case? Suppose that, to continue Pipes’s analogy, there had been Nazis who clearly rejected violence, as some who call themselves Islamists have done. Would they not have been meaningfully distinguishable from Hitler’s crew? An anathema so sweeping as Pipes’s can lead to classifying individuals or groups wrongly, or overlooking important transformations in attitude.
In this connection, a dispute over an American-based group between Pipes and one of us (Muravchik) may hold implications for the broader question of how we should treat the various currents of Islamism. The dispute concerns the U.S.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), which espouses democracy and includes in its ranks both secularists and Islamists. In 2004, Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), spoke at a CSID conference, drawing an attack from Pipes at the time and another one last year. Defending Gershman on Commentary’s blog contentions, Muravchik pointed out that he, too, had addressed a CSID conference, thus eliciting another broadside in which Pipes accused both Gershman and Muravchik of being “amateurs” on the subject of Islam (true, but hardly dispositive).
In his response to Muravchik, Pipes quoted a statement issued by “the truly moderate Muslim intellectual leaders associated with the Center for Islamic Pluralism.” Naming a few CSID figures, the statement labeled the group “a front for some of the most obnoxious members of the ‘Wahhabi Lobby’ in America.”
Among those CSID figures named was Abdulwahab Alkebsi. An American who emigrated from Yemen over 27 years ago, Alkebsi is a practicing Muslim who calls himself a secularist and among other posts has served as the director of Middle East programs at the NED. A vocal supporter of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, he has denounced bin Laden and al Qaeda in the strongest terms and has unequivocally condemned suicide bombings in Israel. Critics in the Egyptian press recently attacked Alkebsi as an “American traitor” and one of the “American [Trojan] horses” in the Arab world.
But the centerpiece of Pipes’s 2004 critique of Gershman, from which the whole dispute flowed, had been another figure in CSID. This was Kamran Bokhari, nailed by Pipes as a former spokesman for al Muhajiroun, a group so fanatic that it praised the 9/11 attacks on America. Bokhari is the same scholar whose taxonomy of Islamism we have drawn on for this article. He had indeed been an Islamist and had joined al Muhajiroun in the mid-1990’s while a student at Southwest Missouri State University; but he left the group when he recognized its radicalism, years before 9/11. No longer considering himself an Islamist, but remaining a devout Muslim, Bokhari has written one of the boldest essays about Muslims and terrorism that we have seen. He did it, moreover, not for outside consumption but in the Muslim Public Affairs Journal, whose readers are mainly fellow Muslims. This is his message:
The threat to Islam and Muslims does not come from the United States or the West; rather, it comes from the extremists who operate freely within our midst. It is high time that Muslims end their silence about terrorism under the guise of supporting “legitimate armed freedom struggles.” The attacks of September 11, 2001, should have been a wake-up call for Muslims everywhere that there is something wrong with their communities, that they have neglected to take stock of a cancer of extremism that has now grown into a beast of global proportions. . . . While the vast majority of Muslims do not support terrorism, the fact is that they also do not do anything against it. Poisoned by conspiracy theories on how the American and Israeli intelligence agencies were behind 9/11, a large number of Muslims are focusing on the “war against Islam and Muslims” and hence fail to see that radical and militants Islamists are waging a far more lethal war against Islam and Muslims.
This is exactly the message Americans have been hoping that Muslim opinion leaders would address to their religious brethren. It is also presumably what Daniel Pipes meant when he said that “moderate Islam is the solution.” Yes, it comes from a former Islamist. But is that a bad thing or a good thing? Such cold-war heroes as Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Milovan Djilas, and many others were former Communists. Few can understand the malign logic of a totalitarian ideology as well as those who have been inside it themselves—or inside cognate ideologies like the socialism of Britain’s Labor Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, who invented NATO, or of the Portuguese leader Mario Soares, who led the pivotal fight to snatch his country from the grasp of the Communists in 1974.
Is it possible that former Islamists could play a role akin to that of former Communists, or that moderate Islamists could approximately resemble anti-Communist socialists? To close our eyes to this possibility is to handicap ourselves—a handicap illustrated, as it happens, by Pipes’s reliance on the Center for Islamic Pluralism as an exemplar of the “moderate Islam” he himself seeks. For this center is largely a one-man operation run by Stephen Schwartz, a former Trotskyist who converted to Islam in 1997. In speaking to Muslim audiences he adopts the middle name of Suleiman, but how many Muslims does Pipes believe are ready to look to Schwartz for leadership? If he is the answer to our search for “moderate Islam,” then our prospects are dim indeed.
To be open to Islamist moderates or to Islamists-in-transition does not mean to hold back from critical scrutiny. In most Islamist groups, as our discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood makes clear, there is little moderation to be found. Nevertheless, one reason to favor talking even to some who are not moderates is that we should not miss the opportunity to probe weaknesses in their ideology. As compared with Communism, Islamism has the advantage of being genuinely rooted among Muslims in a way that Communism was never rooted among the “proletarians” for whom it claimed to speak. Communism, on the other hand, enjoyed the advantage of looking hopefully to an imaginary future, whereas Islamism, problematically, looks to an imaginary past; its ideal is to live like the Prophet and his companions. But this is a hopeless model. Not even the most extreme jihadist is prepared to trade his house for a tent, his car for a camel, his Kalashnikov and explosives for a sword and spear? Perhaps that dreary vision is why so many prefer to focus on the enticements that await them in the beyond.
In addition, there are others worthy of more sympathetic consideration. Besides the Turkish AKP and the Egyptian al Wasat, there is the new Wasatia party in the Palestinian territories. A particularly intriguing case, this last group was founded in March 2007 by Muhammad Dajani, director of the American Studies Institute at al-Quds University in Ramallah and a former Fatah member. Wasatia represents an attempt to create an alternative to both Fatah and Hamas. It calls for a two-state solution and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. As for the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, Dajani says: “Why create such a big obstacle to the peace process when it is just not practical?” Wasatia argues strongly against the violence practiced by Hamas and many of Fatah’s proxies. Dajani puts it this way: “Our goal is to teach youth that suicide bombing is not Islam.”
In considering these and other groups, it is even possible to set out some basic criteria by which to judge whether they are indeed parties with whom America might pursue a constructive relationship. That their politics are informed by religious values is not in itself a disqualification; nor need they be explicitly pro-American, although it would be hard to cooperate with any who are consistently anti-American. As we see it, there are six questions to be asked of any such group.
• Does it both espouse democracy and practice democracy within its own structures?
• Does it eschew violence in pursuit of its goals?
• Does it condemn terrorism?
• Does it advocate equal rights for minorities?
• Does it advocate equal rights for women?
• Does it accept a pluralism of interpretations within Islam?
Any group that meets these six criteria seems to us to merit support and cooperation, and groups that go a long way toward meeting them deserve at least a second look. To be sure, it would be a grievous error to chase after Islamists at the expense of the secular liberals who are our most natural allies. Even if the numbers of such liberals are small, they are our natural soul mates, and we should embrace them as warmly as they wish to be embraced by us. But just as we once found friends and allies among those who had come through the Communist mill, so we may also find friends and allies, or at least people with whom we can cooperate, among moderate Islamists or those who have come through the Islamist mill. In this connection, too, we would do well to recall that some renegades from Communism (the name of Jay Lovestone comes to mind) evolved into full-fledged anti-Communists only by stages.
Communism, for a time, seemed as if it might triumph. When he defected from Moscow’s service, Whittaker Chambers wrote famously that he had joined history’s losing side. By contrast, radical Islamism is a fragile and perishable ideology, and, unless we surrender, there is little possibility that it will triumph. The only question is how much damage it will do before it implodes, and the answer may be a very great deal. So long as we do not fall for the first Muslim Brother who gives us a wink and a smile, anyone who can help us to forestall the worst is worth our trouble to cultivate.
* There is yet another formation not included in Bokhari’s typology. This comprises a variety of Islamic theologians working to construct interpretations of Muslim scripture that sustain moderation, modernity, and tolerance. In the long run, this could prove to be the most important group of all, but for the time being it has little political weight.
† “Secular” in this context is not tantamount to atheist or agnostic. Rather it signifies belief in a separation of mosque and state analogous to the practice in most of the West.