June 29, 2015
Islam, violence and the West
First, do no harm
by Erasmus, Religion and Public Policy
SHOULD the United States and its Western partners delve inside the ideological, and theological, debates going on within the world of Islam, in the hope of influencing the results?
David Cameron seemed to answer that question in the affirmative in his first reaction to the ghastly terrorist incidents of June 26: a mass shooting on a beach in Tunisia and a beheading in France. The British Prime Minister said:
The people who do these things, they sometimes claim that they do it in the name of Islam. They don’t. Islam is a religion of peace. They do it in the name of a twisted and perverted ideology that we have to confront with everything we have.
That was an understandable thing to say, in the immediate aftermath of a terrible horror, even though many people may counter-argue (as they have done every time Barack Obama has said similar things) that it is not really the business of a Western political leader to say what Islam is or is not. In the end only the practitioners of a faith, under the guidance of its most trusted interpreters, can decide what that creed really implies…or so the argument goes. It might be added that although outsiders certainly have a strong interest in the final outcome of a great religion’s internal debates, it is hardly their place to interfere in the process.
But a different and more elaborate claim for the legitimacy of deep Western (and specifically, American) involvement in Islam’s deliberations is laid out in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of America’s Council on Foreign Relations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Currently a fellow of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, she has become one of the leading (sceptical) commentators on Islam in her adopted homeland.
She finds fault with President Obama for saying that the terrorists of Islamic State are “not Islamic”. The real situation, as she sees it, is that both the IS terrorists and more peaceful adherents of Islam are acting out of strongly and sincerely held readings of that religion, whose billion-plus adherents are in the grip of some agonising internal wranglings over what their faith signifies. And in her view, the American government should be weighing on the side of the liberal and reformist camp.
She suggests that today’s American administration should be copying the example of the CIA, which as she approvingly recalls, funded magazines, conferences and influential individuals as part of its ideological battle against communism. The beneficiaries of this American largesse should be those who “oppose the literal application of sharia to apostates and women or who argue that calls to holy war have no place in the 21st century.” She also proposes certain favourites on more narrowly theological grounds, such as an Iraqi Shia cleric whom she commends for questioning the uncreated (in other words, divine) nature of the Koran.
In the same issue, a State Department veteran who introduces himself as a former “senior adviser for countering violent extremism”, makes a powerful and convincing counter-argument. For the American government to get involved in the internal debates of world religions is illegal (it violates the constitutional separation of church and state) and almost certainly counter-productive, he reckons. As the diplomat, William McCants, puts it: “Imagine the US government managed to navigate a thicket of laws and find its Muslim Martin Luther. His or her cause is going to suffer greatly in the arena of Muslim public opinion if it is revealed that the wildly unpopular United States is bankrolling it.”
It might be added that for any reformer labouring inside the Islamic heart-land, the open support of secularist American-based intellectuals such as Ms Hirsi Ali, especially those like her who were born into Islam but later renounced it, could also be a kiss of death.
Perhaps a more modest argument should be made. The awkward fact is that America and its allies did quite a lot, in the late 20th century, to foster the most militant factions within Islam. Islamism gained ground in Pakistan under President Zia ul-Haq, an American strategic partner. During the battle to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan, some of the most extreme factions of mujahideen benefited from Western assistance, only to morph later into al-Qaeda. In several Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, pro-Western governments cautiously encouraged Islamism, when it first raised its head, as a counter-weight to Marxist or secular-nationalist rivals.
In the present situation, Western governments probably can’t do much to help liberalising theological tendencies within the world of Islam, although they are certainly entitled to stand up for their own ideals of human rights and the rule of law. (For example, they can protest over the flogging and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger, without pronouncing on whether his liberal reading of Islam is correct or not.) But first and foremost, they should avoid repeating past mistakes and stop nurturing the most illiberal and violent factions.