Leveraging Islam

Leveraging Islam

by Author(s): Amitai Etzioni

The United States has a great vested interest in which type of Islam prevails. Moderate Islam is not expansionist; it treats jihad as a personal spiritual journey rather than a campaign to vanquish the infidels; it is tolerant of other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism; and instead of giving mullahs the sole power to interpret the Quran and sharia, moderate Muslims draw on the concept of shura, or consultation with the community. Above all, moderate Islam embodies the Quranic statement "let there be no compulsion in religion", rather than the moral squads patrolling the streets, amputations, beheadings, stonings and honor killings.

Some may say that although there are moderate Muslims, they are few and far between and are found mainly in Western nations. Far from it. Despite some radicalization in recent years, most of the 210 million Muslims in Indonesia, the 117 million in Bangladesh and those of North Africa are overwhelmingly moderate. The same is true of most of the 145 million Muslims in India and many Muslims in Turkey.

To now support largely secular forces vying with Islamic extremism is akin to supporting mainly conservative forces in the Cold War days rather than also reaching out to the non-communist socialists. One cannot gain traction or start a normative dialogue with devout Muslims by quoting Locke and Kant or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, by pointing to less strict and rigid interpretations of Islamic texts and sharia, we can appeal to their basic values and normative concerns. Hence, the basic premise of U.S. foreign policy ought to be that we ally ourselves with those opposed to extreme versions of Islam, whether they be moderate Muslims or secular groups.

President Bush, for understandable reasons, has consistently argued that America's war is not with Islam but with terrorism, stating: "Our enemy is not Islam, a good and peace-loving faith that brings direction and comfort to over one billion people, including millions of Americans." This and many other such pronouncements send the unintended message that the United States draws no distinction between extremist and moderate Muslims. As a result it seems that moderation is neither recognized nor rewarded.

Moreover, the U.S. government has alienated moderate Muslims by embracing prominent public intellectuals who argue that the West is in a cultural war with Islam--rather than only with some version of it. For example, Samuel Huntington wrote: "The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism but Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture . . . ." In the future, the president, other national leaders and spokespersons should cease to characterize all of Islam as either a religion of peace or the source of terrorism; and they should stress the difference between Muslims that are moderate and those that are extremist and violence prone.

It also means that the United States must become much more comfortable in dealing with religious themes and issues. For instance, U.S.-supported TV and radio programs should regularly broadcast sermons by moderate Muslim preachers and carry news reports about the religious leaders of millions of followers of moderate Islam; the United States should also help publish translations in many languages of moderate texts and so on.

A New "National Endowment"?

CONGRESS IS funding various endowments and other programs to promote democracy and, in general, American secular values overseas. These organizations dedicate a substantial amount of their resources to programs in the Muslim world. Their missions--the promotion of democracy, civil society and liberty--are all of much merit, but they also are essentially secular in nature and do not build moral cultures. A State Department official, working in the Office of International Religious Freedom, explained that promoting moderate religion, "is not part of the culture [at the State Department]; people are not on that wavelength; it is considered complicated."

To the extent that religion is exported by these endowments and governmental bodies at all (and there are some minor efforts in this direction), the question in practically all cases is whether Islam can be compatible with democratization and whether we should work with Islamist groups (the position taken by Noah Feldman of NYU Law School) or avoid them (the position taken by Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).

Others have taken various intermediary positions (for example, working with Islamic groups might be possible, but we should be very cautious). The core concern in these discussions is whether the followers of Islam are willing to put the law of the land, which will be democratically formed and respectful of human rights, above the laws formulated by the prophet and the Quran.

My litmus test is a different one: Namely, can religion serve as a major source of the moral culture that newly liberated nations badly require? The answer is undoubtedly in the affirmative. However, not all religions are created equal from this viewpoint. To reiterate, only moderate Islam can serve as a main source for a moral culture based on persuasion rather than coercion, where individuals accept their responsibilities not because they fear cruel punishments and moral squads but because they find themselves morally bound. The almost exclusively secular messages of the U.S. governmental bodies working for democratization in the Muslim world had best be modified if the moral cultures there are to be shored up and firm social orders are to be established.

Nowhere is the reluctance to support moderate Islam, and not merely secularism, more evident than in the ways the United States treats aid for education in Muslim countries. Schools play a key role in fostering a moral culture; they provide the best opportunity to launch the introduction of new values. Hence, it is a grave mistake to merely remove fundamentalist Islamic texts from liberated schools and replace them with texts that deal only with normatively neutral subjects--which is what the United States is primarily doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Including character education in the curriculum (and relevant teacher retraining) is essential.

Some American legal experts argue that it is a violation of the First Amendment to use taxpayers' money to fund religious education in other nations, just as it is in the United States. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum, holds that it is a violation of the Constitution to use federal money to print religious textbooks in Afghanistan. Indeed, the most germane court case, Lamont v. Woods (1991), reaches the same conclusion. This is also the position of USAID, which will generally fund only neutral, apolitical and non-religious educational materials. And although USAID claims, with regard to Iraq, that all education initiatives must be Iraqi-led, it also states that "guidelines exist not to fund school materials that violate the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits using government funds to promote religion."

The chief of the USAID education program in Baghdad, Jessica Jordan, has stated, "Before we use taxpayer money to print textbooks we need to ensure that we are not infringing on [the] separation of church and state and the First Amendment." Granted, like many other such legal rulings and guidelines, these, too, are not always closely followed in the field. There are some reports of aid operatives in the field who look the other way when religious texts are left in schoolbooks, but this merely further highlights the confused and inconsistent approach to the matter followed by the United States.

The issue was somewhat mitigated in 2004 by an in-house USAID rule entitled "Participation by Religious Organizations in USAID." Although the regulations specifically stipulate that any USAID support for faith-based organizations overseas cannot be used for "inherently religious activities", section 7 "permits the Secretary of State to waive all or any part of the rule, on a case-by-case basis, where the Secretary determines that such waiver is necessary to further the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States." Indeed, USAID now provides very modest funds to radio programs on Islamic tolerance in Indonesia, the construction of Islamic elementary schools in Uganda, the preservation of mosques and Islamic manuscripts in numerous Muslim countries, and many other "inherently religious activities." And finally, while lower courts have judged against the use of government funds for religious activities abroad, the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the matter.

Although some Iraqi parents, especially in the larger cities, would send their children to secular, public schools that would provide education following the American model, in large parts of Iraq and most of Afghanistan--in which almost everyone is still religiously devout--such education can hardly serve to shore up the moral culture. It follows, therefore, that if the goal is to reach most of the population--and especially those now hostile to modern economic and political developments, and inclined to religious extremism--religious schooling (of the moderate kind) must be provided. The best system for regimes where many do not approve of secular education may be for all children in public schools to attend the same classes in most subjects, while also allowing for "electives" that are either secular (say additional classes in history and literature) or religious. Educational authorities would choose the teachers providing religious education, thereby ensuring that the teachers are moderates and use appropriate texts. Parents would be able to choose which tracks their children would follow.

Essay Types: Essay