Engaging Islam

In August, FPIF contributor Najum Mushtaq authored a discussion paper— “Islamic Blowback Part Two?”—that critiqued the current U.S. policy of promoting “moderate Islam.” He was particularly critical of a report by Abdeslam Maghraoui, director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here we highlight a detailed response from Abdeslam Maghraoui, followed by a rejoinder from Najum Mushtaq.

Abdeslam Maghraoui

In a commentary on my “American Foreign Policy and Islamic Renewal,” Najum Mushtaq raises a number of important issues on the challenge of advancing reform and democracy in the Muslim world. However, his alternative vision of a secular Muslim world is politically improbable and conceptually incoherent.

In my report, I argue that the best strategy to counter religious extremism in the Muslim world is to draw on modernist Muslim thinkers and scholars to articulate a progressive, humanistic vision of Islam. That vision, I maintain, is more likely to mobilize wide Muslim constituencies around a moderate, modernist reform agenda than the current “Global War on Terrorism” or “democracy promotion.” I further argue that while free elections are desirable in principle, they may not be useful to negotiate substantive political issues or confront the deep ideological crisis unfolding in the Muslim world. I conclude the report with six specific recommendations on how America, key international institutions, and legitimate local actors can cooperate to renew Islam’s humanist and progressive traditions.

Najum Mushtaq faults my report for being text-based and not paying sufficient attention to the Muslim world context. He suggests scrapping altogether Islam’s influence and legacy. Instead of a homegrown approach, he proposes a “secular vision with universal appeal.” Rather than drawing on Islam’s progressive traditions, he recommends that the U.S. export liberal democracy, secular education, laws, values, and especially science.

To secular Muslims like myself, Najum Mushtaq’s call to secular laws and separation of state and church is very appealing. Except for one problem: the author does not spell out how his secular, liberal vision can actually be achieved in the current context of the Muslim world. Yet, he makes the absence of “context”—which he vaguely defines as “social processes”—the center of his criticism of my report. He is, moreover, inattentive to what Muslims may actually feel or think about his particular, secular vision of culture, society, and the state.

The problems with Najum Mushtaq’s argument are threefold. First, it is not at all clear what he means by “context.” He states that my approach “ignores the political and social contexts in which multiethnic, multilingual, and sect-ridden Muslim communities exist.” In fact my report recognizes the Muslim world’s social, cultural, and religious diversity and suggests drawing on local institutions, social networks, and discourses to renew with tolerance and peaceful existence. But he ignores the Muslim world’s anthropological reality and historical legacy and imagines a secular, rational Muslim world with no religions and no tribes.

The second problem with Najum Mushtaq’s argument is his biased view of world history. He denies religion in general, and Islam in particular, any rational appeal, indeed any intrinsic ethical value. For him, Muslims are attracted to Islam because they don’t know better. He chooses to ignore that secular ideologies are equally capable of being oppressive and regressive. And he assumes that the Muslim world will necessarily evolve in the same direction as the West. This lack of “sociological imagination” prevents him from considering different, but equally valuable, historical trajectories. Secularism may not be the only path to foster peaceful, tolerant, and prosperous Muslim societies. It is indeed a very unlikely path if we take into consideration the current context.

Yet the most serious problem with Najum Mushtaq’s essay is his mechanical view of democracy. The irreconcilable elements of his proposition are quite obvious. On one hand, he puts a premium on “democracy promotion” and the organization of free elections. On the other hand, he wants a Muslim world ruled by secular laws, values, beliefs, and education. Yet he is well aware that free elections will most likely bring religious leaders who would accumulate both religious power and legislative authority. This contradiction cannot be resolved without the normative engagement with moderate Islamists that my “Islamic Renewal” report calls for. Instead of confronting this political and conceptual challenge, he chooses to dwell on the manipulation of religion by oppressive rulers and cold war politics, something we all agree on.

Najum Mushtaq rightly gives considerable weight to democracy, but he is inattentive to the limits of formal democratic competition. Modern elections, party politics, and the very nature of modern political representation create pressures, interests, centers of power, social demands, and ideological constituencies that don’t help the kind of secular reforms he has in mind.

Consider this concrete example. A few years ago, a coalition of secular political parties in the Moroccan government wanted to enact family law reforms in favor of women. During the law reform campaign, two major Islamist parties that opposed the reform mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. Fearing an electoral backlash in the national elections, the secular parties immediately withdrew and shelved the plan. Later, a non-elected commission made up of religious scholars, representatives of women groups, human rights activists, moderate Islamists—led by a non-elected institution, the monarchy—pushed the civil law reform forward.

The point is not that free elections should be postponed or cancelled. The point is to be aware of the limits of democracy when it comes to achieving certain objectives. Najum Mushtaq assumes that free democratic elections are good for mediating a society’s competition over the distribution of resources as well as substantive issues such as deciding the place of religion in public life. That is simply not the case.

The challenges of reform confronting the Muslim world are complex and we should all be modest about how we can contribute to a flourishing and peaceful Muslim world. It is unfortunate that Najum Mushtaq doesn’t seem to recognize this complexity. Instead, he resorts to labels and links my report and the U.S. Institute of Peace to the Bush administration. If anything, my special report is weary of the thrust of current policies toward the Muslim world and offers an alternative that can be reasonably embraced by major actors. And the views expressed in my report, as well as this response, do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a national, independent think tank dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflicts around the world.

Najum Mushtaq

Abdeslam Maghraoui lists three main problems with my FPIF commentary on his report: the absence of a context; its biased, irreligious view of world history; and a mechanical view of democracy. Let’s take the last, “most serious” one first.

Maghraoui presumes (and erroneously attributes it to my FPIF paper also) that “free elections will most likely bring [to power] religious leaders who would accumulate both religious power and legislative authority.” I argue the opposite. The experience of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—states with the largest concentration of Muslims, making up more than half of what is called the “Muslim world”—confutes this presumption of Muslims electing religious leaders. Religious leaders have never won elections in these three overwhelmingly Muslim countries.

Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif—whose parties won elections in 1988, 1990, 1993, and 1997—could hardly be described as religious leaders. Nor are Hasina Wajid and Khaleda Zia, the two female prime ministers taking turns in Bangladesh. Indonesia did for a short while have a religious leader as its president after the fall of Suharto. But Abdurrahman Wahid was supported by the secular parties and, in any case, did not have a religious political agenda of imposing an extremist version of Islam. Religious parties have consistently lost ground in Indonesia in the subsequent elections since Wahid’s fall in 2001.

The example of India, the world’s largest democracy, is also instructive. With a Muslim population as large and as diverse as that of Pakistan and Bangladesh, no religious leader or Islamic party has ever been the electoral choice of Muslim voters in the predominantly Hindu country.

Unlike Maghraoui, I would like to assert that it is the lack of democracy that helps to exaggerate the threat of religious extremism in Muslim societies, not too much of it.

Maghraoui also criticizes my FPIF paper for a “biased view of world history” that denies Islam an “intrinsic ethical value” and suggests “scrapping altogether Islam’s influence and legacy.” This point of criticism is linked to the first problem Maghraoui finds with my FPIF paper—that I am inattentive to the anthropological reality and historical legacy of the Muslim world.

Maghraoui faults me for imagining a “Muslim world with no religions and no tribes.” I do not do that. Quite the contrary. I believe that what is called the Muslim world has too many mutually incompatible religions and too many tribes to be reducible to the single category of Islam. Focusing merely on the Islamic identity—whether moderate or otherwise—is fundamentally flawed and leads to bad policymaking (two examples of which are the war on terrorism and proposals to renew Islam from within).

Rather than advocating scrapping Islam’s influence and legacy, I argue that any variety of Islam or other religions must not be sponsored and established by the state and that religion should strictly remain the prerogative of individuals. Espousing Islam as the basic common denominator of a state and society like, say, Pakistan has led to conflicts over whose Islam is correct and true. Is it the Sunni-Deobandi Islam or Sunni-Barelvi Islam or Shia Islam or Ismaili Islam or Ahle-Hadith Islam or Salafi Islam or Sufi Islam (and which of the Sufi traditions) or the modern Islam of the Islamic universities that should hold sway legally, culturally, and politically? Indeed, who is a Muslim and what statement of creed does a Muslim make are the most contentious constitutional questions in Pakistan.

I would also like to again take issue with the use of terms like the “Muslim world” and the West. These terms are not useful even as geographical pointers. Employing them as tools of political and sociological analyses leads to gross generalizations and a distortion of what Maghraoui calls the anthropological reality. For instance, would India be a part of Maghraoui’s “Muslim world”? What intrinsic ethical value do Islamic traditions and history have for the people of Afghanistan and, say, Albania? Is it the Arab Islam of Sudan’s Janjaweed militia or the African culture of the Fur Muslims that qualifies as authentic Islam? Iran’s Shiism or Arab Wahhabism? And each of these Islamic categories can itself be further peeled. And then in each category you may like to find extremists, modernists, traditionalists etc, etc.

The difference of approach here is fundamental: Maghraoui views religion(s) to have some sort of rational appeal and intrinsic ethical value. In his view, there is a distinct Islamic history, a history shaped and influenced by the religion. In my view, religion—one of the Islams or any other—is a product of history. Humans shape religion and not vice versa. There are many other determinants of a people’s political behavior than religion. We cannot find out, as Maghraoui demands, what Muslims may actually feel or think about a “ particular, secular vision of culture, society, and the state” unless Muslim men and women are allowed to regularly exercise their right to choose and dislodge their lawmakers and governments.

Abdeslam Maghraoui is the director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. FPIF contributor Najum Mushtaq is a Nairobi-based journalist.