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Ideas for a fairer world

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Should the United States attempt to reform Islam?

By Dr. Gregorio Bettiza.

Should American foreign policymakers attempt to reform major world religions? This may sound like a hubristic, at best, if not a potentially dangerous and misguided idea, at worse. Yet, this is what the United States has, in essence, been attempting to do with Islam and Muslims since 9/11. Since that tragic September morning in 2001, many policy analysts in the United States came to understand the attacks and the ensuing War on Terror as part of an ongoing struggle for the future direction of Islam and the hearts and minds of Muslims. In the process, a wide range of domestic and foreign policy initiatives have emerged over the past decades designed to intervene in theological debates within Islam and encourage Muslims to 'speak out' against terrorism, while also seeking to defuse clash of civilizations narratives and promote a positive image of America in the so-called Muslim world.

The most public expression of such thinking was recently on display in two speeches delivered by President Obama to civil society organizations and governmental representatives at the closure of a three-day Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, held at the White House in February 2015. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), as Marc Lynch perceptively noted some time back, is the contemporary version – with more technocratic and palatable language and less ideological spin – of what Bush-era neoconservatives used to label as winning the 'war of ideas'. Neoconservatives, despite what their critiques often argued, rarely spoke in terms of a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. They did however relentlessly contend that an ongoing clash within a civilization, Islam, was taking place pitting on the one hand 'good' and 'moderate' Muslims, against 'bad' and 'fundamentalist' ones on the other. Given this religious context, America had an important stake and role to play in influencing this on-going war of ideas within Islam against fundamentalists and extremists. This reasoning and rhetoric was not only confined to RAND Corporation reports of the time, but also made its way into President Bush's National Security Strategy.

Since the early 2000s, starting with the Bush administration and continuing with the Obama one, a range of overt as well as covert policy interventions have taken place worldwide designed to steer, reform, update, influence Islamic education, debates, teachings and practices away from theological interpretations articulated by extremist and jihadist groups and towards more moderate, or pietist, or liberal, or even fundamentalist but non-violent interpretations of Islam. Madrassas are being reformed, preachers trained, Imams, clerics, and Muslim religious and public opinion leaders willing to issue fatwas or speak out against Al Qaeda, ISIS and delegitimizing terrorist tactics more generally, are actively sought and when possible supported – often undercover. These programs are rooted in a thinking that sees 'Islam as the solution', to use the famous Muslim Brotherhood slogan, against politically active and especially violently committed Islamist movements and groups.

An institutional infrastructure has emerged over the decades to devise, manage and coordinate these initiatives. Rooted in small incremental changes under the Bush administration, bureaucratic developments have consolidated under the Democratic president's watch. A revamped White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a legacy of the Bush years, was mandated in 2009 by Obama to think through – among other things – how to improve interfaith cooperation and dialogue with the Muslim world- see report. America today holds what can be described as two 'ambassadors' one to Muslim states and the other to Muslim peoples. These are a Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, first appointed by Bush in 2008, and a Special Representative to Muslim Communities, a position created by the Obama administration in 2009. A Directory for Global Engagement in the National Security Council, created in 2009, and a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications in the State Department, created in 2011,seek to coordinate Muslim engagement initiatives and CVE programs.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, the most public and visible part of what is a developing architecture across the foreign policy apparatus – including the Department of Defence and CIA – designed to intervene in debates within Islam and among Muslims to delegitimize terrorist tactics and jihadists discourses. The underlining principle is to use religious arguments and traditions, mobilizing 'moderate Muslims' (whoever these are) to speak out against violence and show that 'true Islam' (whatever this may be) is peaceful, and pushing for the articulation of an understanding of Islam and Muslim identity that is compatible with American interests, especially in the Middle East, and Western values (whatever these may be). There has been an important push towards these types of policies also across Europe, for instance, often proposed as palatable alternatives to more militarized and securitized interventions to fight terrorism. An important part of the British response to the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, has involved a controversial public diplomacy campaign by David Cameron's government asking Imams and Muslim leaders to condemn actively violent attacks, such as those on the French satirical journal, and explain how their religion "can be part of British identity".

Assuming that contemporary violence committed in the name of Islam has something to do with religion, an issue that is anything but settled and vigorously debated by scholars, intellectuals and religious leaders today, few have paused to think about the unintended consequences and possibly pernicious effects these policies may be having. Let us focus on two issues: public calls for so-called 'moderate Muslims' to speak out, and often less public and more covert initiatives designed to directly intervene in theological debates and controversies within Islam and among Muslims.

Calls for so-called moderate Muslims to speak out, while generally well-meaning, are also highly problematic. These calls, rather than defusing heightened narratives of religious conflict, appear to inadvertently single out a group of people (Muslims) and a religion (Islam) for being especially connected to terrorism. A step forward has been made in using the rhetoric of 'violent extremism' rather than 'Islamic terrorism' to defuse the idea that there might be a particular link between Islam and violence. While the label violent extremism could be generalized to include members of any religion or secular creed – especially at a time when right-wing, supremacist, domestic extremism is reportedly to be on the rise in the US – it is 'Muslim' violent extremism that the US government is mostly concerned with. Thus, it is Muslims who are regularly and publicly exhorted by the highest levels of government to demonstrate that theirs is a 'religion of peace'. The paradox is that the more Western leaders ask moderate Muslims to show that Islam is in fact a 'religion of peace', the more they are politicizing religious belonging and belief while also conveying the message that the burden of proof lies mostly with this one particular faith and their adherents.

Moreover, the so-called 'moderate Muslim' has become one of the most ambiguous and contested categories of our time. It means everything and anything to anyone. Maybe the moderate Muslim is someone of deep faith (why otherwise use a religious identity marker compared to an ethnic, national or regional one?), who disapproves of violence (is this what the 'moderate' stands for?). Presumably of all forms of violence, though. This so-called moderate Muslim, hence, may be heard condemning and speaking unequivocally against both warped Islamist violent ideology and acts, but also against rising Islamophobia in the West and America's wars and policies in the Middle East.

Caught in the War on Terror's logic, which sharply divides the world between us and them, this so-called moderate Muslim often inevitably appears problematically stuck in the middle – in what ISIS's glossy publication Dabiq despairingly calls the 'grayzone'. Moderate Muslims are too lenient towards the West for conservative Islamist standards, while too critical by American standards. Their profound religiosity is seen suspiciously by Westerners, while their non-confrontationalist interpretation of Islam often questioned as unauthentic by extremists. In the processes, the more the moderate Muslim is invoked the more the label becomes a tainted one. Ultimately, the paradoxical result is that an important critical voice in today's conversation about the role of Islam in world politics, as well as America's problematic conduct in the Middle East, is effectively undermined.

American initiatives designed to intervene and steer Islamic theological controversies worldwide towards the delegitimation of certain religious and political narratives, especially those that advocate violent tactics, raise urgent policy questions. First and foremost, there seems to be very little oversight and scrutiny of such initiatives, especially internationally oriented ones - some reports tracking the effectiveness of domestic CVE programs have been made available by the US Government Accountability Office and the Research Service. Who is being funded, which religious leaders, madrassas, Islamic centres are receiving US support and what are they doing with this support? What type of religion and Islam are these groups articulating and advancing? Much of this information, if it is available anywhere, is not easily accessible. If it were, it would likely discredit – in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims – most of those institutions and figures receiving some sort of American backing.

This observation leads to a second, important, point. Critical learning and open debate about Islam in the Middle East has been undermined in recent decades, if not century, not solely because of the emergence of rigid, ultra-conservative and fundamentalist interpretations, but also because of continuous state meddling in religion. Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist ideologies have thrived in part because of a growing legitimacy deficit of official religious institutions and centres of learning in the Middle East. Established Islamic religious institutions and leaders have been perceived, not erroneously, by younger generations to have been co-opted by Arab political leaders and ruling elites over the past century to serve their state building projects, especially creating consent and stifling opposition.

This entanglement between official government and official religion has been on display recently in the emblematic case of Egypt's al-Azhar University, historically one of the most authoritative centers of Sunni Islamic thinking and learning in the region. Since taking power in 2013, General el-Sisi's Egyptian government has reportedly been sacking thousands of preachers sympathetic or affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. These have been replaced with al-Azhar graduates who must follow a particular government-approved religious and political script. The case of Egypt and al-Azhar is emblematic, but not unique in the Middle East.

Further co-option of religious sites and figures to serve an international and foreign agenda such as the American one is thus likely to further aggravate rather than ameliorate this legitimacy crisis. Hence, CVE policies may inadvertently risk multiplying, rather than restricting, the opportunities for unlearned and unorthodox theological interpretations of Islam to flourish. Precisely like those put forward by Al Qaeda, for instance, whose intellectual cadre and ideologues are medical doctors and engineers and not religious scholars.

Moreover, underlining these American policies is also an often implicit belief that Muslims need their own reformation and their own Martin Luther. The assumption is that this process would lead to some kind of accommodation between Islam and democratic liberal values as in the end it occurred within Christianity. But this form of reasoning is problematic, as a recent article in Foreign Policy also points out, and it is so for at least three reasons. It is Christian-centric, founded on a particular understanding of the Protestant reformation and its relationship to liberal politics, and based on an unwarranted belief that outsiders can direct the historical course of religious communities and traditions.

First, every religion has it own trajectory and its own way of negotiating the relationship between its texts and traditions, and a changing reality. It is an erroneous assumption that all religions should follow the same, Christian, path to modernity. Second, if any parallel can be made between Islam and Christianity, it may be worth remembering that the period of the Protestant reformations was surely not one marked by peace and supposed secular and liberal tolerance. The reformation and the subsequent counter-reformation became deeply entangled with more than a century of war in Europe, Martin Luther was profoundly intolerant of Jews for instance, and Protestants have had a long history of anti-Catholicism. Given this context, further violence and sectarianism spurred by a supposed 'Muslim reformation' is surely what the Middle East does not need at the moment.

Thirdly, can American foreign policymakers and programs really influence the course of a major world religion from the outside? As even one of RAND Corporation's reports advocating for the active reform of Islam humbly acknowledges at some point: "It is no easy matter to transform a major world religion. If 'nation-building' is a daunting task, 'religion-building' is immeasurably more perilous and complex." American nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan have been catastrophic failures and the trail of unsavoury unintended consequences which these projects are leaving behind, think ISIS among many, is surely no cause for celebration. One wonders why and how American policymakers will be any more successful in the "more perilous and complex task", as the RAND report puts it, "of religion-building".

Overall, CVE activities are based on an idea that there is a religious problem – although not with Islam itself but surely within it – which is in need of a religious solution. As a result of this thinking we have come to live in an age where the most powerful state in the international system is seeking to intervene and mould the future direction of a major world religion according to its values and interests. Few have stopped to question the wisdom of such rational, whether America should politicize religion even further in its War on Terror and what the longer term unintended consequences of such operations might be. Democracy in Iraq was supposed to be the antidote to violent extremism, which instead today appears out of control. What if then the religious cure proves even more dangerous than the disease it seeks to fight?

Dr. Gregorio Bettiza is a Lecturer in International Relations and Security in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter.

March 2015.