The most public expression of such thinking was recently on display in two speeches delivered by President Obama to
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.