Examining the Religion Building Enterprise
The Milli Gazette
Blaming Islam for the lack of democratic and scientific developments in Muslim countries is not a new idea but an old enterprise rooted in the nineteenth and twentieth century European Orientalism. The late Edward Said succeeded, in the 1980s, in unmasking Orientalist notions within Western academia and exposing its false pretense. In his seminal work, Orientalism, Said demonstrated that Orientalist views of Islam were used to justify the European colonial ambitions in the Muslim world. Said’s monumental work was pivotal for the eventual transformation of Middle Eastern studies in Europe and the United States, as it forced the academia to embrace more scholarly and objective methods when studying the Muslim world.
Specialists who were intent on presenting Islam and Muslims in a negative light were unhappy with the positive portrayal, as were those who previously considered their work to be objective. Many were particularly disturbed by the rise of authentic voices that presented Islam as a vibrant religion, whose followers share many of the values and concerns of the West. Led by Princeton University historian, Bernard Lewis, they attempted to refute Said’s work and defend Orientalism. But Said’s thesis was profound, and Orientalists never fully recovered.
The September 11th terrorist attacks on mainland United States gave a new momentum to the Orientalist spirit. Bernard Lewis once again led the effort to revive Orientalist notions with the publishing of his 2002 book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Using subtle arguments, he indeed placed the blame on Islam and Islamic traditions for the failure of Middle Eastern societies to develop and modernize like the West. Lewis’ book has since been followed by an avalanche of similar articles and publications, mostly by neoconservative journalists and pundits, who reinforce Lewis’ thesis and even blaming Islam for the rise of terrorism as well as the rising tension between the West and the Muslim world.
The blame game is led today by neoconservative pundits who often present Islam as the new villain to be confronted by American military power. They have consistently presented Muslims as incapable of democratic rule, and who espouse values that are antithetical to world peace and religious tolerance.
To ensure that their views are not challenged by the academic community, neoconservatives are working hard to undermine academic freedom by intimidating scholars that present a balanced view of the Middle East. Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, a diatribe against Middle East Studies in U.S. universities, and Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, an organization devoted to smearing professors critical of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli’s treatment of Palestinians, are two such examples. This campaign is one that aims to intimidate free thinking on Middle East politics and silence voices that challenge their perspective.
Although many of the anti-Islam writers and neoconservative pundits play on the fear of the general public by publishing books for a general audience, others have been done for policymakers under the cover of respected institutions and think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the RAND Corporation. Readers should note that this activity began in 1992 when Defense Department staffers I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz drafted the “Defense Policy Guidance.” and was followed more discretely and in more depth in a report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century.
The neoconservative attitudes of, and approach to, Islam and the Middle East is well illustrated by a widely publicized report written by Cheryl Benard and published by the RAND Corporation in late 2003 under the title Civil and Democratic Islam. Like other neoconservatives, Bnard blames the rise of intolerance, anti-democratic tendencies, and terrorism on all Muslim individuals and groups that closely adhere to Islamic values and practices. RAND openly advocates “religion building” as the only way to counter terrorism and anti-Americanism.
Religion building is an invitation to world powers to reform Islam. It is a call for reinterpreting Islam and restructuring Muslim societies so as to counter the rise of militancy in Muslim societies. There is no contention over the need for reform, and the need for cultural and social reforms in Muslim societies and communities is well articulated by Muslim intellectuals long before Islam became the main focus of Western reporters and pundits. Indeed, reform has been underway for more than a century now, and Muslims have been engaged in an internal struggle to redefine modern Islamic societies in ways that aim at empowering civil society and ensuring democratic control.
The contention is rather over how reform is to be achieved, and who is more capable of leading the reform. The contention is over whether reform can or should be imposed by outsiders who have little understanding of Muslim societies and vague sense of the nuances of local cultures, and who call on world powers to use their political and military clout to impose sociopolitical design on Muslim societies and communities. A call for external intervention to restructure the Islamic faith and rebuild Muslim societies is faulty, and is guilty of misreading Islam and ignoring the sociopolitical reality that gives rise to global terrorism.
Religion building is perilous, complex, ill-conceived, and practically untenable. It is a distraction and a blatant attempt to avoid any serious evaluation of the responsibility of world powers for the radicalization of Muslim politics. The rise of radical Islam cannot be explained purely on the level of religious doctrine. Radicalization of Muslim politics is directly connected to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Muslim societies. Authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes that suppress open debate and silence opposition have long enjoyed the support of successive U.S. administrations.
On balance, Islam has been a positive force, rather than a villain to be arrested and chastised, in the development of the modern Middle East. The focus on radical groups perpetrating violence in the name of Islam prevents some analysts from appreciating the centrality of Islamic notions and values in the progress toward a more open society and vibrant culture. A full assessment that takes into account the impact of Islamic reform on Muslim society would illustrate that pessimism toward Islam, reflected in RANDS’s Civil Democratic Islam and similar documents, is unwarranted.
While urging support to one group and opposition to another, neoconservative pundits remain oblivious to the connection of the various ideological groups to the larger population in Muslim societies and to one another. The United States, as an external political actor that is increasingly perceived by Muslims as biased and uneven-handed, cannot positively affect political development by rendering support on the basis of artificial religious preferences. Rather, it must base its positions on intrinsic values and political principles. In actuality, Benard’s recommendations are nothing but a recycling of the very old foreign policies that got us where we are today and that have led to the radicalization of the Middle East.
The United States has tried in the past to put its weight behind Muslim secularists. The result has been the aggravation of the internal political balance and the radicalization of the societies where the U.S. took sides on the basis of superficial criteria and short-term interests. It was the very approach of siding with modernists against socialists and traditionalists that got the United States into trouble with the Iranians, the Lebanese, and, most recently, the Palestinians.
The report is conspicuously silent on the effects of U.S. foreign policy, which has been frequently characterized by Muslims as one of inconsistency and double standards – one that supports friendly dictators and corrupt, but useful, regimes in the Muslim world, while pushing for democratic reform in Eastern Europe; one that defends human rights in China, but ignores them in the Middle East; and one that protests Palestinian violence against Israel, but remains silent in the face of Israeli violence in Palestine. Indeed, the politicization of Islam and the rise of anti-Americanism are directly linked to the very efforts that aim at marginalizing Islam and forcing Western secularism on Muslim society.
RAND’s Civil Democratic Islam is a case in point and illustrates the tendency to treat Islam as an anomaly to be evaluated on the basis of different standards that the one used to evaluate Christianity, Judaism, and other world religions. The author of Civil Democratic Islam has surprisingly chosen religious identity rather than political values to distinguish foes from friends. While Civil Democratic Islam declares democracy and civil rights to be its ostensible goals, it surprisingly stresses religious doctrine and lifestyle to distinguish democratically oriented Muslims. Benard can hardly say the same thing about similar practices among Christians and Jews. The author would not use the same terms to describe Joe Lieberman, the U.S. senator from Connecticut, who is also a practicing orthodox Jew.
Containing radical groups and ensuring more friendly and cooperative relations with the Muslim world requires a drastic shift in policy and attitude. Rather than searching for “lifestyle” criteria to separate friends from foes, the United States’ position should be based on principles and values. The United States should support and cooperate with political forces in the Middle East that uphold the values of freedom, equality, and tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity, and should embrace those who display commitment to democracy and the rule of the law, regardless of their religion, religious doctrines, and their “lifestyle.”
Rather than using lifestyle and religious criteria to assign guilt, the U.S. government needs to extend its founding principles to followers of all religions, and ensure that it does not use different standards for dealing with different religions. The United States must be consistent in pursuing its support for democracy and human rights, and must ensure that the principles of right and justice that guide its relations with Europe also apply to its relations with Muslim societies.
American Muslims can be of great help in fighting terrorism and extremism, and in bridging the deepening divide between the United States and the Muslim world. American Muslims have deep understanding of both Muslim and American cultures, and are well-positioned to help reconcile Islam and the West. American Muslims have already made remarkable achievements at reconciling Islamic values with the founding principles of the United States, and have managed to develop good and important experiences as to how Islamic values can bear on modern living. They can be instrumental in sharing their experiences of aligning Islamic values and education with democratic institutions and practices with coreligionists in Muslim countries. But for that to happen in more effective ways, American Muslims need to be involved in policy making and implementation, rather than allowing themselves to be marginalized and chastised.
In addition to involving American Muslim leaders in consultation on policies relating to Islam, the Muslim world, and the war on terror, civil society and government organizations should: (1) engage Muslim leaders who represent social and political groups that are committed to democracy, instead of relying completely or exclusively on the views of experts who do not have firsthand contact or experience with Muslim groups; (2) ensure that U.S. foreign policy is always respectful of democratic principles and values, the rule of law, and protection of human rights; (3) apply the same set of principles and values to all people, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliation; (4) withdraw support from authoritarian regimes, and send a clear message by requiring an open political system and free and fair elections as a precondition for economic cooperation; (5) have a clear position regarding Islam, and avoid sending mixed messages to Muslim communities and societies.
*This article is a condensed summary of a more elaborate paper on the question. For full version of the arguments, please refer to Dr. Safi’s paper at
Dr. Louay M. Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership awareness and skills among American Muslim leaders, and a founding board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at his