Western dialogue with the Muslim world

Amitai Etzioni

A member of the New Zealand armed forces meeting Afghan villagers. Amitai Etzioni argues that military intervention has not won the ‘hearts and minds’ of populations in the Middle East, and new approaches must be found.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States brings renewed attention to the challenge of western relations with the Muslim world. Trump caused great controversy during the recent campaign with his proposal to limit immigration from Muslim countries. Whether one agrees or disagrees, this policy highlights the question of how the US and its allies will attempt to relate to the more than a billion Muslims across the world, many of whom already reside in western countries.

The struggle against terrorism in the Middle East has led to a quest to find ways to counter the appeal of violent extremists, especially that of Islamic State (ISIS). The challenge posed by ISIS’ positions is part of the much greater challenge concerning how the West should speak to and with the Muslim world. There is general agreement that the West has not found an effective way to ‘win hearts and minds’ in the Muslim world. As Hady Amr and Peter Warren Singer of the Brookings Institute pointed out:By any measure, America’s efforts at communicating with Muslim-majority nations since 9/11 have not been successful. The efforts have lacked energy, focus, and an overarching, integrated strategy.’

The typical western message to the Islamic world draws on three basic elements:

  1. the value of keeping religious life limited to the private sphere and out of politics;
  2. the value of free markets and capitalism as a means of achieving a good, affluent life;
  3. the virtues of human rights and democracy.

Polling however reveals that a majority of Muslims in many countries would like to see Islam and, specifically, Islamic law play a greater role in their lives. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey asked Muslims in 2015 whether they want Islamic law (or sharia) to be the official law of the land in their country. Nearly all Muslims in Afghanistan (99%) and most in Iraq (91%) and Pakistan (84%) agreed. In the largest Muslim-majority countries in the world, there is significant support for making sharia law official: in Indonesia, 72% were in favor; in Bangladesh, 84%; in Nigeria, 71% and in Egypt, 74%. Only a small minority said they supported democracy without sharia law. Last but not least, many devout Muslims believe that Americans worship at the altar of consumer goods rather than that of God. They view their own conception of the good life — living by the dictates of the Qur’an (and Hadith) — as morally superior to a life of western ‘hedonist materialism.’

In short, the western appeal to Muslims, in particular as led by the US, faces inherent major difficulties. The West advocates a separation of religion and state, while the majority of Muslims seek a greater role for religion in their public life. Moreover, the western characterization of the good life clashes with that of devout Muslims, and raises expectations that cannot be met, while the promotion of liberal democracy by the US and its allies disregards the lack of requisite foundations in Muslim-majority states which allow such regimes to thrive. Added to this is a failure to understand that such foundations cannot be externally imposed or introduced, via neither military intervention nor long-distance social engineering.

Extract from Etzioni’s recent International Affairs article, available here.

To form a sounder approach, one must acknowledge an often overlooked or obscured observation: that there are two fundamentally different interpretations of Islam, both of which are supported by a close reading of the Qur’an and major texts. On one hand, Islam is characterized as a peaceful religion that has been distorted by malicious radicals. On 17 September 2001, less than a week after the World Trade Center collapsed, President George W. Bush declared: ‘The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.’ In contrast, others in the West view Islam as an inherently violent religion. Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and two-time Republican presidential candidate, said: ‘The Muslims will go to the mosque, and they will have their day of prayer, and they come out of there like uncorked animals — throwing rocks and burning cars.’ A very telling example of the two iterations of Islam is the two views of ‘jihad’, a term which literally means ‘struggle’. It is interpreted by those who view Islam as legitimating violence as a holy war to convert or kill all infidels. In sharp contrast, for moderate Islam, ‘jihad’ is a spiritual struggle seeking self-improvement.

It follows that the West needs to ally itself with the moderate non-violent versions of Islam against the violent ones. This can be achieved only if, for the time being, the focus is not on secular, capitalistic, liberal messages — but on the rejection of the use of force, for a peaceful coexistence. Drawing on such major lines from the Qur’an: there should be no compulsion in religion.

Western government agencies are particularly ill-suited to promoting moderate interpretations of Islam. The Left is likely to be troubled by such a project because they tend to be secularist. Conservatives are likely to be troubled by it because they would rather promote Judeo-Christian values than Muslim ones. Agents that are much more suitable are indigenous NGOs and civil society bodies in Muslim countries that embrace moderate (non-violent) versions of Islam. These are found, for instance, in Morocco, Jordan and Indonesia. At least until recently Turkish authorities prepared sermons (generally with moderate messages) that clerics use for preaching on Fridays. However, these are available only in Turkish. A Muslim publishing house or other organization could translate these sermons into the many languages used in the Muslim world and make them widely available via the internet. The same holds for moderate books, articles and various social media products. Another avenue is to support associations of Muslim clergy, public intellectuals and leaders who have moderate views, to help them conduct regular meetings — online and face-to-face — build bonds among moderates, and attract more members. Whether or not a Trump administration will actively encourage these moderate voices remains to be seen, but for western relations with the Muslim world to improve, it is surely imperative to consider this change of direction.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, was published by Routledge in 2016, in collaboration with Chatham House.

This post is a shorter version of a recently published article “Talking to the Muslim World: how, and with whom?” in International Affairs. To access the original article, click here.