Five Pillars of Democracy

How the West Can Promote an Islamic Reformation

By Cheryl Benard

Cheryl Benard is a senior political scientist at RAND.

Bosnians

AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS/EPA/FEHIM DEMIR

An Islamic "borderline" leader between modernizing traditionalism and modernism, Bosnian Muslim Imam Mustafa Ceric, right, joins Bosnian Cardinal Vinko Puljic for a Christmas gathering in Sarajevo on Dec. 26, 2003.

Rival versions of Islam are contending for spiritual and political dominance, with immense implications for the rest of the world. By understanding the ongoing ideological struggle within Islam and by distinguishing among the competing strains of Islamic thought, Western leaders can identify appropriate Islamic partners and work with them to discourage extremism and violence as well as to encourage democratization and development.

The notion that the outside world should try to nurture a moderate, democratic version of Islam has been in circulation for decades but gained great urgency after Sept. 11, 2001. There is broad agreement that this is a constructive approach. Islam inspires a variety of ideologies and political actions, some of which are inimical to global stability. It therefore seems sensible to foster the strains within Islam that call for a more moderate, democratic, peaceful, and tolerant social order.

It is no easy matter to transform a major world religion. If "nation-building" is a daunting task, "religionbuilding" is immeasurably more perilous and complex. Islam is neither a homogeneous entity nor a selfcontained system. Many extraneous issues and problems have become entangled with the religion. Many political actors in the Muslim world deliberately seek to "Islamize" the debate in a way that they think will further their goals.

The current crisis in Islam has two main components: a failure to thrive on its own terms and a loss of connection to the global mainstream. The Islamic world has been marked by a long period of backwardness and comparative powerlessness. Many homegrown solutions—such as nationalism, pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, and Islamic revolution—have been attempted without success, leading to frustration and anger. Meanwhile, the Islamic world has both fallen out of step with contemporary global culture and moved increasingly to the margins of the global economy, creating an uncomfortable situation for both sides.

Muslims disagree on what to do about the crisis, what has caused it, and what their societies ultimately should look like. For the West, the question is which ideology (or ideologies) to support; with what methods; and with what concrete, realistic goals in mind.

An Ideological Spectrum

There are essentially four ideological positions in the Muslim world today: fundamentalist, traditionalist, modernist, and secularist. Each group contains subgroups that blur the distinctions among the primary groups. It is important for Western leaders to understand the differences within groups as well as among groups.

Fundamentalists reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture. They want an authoritarian, puritanical state to implement their extreme view of Islamic law and morality. They are willing to use innovation and modern technology. They do not shy away from violence.

There are two strands of fundamentalism. One, grounded in theology and usually rooted in a religious establishment, belongs to the scriptural fundamentalists. This group includes most of the Iranian revolutionaries, the Saudi-based Wahhabis, and the Kaplan congregation of Turks. The radical fundamentalists, in contrast, are much less concerned with the literal substance of Islam, with which they take considerable liberties either deliberately or because of ignorance of orthodox Islamic doctrine. Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and a large number of other Islamic radical movements and diffuse groups worldwide belong to this category.

Traditionalists want a conservative society. They are suspicious of modernity, innovation, and change. They are also divided into two groups. The distinction is significant.

The conservative traditionalists believe that Islamic law and tradition ought to be rigorously and literally followed. They see a role for the state and for the political authorities in encouraging or at least facilitating this. However, they do not generally favor violence and terrorism. They concentrate their efforts on the daily life of society. Their goal is to preserve orthodox norms and values and conservative behavior to the fullest extent possible. Their posture is one of resistance to change. The temptations and the pace of modern life are seen as posing major threats.

The reformist traditionalists believe that Islam, to remain viable and attractive throughout the ages, must be prepared to make some concessions in the application of orthodoxy. They are prepared to discuss reforms and reinterpretations. Their posture is one of cautious adaptation to change, being flexible on the letter of the law to conserve the spirit of the law.

Modernists want the Islamic world to become part of global modernity. They want to reform Islam to bring it into line with the modern age. They actively seek far-reaching changes to the current orthodox understanding and practice of Islam. They want to jettison the burdensome ballast of local and regional tradition that, over the centuries, has intertwined itself with Islam.

They further believe in the historicity of Islam—that Islam as it was practiced in the days of the Prophet reflected eternal truths as well as historical circumstances that were appropriate to the time but are no longer valid. They believe that the essential core of Islamic belief not only will remain undamaged but will be strengthened by changes, even very substantial changes, that reflect changing times, social conditions, and historical circumstances. Their core values—the primacy of the individual conscience and of a community based on social responsibility, equality, and freedom—are easily compatible with modern democratic norms.

Secularists want the Islamic world to accept a division of mosque and state in the manner of Western industrial democracies, with religion relegated to the private sphere. They further believe that religious customs must be in conformity with the law of the land and human rights. The Turkish Kemalists, who placed religion under the firm control of the state, represent the secularist model in Islam.

These positions should be viewed as segments on a continuum, rather than divergent categories. There are no clear boundaries among them. Some traditionalists overlap with fundamentalists. The most modernist of the traditionalists are almost modernists. The most extreme modernists are similar to secularists. At the same time, the groups hold distinctly different positions on issues that have become contentious in the Islamic world today, including political and individual freedom, education, the status of women, criminal justice, the legitimacy of reform and change, and attitudes toward the West.

An Agenda for Reform

Whirling dervishes

AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS/EPA/KERIM OKTEN

Whirling dervishes dance in the Mevlana dance hall in Konya, Turkey, on Dec. 17, 2003, the 730th anniversary of the death of Sufi poet Mevlana Jalal aldin Rumi. Through its poetry, music, and philosophy, Sufism can bridge religious affiliations within and beyond Islam.

What the roiling ideological ferment requires from the West is both a firm commitment to fundamental Western values and a sequence of flexible postures suited to different Islamic contexts, populations, and countries. This approach could help to develop civil, democratic Islam while giving the West the versatility to deal appropriately with different settings.

The following outline describes what such a strategy might look like. It rests on "five pillars of democracy" for the Islamic world. The pillars correspond to the postures that the West should take toward the four ideological groups and toward ordinary citizens in Muslim countries.

1. Support the modernists first, promoting their version of Islam by equipping them with a broad platform to articulate and to disseminate their views. It is tempting to choose the traditionalists as the primary agents for fostering democratic Islam, and this appears to be the course that the West is inclined to take. However, some very serious problems argue against taking such a course.

Overendorsing the traditionalists could undermine the ongoing internal reform effort within Islam and hinder those—the modernists—whose values are genuinely compatible with our own. Of all the groups, the modernists are the most congenial to the values and spirit of modern democratic society. We need to advance their vision of Islam over that of the traditionalists.

Modernism, not traditionalism, is what worked for the West. This included the necessity to depart from, modify, and selectively ignore elements of the original religious doctrine. The Old Testament is not different from the Koran in endorsing conduct and containing a number of rules and values that are unthinkable, not to mention illegal, in modern society. This does not pose a problem in the West, because few people today would insist that we should all be living in the exact literal manner of the Biblical patriarchs. Instead, we allow our vision of the true message of Judaism or Christianity to transcend the literal text, which we regard as history and legend. That is exactly the approach proposed by Islamic modernists.

Secularists are also close to the West in terms of their values and policies. But some secularists are unacceptable to the West because of their reflexive anti- Americanism or other positions. The secularists also have trouble appealing to the traditional sectors of an Islamic audience.

For these reasons, the modernists are the best partners for the West. Unfortunately, they are generally in a weaker position than the fundamentalists and traditionalists, lacking powerful backing, financial resources, an effective infrastructure, and a public platform. Therefore, Western leaders should support the modernists by these means:

  • Publish and distribute their works at subsidized cost.
  • Encourage them to write for mass audiences and for youth.
  • Introduce their views into the curriculum of Islamic education.
  • Make their religious opinions and judgments available to a mass audience to compete with the fundamentalists and traditionalists, who have web sites, publishing houses, schools, institutes, and many other vehicles for disseminating their views.
  • Position modernism and secularism as counterculture options for disaffected Islamic youth.
  • Use the media and educational curricula in suitable countries to foster an awareness of their pre-Islamic and non-Islamic histories and cultures.

2. Support the traditionalists enough to keep them viable against the fundamentalists (if and wherever those are the only choices). Among the traditionalists, the West should embolden those who are the relatively better match for modern civil society: the reformist traditionalists. The West should support the traditionalists against the fundamentalists in these ways:

  • Publicize traditionalist criticism of fundamentalist violence and extremism.
  • Encourage disagreements between traditionalists and fundamentalists.
  • Discourage alliances between traditionalists and fundamentalists.
  • Encourage cooperation between modernists and reformist traditionalists.
  • Where appropriate, educate the traditionalists to debate the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are often rhetorically superior, while traditionalists practice a politically inarticulate "folk Islam." In places such as Central Asia, traditionalists may need to be trained in orthodox Islam to be able to stand their ground against fundamentalists.
  • Increase the presence and profile of modernists in traditionalist institutions.
  • Encourage the traditionalists who support the Hanafi school of Islamic law as a way to counter the conservative Wahhabi-supported Hanbali school of Islamic law.
  • Encourage the popularity and acceptance of Sufism, a traditionalist form of Islamic mysticism that represents an open, intellectual interpretation of Islam.

3. Oppose the fundamentalists energetically by striking at the vulnerabilities in their Islamic and ideological credentials. Expose things that neither the youthful idealists in their target audience nor the pious traditionalists can condone about the fundamentalists: their corruption, their brutality, their ignorance, the bias and manifest errors in their application of Islam, and their inability to lead and to govern. The West should fight the fundamentalists in these ways:

  • Challenge their interpretation of Islam, and expose their inaccuracies.
  • Reveal their linkages to illegal groups and activities.
  • Publicize the consequences of their violent acts.
  • Demonstrate their inability to develop their countries and communities in positive ways.
  • Target the messages to youth, pious traditionalists, Muslim minorities in the West, and women.
  • Portray violent extremists and terrorists accurately as disturbed and cowardly, not as heroes.
  • Encourage journalists to investigate corruption, hypocrisy, and immorality in fundamentalist and terrorist circles.
  • Encourage divisions among fundamentalists.

One strategy holds great promise. Despite the success of radical fundamentalism in mobilizing discontented young people, especially young men, it has many features that should turn young people away. This major flaw in fundamentalist political strategy has not so far been exploited.

Radical Islam does not value young lives very highly. By manipulating youthful idealism and their sense of drama and heroics, radical Islam turns young people into cannon fodder and suicide bombers. Madrassas (the fundamentalist schools) specifically educate boys to die young, to become martyrs. If Muslim youth ever begin to look at things through a generational lens, as Western youth did in the 1960s, they may begin to ask why most suicide bombers and martyrs are under the age of 30. You don’t have to be young to strap explosives onto yourself. If it’s such a wonderful thing to do, why aren’t older people doing it?

4. Support the secularists on a case-by-case basis. The West should encourage secularists to recognize fundamentalism as a common enemy and discourage secularist alliances with anti-U.S. forces. The West should also support the idea that religion and state can be separate in Islam, too, and that the separation will not endanger the faith but, in fact, can strengthen it.

5. Develop secular civic and cultural institutions and programs. Western organizations can help to develop independent civic organizations that can provide a space in the Islamic world for ordinary citizens to educate themselves about the political process and to articulate their views.

Any strategy of this sort should be pursued with a wariness of the potential for backlash. The alignment of U.S. policymakers with particular Islamic positions could endanger or discredit the very groups and people the West is seeking to help. Partnerships that may seem appropriate in the short term, such as affiliations with conservative traditionalists, could provoke unintended consequences in the long term. To prevent this, the West needs to adhere consistently and faithfully to its core values of democracy, equality, individual freedom, and social responsibility.