RAND Study Describes How West Can Counter Radical Islam

For Release

March 18, 2004

The United States and its allies can best counter the destabilizing forces of radical Islam by gaining a better understanding of the broad range of views among Muslims that make some potential allies and others determined adversaries, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study calls for a strategy that can distinguish between Muslims with whom peaceful relationships and dialogue are possible, and extremist Muslims whose values are fundamentally incompatible with democracy and the contemporary international order.

“The United States and its allies need to be more discriminating in the way they perceive and interact with groups who call themselves Islamic,” said Cheryl Benard, a RAND analyst and author of the report. “The term is too vague, and it doesn’t really help us when we are looking to encourage progress and democratic principals, while being supportive of religious beliefs.”

The report is titled Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. It describes a number of key topics or “marker issues” — such as democracy, human rights, Islamic criminal penalties, polygamy, women’s role in society, jihad, the status of minorities, and the principle of an Islamic state — that reveal a group’s underlying ideology.

By comparing the positions groups hold on the marker issues with orthodox Islamic belief, the report concludes that the more extreme groups often take positions that are clearly contrary to Islam, although they claim to represent it.

The report assigns groups and individuals a position along a spectrum based on their values, with radical fundamentalism at one end and radical secularism at the other. Most groups fall somewhere in between, and can be classified as fundamentalists, traditionalists, modernists, or secularists.

A key characteristic of radical fundamentalists is their open and aggressive hostility toward the United States, coupled with a goal of damaging and destroying democratic society. Fundamentalists want to impose and expand the strict observance of Islam — which they often interpret in eccentric ways not supported by orthodox texts and sources — through force, violence, terrorism, and any other means necessary, the report says. Traditionalists tend to concentrate on keeping their community and families within a pious Islamic framework. They tend not to challenge the state, and to oppose terrorism and violence. However, they are often uncomfortable with modernity, and many of them lack education, even about the principles of their own religion, relying instead on superstitions and local tradition. In many places, they have contributed to stagnation and inertia, and have not helped their societies prosper and progress.

Modernists and secularists are more closely aligned with the West in their values and policies, though the more extreme secularists can hold radical views that place them beyond the bounds of democracy. Modernists support reform in the hope that the Islamic world becomes part of contemporary global society. Secularists go even further, urging Muslims to accept the Western idea of a separation between religion and the state, relegating religion to a private matter.

The views of modernists and secularists are increasingly being articulated in the Islamic world as it struggles to understand and come to terms with contemporary political and economic challenges. It is rare, however, for these positions to be heard in the West, which tends to give disproportionate attention to fundamentalists — especially since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the RAND report says.

The report warns that the focus on fundamentalists is obscuring Western understanding of the vibrancy and breadth of debate within Islam today. It says the most effective approach to engage the Islamic world might include a strategic combination of the following elements:

  • Support the modernists first. To gain awareness and compete with the powerful fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and the appeal of its bold and aggressive stance to young people, the West can help modernists disseminate their views to mass audiences through a variety of vehicles. These include education, the media (books, radio, TV, newspapers, and Web sites), businesses, independent civic organizations, and civil society. Fundamentalists receive massive financial backing from radical sponsors. The West should help level the playing field by making alternative views of Islam available to Muslim audiences. Modernist views have the potential to be inspiring and attractive to the young — if they have the chance to hear them.

  • Support the traditionalists against the fundamentalists. Traditionalism has an inclination to be moderate, an aversion to violence, and leaders who command respect and are seen as legitimate in large portions of the Muslim world. As a result, traditionalism can be a bulwark against fundamentalism. To be more effective, traditionalists may need support in the form of education, because they are often poorly educated, out of touch with the larger world and out of their league when it comes to debating against articulate fundamentalists.

  • Confront and oppose the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists claim to represent true and pure Islam — an assertion vulnerable to challenge on many levels. Their violence against innocent people, the manifest errors in their interpretation of religious doctrine, and their links to corrupt and hypocritical sponsors should be better publicized in order to diminish the heroic image they cultivate with some disenchanted populations. Traditionalist criticism of the violence and extremism of fundamentalism can be publicized.

  • Selectively support secularists. Even some strongly religious Muslims support the notion that religion should be separated from government, and that this separation can strengthen Islam and provides a solid groundwork for a peaceful and modern Muslim society. It is a minority view, but it should be noted where appropriate.

The report says discrediting extreme fundamentalist beliefs and criminal actions threatens the legitimacy of the fundamentalist belief system. It does this by creating doubt within group members, demonstrating their inability to lead or cause positive change, and portraying them as cowardly and disturbed terrorists.

A printed copy of Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies (ISBN: 0-8330-3438-3) can be ordered online from RAND Distribution Services (phone toll-free in the United States: 1-877-584-8642; phone for all other areas: 1-310-451-7002).

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