RAND Report Proposes Ways to Cut Support for Radical Islam and Terrorism
RAND Office of Media Relations
(703) 413-1100, ext. 5117
December 15, 2004
America and its allies can reduce support for radical Islam and terrorism — and improve relations with the Muslim world — by supporting moderate Muslims and social, economic and educational reforms in Muslim nations, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.
“While only Muslims themselves can effectively challenge the message of radical Islam, there is much the United States and like-minded countries can do to empower Muslim moderates in this ideological struggle,” said Angel Rabasa, RAND senior policy analyst and lead author of the report. “The struggle in the Muslim world is essentially a war of ideas, the outcome of which will determine the future direction of the Muslim world and profoundly affect vital U.S. security interests.”
The RAND study — titled “The Muslim World After 9/11” — calls on the United States and its allies to support efforts in Muslim nations to:
- Create a strong and vocal network to unite the fractured voices of moderate Muslims. This can provide moderates with a platform for their message and provide alternatives to extremist movements. An external catalyst may be needed to give life to this goal.
- Support Muslim civil society groups that advocate moderation and modernity. The United States may have to assist in the development of civil society institutions where they do not currently exist.
- Disrupt radical networks. Engage Islamists to participate in the political process, and strengthen relations with the military in Muslim nations. In the war against terror, the U.S. should demonstrate that its efforts are meant to promote democratic change.
- Reform Islamic schools. Educational systems have long been a vital component of radical Islamic indoctrination and recruitment. The best way to counter this is to help Islamic schools ensure they are providing modern education and marketable skills for future generations.
- Create economic opportunities in Muslim nations, particularly for young people. Economic assistance programs will not guarantee an end to extremism or terrorism, but could reduce the perception that the U.S. relies solely on military instruments. Creating jobs and social services would also give young people an alternative to radical Islamic organizations.
The study analyzes the dilemma of democratization in friendly authoritarian states. While democratic change can be destabilizing in the short term, it may be necessary to produce a more stable political environment in the long term, the report says. Also, American and allied coordination with nongovernmental organizations, foreign aid groups, secular organizations and moderate Muslim groups can create a legitimate base for civil society, according to the study.
“The ideology of non-Arab Muslims is more politically inclusive, secular and politically progressive,” said Cheryl Benard, RAND senior political scientist and one of the book's authors. “It's important for the U.S. and its allies to develop a greater relationship with these communities that are crucial to countering radical strains of Islam.”
To better understand and work with the Muslim world, the U.S. government and military needs to improve its cultural intelligence through language and regional specialists, according to the report. To spearhead this effort, RAND researchers developed a classification system to better understand and differentiate among major ideological tendencies of Islam — ranging from radical fundamentalism to liberal secularism — and to identify which sectors the U.S. and allies can work with to promote democracy and stability and counter violent extremists.
The study also explores three key cleavages within the Muslim world and their implications for U.S. policy.
First, only 15 percent of the Muslim world is Shi'ite, a group often politically excluded in Middle East countries by Sunni majorities. Because the Iraqi Shi'ites want to play a greater role in the governance of Iraq, this presents opportunities for the U.S. and its allies to form stable relationships and policies towards the Shi'ites that promote religious and political freedoms.
Second, while only 20 percent of the world's Muslims are Arabs, interpretations of Islam are often viewed through an Arab lens. Arabs face a unique set of political, economic and social problems. Repressive and often authoritarian regimes dominate Arab nations, while non-Arab sectors are more inclusive and democratic, and more conducive to innovative, contemporary Islamic ideas.
Third, RAND researchers say that the U.S. needs to understand tribal politics and dynamics in areas where forces may be operating to better understand and learn how to manage subnational and tribal issues.
Researchers identified the causes for the spread of Islamic radicalism over the past several decades, grouping them into three categories: conditions, processes and catalytic events.
- Conditions — The widespread failure of political and economic models has caused instability and disenfranchisement of segments of the Muslim population, fueling anger towards the West. The decentralized religious authority in Sunni Islam has opened the door for religious extremist influence.
- Processes — The resurgence of Islam in the Middle East over the past 30 years, along with the spread of Middle Eastern funding and ideology throughout the world, has fueled support for fundamentalism and radical Muslim ideology. In areas lacking a strong central government, radical Muslim ideology often fills the vacuum, producing strong networks that support fundamentalism and terrorism.
- Catalytic events — Major events such as the Iranian revolution, the Afghan war with the Soviet Union, the Gulf War of 1991, the Iraqi war, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have polarized and radicalized the Muslim world. The RAND study analyzes the long-term impact of these events on the Muslim world and on U.S. interests.
Other authors of the report are: Peter Chalk, Ted Karasik, Rollie Lal, and David Thaler, all of RAND; Ian Lesser, a RAND consultant who is vice president and director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy; and Christine Fair, formerly of RAND and now at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The report was prepared by Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center that conducts objective analyses on issues of enduring concern to Air Force leaders, including air and space power, modernization, workforce issues, acquisition and infrastructure.
Printed copies of “The Muslim World after 9/11”, (ISBN: 0-8330-3534-7 (paperback), 0-8330-3712-9 (hardbound)) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).
About the RAND Corporation
The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit research organization providing objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors around the world.