RAND Report Says Cold War Offers Lessons on Engaging with the Muslim World

For Release

March 26, 2007

Just as it fought the spread of Communism during the Cold War, the United States must do more to develop and support networks of moderate Muslims who are too often silenced by violent radical Islamists, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

“The struggle in much of the Muslim world today is a war of ideas,” said Angel Rabasa, a RAND senior policy analyst and the lead author of the report. “This is not a war of civilizations; it’s not Islam versus the West. It’s a struggle within Islam to define the character of Islam.”

“We cannot come in as outsiders, as a non-Muslim country, and discredit the radicals’ ideology,” Rabasa said. “Muslims have to do that themselves. What we can do is level the playing field by empowering the moderates.”

Rather than an afterthought, the building of moderate Muslim networks needs to become an explicit goal of U.S. government policy, with an international database of partners, a well-designed plan and “feedback loops” to keep it on track, according to the study.

The report by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, is intended to serve as a “road map” to build these networks and to serve as a practical guide for policymakers to implement.

Rabasa said the United States has a critical role to play in aiding moderate Muslims, and can learn much from the way it addressed the spread of Communism during the Cold War. The efforts of the United States and its allies to build free and democratic networks and institutions provided an organizational and ideological counter force to Communist groups seeking to come to power through political groups, labor unions, youth and student organizations and other groups.

Broad parallels stand out between the Cold War environment and the situation in the Muslim world today.

“At the beginning of the Cold War, the threat was a global Communist movement led by a nuclear-armed Soviet Union; today it is a global jihadist movement striking against the West with acts of mass-casualty terrorism,” the report notes. In both cases, policymakers recognized that the United States and its allies were engaged in an ideological conflict that had to be contested across diplomatic, economic, military and psychological dimensions.

But unlike the Cold War, this battle involves shadowy groups rather than a single entity. These radical Islamic groups control no territory, reject the norms of the international system and are not subject to normal means of deterrence. Many of these groups have been organizing for decades and have access to vast amounts of money, Rabasa said.

The radical groups are fighting to create religious states based on Shari’a, or Islamic law. They typically reject liberal Western values such as democracy, gender equality and the right of religious minorities to publicly practice their faith.

Many Muslim countries are ruled by authoritarian political structures and the mosque is one of the few places people can protest harsh political, economic and social conditions, the study says. Radical Islamists have seized the opportunity to promote their interpretation of Islam as a solution to those problems, aggressively spreading their views in the mass media and via the Internet.

“Moderates by definition are not aggressive,” Rabasa said. “These radicals are much more willing to go the extra mile and use violent means to enforce their views. Moderates are in the majority, but the radicals tend to intimidate the moderates by accusing them of being agents of the West or not true Muslims. Radicals have also threatened physical violence and have forced many people into silence, hiding or fleeing their countries.”

One of the challenges for the United States will be identifying genuine moderates from those who may appear to be moderate, but in fact advocate ideas that are inconsistent with democratic values, the report states.

Characterisics of moderate Muslims include: support for democracy, internationally recognized human rights including gender equality and freedom of worship; acceptance of nonsectarian sources of law; and opposition to terrorism.

Instead of focusing on the Middle East, where most of the radical Islamic thought originates and is firmly entrenched, the report recommends reaching out to activists, leaders and intellectuals in Turkey, Southeast Asia, Europe and other open societies. The goal of this outreach would be to reverse the flow of ideas and have more democratic ideas flow back to the less fertile ground for moderate network-building of the Middle East.

Partners in this network-building effort should be those who share key dimensions of democratic culture, the study says. The report recommends targeting five groups as potential building blocks for networks: liberal and secular Muslim academics and intellectuals; young moderate religious scholars; community activists; womens’groups engaged in gender equality campaigns; and moderate journalists and scholars.

As America learned during the Cold War, moderate groups can lose credibility – and therefore, effectiveness – if U.S. support is too obvious. Effective tactics that worked during the Cold War include having the groups led by credible individuals and having the United States maintain some distance from the organizations it supports.

“This was done by not micro-managing the groups, but by giving them enough autonomy,” Rabasa said. “As long as certain guidelines were met, they were free to pursue their own activities.”

To help start this initiative, the report recommends working toward an international conference modeled in the Cold War-era Congress of Cultural Freedom, and then developing a standing organization to combat radical Islamism.

Besides Rabasa, the authors of the report include Cheryl Benard and Lowell H. Schwartz, both of RAND, and Peter Sickle, a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, who served as a summer associate at RAND. The report, titled “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,” is available on the RAND Web site at www.rand.org

The report was funded by a grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation and was conducted within the Center for Middle East Public Policy within International Programs at the RAND National Security Research Division.

The RAND National Security Research Division conducts research and analysis for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Commands, the defense agencies, the Department of the Navy, the U.S. intelligence community, allied foreign governments and foundations.

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