The following is an edited version of the proceedings of a symposium sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council on May 26, 1994, in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC. Former Senator George McGovern, president of the Council, introduced the panel; Thomas R. Mattair, the Council's Director of Research and Policy Analysis, was the organizer and moderator; Michael Collins Dunn, Senior Analyst at The International Estimate and editor of its newsletter The Estimate, was the discussant. With Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr.; Daniel Pipes; John Esposito.
SEN. McGOVERN: This morning we're going to examine the nature of political Islam, the reasons for its resurgence, the differences between moderate and extremist Islamist movements in the Middle East, and the policies of the United States and its friends in the region relative to these movements. We have brought together a group of panelists who will give us various perspectives on this problem.
[PELLETREAU REMARKS HERE]
DR. DANIEL PIPES, Editor, Middle East Quarterly: I will address three questions. First, is Islam the enemy? No, I answer, but fundamentalist Muslims are. Second, should we distinguish between what, for purposes of concision, I'll call good and bad fundamentalists? No, there is no such distinction. Finally, what does this mean for U.S. policy? That we take rather more active steps than those delineated by Ambassador Pelletreau today or national security adviser Anthony Lake a week ago or other administrative spokesmen in preceding months.
I begin by drawing a distinction between Islam and fundamentalist Islam. As someone who has studied Islam for some years, I am acutely aware that the religion has nearly a billion adherents and is a fast-growing religion. I also understand that Muslims find their faith immensely appealing and are intensely devoted to it. As Patricia Crone, a scholar of Islam, puts it, "the world of men and their families" in Islam has an unparalleled record of success.
Putting it very simply and very generally, through its first early centuries, and indeed its first millennium, Muslims looked around the world, and they saw that they were doing well. By almost any index, be it longevity, literacy, wealth, power, Muslims outpaced non-Muslims. This long-standing correlation between Islamic faith and worldly success widely assumed that the one went with the other. The holy books tell nothing about God favoring Muslims with mundane success, but an outstanding built over centuries caused this notion to spread widely.
During the last two centuries, however, Islam has been a religion in crisis. The beginning of the difficulties can be dated almost exactly, in symbolic terms at least, to the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798. The trauma of the modern Islam results from the fact that Muslims are doing badly by the very same indices at which they excelled previously. The great challenge for Muslims has been to explain why the Islamic world has fallen, and to remedy the problem. If being Muslim establishes a state of grace, why are Muslims doing so badly?
Thinkers offered three main replies to this question. Secularists hold, in brief, that Muslims can escape their current problems by immersing themselves in the most advanced civilization of our time, the West's. This means reducing Islam to the private sphere.
Reformists call on Muslims to appropriate from the West what suits them, picking here an there the elements they deem useful.
Fundamentalists-our topic today and the approach that concerns the U.S. government at the policy level-call on Muslims to adhere strictly to Islamic ways and believe Muslims will prosper only if they do so. Fundamentalists vehemently reject Western ways (with limited exceptions, such as medical knowledge or military technology), suspecting the West of trying to undermine the faith through conspiracies and other subterfuges. They believe Westerners wish to lure Muslims-especially young Muslims-by concocting a seductive alternative to Islam. It's not just our low culture, but also our high culture that steals Muslims-not just Madonna and blue jeans but classical music and universities. All of it, the whole mix, high and low, seduces Muslims away from the straight path and renders it impossible to organize a society along Islamic lines.
Waving a banner that reads "Islam is the solution," fundamentalists have, perhaps unintentionally, developed an ideology with distinct social, economic, and political views. Or, to quote the Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim, "We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Islamic." It bears stressing that politicized Islam of this nature is a very novel twentieth century formulation. It shares very little in common with Islam as traditionally practiced. Fundamentalist Islam represents not tradition but a radical (and, at base, quite Westernized) political agenda.
A great battle is now underway for the soul of Islam and it is not taking place between Muslims and the West, but between Muslims and Muslims. Fundamentalists and secularists are fighting it out. Pick up the newspaper and read the news from almost any Muslim country and you'll see exactly what I mean. On the international level, the battle is between the governments of Turkey and Iran. Secularists and fundamentalists constitute a small proportion of the Muslim population, each perhaps counting some ten percent, but they are active, organized, and political. In contrast, the reformists make up a great blob in the middle who count far less than their numbers.
We non-Muslims are bystanders to this battle. As Americans we have more of a role than most non-Muslims, but it's a small role. And that brings me to the second topic, whether we can distinguish between good and bad fundamentalists. The Clinton administration argues that only those fundamentalists who engage in terrorism challenge our interests, not those who engage in the political process and who work within the system. I disagree. While fundamentalist groups and ideologies differ from each other in many ways, all of them are inherently extremist and all despise our civilization. They despise us not for what we do but for who we are.
There is no such thing as a fundamentalist who simply wants to live his life quietly; a quietist fundamentalist is an oxymoron. Fundamentalist Muslims insist on two points: that the Sacred Law of Islam be applied in Muslim lands and that Muslim rule be extended. Both goals imply an inherent aggressiveness. They might, for tactical reasons, modify or suppress these aspirations but they do not abandon them. By definition, fundamentalists seek a way of life deeply incompatible with our own ideals. Therefore, the U.S. government ought in principle not to cooperate with fundamentalists, not encourage them, and not engage in dialogue with them. We should not work with fundamentalists but stand up against them.
Of course, principle is one thing and practical reality quite another. At times working with fundamentalists is the right decision. The CIA worked with fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan because successive Pakistani governments made that a condition of our helping the mujaheddin fight the Soviet forces. We bit our lip and did so, correctly, for it meant aligning with the lesser evil against the greater one. Similarly, we tacitly worked with the Iranian government against Iraq during the Kuwait crisis. These cases resemble the American decision to work with Stalin against Hitler.
Here I'd like to digress for a moment and, at the risk of entering a quagmire, compare fundamentalist Islam with Marxist-Leninism. Until five years ago, the Left had a global network that posed a threat to American interests, while the Right was made up of isolated regimes that did not threaten us. It made obvious sense to work with the Right against the Left. Roughly speaking, the roles have been reversed: it now makes sense for the U.S. government to work with the Left against the Right. The Left has little ideology left, but consists of the odd shipwreck of a regime, such as the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria or Dostam in Afghanistan. They stand for nothing, except the retention of power. They have few aggressive intentions against the United States.
Instead, it's the Right, made up of fundamentalist Muslims and others, who form an international network and combine to forward an aggressive agenda. Beyond actual aid, for example form Iran to Sudan, the network provides each participant with important psychic support. Fundamentalists feel the strength that comes from being part of a surging international network, somewhat like Marxist-Leninists must have felt in the 1950s. This new network, like that old one, has the United States of America in its sights. This bourgeois society infuriates its ideological opponents by virtue of its unabashed pursuit of happiness, its commercialism, and its military preeminence.
Turning to the final point, I advocate an active policy toward fundamentalist Muslims. But before getting to that, two introductory points to make myself very clear: I advocate standing up to the fundamentalists, not to Muslims in general. We're talking about a U.S. policy not toward Islam the religion but toward fundamentalist Islam the radical ideology. Ambassador Pelletreau's distinction along these lines cannot be repeated too often. We must not tar moderate Muslims with the fundamentalist brush. Moderates, by the way, have plenty of problems of their own with fundamentalists. Indeed, they probably hate fundamentalists more than non-Muslims, for they are the first ones in the line of fire. After all, it is Salman Rushdie, not Norman Mailer, whose life is in danger.
Second, in choosing a policy, Americans must keep in mind that while fundamentalists watch our actions very closely, they don't have a clue about the United States. This makes it hard to send them signals. For example, in November 1977 when the shah of Iran visited Washington, Iranians living in the United States took advantage of his presence to rally on the Ellipse near the White House. As pro- and anti-shah Iranians began trading physical blows, the police used tear gas, some of which wafted over the White House lawn just as President Jimmy Carter was formally welcoming the shah. The gas settled, causing the high-ranking figures to cry, wheeze, and cough. While American officials saw this mishap as embarrassing but not terribly significant, Iranians it as a public humiliation of the shah and a sure indication that he would be abandoned by the U.S. government. Communicating with fundamentalists, in short, is not easy.
Now, turning to policy: Our general goal has to be to impress fundamentalist Muslims with our resolve. They have to see that the flabby and weak reputation they have imposed on us is wrong. They need to understand that this country is dynamic, healthy, and optimistic country, that we take pride in our culture and are ready to stand up for our ideals. Americans are not slaves to pornography and drug addiction; rather, we have strong resolve and we will stand up for our principles. We are ready to protect ourselves-our borders, our citizens, and our policies. These are, to be sure, exceedingly simplistic points, but believe me, if you read the fundamentalist literature, you'll see that these points need to be made, and made just as often as possible.
This general goal has specific implications for policy in the Middle East (and for policy in the United States, but that's another subject).
First, I urge support for those governments and groups in combat with the fundamentalists. In the case of Algeria, we should join the French in making it clear that we don't want the fundamentalists to take power. Should they take over, of course, we will try to work with them. But at this point we make it clear that we stand by the government in Algiers. I acknowledge that it is a corrupt government, with a nasty history, but it is preferable by far to a fundamentalist government. It does not threaten our interests in Algeria and North Africa, in Western Europe, or in Egypt and the Middle East. Further, it harms the human rights of the people in Algeria less will a fundamentalist order. Algeria is a very important country today, the battleground that can deeply affect events in Western Europe and the Middle East. I never thought I'd be saying good words or urging support of the FLN, but at this point it is not a threat to us and the FIS and its allies are.
The same goes elsewhere; we should stick by the anti-fundamentalists and make it clear we don't want fundamentalists in power. This allies to the Egyptian case, for the PLO versus its fundamentalist opponents, for Turkey, and for Jordan.
Secondly, the West should press fundamentalist states-the Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan-to reduce their aggressiveness. We have a wide range of commercial and diplomatic tools at our disposal, with a military option always there in the background.
Third, let us support individuals and institutions standing up to the fundamentalist scourge. Since the Rushdie affair five years ago, secularist Muslims have been the most beleaguered people of the Middle East. They are losing their voice as a curtain of silence and terror comes down around them. Anti-fundamentalist Muslims see the world more or less as we do in this country and they look to us for aid and inspiration. We should use our prestige, funds in the United States Information Agency and the Agency for International Development funds, and other means to support and help them these brave people.
Finally, we must be very careful how we press for democracy. Unfortunately, it's become common to identify democracy with elections, leading to a single-minded emphasis on elections, which become an end in themselves. Instead, we should press for more modest goals: political participation, the rule of law (including an independent judiciary), freedom of speech and religion, property rights, minority rights, and the right to form voluntary organizations (especially political parties). We should, in short, urge the formation of a civil society. Only when civil society has come into existence are elections appropriate. Or as Judith Miller put it last year, "elections tomorrow and civil society today." I would amend this slightly to read, "first peace, then civil society, then elections." If elections come too rapidly, as was the case in Algeria, these tend to bring anti-democratic forces to the fore. They succeed in part because they are the best organized; in part because the citizenry is not ready to make fully informed electoral decisions.
[ESPOSITO REMARKS HERE]
Q: Dr. Robert O. Freedman, Baltimore Hebrew University. Two very brief comments, one for Daniel and one for John-both friends of mine, I should say immediately.
First, since we're now looking at the Middle East more in a comparative sense, might not the example of the Israeli religious parties playing a role in the Israeli political system give us a model here for at least one possibility? Since Israel was founded, religious parties have played a role in the government and have split and split again, some on personality issues, some on religious issues. So I throw that out as the first question. Perhaps Dan could relate to that.
For John, I think you've talked eloquently about two different kinds of Islam-one, the radicals who want to overthrow the government, and the other, those who are lawyers' groups, students' groups, people who want to work within the system. Could you possibly look at that also, however, as a spectrum, with those working within the system on the one hand and those radicals trying to overthrow it? What about the possibility of those trying to overthrow it using Islam to radicalize and mobilize those who work within the system?
DR. PIPES: You needn't go so far afield as Israel; what about Turkey? Turkey has a democratic tradition and it has fundamentalist parties, and their power is surging. Fascists and fundamentalists together took over one-quarter of the vote in the municipal elections last month. Their career is, in fact, a great experiment: What is the intent of the Turkish fundamentalists, if they do take power will they subsequently relinquish it? Let's watch. I'm dubious, but it's an open question.
DR. ESPOSITO: I would just simply cite the examples of Pakistan and Malaysia again, where you have multiple religious parties with long track records. One can look to Israel, but from within the Muslim context.
With regard to your question, I think the possibility of radicals using Islam to radicalize moderates is clearly there, but I would argue that what really would tend to make that possible will often be government policy. If the government is repressive, then that reinforces the argument of radicals who say, see, it doesn't pay to operate above ground. This is particularly an issue where you have a time period where moderates do operate above ground, then the government steps in. What radicals often say is, "Look, we could have told you all along. You've got the Nasser model, etc. You operate above ground, they know who you are, when the time comes these people don't want any opposition, let along a religious opposition, look at what they're doing now." So that is a risk.
Q: A representative of the PLO. Really, I don't know why all this (concentration) on the Islamic movement. They have been with us all the time....There are Muslim fundamentalists or Muslims who stay with Islam and there are Jewish fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists.
There are some things within our countries that need change. We are developing. We have been under colonization for quite some time. We are trying to free ourselves. Some people see it from a secular point of view; others see it from a religious point of view. There will be some elections. The trouble with us Palestinians in the occupied territories is electing what and for what is really the big question. Some people don't want to be elected to be under the thumb of the Israelis, and some people want to be elected to be a legislative council. We were given a legislative council, I think, not simply an electoral council. I think 90 percent of the Palestinians will join in the elections regardless of whether their leadership wants it.
Q: Hisham Milhem, as-Safir newspaper in Beirut. I have many problems with many things that were said this morning. First, a few conceptual things. I'm not here to engage in defending the Islamists, but those who argue that if Islamists reach power by the power of the ballot, so to speak, they will act the way the Iranian regime is acting or the Sudanese regime is acting, pose a conceptual problem. In Iran we had a revolution that reached power. In Sudan we had essentially a military coup. Now we all know, anybody who studied some history would know that regardless of their contents, whether we're talking about the bourgeois content in the case of the French revolution, the communist content in the context of the Bolshevik revolution, or the Islamist content in the case of Iran, revolutions, especially when they reach power by force after tremendous opposition and bloodshed, by virtue of being revolutionary movements, give themselves a sense of absolute justice, reflecting absolute grievances. By extension, they give themselves the right to do absolute violence. This is the case in all revolutions.
This is not the case, necessarily, when you reach power through balance. You have to play the political game. You have to play the game of balancing interests. And for those who are going to give us a priori a judgment that the Algerian Islamists would have acted in a nasty way like the Iranian regime are not necessarily intellectually honest or precise. That's one.
Now, another brief comment. Since the first, it was impossible to talk about one monolithic Islam, just as it is nonsensical to talk one monolithic Christianity. There's a world of difference between Christianity in Scandinavia and in Spain and in my own country, Lebanon, or in Bolivia. There's a world of differences in the Islamic world whether we're talking about some schools in mystic movements, Sufis and Shiite, and subcultures and subsects, from Morocco to the Himalayas. It's nonsense to talk about Islam as monolithic. It's just, as I said, in the case of Christianity or even Judaism. Who represents Judaism? Those folks in Brooklyn, who have their own little messiah, or reformed Jewry, or what? I mean, these are legitimate questions.
When I hear Daniel Pipes and others, I get a sense of deja vu. We've seen this debate in medieval times, in modern times. I mean, I could get you quotes from European philosophers saying nasty things about Islam, and there are also interesting, complimentary statements from the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and whatnot about Islam. This is an old argument.
There is a unique relationship linking the Muslim world, particularly the Near East, with Europe because of the Mediterranean. If you just picture the Mediterranean in your mind you see armies passing to and fro from the East and from the West. This is a very complex, emotionally-ridden kind of relationship and we have to keep that in mind.
Now, finally, I have a question for Daniel Pipes. I remember, Daniel Pipes wrote in a number of places saying essentially that Islamist resurgence is a function of oil wealth. Now we have a different perspective on Islam. I think that it is also a conceptual problem and a political problem and he exposes himself to the charge of being too cynical when he advised us to support-and he admitted that-a movement like the FLN, which is completely corrupt and very oppressive and led Algeria to ruins, just because the FLN is engaged in a mortal, lethal fight now with the FIS. This was the same argument that Daniel Pipes made in the mid-1980s justifying a militant support to Iraq just because Iraq was engaged in a lethal, bloody fight with Iran. At that time, both were seen as nasty, but one was nastier than the other.
Now, what happened afterwards? In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Daniel Pipes switched position and he pushed for the military option against Iraq. Now, I don't know, but I think probably you were wrong then and you are wrong now.
DR. PIPES: I alluded earlier to working with Stalin against Hitler. That was the right decision, even though we later had terrible problems with Stalin. Similarly, the U.S. government worked with Iraq against Iran, again the right decision even though we later had problems with Iraq. In both cases, the mistake lay not in the war-time alliance but in the fact that once we entered into an alliance we got too involved. We forget that the alliance was purely tactical and very temporary. American cooperation with Stalin should have ended in May 1945, that with Saddam Hussein in August 1988. In neither case was there any reason to work with the dictators afterwards. I favored cooperating with Iraq before August 1988, seeing it as the lesser evil. I stand by that choice. I favored ending the cooperation as soon as the Iraq-Iran war ended. And when Saddam Hussein two years later went on to invade Kuwait, I supported the use of force to oust him. Where's the inconsistency? Circumstances changed in the Middle East, so my views had to change with them.
About Iran: To me the reason for the Iranian regime's ambitions lies not in the way it came to power but in its utopian drive to remake the Iranian people into perfect Muslims. By the way, Iran has more democracy than many Middle Eastern countries. The parliament has interesting debates and real power. But democracy in Iran has two debilitating limitations: the supreme power, velayat-e-faqih, is not elected; and candidates for public office are vetted to make sure they accept the principles of the Islamic Revolution. Accordingly, the parliament reflects an extremely limited spectrum of thought. Within that spectrum a quite lively debate takes place, but that's just not enough. I suspect other fundamentalist regimes will similarly incorporate an active but very limited process of democracy in which only those who accept the precepts of fundamentalist Islam are enfranchised.
About Islam not being monolithic: Please, everybody knows by now that Islam is not of a piece. Must you raise this one more time? Everyone here knows that Muslims are varied. If you insist, I can before every talk repeat that Muslims are many and diverse. But you know that already, we all know that. Let's not get stuck on this issue.
Finally, on the question of oil wealth: Yes, I did publish a book in 1983, In the Path of God, suggesting that the resurgence of Islam in the 1970s result from the boom in oil wealth. At this point I don't know what causes fundamentalism. It's an extremely complicated subject which baffles me; and I don't see that anyone else has solved it. What causes fundamentalist Islam to prosper may be too complicated for us to figure out.
I second what John Esposito said about not reducing political Islam to political economy. Note that Iran and Saudi Arabia have active fundamentalist movements despite the relative wealth of their populations, while Bangladesh and Yemen, which are extremely poor, have not. There's no clear correlation between wealth or economic growth and Islam. That has a very important implication, by the way: You can't solve this problem via money.
Q: First of all, to Mr. Pipes, this is a statement, you need not respond. By your definition I am an Islamic fundamentalist. My name is irrelevant, but I work for a think tank, an Islamically-oriented one. I listen to Mozart; I read Shakespeare; I watch the comedy channel; and I also believe in the implementation of Sharia, the Islamic law in the state structure of a Muslim country. I find it offensive that you would lump me and someone from Takiro Ajidra or Islamic Jihad together.
As for Ambassador Pelletreau, I've got two questions: First, the State Department and the U.S. government have been at pains to define what terrorism is in order not to put wrong on anyone. However, I haven't seen any definition what they perceive to be legitimate resistance groups, or any legitimate resistance action. Is it the U.S. policy that it prefers to have pacifists, because, we as Muslims are not obliged to turn the other cheek, and there needs to be some commentary on what we can do, which you believe is legitimate.
Second of all, George Kennan's belief that morality hasn't played a major role in foreign policy has had a large role for the past several decades, and I was wondering if there's any change in this perspective for now or for the future.
AMB. PELLETREAU: Let me address the second question first because I think it's very basic that U.S. foreign policy is based on the values of the United States' people. When at times in the past it has separated from those values, we find that the policy is not long sustainable. And our history is rife with examples like that. So, maybe unlike the world of pure Realpolitik, the United States does act on the basis of morality and I think that that is the correct, proper, and in fact, only proper way for us to act.
As for trying to define more precisely what we would expect Islamic groups to do in countries where they are repressed or are prohibited by strong state action from participation, I would have to stay with the view that we do not expect them or expect others to resort to violence or to internal terrorism as a way of coming to political power. We see this in many examples around the world-I've seen it in my last post in Egypt. We can't endorse the activities of the Islamic Gamaa, that they are setting off explosions in downtown Cairo that kill innocent civilians along the track, or that they are occasionally shooting at tourist targets as an indirect way of bringing pressure on the government. That is not, in our view, a path to legitimate political participation. I don't know that it's up to the United States to try to spell out in detail exactly what is permissible and not permissible in this or that situation, but I feel very comfortable in saying that violence and terrorism and those who espouse violence and terrorism should be basically off our scope, as far as their own political participation goes.
Let me apologize to the other questions that I unfortunately have a tightly scheduled afternoon, and I don't have much flexibility, so thank you for allowing me to participate with you today in this symposium.
Q: I would like to ask Professor Pipes this question: What is his objection to Islamists coming to power in Muslim countries? For example, in Iran they started a democratic process in 1953; and the CIA overthrew them, put in a monarch who tortured them and we supported him up to the hilt. Do you think there is some reason behind this?
DR. PIPES: You are rehearsing some awfully old ground. The U.S. government has to be sure, made mistakes in Iran. But those have nothing to do with the situation since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. We have repeatedly tried to improve relations with Tehran and, indeed, these very days we're still trying to. American officials keep saying how they want to work with Iranians-just please stop making trouble for us, stop attacking individual Americans, and we can start up a new relationship. The Iranian government rejects this offer, repeatedly and even insultingly. Decisions in Tehran now, not actions by the U.S. government years ago, explain the terrible state of relations between the two states.