Since about June 2002, I have offered an aphorism to sum up the war on terror: "Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution" (or, in earlier iterations, "Militant Islam is the problem …). Until now, no one has particularly taken issue with this formulation. Now, someone has. Daniel Brumberg, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, in an article in the Winter 2005-06 issue of the Washington Quarterly, "Islam Is Not the Solution (or the Problem)." Brumberg presents three challenges to this view:
For one, it greatly underestimates the political, social, and ideological obstacles to disseminating a liberal Islamic ethos. These barriers are so formidable that, for the foreseeable future, any effective engagement with Islamists will require dealing with activists, many of whom espouse ideas profoundly at odds with U.S. notions of democracy and freedom.
Second, naming Islam as the solution exaggerates the extent to which Islam shapes Muslims' political identity. Not only do ethnicity and tribal affiliation often trump religion, but many Muslims, both practicing and nonpracticing, believe that their version of Islam should be separated or at least distanced from politics. Indeed, little consensus exists in the Arab world about the proper relationship between mosque and state. On the contrary, that world is rent by profound divisions over the very question of national identity—what it means to be Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian, Bahraini, or Iraqi.
Finally, the idea of Islamic democracy fails to recognize that there is no Islamic solution to such identity conflicts. As the drama in Iraq demonstrates, absent consensus over national identity, this solution requires power-sharing arrangements that offer as many groups and voices as possible a seat at the table of multiparty government. This kind of consensus-building approach cannot succeed unless all groups check their religions at the door. Indeed, they must agree to constitutional and legal protections that guarantee Muslims—Shi'a and Sunni—as well as non-Muslims the right to believe or not to believe as they please.
In brief, moderate Muslims are too weak; national identity counts too; and Islam can get in the way. My brief replies:
- Yes, moderate Muslims are weak; I have even called them "largely fractured, isolated, intimidated, and ineffectual." But how strong were anti-Nazi Germans in 1943? Just as it took an outside force to destroy the German military might then, it will take one to destroy the radical Islamic one today. It would be foolish to expect moderate Muslims to provide this firepower. Once the war has been won, however, who will extract Muslims from their current predicament but the moderates? Which other candidates can fulfill this role? And, of course, I strenuously disagree with the idea of engaging Islamists.
- Ethnicity and tribal affiliation count plenty, as do other affiliations and identities. But the crisis in the Muslim world is not about nationality, tribes, ethnicity, skin color, or economic systems. It is clearly and specifically about Muslims' understanding of Islam.
- "Islamic democracy" is a red herring, as are power-sharing issues in Iraq. The challenge lies in Islam being modernized, dealing with issues like jihad, the status of women, and the role of Shari'a.
(December 27, 2005)