Opening Islam

August 14, 2002

"Opening Islam." Society. Vol. 39, No. 5 (July/August 2002) 29-35.

In 1982 President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire;” in 2001 President Bush referred to the terrorists as the “evildoers.” Both were chastised for using such stark, biblical, moralistic terms. Both had a point, as the confrontations with militant forms of socialism and of Islam entail much more than a war over boundaries and resources, shifting balances of power, or avenging national slurs. These conflicts do speak to and for core moral and social values; both do concern the defense of liberty from enslaving forces.

In an age that celebrates cultural relativism and has lost its moral verve, many in the West—consumed by liberal guilt and self-doubt—find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that we are on the side of the angels, and that they represent the Great Satan. But if one grants that it is devilish to target deliberately buildings that house only civilians peacefully going about their business, and to turn civilian airplanes full of people into bombs, then those who perpetuate such acts are evildoers. Moral condemnation is particularly appropriate when small groups of fanatics subjugate one people after another to force them to abide by their particular rigid and obsessive interpretation of a religious text.

Just as the free world had to contend not merely with communists but also with communism, the war President Bush has declared in 2001 is not merely with individuals or groups of terrorists, or even with the governments that harbor them. It must also engage the ideology that drives the terrorists, motivates others to stand by to replace them if they fail, seeds the oceans of support in which terrorists swim, feed, and hide, and makes governments line up in their support. Indeed, without the fervent beliefs held by terrorists most of them would rest, and the remaining ones would be merely garden variety assassins with little support.

Temperate vs. Virulent Islam

There might be some sound tactical reasons to claim that the West has no quarrel with Islam, only with terrorists. After all, the West has been seeking and gaining a measure of support from various Islamic governments in what is said to be a war against al-Qaeda. And there is a justified concern that if the war is seen as a Christian crusade against Islam, we shall evoke the enmity of 1.2 billion followers of Muhammad. Hence, it is not surprising that President Bush stated summarily: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace,” and has reiterated several times that “[O]ur war is against evil, not against Islam.” His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, reaffirmed: “We want it to be very clear that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam.” Our dedicated ally, British Prime Minister Blair, chimed in with a statement that the current conflict is “not about the West versus Islam.”

Similar positions have been articulated by the media and select religious leaders. For instance, the religious editor of Newsweek, Kenneth Woodward, holds that terrorists “have turned Islam's ideal of peace and harmony on its head.” Several Islamic leaders make the same point. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of a New York City mosque, states that “Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam. That is just as absurd as associating Hitler with Christianity—or David Koresh with Christianity.” Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, informs us that terrorism “violates the very foundations of Islamic law.”

The sad but unavoidable fact is that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has both temperate and virulent strands. Christianity in earlier ages not only had an Inquisition-but also those who justified it in religious terms. The Church supported the mass torture and murder that took place during military dictatorship in Argentina, deeming them necessary to “excise the cancer of communism.” The terrorism in Northern Ireland has religious roots, and Operation Rescue claims religious justifications. Militant Judaism not merely claims a right to the West Bank and finds scriptural support for a still Greater Israel, but also blessed those who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the peacemaker. Similarly, to equate Islam with peace or to consider it inherently moderate is to blind oneself-or to try to pull the wool over others' eyes—about some basic facts.

The virulent, aggressive, and subjugating form of Islam comes in many varieties; an examination of one will have to stand for the others. An important version of Islam, Wahhabism, was launched by an 18th-century scholar, Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in central Arabia. Claiming to return to original Islam, like fundamentalists in other religions, Wahhabism rejects all innovations, stresses literal belief in the Qu'ran and the Hadith (the sayings or traditions of Mohammad), and calls for the formation of states to be governed strictly according to Islamic law. It rejects all notions of human rights and democratic forms of government as secular and Western notions.

Virulent religions (and secular ideologies) differ from temperate ones in several clearly discernable ways, all found in Islam. They go by the book, whether it is the Qu'ran or Mao's, and give it a strict, oppressive reading. They are totalitarian in that they aspire to control the total life of the person including what he or she wears, consumes, and reads; when and with whom the person has sex; and most everything else. To achieve this goal they are extremely coercive, relying not on persuasion but on detailed and comprehensive surveillance of the population backed up by brutal force.

In short, just as it is incorrect, unfair, and unwise to view all Islam as militant, it is Pollyannaish to pretend that all of Islam is temperate. And, truth be told, although the followers of virulent Islam may moderate over time (some such signs are now evident in Iran), and the great silent majority in Islamic countries may be less virulent than some of their leaders, militant Islam is at the moment obviously rather prominent and menacing. It is this Islam we must face down (rather than a whole civilization), for our sake and that of millions of others all over the world.

Three Major Parallels to Communism

When the United States saw itself as called upon to form and lead a worldwide force to contain the spread of communism in 1947, communism had three threatening characteristics: It oppressed its own people; it worked to topple governments that did not share its ideology (whether or not these were true capitalist ones or followers of some other variant of socialism); and it sought to expand until it encompassed all nations. Its slogan was “tomorrow—the world.” Virulent Islam has all these features.

The oppression that takes place in countries in which Wahhabism or similarly virulent forms of Islam are in full control is so well known that one must be sure not to become inured to it. In Saudi Arabia, adulterous women are stoned and thieves' hands are cut off. Women in the Taliban's Afghanistan were not allowed to attend school and were beaten if they left home with a man who was not a relative or were not properly covered. Men were severely beaten if they did not allow their beards to grow to the prescribed length. People were kept in jail if they could not answer 100 questions about religious texts. Until recently, moral squads patrolled the streets of Tehran, working their sticks to herd people to prayer five times a day. All this is in the name of God and Muhammad, his prophet.

Some seem to believe that militant Islamic governments represent their people, who are cast as true believers and fanatic supporters of their governments. If this were the case, one might argue that these people chose their own bed and should be left to lie in it (or that if they find it severely wanting, it is up to them to rise). However, it is important to keep in mind that virulent Islamic governments are extreme police states, that they avoid testing their popularity by banning elections, suppressing the press, outlawing opposition parties, and jailing—if not executing without real trials—large numbers of people for voicing even mild dissent. There hardly would be a need for such domestic terror if these governments were held in high regard by their own citizens. Moreover, given half a chance or less, their people show that they do not support these oppressive, virulent governments. There have been massive pro-American demonstrations in Iran, and it seems that most Afghans favored the Taliban only after years of total anarchy and unbridled tribal warfare, and only for a few years after that.

Like communism, virulent Islam is seeking to topple governments that do not subscribe to it, including those that do embrace Islam but not tightly enough. Often there are other interests and motives at work, but they are given a fervent religious justification by radical forms of Islam. One form or another of extreme Islamic groups is using means of violence to try to take over parts of or whole countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Chechnya, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Algeria, and Lebanon. Wahhabi fighters have also supported Muslim forces in Bosnia and play a key role in Chechen separatist forces.

Like communism, virulent Islam is expansionist. It seeks to encompass territories that are not under its rule. Pakistan has long supported fundamentalist terrorist Islamic groups in its bid to take over Kashmir. The Taliban supported Islamic insurgent activity in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Xinjiang province in China. And leaders of various factions of the Palestinians openly state that they would not be satisfied with a Palestinian state, whatever its borders; they seek the whole territory of Israel. Indeed, as Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Faisal Husseini said candidly in Beirut in April 2001, “our eyes will continue to aspire to the strategic goal; namely, Palestine from the river to the sea.” Nor is he alone. Abdullah Shami of Islamic Jihad told The New Yorker in July 2001, “We must fight Israel until it is gone.”

Particularly telling are the concepts of jihad (holy war) and of the infidel. The same parties, who depict all of Islam as moderate, also interpret jihad in a compatible way. For instance, Pamela Constable writes that many Muslims believe that “Islam should be spread by persuasion, not by force, and that jihad, or holy war, is a personal effort to perfect Islam, not an armed crusade against other religions.” Bernard Lewis, a renowned scholar, reports “The literal meaning of the Arabic word ‘jihad’ is striving, and its common use derives from the Quranic phrase ‘striving in the path of God.’ Some Muslims, particularly in modern times, have interpreted the duty of jihad in a spiritual and moral sense.” But Lewis also notes that “The more common interpretation, and that of the overwhelming majority of the classical jurists and commentators, presents jihad as armed struggle for Islam against infidels and apostates.”

Whatever some scholars, historians, and apologists say, when bin Laden called for a holy war against the secular West, the UN, and those Muslims who differed with him, millions did not understand him to be calling for self-perfection. In the streets and the bazaars, in the terrorist training camps and fundamentalist colleges, the meaning of jihad is unmistakable: killing those who do not subscribe to the virulent form of Islam (civilians included) is not only permitted, not merely religiously blessed, but is a sacred duty, a sure way to paradise, indeed to martyrdom.

The same holds for the concept of infidel. Traditionally, Islam has regarded Christians and Jews differently than other kuff_r (unbelievers or infidels), who are viewed with great disdain. In earlier ages, Christians and Jews, as people of the book, were considered dhimm_s (protected scriptural minorities), which accorded them a lower standing than Muslims, but offered more protection than granted to other unbelievers. But in recent years the category “dhimm_” has almost completely disappeared. Indeed, the derogatory kuff_r is used throughout not only to mark all non-Muslims, but also to brand relatively moderate Muslims with apostasy or heresy. On the al-Jazeera television channel, Osama bin Laden repeatedly stated that those who were attacked on September 11th were infidels (kuff_r). Such attribution is considered a justification used by the virulent branches of Islam to justify jihad against those so marked.

The virulent Islam we face, like communism, thus oppresses its own people, endangers the governments of other peoples, including moderate Muslim ones, and threatens free people everywhere who have not yet been brought under their version of Islamic law. Hence, the fight to protect free people from militant and expansionist Islam, like the fight to contain communism, must be a global one. And just as the fight against communism had to deal with much more than subversive agents and their collaborators, so does the worldwide war against terrorism. It must deal with the ideology that drives it and the social movements and governments that embrace it. The scope of the struggle with virulent Islam and the terrorism it harbors and sponsors is similar in scope and reach: It involves some sixty nations, small and large.

Just as critics of the West (including some in the West) used to argue that communism gained support as a response to Western-backed authoritarian regimes in South America, Asia, and elsewhere, so critics of the West now claim that virulent Islam finds support because the United States backs authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Muslim countries.

Actually, in Muslim countries in which the United States and its allies have not been involved in any significant way, democracy does not flourish nor have the institutions of a liberal society arisen. Moreover, if we withdrew support from the established governments, there is every reason to believe that Saudi Arabia and Egypt (and other governments like them) would face the same fate Iran faced when we abandoned the Shah. We should only shift our allegiances if relatively moderate groups with a plausible chance of success arose in these nations.

One may argue that if the West had not supported authoritarian governments for decades, more progressive governments would have evolved. It is, of course, next to impossible to validate such a claim short of rerunning history. But even if it could be supported, given the current conditions, the fact stands that if we now withdraw our support of these governments they are very likely to be replaced by virulent Islamic ones. This would both harm the people and our vital national interests. We can and should, though, favor relatively less authoritarian governments over more authoritarian ones, promote greater openness (in ways discussed below). And, to reiterate, if and when viable moderate and democratic Islam groups do arise, shift our support to these groups.

Importantly, just as the majority of the citizens of countries under communist rule—from countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia to Tibet-were not supportive of their tyrannical regimes, so millions of Muslims do not support the strict Islamic regimes under which they are forced to live. Until October 2001, Afghanistan was depicted as a monolithic Taliban country; a closer look vealed numerous factions within it; most had grave reservations about that government and its extreme mode of Islam. This was highlighted by the quick collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the joy which most people expressed. And although it is very difficult to determine what “the people” of Saudi Arabia are thinking, there are some indications that many of them cannot wait to get out from under Wahhabi Islam. The increased pressure for reform in Iran, supported by the majority, is another sign that once we lead the worldwide struggle to preserve moderation as the precondition for true democratic governance we shall find numerous allies. Not only is our fight not with Islam per se, and we can work with moderate Islamic nations and groups to protect them from the militant ones, but we can also count on finding within countries dominated by Islamic militants numerous groups to work with to change these regimes.

There are other grounds for optimism: The total population involved is much smaller (Communist China alone has about the same population as all the Muslims of the world). The various virulent Islamic factions and governments involved are much less endowed in resources and forces than the communist ones. And virulent Islam is not centrally coordinated.

Most importantly, this time our own most vital national interests and the defanging of virulent Islam go hand in hand. When we were involved in World War II, few feared that Hitler's New Order would include us. We fought largely for the liberty of our allies. When we faced up to communism, we did combine concern for others with protection of our interests, but its forces never hijacked our airplanes or bombed our heartland. This time, there is little need to convince Americans that defense of our homeland and dealing with those who sponsor terrorists as they subjugate their own people go hand in hand.

Beyond Containment

In the worldwide struggle with virulent Islam and its terrorist brigades and governments, we ought to learn a lesson from our struggle with communism. We countered expansionist communism by drawing a line around it and swore to contain it within the territory so marked. This strategy entailed giving up on the liberty of all those behind the Iron Curtain. We hence warned those who might rebel that, fearing a worldwide war with nuclear weapons, we would not come to their assistance. When the people of Hungary and of Czechoslovakia did rise, we let them fend for themselves. This time around, we should reach out to all people in the oppressed countries and-working with moderate Islamic nations and groups—seek to free them from virulent Islamic governments and terror. This time there should be no line in the sand which we will promise not to cross in our quest for a world in which moderation can prevail, as a precondition for free societies, democratic governments, and nations that do not bring war to each other, harbor terrorists, or amass weapons of mass destruction.

The Strategy of Opening Up

How to proceed? There are two strategies that are well beyond the capabilities of even a super-power and one that is less taxing and has a much greater chance of succeeding. We can neither develop nor democratize two scores of Third World countries, as a way to moderate Islam and to inoculate people against the appeal of radical Islam, as commendable and beneficent as these endeavors might be. (Nation building, if by that one means taking tribes or ethnic groups that have fought each others for ages and making out of them a unified nation, is arguably the most arduous and thankless task of them all.) In contrast, the United States, working with its allies, including moderate Islamic groups and nations, might be able to open up the countries at issue so that they can begin to develop more viable economies and less oppressive and terror-harboring government on their own. As these matters of strategy are of much import, these points are next elaborated somewhat.

We have long been hyper-optimistic, to the point of hubris, about our ability to bring other nations into a modern economic and political age. John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress called for the development and democratization of Latin American nations. We have spent hundreds of billions of our own monies and badgered other nations to do the same either directly or via the United Nations, the World Bank, the IME and otherwise. We are moved by numerous considerations. We strongly believe in the virtues of our form of economy and government and, as good people, wish others to bask in the same sun. We draw on our Protestant ethic and positive thinking in holding that hard work will get a people to the promised land, if they (or at least we, for them) put their mind to it. We are besieged by our liberal thinkers to seek human perfection. We build on American pragmatism, believing that we have mastered the art of social engineering. We are positive thinkers: “Where there is a will there is a way.” And we are told that if only the have-nots have what the haves have, there will be peace on earth.

During the 2001 war in Afghanistan many have called for a Marshall Plan to rebuild the country. We are already deeply involved in trying to reconstruct another largely Muslim territory the United States helped liberate—Kosovo. We held out such a promise for Iraq should it yield. Presumably, other now belligerent countries are next in line for major, crash development plans.

Sadly, all this is way beyond what can be achieved. One of the most important findings of the neo-conservatives was the failure of the social programs launched as part of the Great Society. Indeed, from poverty to drug abuse, most of the social problems we have taken on since World War II are still with us. Although violent crime has recently declined, it is still much higher than it was in the 1950s. And we are far from dealing successfully with new problems such as HIV. If our social engineering capabilities are so limited in what we are constantly reminded is the richest nation of the world, it should not be hard to realize that they will be more limited in the Third World. Without going into details, the so-called developing nations are littered with the grand failures and tiny successes of our multi-billion dollar efforts to help them jump from subsistence agrarian economies into modern (if not dot-com) market economies.

Those who are calling for a Marshall Plan for countries such as Afghanistan ought to take into account that when we helped Western Europe get back on its feet after World War II, we were dealing with people who had a high level of education, science, and technology, and had already established industrial economies. In contrast, countries like Afghanistan have no industrial base to stand on. Recently, Germany has spent well over $ 500 billion on the former East Germany over the last decade, and it has not yet been completely converted to a fully modernized economy. To move countries like Afghanistan into an advanced stage of development is simply beyond what can be done.

Moreover, there is no truth to the implied idea that economic development will prevent or overcome either communist or Islamic radicalization or terrorism. Iran's economy is much better off than that of Afghanistan, but, at least until recently, Iran has harbored and sponsored terrorists (especially Hezbollah). Syria and Libya, once active in the terrorism business, have curbed it—but hardly because they suddenly reached some new stage of economic development. The 19 hijackers that assaulted the USA on September 11 were not from poor but middle class backgrounds. Bin Laden was, of course, a billionaire.

Development can occur, but slowly, and in line with local traditions and institutions. Moreover, some cultures—Max Weber has shown beyond reasonable doubt—are less hospitable to it than others. It may not be politically correct, but it is an elementary fact that Islamic cultures are less amenable to fast-paced development than East Asian societies (China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore). Hence, trying to fast forward development in Islamic countries is particularly unrewarding. There are strong, compelling humanitarian reasons to send medication, food, and other such items to all nations devastated by war, especially to refugees. But such aid will not bring economic development a day closer, will buy us no love, and will not protect them or us from virulent Islam.

Regrettably, democratization and liberalization —if these terms are taken seriously—is even more difficult to foster. Some, anxious to show that democratization is gaining on left and right, plant democratic flags on their global map whenever a country conducts elections, even if de facto there is only one party (as was true for seventy years in Mexico), opposition parties are banned or harassed, the government is corrupt, and the press is oppressed. However, if by democracy we mean a complement of the institutions that it entails, developing it is a tall task. We should remind ourselves that it took centuries for Britain to form a true democracy. It took us several generations before those without property could run for office, women could vote, and African-Americans could cast their ballots.

Exporting democracy is even more difficult than growing it domestically. It has proven to be a delicate plant that does not flourish in many climates. Russia (and many of the other former Soviet republics) is the most recent example, where our unreasonable hopes to democratize quickly were dashed. And the conditions there were much more favorable than in countries in which many people do not have even primary school education, live on near subsistence-level economies, and firmly subscribe to traditional views of religious and tribal authority.

To see what can be achieved, we must start with formulating more modest goals. Instead of looking to democratize and liberalize, we need to favor unabashedly less authoritarian governments over more authoritarian ones. Any significant movement toward an open society—one that allows a relatively (and best, increasing) free flow of ideas, people, and commerce—should be considered a step toward the social conditions under which further movement toward a democratic regime may gradually take place. Endeavors to open societies include such measures as providing access to cross national communications, from hand-crank radios to the Internet, and curtailing efforts to control its content (as happens in China and Singapore); allowing outside media in (without tearing pages out of imported magazines) and free access to the world press; easing restrictions on travel in and out and increasing tourism (as Iran recently did); and granting more room for outside businesses. These steps seem unimportant only if measured against a full-blown democratic model, but significant if we realize that often they are about all that can be achieved in the short run.

The strategy of fostering opening up—as a way to help create the preconditions for economic and political development—both protects people in these societies from virulent Islam and advances our vital interests. Open societies are much less likely to harbor terrorists than closed ones. Indeed, practically all the nations on the US State Department's terrorist list are closed ones, albeit to varying degrees, including Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Openness allows us to keep a closer eye on potential hotbeds of terrorism. Most importantly, open access allows us either to verify the destruction of facilities for the production of weapons of mass destruction (which we, working with other leading powers, should demand) or at least to keep a close eye on them (e.g., in Pakistan and India).

Any analysis of what is needed for homeland protection must realize that it starts and ends overseas; it cannot be only, or even primarily, achieved at home. Unless we are willing to give up the institutions of a free society, we shall be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Even if we guard all our bridges, tunnels, nuclear plants, and water resources, terrorists will be able to find an opening. As one of them put it: “We only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky all the time.” To survive, we must defang terrorism at its source. Moreover, despite the rhetoric about an all-out war against terrorism overseas, we may never be able to stop all acts. Hence, our number one priority should be the destruction of the weapons of mass destruction of nations in which terrorists may gain access to them or that might use them as part of holy wars. To reiterate, this vital goal cannot be much advanced without societies opening up.

Corollary Issues

Opening societies entails engagement. It means that we should not ban trade with or travel to, nor cut off diplomatic relations with or otherwise seek to isolate those countries whose regimes we abhor. Engagement helped move China toward openness (and may now so propel North Korea) while isolation of Cuba and Iraq have failed. Our business people, travelers, media, and others help transmit our ideas to the societies they visit or work in, are sources of information about these countries, and in effect are partners with internal forces that seek change and favor a less closed society.

Supporters of human rights often call for sanctions or breaking off relations with oppressive countries, which amounts to isolating them and reinforces their closed character. Instead, we should combine engagement with promotion of human rights. We can promote human rights via moral suasion, through the Voice of America, the BBC, and other such tools of communications, as well as through the education of students from the countries involved when they are allowed to study in free societies. The once maligned Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization secretly financed by the US government that brought together intellectuals opposed to communism, might be revived to support moderate Islamic thinkers, of whom there is a growing number, especially in Europe (spanning so-called Euro-Islam) and the United States. Moral suasion across international borders, granted, is a weak tool. However, it gains strength by engagement rather than being undermined by it.

In the drive to open societies that have been captured by virulent Islam, or whose closed character sets them up to be captured by it, we can form coalitions with relatively moderate and open Muslim nations, including Jordan, Mali, Turkey, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and moderate Islamic groups within other countries. Their number, size, influence, and power will grow once it becomes clear that if they join the worldwide coalition against virulent Islam—they will find in us a strong and reliable ally.

Force has its place in the defense of open societies from virulent Islam and the terrorism it spawns. There is no need to review here the issues raised by various means of warfare and counter-terrorism (e.g., the issues raised by collateral damage and the assassination of leaders). But one ought to be clear that might is respected (especially in less developed parts of the world) rather than only moral reasons.

We are summoned to another war that best remain cold, just as we avoided a shooting war with the Soviet Union, although we were involved in fighting at the margins of the Communist empire, in Korea and Vietnam, as we have been recently with the Taliban's Afghanistan. Mainly, the confrontation with virulent Islam is a worldwide conflict about beliefs, between the carriers of an oppressive version of one religion and the champions of free societies. Force is involved, both by those who try to terrorize the free world (and impose their beliefs) and by the worldwide coalition to stop terrorism. However, the main struggle is between two fundamentally different worldviews. One, shared by secular conceptions as well as by many religions (moderate Islam included) that have learned to live with the core values and institutions of free societies and modern economies, in contrast to virulent ones that seek to keep their people in a medieval world. This conflict, this cold war, cannot be won with bombs, theirs or ours. It can be settled if we find ways to expose the people of closed societies to ideas of free ones, so that they can develop and democratize in their own way and time.

Amitai Etzioni is distinguished professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is author most recently of The Monochrome Society, published by Princeton University Press, and of Public Policy in a New Key, published by Transaction Publishers.