We have a problem — not a problem from hell, but one that claims to come from heaven. That problem is sometimes called radical, or fundamentalist, Islam, and the self-styled Islamic State is just its latest iteration. But no one really understands it.
In the summer of 2014, Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, the commander of U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East, admitted as much when talking about the Islamic State. “We do not understand the movement,” he said. “And until we do, we are not going to defeat it.”
Although Nagata’s words are striking for their candor, there is nothing new about the state of affairs they describe. For years, U.S. policymakers have failed to grasp the nature of the threat posed by militant Islam and have almost entirely failed to mount an effective counteroffensive against it on the battlefield that matters most: the battlefield of ideas.
In the war of ideas, words matter.
Last September, President Barack Obama insisted that the Islamic State “is not Islamic,” and later that month, he told the U.N. General Assembly that “Islam teaches peace.” In November, Obama condemned the beheading of the American aid worker Peter Kassig as evil but refused to use the term radical Islam to describe the ideology of his killers. The phrase is no longer heard in White House press briefings. The approved term is violent extremism.
The decision not to call violence committed in the name of Islam by its true name — jihad — is a strange one. It would be as if Western leaders during the Cold War had gone around calling communism an ideology of peace or condemning the Baader Meinhof Gang, a West German militant group, for not being true Marxists.
It is time to drop the euphemisms and verbal contortions. A battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.
How did the United States end up with a strategy based on Orwellian Newspeak? In the wake of 9/11, senior Bush administration officials sounded emphatic. “This is a battle for minds,” declared the Pentagon’s No. 2, Paul Wolfowitz, in 2002. Behind the scenes, there was a full-blown struggle going on about how to approach the subject of Islam.
According to Joseph Bosco, who worked on strategic communications and Muslim outreach in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2004, although some American officials defined Islam as inherently peaceful, others argued that, like Christianity, it had to go through a reformation. Eventually, an uneasy compromise was reached. “We bridged the divide by saying that most contemporary Muslims practice their faith peacefully and tolerantly, but a small, radical minority aspires to return to Islam’s harsh seventh century origins,” Bosco wrote in The National Interest.
Administration officials could not even agree on the target of their efforts. Was it global terrorism or Islamic extremism? Or was it the alleged root causes — poverty, Saudi funding, past errors of U.S. foreign policy, or something else altogether? There were agonizing meetings on the subject, one participant told U.S. News & World Report. “We couldn’t clarify what path to take, so it was dropped.”
It did not help that the issue cut across traditional bureaucratic demarcations. Officers from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command argued for the integration of public diplomacy, press relations and covert operations [JB emphasis]. State Department officials saw this as yet another attempt by the Pentagon to annex their turf. Veterans of the campaign trail warned against going negative on a religion — any religion — ahead of the 2004 election.
For all these reasons, by the middle of that year, the Bush administration had next to no strategy. Government Accountability Office investigators told Congress that those responsible for public diplomacy at the State Department had no guidance. “Everybody who knows how to do this has been screaming,” one insider told U.S. News. But outside Foggy Bottom, no one could hear them scream [JB emphasis].
Administration officials eventually settled on the “Muslim World Outreach” strategy, which relied partly on humanitarian projects carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development and partly on Arabic-language media outlets funded by the U.S. government, such as Alhurra (a plain vanilla TV news channel) and Radio Sawa (a 24-hour pop music station that targets younger listeners). In effect, “Muslim World Outreach” meant not touching Islam at all. Karen Hughes, who was undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005 to 2007, has said that she “became convinced that our nation should avoid the language of religion in our discussion of terrorist acts.”
Here, if in few other respects, there has been striking continuity from Bush to Obama.
From 2009 to 2011, Judith McHale served in the same position that Hughes had. “This effort is not about a ‘war of ideas,’ or winning the hearts and minds of huge numbers of people,” McHale said in 2012. “It’s about using digital platforms to reach that small but dangerous group of people around the world who are considering turning to terrorism and persuading them to instead turn in a different direction.”
The whole concept of violent extremism implies that the United States is fine with people being extremists, so long as they do not resort to violence. Yet this line of reasoning fails to understand the crucial link between those who preach jihad and those who then carry it out. It also fails to understand that at a pivotal moment, the United States has opted out of a debate about Islam’s future.
American policymakers have made two main arguments for avoiding the subject of Islam, one strategic, the other domestic. The first holds that the United States must not jeopardize its interests in the Middle East and other majority-Muslim parts of the world by casting aspersions on Islam. The second contends that the country must not upset the delicate balance in Western democracies between Muslim minorities and non-Muslim majorities by offending Muslims or encouraging so-called Islamophobes.
Yet it is becoming harder and harder to sustain these arguments, since U.S. interests in the Middle East are in increasing jeopardy and since the domestic threat of militant Islam is far greater than the threat of a much-exaggerated Islamophobia.
The United States cannot wish away the escalating violence by jihadist groups or the evidence that substantial proportions of many Muslim populations support at least some of their goals (such as the imposition of sharia and punishing apostates and those who insult Islam with death).
The Middle East and North Africa grow more violent by the day. A substantial part of Syria and Iraq has fallen to the Islamic State. Yemen has collapsed into anarchy. Islamists have set up bases in Libya. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram is causing grave instability in northern Nigeria, as well as in neighboring Niger and Cameroon.
The nonstrategy, in short, has failed.
Indeed, the official U.S. position collapses when the United States’ own Middle Eastern allies begin openly referring to Islamic extremism as a cancer (in the words of the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States) and calling for a revolution in mainstream Islamic religious thinking (as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has).
As for the home front, an estimated 3,400 Westerners, many of them young men and women with promising futures, have voluntarily chosen to leave behind the West’s freedoms and prosperity to join the Islamic State. More British Muslims have volunteered for the Islamic State than for the British military. The United States is not in this dire state, but the direction of travel is troubling. Already, more than 50 young American Muslims have tried to join the Islamic State, and around half of them have succeeded. It is time to change course.
The first step is to recognize that the Muslim world is in the early stages of a religious reformation. To understand its nature, it is important to distinguish between the three different groups of Muslims in the world today. The first consists of Muslims who see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty. The second group — the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice or preach violence.
The third group consists of Muslim dissidents. A few, including myself, have been forced by experience to conclude that we cannot continue to be believers, yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. But the majority of dissidents are reformist believers, among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.
Yet there are two fundamental obstacles to a reform of Islam. The first is that those who advocate it, even in the mildest terms, are threatened with death as heretics or apostates. The second is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrants for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.
Take the case of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious mainstream institution of Sunni religious education in the world. One former Al-Azhar student, Sufyan al-Omari, told the Belgian newspaper De Standaard in March that the Islamic State “does not fall from the sky.” He continued: “The texts to which it appeals for support are exactly what we learned at Al-Azhar. The difference is that it truly puts the texts into practice.” Following this logic, he said that he intended to join the Islamic State.
Mohamed Abdullah Nasr, another recent graduate of Al-Azhar, did not express a desire to do the same. But, he pointed out, “even if Al-Azhar students don’t join in, they still retain these ideas in their head. They spread the ideology in their communities.”
Critical thinking like Nasr’s is at the core of the Muslim Reformation.
Admittedly, the historical analogy is very rough. There are fundamental differences between the teachings of Jesus and those of Muhammad, to say nothing of the radically different organizational structures of the two religions — one hierarchical and distinct from the state, the other decentralized yet aspiring to political power.
Nevertheless, three factors at work in the Middle East today resemble the drivers of religious reform in 16th-century Europe. First, new information technology has created an unprecedented communications network across the Muslim world. Second, a constituency for a reformation has emerged in major cities, consisting of people disenchanted with Islamist rule (as in Cairo and Tehran) or attracted by Western norms (as in London and New York). Third, there is also a political constituency for religious reform emerging in key regional states, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Already, a growing number of ordinary citizens in the Muslim world, as well as in the West, are calling for reform. The Muslim Reformation will likely be driven by such lay reformers, rather than by the clergy, but a number of clerics are still playing an important role.
Among them is Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of the Drancy mosque, near Paris, who predicted earlier this year that “Islam will also follow the same historical pattern as Christianity and Judaism,” in terms of reforming its doctrine. “However,” he warned, “this battle for reform will not be concluded if the rest of the world treats it as a solely internal battle and sits as an idle observer, watching the catastrophe as it unfolds.”
Such Islamic thinkers envision a version of their religion that no longer exalts holy war, martyrdom and life in the hereafter.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, a former dean of Islamic law at Qatar University, has said that he “would like the religious scholars, through their religious discourse, to make our youth love life, and not death.” He has recommended that liberal reformers be permitted to sue inflammatory Islamic preachers for any harm that befalls them from the preachers’ sermons.
The Iraqi Shiite cleric Ahmad al-Qabbanji, meanwhile, has argued that “the Quran was created by the Prophet Muhammad, but was driven by Allah,” a clear break with orthodoxy, which holds that the Quran is the direct word of God. As a report from the Middle East Media Research Institute explains, he proposes “a modifiable religious ruling based on fiqh al-maqasid, or the jurisprudence of the meaning” — code for a more flexible interpretation of sharia.
Another reformer, Ayad Jamal al-Din, a Shiite cleric in Iraq who has argued for the separation of mosque and state, has framed the choice this way: “We must make a decision whether to follow man-made civil law, legislated by the Iraqi parliament, or whether to follow the fatwas issued by Islamic jurisprudents. We must not embellish things and say that Islam is a religion of compassion, peace and rose water, and that everything is fine.”
Like Christians and Jews centuries ago, Muslims today must critically evaluate their sacred texts to reform their religion. That is not an unreasonable request, as history shows. Of course, history also shows that the path to religious reform can be bloody. By the mid-17th century, Europe had been ravaged by a century of warfare between Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the result was to create the room for the genuine freedom of thought that ultimately made the Enlightenment possible.
One of the most important of these freethinkers was Baruch Spinoza, a brilliant Jewish Dutch philosopher. For Spinoza, the Bible was a collection of loosely assembled moral teachings, not God’s literal word. Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community, and a council of the Dutch Reformed Church called his Theological-Political Treatise “the vilest and most sacrilegious book the world has ever seen.”
One of Spinoza’s contemporaries, Adriaan Beverland, was even jailed and then banished from the provinces of Holland and Zeeland for questioning the notion of original sin. Yet both men died in their beds. And it is their ideas that prevail in the Netherlands today.
American presidents and secretaries of state need not give lectures on the finer points of Islamic orthodoxy. But it is not too much to ask them to support Islamic religious reform and make the fate of Muslim dissidents and reformers part of their negotiations with allies (such as Saudi Arabia) and foes (such as Iran) alike. At the same time, U.S. officials need to stop publicly whitewashing unreformed Islam.
There are precedents for this proposal. During the Cold War, the United States systematically encouraged and funded anticommunist intellectuals to counter the influence of Marxists and other fellow travelers of the left by speaking out against the evils of the Soviet system. As détente took hold in the late 1960s and 1970s, the war of ideas died down. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty — anticommunist stations funded by the U.S. government — were operating with 1940s vacuum tube technology and rusting transmitter towers. Under Reagan, however, funding for the war of ideas was stepped up, largely through the U.S. Information Agency.
The conventional wisdom today is that the Cold War was won on economics, but this is a misunderstanding of history. In fact, in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, the United States appealed to people living behind the Iron Curtain not only on the basis of Americans’ higher standards of living but also — and perhaps more importantly — on the basis of individual freedom and the rule of law. Dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Vaclav Havel did not condemn the Soviet system because its consumer goods were shoddy and in short supply. They condemned it because it was lawless, lying and corrupt.
Today, there are many dissidents who challenge Islam with as much courage as the dissidents who spoke out against the Soviet Union. Just as critics of communism during the Cold War came from a variety of backgrounds and disagreed on many issues, so do modern critics of unreformed Islam.
Fighting the war of ideas doesn’t mean trumpeting the U.S. policy of the day. It means focusing squarely on encouraging those who, for example, oppose the literal application of sharia to apostates and women or who argue that calls to wage holy war have no place in the 21st century.
The task of backing Islamic reform cannot be carried out by the government alone; civil society has a crucial role to play. Indeed, all the major U.S. charitable foundations committed to humanitarian work can help Islam reform. The Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation — all of which boast endowments in the billions of dollars — have done almost nothing in this area.
There have been many grants for the study of Islam, but almost none to promote its reform. The same goes for the United States’ leading universities, which are currently paralyzed by their fear of being accused of “cultural imperialism” or, worst of all, Orientalism.
I am not an Orientalist, nor am I a racist, although like most critics of Islam, I have been accused of that, too. I do not believe in the innate backwardness of Arabs or Africans. I do not believe that the Middle East and North Africa are somehow doomed to a perpetual cycle of violence.
I am a universalist. I believe that each human being possesses the power of reason, as well as a conscience. That includes all Muslims.
The main responsibility for the Muslim Reformation falls on Muslims themselves. But it must be the duty of the Western world, as well as being in its self-interest, to provide assistance and, where necessary, security to those reformers who are carrying out this formidable task, just as it once encouraged those dissidents who stood up to Soviet communism.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the author of “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.” Follow her on Twitter at @ayaan. A version of this essay was originally published in “Foreign Affairs Magazine.”