Thursday, January 21, 2016

Quotable: Cheryl Benard challenges the premises of “Moderate Islam”

Benard image from

Monday, January 18th 2016
“Over the past decade, the prevailing thinking has been that radical Islam is most effectively countered by moderate Islam. The goal was to find religious leaders and scholars and community ‘influencers’—to use the lingo of the counter-radicalization specialists—who could explain to their followers and to any misguided young people that Islam is a religion of peace, that the term jihad refers mainly to the individual’s personal struggle against temptation and for moral betterment, and that tolerance and interfaith cooperation should prevail. The presence of local Muslim luminaries, taking the lectern to announce that what had just happened bore no relation to true Islam, has become part of the ritual following any terrorist incident in a Western country.”

Author and RAND researcher Cheryl Benard challenged this frame of “moderate” vs. “radical” Islam in an important article, “’Moderate Islam’ Isn’t Working,” posted on the website of The National Interest on December 20, 2015.  She now favors a policy focused on integration and offers some proposals.  The focus of her article is primarily domestic, but it describes the hold of old-country Islamic values (and offshore websites) on immigrants so that they “self-marginalize” or “self-alienate.”  Public Diplomacy practitioners will find the article suggestive.  Here are some key quotes:

  • Revisitng our ‘strengthen the moderates’ strategy, I now believe that while it was basically sensible, it was off track . . .

  • . . . I was an early proponent of this approach. It assumed two things: first, that because of a lack of education, or poverty or other handicaps, many Muslims had developed an incomplete or incorrect understanding of their own religion; and second, that the extremists were so much louder and had backing from various maleficent sources, and therefore were gaining larger audiences. The task therefore was to help moderate Muslims spread the word. Multiple and expensive programs were launched to fund religious instruction, radio and television shows, community outreach efforts and more.

  • With a track record of well over a decade, it does not seem as though this is working. Even granted that an undertaking of this magnitude—shaping the way in which a world religion sees itself—takes time, it’s unfortunately more than just a matter of progress being slow.  Incontrovertibly, things are getting worse.

  • Our criteria for defining a moderate were too simplistic, and we missed a key concept that arguably should have been our mantra instead: integration.

  • In our definition of Muslim moderates, we basically only had one red line. If a person disavowed violence and terrorism, he or she was a moderate. But this is not enough. You can eschew terrorism while still harboring attitudes of hostility and alienation that in turn become the breeding ground for extremism and the safe harbor for extremists.

  • What we lumped together as moderates includes what we might better have termed aggressive traditionalists, people who believe that Muslims living in the West must struggle to remain external to Western values and lifestyles, and should owe little or no loyalty to Western institutions and persons. They might be against violence, but they are also against integration.

  • If we take a closer look at ‘moderate Islam’ we find that one slice of it—the ‘aggressive traditionalist’ slice—incites not violence against the West, but rejection of Western values, modern life and integration. It demands of its followers that they be in the West but not of it, that they maintain emotional, social and intellectual separation. This describes Farook and Tashfeen, who went to great pains to harden their hearts against the people in whose midst they lived.

  • . . . a culture of self-alienation has negative effects. It can cause individuals to fail or flounder in their careers, because their standoffishness and self-marginalization prevent them from being true team members. That, in turn, can lead to feelings of anger, disappointment and frustration, as people who have segregated themselves now feel that they are being excluded and discriminated against—a vicious circle.

  • Divided loyalties can cause individuals to stay silent when they notice suspicious activity in their neighborhood or family or social circle. In recent days there has been much discussion of how we as a society must avoid marginalizing our Muslim fellow citizens. But it is at least equally important to address the matter of the self-marginalization of a particular subset of Muslim fellow citizens.

  • The current mosque scenery in the U.S. is such that many and perhaps most mainstream, modern-minded and well-integrated moderate Muslims don’t go to them. . . . . on a societal level the absence of modern Muslims from the American mosque is consequential. These are the people who could serve as role models and opinion leaders, and as board members exercising ‘quality control.’ Instead, that terrain is left to the ultra-conservative, the old fashioned and the cultural separatists.

  • Similarly, this is who controls the online space. We are all aware of the dangers of online radicalization and extremist Web sites are subject to scrutiny, but the purportedly moderate Web sites are considered harmless and ignored—a mistake.

  • A few years ago, I began tracking the religious advice provided to Diaspora Muslims online. . . . What they incite is estrangement. The common thread of the advice: don’t trust the ‘unbelievers,’ don’t befriend them, don’t care about them, don’t adapt to their habits and ways and don’t feel loyal to any of their institutions.

Author: Donald M. Bishop

No comments: