Neo-Orientalists of the Rand Corporation

Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Neo-Orientalists of the Rand Corporation

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

December 13th marks the first anniversary of the Rand Corporation report “The Muslim World After 9/11” that suggests exploitation of Sunni, Shiite and Arab, non-Arab divides to promote the US policy objectives in the Muslim world. This was the second Rand report about Islam and Muslims in 2004. The first report was Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. The Rand reports are the latest in a long series of policy papers dedicated to further the military, economic, and cultural onslaught of the West on the Muslim World. Dig a little into the reports and it won’t take long to find the real objectives. Writers of these reports are neo-Orientalists with clear intention to belittle Islam and its adherents to achieve ambitions of the empire like the Orientalists of the 19th century who co-operated hand-in-hand with the imperialistic aims of the European colonial powers. Here is analysis of the two reports:

When the European nations began their long campaign to colonize and conquer the rest of the world for their own benefit, they brought their academic and missionary resources to help them with their task.  Orientalists and missionaries, whose ranks often overlapped, were the servants of an imperialist government who was using their services as a way to subdue or weaken an enemy. The academic study of the Oriental East by the Occidental West was often motivated and often co-operated hand-in-hand with the imperialistic aims of the European colonial powers.  The foundations of Orientalism were in the maxim “Know thy enemy”. 

This equally applies to the modern day Orientalists of such semi-official think tanks as the Rand Corporation which issued two studies about Islam in 2004: Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies and The Muslim World After 9/11.

The first report - Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources released in March 2004, is written by Cheryl Benard, a sociologist and fiction writer. Prior to this, Benard published feminist themed novels (including Moghul Buffet and Veiled Courage) that ridicule religious figures and portray Muslim women as oppressed individuals living under the rule of totalitarian megalomaniac male patriarchs. She is the wife of Zalmay Khalidzad, a protégé of the neoconservative mastermind Paul Wolfowitz and received his training at Rand. He is currently the US ambassador to Iraq.

The second report - The Muslim World After 9/11 – was released in December 2004. Its lead author is Angel Rabasa, a retired official of the State department and an expert on anti-terrorism. Rabasa is also the author of Political Islam in Southeast Asia: Moderates, Radicals and Terrorist (2003) which has the theme similar to the new study for which the Rand Corporation issued a brief under the title: US strategy in the Muslim World after 9/11. This is rather more appropriate title for the 567-page US government funded study prepared for the US Air Force. Other authors of the study include Cheryl Benard, and Christine Fair, formerly of Rand and now at the U.S. Institute of Peace headed by Islamophobist Daniel Pipes.

The Rand reports are the latest in a long series of policy papers dedicated to further the military, economic, and cultural onslaught of the West on the Muslim World. “Our goal is to provide policymakers and the broader academic and policy community with a general overview of events and trends in the Muslim world that are most likely to affect U.S. interests and security, says Rabasa. The Reports are based on the following presumptions:

1. Islam is an uncivilized religion. The title of the Benard report “Civil Democratic Islam” and the Rabasa Report’s call for US support for “civil Islam,” say a lot. Both reports want to create a ‘civilized’ version of Islam by supporting the so-called modernists who are required to repudiate the basic tenets of Islam including editing of Islam’s holy book, the Quran.

2. Islam promotes extremism and terrorism. “The United States has three goals in regard to politicized Islam. First, it wants to prevent the spread of extremism and violence,” says Benard.

3. The Islamic faith is responsible for all the ills of the 1.5 billion Muslims which include lack of democracy and economic backwardness. According to Cheryl Benard: “Islam’s current crisis has two main components: a failure to thrive and a loss of connection to the global (read Western) mainstream. The Islamic world has been marked by a long period of backwardness and comparative powerlessness…” Angel Rabasa adds: “Many of the ills and pathologies that afflict many countries in this (Muslim) part of the world and that generate much of the extremism we are concerned about derive from—and contribute to—economic and political failure.”

4. Islam is against democracy. Title of chapter two of the Benard report reads: Finding partners for the promotion of democratic Islam.

BBC summed up the objective of the reports in a sentence when it commented (March 29, 2004) on Cheryl Benard’s report: “The Rand approach is more overtly political and has definite diplomatic gains in mind.” The BBC went on to say: “It is a contribution to a debate well under way in the West. The latest manifestation of this debate was a recent speech by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey, who wondered why Islam was “associated with violence throughout the world. Is extremism so ineluctably bound up with its faith that we are at last seeing its true character? His conclusion is not dissimilar to that of this report.”

The 18th and 19th century Oriental studies in the West were not inspired by the spirit of scholarly impartiality but the Islamicists and Arabists worked with the clear intention of belittling Islam and its adherents to help the march of colonialization. Similarly, the neo-Orientalists of the Rand Corporation are assigned to prepare reports about Islam and Muslims to portray a negative image of Islam and Muslims and serve the cause of empire.

As Edward Said, the author of the monumental work Orientalism, has accurately referred to Orientalism a “cultural enterprise,” the Rand Reports are part of the cultural onslaught in a bid to change the face of Islam. 

Belittling Islam

Islam has been the object of studies by the Western Orientalists who, over the last two plus centuries, have published an extensive literature on the subject. Nevertheless, however worthy their labors may have been , they have contributed little to a better understanding of the Muslim religion in the Christian world, simply because they have worked with the clear intention of belittling Islam and its adherents and promoting the cause of empire.

The Rand Corporation’s two reports about Islam published in March and December 2004 are not different than the voluminous work of the Orientalists.

One of the major objective of the Rabasa report - The Muslim World After 9/11 - is “to identify possible strategies and sets of political and military options to help the United States meet challenges and exploit opportunities presented by changed conditions in the Muslim world.” Similarly, Benard suggests that America take it upon itself to devise nothing less than a new ‘Islam’ carefully crafted in order to suit American interests. This onerous task of what she calls ‘religion-building’ entails the invention of what, for all practical purposes, is a completely new religious tradition, one that most Muslims would themselves probably barely recognize.

Both reports compartmentalize 1.5 billion Muslims into four groups.

Bernard divides Muslims into four broad groups—‘fundamentalists’, ‘traditionalists’, ‘modernists’ and ‘secularists’—and suggests different policies to deal with them. The ‘fundamentalists’, she says, ‘reject democratic values, contemporary Western culture and advocate an ‘authoritarian, puritanical state that will implement their extreme view of Islamic law and morality’. Remaining silent on America’s previous support to numerous such groups in the recent past, she argues that since the ‘fundamentalists’ are ‘hostile to the West’, supporting them is not an option for the US, ‘except for transitory tactical considerations’.

The second group of Muslims, according to Benard, are the ‘traditionalists’ who ‘want a conservative society’, being ‘suspicious of modernity, innovation and change’. She sees them as somewhat more moderate than the so-called ‘fundamentalists’, but not enthusiastic about ‘modernity’. Hence, she suggests, the US can ‘at best …. only make an uneasy peace with them’.

Two other groups – modernists and secularists - that Benard defines share a broad vision of the world with which Benard herself identifies. She describes ‘modernists’ as those Muslims who ‘want the Islamic world to become part of global (read western) modernity’. The modernists are said to be uneasy with Islam and want to ‘modernize and reform’ it in order to ‘bring it in line with the age’. According to her, modernists believe that some parts of Islam are just a historical curiosity and should be hurriedly abandoned. In other words, the Benard modernists propose a new version of Islam that willingly accepts capitalism and its values. Related to them are the ‘secularists’, who want to impose a strict division between religion and state in the Muslim world in the manner of Western countries, relegating Islam to the private realm. (1)

Similarly, Angel Rabasa divides Muslims into four groups: Fundamentalists, Traditionalists, Modernists and Secularists. Like Benard, he further sub-divides fundamentalists into fundamentalists and scriptural fundamentalists and securlarists into liberal secularists and authoritarian secularists. Rabasa declares Saudi Salafijihadist groups as fundamentalists; Jama’a al-Tabligh (Tabliqhi groups) as Scriptural Fundamentalists; mainstream Shi’ites as Traditionalists; Muhammadiyah of Indonesia as modernists; secular parties in Turkey and Indonesia as liberal secularists and Bathists of Iraq and Syria as authoritarian secularists. (2)

The Modernists

Benard and Rabasa both suggest support of the modernists to develop Western, German and U.S. versions of Islam and promote the U. S. foreign policy objectives.

With the goal of selectively ignoring or rejecting elements of the original religious doctrine of Islam Benard also defines parameters for Muslim modernists who should be cultivated and publicly presented as the face of contemporary Islam: (i) Modernists believe that Islam is responsible for the underdevelopment of the Muslims because prosperity and progress depends on modernity and democracy (3) (ii) Modernists believe in the historicity of Islam, i.e., that Islam as it was practiced in the days of the Prophet reflected eternal truths as well as historical circumstances that were appropriate to that time but are no longer valid. (4) (iii) Modernists do not regard the original Islamic community or the early years of Islam as something that one would necessarily wish to reproduce today. (5) (iv) Modernists believe that some verses (suras) may have been falsely or inaccurately recorded in the Quran. (6) (v) Modernists believe that the Quran is legend. (7)

Rabasa argues that liberal and moderate Muslims, although a majority in almost all countries, have not created networks similar to fundamentalists. Their voices are often fractured or silenced. The battle for Islam will require the creation of liberal groups to retrieve Islam from the hijackers of the religion. Creation of an international network is critical because such a network would provide a platform to amplify the message of moderates and also to provide them some protection. However, moderates do not have the resources to create this network themselves. The initial impulse may require an external catalyst. (8)

Divide and Rule

Divide and Rule’ is a basic principle that must guide America’s policy on Islam, both reports suggest. Play one segment of the Muslim society against another segment.

Benard calls for support for support of the traditionalists against the fundamentalists, confrontation with the fundamentalists and selectively support secularists. “Back the traditionalists enough to keep them viable against the fundamentalists (if and wherever those are our choices) and to prevent a closer alliance between these two groups.” (9)

According to Rabasa, one of the primary objective of the study - The U.S. Strategy in the Muslim World After 9/11 - was to “identify the key cleavages and fault lines among sectarian, ethnic, regional, and national lines and to assess how these cleavages generate challenges and opportunities for the United States.” (10)

Using the old adage – divide and rule – the study suggests that Sunni, Shiite and Arab, non-Arab divides should be exploited to promote the US policy objectives in the Muslim world.

“The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, but a significant minority, about 15 percent of the global Muslim population, are Shi’ites….. The expectations of Iraqi Shi’ites for a greater say in the governance of their country presents an opportunity for the United States to align its policy with Shi’ite aspirations for greater freedom of religious and political expression, in Iraq and elsewhere,” the study said.

The study pointed out that with the moves toward rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, there are reports that Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites are now turning from Iran and placing their hopes on the United States.

“Their expectation is that any move toward democracy in Iraq would give the Shi’ite majority a greater say in the politics of that country and increase their ability to help their brethren in Saudi Arabia. Such expectations could present an opportunity for the United States to align its policy with Shi’ite aspirations for greater freedom of religious and political expression and a say in their own affairs in countries controlled by others.”

On the division between the Arab and the non-Arab worlds, the Study pointed out: “Arabs constitute only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims, yet interpretations of Islam, political and otherwise, are often filtered through an Arab lens. A great deal of the discourse on Muslim issues and grievances is actually discourse on Arab issues and grievances. For reasons that have more to do with historical and cultural development than religion, the Arab world exhibits a higher incidence of economic, social, and political disorders than other regions of the so-called developing world.”

“By contrast, the non-Arab parts of the Muslim world are politically more inclusive, boast the majority of the democratic or partially democratic governments, and are more secular in outlook. Although the Arab Middle East has long been regarded (and certainly views itself) as the core of the Muslim world, the most innovative and sophisticated contemporary work in Islam is being done on the “periphery”—in countries such as Indonesia and in Muslim communities in the West, leading some scholars to ask whether Islam’s center of gravity is now shifting to more dynamic regions of the Muslim world.”

The Report holds the post independence political and economic failures responsible for the current political environment of the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. “Many of the ills and pathologies that afflict many countries in this part of the world and that generate much of the extremism we are concerned about derive from—and contribute to—economic and political failure.”

This situation, the study argued, leads to the concept of structural anti-Westernism (or anti-Americanism). “This concept holds that that Muslim anger has deep roots in the political and social structures of some Muslim countries and that opposition to certain U.S. policies merely provides the content and opportunity for the expression of this anger.”

Rabasa also argues that outside the Arab Middle East, Islamization has involved the importation of Arab-origin ideology and religious and social practices— a phenomenon that he refers as Arabization.

Madrassa Reforms

Rabasa sees madrassas in Muslim countries as the breeding ground for terrorists. “Promoting educational reform is therefore an important component of a shaping strategy in the Muslim world. …. There is an urgent need for the United States and other concerned countries and international institutions to support the reform of religious schools to ensure that these schools are able to provide a broad modern education. This reform is key to breaking the cycle of radicalized madrassas producing cannon fodder for radical and terrorist groups. (11)

However, a study entitled “The Madrassa Myth” by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey (12) belies Rabasa’s assertion. The study asserts that there is little or no evidence that madrassas produce terrorists capable of attacking the West. As a matter of national security, the United States doesn’t need to worry about Muslim fundamentalists with whom we may disagree, but about terrorists who want to attack us, the author of the report argued. (13)

A World Bank-financed study that was published in March 2005 raises further doubts about the influence of madrassas in Pakistan, the country where the schools were thought to be the most influential and the most virulently anti-American. Contrary to the numbers cited in the report of the 9/11 commission, and to a blizzard of newspaper reports that 10 percent of Pakistani students study in madrassas, the study’s authors found that fewer than 1 percent do so. If correct, this estimate would suggest that there are far more American children being home-schooled than Pakistani boys attending madrassas, according to Bergen and Pandey.

“Madrassa enrollment figures cited in the popular press and institutional reports, none of which are substantiated using publicly verifiable data, are sometimes highly inflated,” the researchers say in their study, published on the World Bank’s Web site. Even along Pakistan’s often-lawless border with Afghanistan, madrassas account for less than 7.5% of school enrollment, the study asserts.

Why they hate us?

Both Rand Reports conveniently ignore the cause of anti-American and anti-West attitude and violence in the Muslim world. They hold Islam and Muslims responsible for this.  While ignoring the root cause Benard made a passing remark on this critical issue:  “a number of authors believe that fundamentalist hostility to the United States and to the West primarily reflects anger over some aspects of our foreign policy or discomfort over the more-liberal aspects of Western culture. It is important to be aware that, while such concerns play a part, fundamentalism represents a basic and total rejection of democracy and of the core values of modern civil society.” (14) What she suggests is that Islam and Muslims are against democracy and civil society norms.

Similarly Rabasa report argues that “more or less permanent conditions in the Muslim world, such as the failure of political and economic models in many Arab countries, have fueled anger at the West, as disenfranchised Muslims have blamed U.S. policies for their own countries’ failures.” (15)

These observations contradict another Rand Report entitled: The Future of Security Environment in the Middle East which says “the preference for stability over democratization has effectively aligned the United States with the interests of Middle Eastern regimes rather than those of their populations.” (16)

Both reports refuse to admit that there could be even an element of truth in the Muslim critique of America and the West or to even consider the obvious fact that the prevalent situation in the Muslim world cannot be understood without taking into account the question of the western policies in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir.

James Carroll is right when he says that he current conflict has its origins more in ‘the West” than in the House of Islam. The image of Muslims as prone to violence by virtue of their religion was mainly constructed across centuries by Europeans seeking to bolster their own purposes, a habit of politicized paranoia that is masterfully continued by freaked-out leaders of post-9/11 America. They, too, like prelates, crusaders, conquistadors, and colonizers, have turned fear of Islam into a source of power. (17)

On the other hand Prof. Robert A Pape, author of “Dying to Win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism,”

has challenged the US administration’s belief that terrorism is being committed by Muslim “radicals” who hate Western democracy and values. Suicide terrorism is not so much committed by religious fanatics as by a variety of secular and religious individuals who fear that their societies will be unalterably transformed by a religiously motivated occupier, Pape says. (18)

Rand Reports part of a grand plan

The Rand Reports about Islam appear to be part of a grand strategy to “change the face of Islam” as revealed by the US News and World Report on April 15, 2005. The report entitled - Hearts, Minds, and Dollars: In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions…To Change the Very Face of Islam - reads: “From military psychological-operations teams and CIA covert operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself.”

According to the well planned leaks to the US News and World Report, this strategy for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam.  The report also confirms that it is, in fact, the US which has been funding an American version of Islam, called “Moderate Islam.” 

The report makes it amply clear that it is the CIA that has been revitalizing programs and targeting Islamic media, religious leaders, and political parties” to sell the American version of Islam in the name of “moderate Islam. “The CIA is revitalizing programs of covert action that once helped win the Cold War, targeting Islamic media, religious leaders, and political parties. The agency is receiving an exponential increase in money, people, and assets to help it influence Muslim societies, says a senior intelligence official.”

According to the report, in at least two dozen countries, Washington has quietly funded Islamic radio and TV shows, coursework in Muslim schools, Muslim think tanks, political workshops, or other programs that promote moderate Islam. USAID now helps fund over 30 Muslim organizations in Indonesia. “Among the programs: media production, workshops for Islamic preachers, and curriculum reform for schools from rural academies to Islamic universities. One talk show on Islam and tolerance is relayed to radio stations in 40 cities and sends a weekly column to over a hundred newspapers. Also on the grants list: Islamic think tanks that are fostering a body of scholarly research showing liberal Islam’s compatibility with democracy and human rights.”

In the final analysis, the Rand reports try to create a fictitious vision of Muslims and of Islam, where it is antihuman, uncreative, authoritarian, and intrinsically against Western societies. It is an ethnocentric view of Islam that dominates current representations of Islam that are reductive, predominantly negative, and encouraging a culture of Islamophobia.

The complexities of the so-called fundamentalism and extremism in the past 100 years or so, whether it be Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, need to be understood in the context of modernization, the process of secularization, the changing nature of religious institutions, the post-colonial experience in developing countries, globalization, the divide between wealthy and poor, contesting political power, and the impact of totalitarian regimes on civil society.


1 Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources by Cheryl Benard p-9

2 The Muslim World After 9/11 by Angel Rabasa and others p-7

3 op. cit. Benard p-62

4 op. cit. Benard p-5

5 op. cit. Benard p-6

6 op. cit. Benard p-24

7 op. cit. Benard p-37

8 op. cit. Rabasa p-24

9 op. cit. Benard p-63

10 op. cit. Rabasa p-5

11 op. cit. Rabasa p-62

12 Peter Bergen, the author of “Holy War Inc.,” is a fellow at the New America Foundation. Swati Pandey is a research associate there.

13 The New York Times on June 14, 2005

14 op. cit. Benard p-28

15 Rand Press Release on Rabasa report

16 The Future of Security Environment in the Middle East p-321

17 The war against Islam By James Carroll Boston Globe – June 7, 2005

18 New York Times May 18, 2005

Originally published at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.