Book Review: A Necessary Engagement—Reinventing America’s Relations With the Muslim World (Emile A. Nakleh)
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand
Relations between the ‘Muslim world’ and the ‘West’ have rapidly deteriorated in recent years, and, despite repeated calls for dialogue, they only seem to be further worsening. That this bodes ill for everyone—not just Muslims and Westerners—is too obvious to need any explanation. This book is a passionate appeal for putting an immediate halt to this rapid downslide, and to work towards promoting meaningful dialogue between Muslims and the ‘West’, specifically America.
Nakhleh brings together years of experience, first as a scholar in residence at America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and then as director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Programme, as well as insights gained from visits to over 30 Muslim-majority countries to argue the case for a radical revision of America’s attitude towards the ‘Muslim world’. Put briefly, he argues that America must rethink several of its current foreign policies vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims, and that this must go hand-in-hand with a creative, meaningful, sustained and multi-pronged public diplomacy initiative directed towards Muslim publics.
Based on his longstanding role as adviser to senior American policy makers, Nakhleh remarks that the American government ‘lacks deep knowledge of the Islamic world and of the diverse ways Muslims understand their faith, their relations with each other, and their vision of, and attitudes toward, the non-Muslim world’ [xi]. This, he suggests, is one of the principal reasons for not just the failure of most American initiatives in the ‘Muslim world’, but also for the rapid deterioration in relations between America and the latter. He laments the marked tendency of many senior American officials to see the world through the lens of terrorism, to refuse to recognize that most Muslims do not support terrorism, and to be unwilling to acknowledge that the majority of Muslims do indeed support ideas of good governance and are willing to enter into meaningful dialogue with others, including America.
Nakhleh clearly indicates that Islam, or even what is called ‘political Islam’ or Islamism, is not necessarily a factor for radicalization or terrorism. He insists that mere increased piety, or exhibitions of piety and identity assertion, among Muslim publics must not be seen as a threat or as a prelude to extremism. Yet, at the same time, he recognizes that ‘an Islamized environment might be conducive to further radicalization and terrorism’ (p.9), particularly if the agencies of ‘Islamisation’ are conservative, literalist Muslim groups, such as, for instance, Wahhabi-oriented movements. Further, radicalism using the language of Islam must not be seen simply as an ideological phenomenon. Rather, most often it is the drastic developments in the external environment that leads Islamic movements to take to the radical path, such as foreign occupation, repression by local governments, imperialist invasions or severe oppression by dominant non-Muslim communities. Nakhleh clearly recognises that in such cases, radicalism cannot be tackled through a simple law-and-order or security-driven approach. Without countering the root causes that lead some Muslims to take to extremism, such a policy will not just fail but will lead to further radicalization.
With regard to American policies in the ‘Muslim world’ that have exacerbated radical Islamist tendencies, Nakhleh identifies America’s support to dictatorial and repressive client regimes in Muslim countries, its invasion and occupation of Iraq, its continued offensives in Afghanistan, and its unstinted support to Israel as key issues. He insists—and for a retired senior official at the notorious CIA, this appears strikingly bold and honest—that all this must stop if American policies are not to continue to lead to the manufacturing of ever increasing hordes of Muslim radicals. He calls for the ending of the US-led occupation of Iraq, the scaling down of American military operations in Afghanistan, an immediate stop to the torture of Muslim prisoners, serious efforts to solve the Palestine issue and to end the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and a just resolution of regional conflicts in which Muslim groups are involved, as in Kashmir. Mere sloganeering about democracy, human rights and respect for Islam and Muslim sentiments will not do, he argues, in the absence of concrete policy initiatives. He rightly critiques the US establishment for its tendency to relate to the ‘Muslim world’ mostly or wholly through the lens of ‘terrorism’, ‘security’, and through the use of force and threats of forcible regime change. All of this, he writes, is construed by Muslims as an assault on Islam. It is entirely contrary to any serious engagement with the ‘Muslim world’ and also defeats what he regards as America’s ‘national interests’.
Far-reaching changes in US foreign policy vis-à-vis the ‘Muslim world’, Nakhleh suggests, must go along with well-designed public diplomacy initiatives directed at Muslim communities globally, in order to win Muslim hearts. These include a presidential declaration that reaches out to Muslims, convincing them that America is not at war with Islam and stressing what Nakhleh regards as common values and interests of America and the ‘Muslim world’, and various initiatives to promote ideas of good governance, transparency, democracy, accountability, fairness, human rights and the rule of law in Muslim countries. The public diplomacy package should include initiatives to promote moderation and tolerance, and should involve Muslim leaders who are committed to the rule of law and gradual and peaceful change. Efforts must also be made to dialogue and work with moderate Islamist groups and parties, who, while they may be critical of certain American policies, support ideas of good governance and democracy.
Nakhleh suggests some practical initiatives that could be undertaken by the US to reach out to Muslim publics, including the appointment of an ambassador to the ‘Muslim world’, initiating dialogue with ‘mainstream’ Islamic parties, developing exchange programmes for Muslim and Western parliamentarians, students, teachers and professionals, encouraging American universities to open campuses in Muslim countries, setting up a national university in America for the training of imams, empowering Islamic reformers to confront radicals, expanding American cultural centres in Muslim countries, and partnering homeland security with local Muslim communities.
Much of what Nakhleh suggests by way of American foreign policy and public diplomacy measures with regard to the ‘Muslim world’ is laudable and eminently sensible. But what he fails to engage seriously with are the very real practical difficulties that some of these suggestions are bound to face. If America continues to define its ‘national interests’ (which, Nakhleh writes, would be served by the policy recommendations he offers) in a very narrow way, will it at all be willing to promote democracy in Muslim countries, especially oil-rich ones, where democratically-elected regimes are likely to stop slavishly toeing American dictates? Given the enormous clout of the Zionist and Christian Right lobbies in America, will it seriously be willing to let its much-touted slogans of democracy and justice guide its policies towards Palestine? Would America seriously be willing to allow true democracy to flourish in Muslim lands if this means that Islamist parties might come to power through the ballot-box? What would their victory mean for democracy and human rights if the vision of Islam that these groups represent grossly violates contemporary notions of both?
The book’s focus is on what America could (or should) do to improve ties with the ‘Muslim world’. But, what about the other side of the story? What must Muslims do to improve relations with the non-Muslim West (and other non-Muslims)? Nakhleh refers to this only in passing, but it is clear that an urgent task before Muslim reformers is reformulating new, contextually-relevant understandings of their religion that accept and celebrate diversity, human rights, gender justice, and cordial relations with people of other faiths. This would, of course, mean directly challenging traditionalist, ‘orthodox’, ‘fundamentalist’ and radical interpretations of Islam on a whole host of issues. Admittedly, that is no easy task, but it is one that can no longer be avoided.
Despite the obvious limitations of this book, and, in parts, its tiring repetitiousness, this book simply has to be read by everyone interested in contemporary global politics and in Muslim issues.
Author: Emile A. Nakhleh
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore