Civil, Democratic Islam: America’s Desperate Search for the ‘Liberal’ Muslim
Posted May 14, 2005


‘Civil, Democratic Islam’: America?s Desperate Search for the ‘Liberal’ Muslim

Yoginder Sikand

America’s policy vis-a-vis Islamic movements has undergone major upheavals in the course of the last four decades. In the 1960s and 70s the American establishment saw conservative Islamic movements such as the Ikhwan ul-Muslimun in the Arab world and the Jama’?at-i Islami in South Asia as a powerful counter to leftist, anti-monarchical and nationalist forces. It is rumoured that some of these movements even received generous American financial support. The close collaboration between the American establishment and Islamist organizations was best exemplified in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. The CIA pumped in millions of dollars to arm the mujahidin, whom Ronald Reagan once hailed as the ?moral equivalents? of the founding fathers of the United States. 

Today, America’s policy on Islamic movements has turned full circle. In order to counter the radical fringe of Islamism that it had so fervently courted till recently, America is desperately scouting around for ‘liberal’ Muslim allies who can sell an alternate vision and version of Islam that fits into the American scheme of things. This explains the sudden flurry of conferences and publications on ?liberal Islam? and the setting up of NGOs in Muslim countries with liberal American financial assistance. The underlying aim of these diverse activities appears to be the same: to promote an understanding of Islam that cheerfully accepts American hegemony, camouflaged as global modernity, as normative and, indeed, ?normal?. This goal, is, of course, not stated openly. Rather, it is generally clothed in the garb of high-sounding slogans such as ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘liberalism’, and ‘pluralism’. As a liberal myself I can have no problems with the promotion of such values, but that America is hardly serious about this overdose of liberal rhetoric in the Muslim world is too obvious to need any substantiation, as its ongoing imperialist venture in Iraq and its brazen support for Israeli crimes in Palestine so tragically suggest.

An illustration of the actual agenda behind the sort of ‘liberal Islam’ that America is now so feverishly seeking to promote is provided by a recent report prepared by the RAND Corporation, a conservative American think-tank. Titled ?Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies?, the report is authored by a certain Cheryl Benard, Director of Research at the Boltzmann Institute in Austria. She is an unknown figure in the field of Islamic Studies, and her major claim to fame may well simply be that she is the wife of Zalmay Khalilzad, member of America?s National Security Council and a key adviser to President Bush.

Like other pro-establishment American policy ‘experts’, Benard locates radical Islamism as a threat to global (read ‘American’) stability, without, of course, caring to trace the roots of the phenomenon, particularly the issue of Western hegemony to which radical Islamism is, at least in part, a response. It is as if radicalism in the Muslim world operates in a sociological vacuum, or is somehow intrinsic to Islam and has no relation whatsoever to American neo-colonialism or Western support for dictatorial regimes in many Muslim countries. Thus, Benard is able to write that ?The Islamic world has been marked by a long period of backwardness and comparative powerlessness?, and that Islam is faced with ?a loss of connection to the global mainstream?, without so much as even hinting that this predicament owes almost entirely to European and, today, American imperialism. Hence, rather than examine the fundamental causes of radical Islamism, which include American imperialism and Zionist expansionism, Benard sees the solution to the problem as lying simply in promoting an alternate version of Islam that is compatible with what are defined as American values, and whose proponents would be willing to work as close partners of the United States.  In this regard, 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.

After explaining her rationale for her proposed project of ?religion-building?, Benard sets out guidelines for America to adopt in order to develop a form of Islam that would be able to facilitate American interests. For this purpose she recognises that the cooperation of carefully chosen Muslim allies would be indispensable. Bernard divides Muslims into four broad groups - ‘fundamentalists’, ‘traditionalists’, ‘modernists’ and ‘secularists’ - and suggests different policies to deal with them. The ‘fundamentalists’, she writes, ?reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture”. They 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 Islamic ‘fundamentalist’ groups in the 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 Muslim actors that Benard identifies are what she calls the ‘traditionalists’. These are Muslims who “want a conservative society”, being ?suspicious of modernity, innovation and change?. She sees them as somewhat more moderate than the ?fundamentalists?, but not enthusiastic about ?modernity?. Hence, she suggests, the US can ?at best [?] only make an uneasy peace with them?.

Two other groups 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 modernity?. They are said to be uneasy with Islam as they find it. Instead, they want to ?modernize and reform? it in order to ?bring it in line with the age?. They believe that some parts of Islam are just a historical curiosity and should be hurriedly abandoned. They are said to identify a certain ethical core in Islam, which they regard as the essence of the faith, while they consider much of the legal dimension of the Islamic tradition, including certain specific injunctions in the Qur?an itself, as no longer relevant. Put in plain words, they propose a new version of Islam that willingly accepts global 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.

Benard sees elements among both groups as possible allies of the US, but notes that the usefulness of allying with them can be limited, given that they enjoy but little support among the Muslim masses. Furthermore, caution is advised, she says, in relating to some secularists whose ?ideological affiliation? might make them ?unacceptable? as possible allies. Presumably, this is a reference to leftist secularists who, while at loggerheads with the Islamists, are also opposed to American imperialism.

Although she recognizes that the ?modernists? and ?secularists? are numerically weak, Benard sees them as a valuable support base that American must cultivate. This the US should do, she says, by publishing and distributing their writings at subsidized cost, encouraging them to write for a mass audience and introducing their views into the curriculum of Islamic education in Muslim communities. Related to this, she adds, the US must also help ?position secularism and modernism as a counterculture for disaffected Islamic youth?, and ?facilitate and encourage an awareness of their pre- and non-Islamic history and culture? through the mass media and the educational system. In league with selected and reliable ?modernists? and ?secularists?, America, Benard advises, should help build up a ?moderate? Muslim leadership in order to counter the fundamentalists? and the ?traditionalists?, offering a version of Islam that fits in with what Benard sees as ?modern? or American values and interests. In pursuing this policy, she says, care must be taken to ?avoid artificially over-Islamizing the Muslims?. Rather, she advises, the point should be constantly stressed that Islam is ?just one part of their identity?. Linked to this is Benard?s advocacy of multiple Islams, in order probably to counter the appeal of the notion of a single global Muslim ummah. She suggests that efforts be made to develop a ?German Islam?, a ?US Islam?, and so on, and that these be then codified. The end result that she probably wishes to see is the emergence of separate Islamic ?churches? and denominations in each country following the Christian model.

The ambitious plan that Benard sets before the US of reconstructing the Muslim world and indeed of building a new ?Islam? curiously echoes the tactics laid out by the putative authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. ?Divide and Rule? is a basic principle that must guide America?s policy on Islam, Benard seems to suggest. America, she appears to argue, must play Muslims against each other, supporting the ?traditionalists? to take on the ?fundamentalists?,  ?encourag[ing] disagreements?, and ?discourag[ing] alliances? between them. Although she believes that the ?traditionalists? are hostile to ?modernity?, she sees them as useful allies in that they can be used to negate the influence of the ?fundamentalists?, whom she sees as an even more potent threat to the US. For this purpose, she argues for the need for US to help ?publicize traditionalist criticism? of the ?fundamentalists?, particularly of their violence and extremism. Where necessary, arrangements should be made for ?traditionalists? to be better educated in Islam so as to take on their ?fundamentalist? rivals. To further facilitate this, America should, she says, help ?increase the presence and profile? of ?modernists? in ?traditionalist? educational institutions, as well as ?encourage the popularity and acceptance of Sufism?, presumably in order to counter groups like the Wahhabis as well as radical Islamists who see Sufism as heretical.

If the ?fundamentalists? were once seen as staunch allies of America against nationalist and anti-imperialist forces in the Muslim world, today they are regarded as sworn enemies. Benard insists that America should combat the ?fundamentalists? head on. In order to undermine the ?fundamentalists? she suggests that America undertake the following tasks: (1) to challenge their interpretations of Islam and expose their ?inaccuracies?, (2) to reveal their links to illegal groups and activities; (3) to publicize the consequences of their violent acts; (4) to demonstrate their inability to rule and ensure the development of their countries and communities; (5) to present them as ?disturbed and cowardly?, rather than as ?evil heroes?; (6) to encourage journalists to investigate cases of corruption, hypocrisy and immorality involving ?fundamentalists?, and (6) to encourage divisions among them. This propaganda war against the ?fundamentalists?, she suggests, should be particularly directed at Muslim youth, women, ?pious traditionalists? and Muslim minorities in the West, that is groups who seem to be both the most vulnerable to ?fundamentalist? rhetoric as well as at the same time its most vociferous potential critics.

Benard?s report is replete with negative references to Islam, peppered with approving quotations from such notorious Islamophobes as Ibn Warraq and Bernard Lewis, on the one hand, and Muslim ?modernists?, on the other, who advocate what Ibn Warraq refers to as a ?defanged Islam?, with some going to the extent of even dismissing aspects of the Qur?an as irrelevant in today?s context in a desperate bid to fashion an ?Islam? that is a poor imitation of western liberalism. Benard appears to see little merit in Islam as such. For her it appears like a long litany of woes, a system of cruel oppression and barbaric laws. Her own understanding of Islam is, to say the least, pathetically inadequate and flawed. Thus, for instance, she speaks about two suras that were ?lost in the process? of the production of the Qur?an as a single document, and claims, without adducing any evidence, that this point is ?widely accepted?. She approvingly refers to unnamed ?modernists? who reportedly insist that some verses of the Qur?an ?may also have been falsely or inaccurately recorded?, without citing any proof for the argument. Likewise, her sweeping statement that ?Madrasas specifically educate boys to die young, to become martyrs? is completely fallacious, and too broad a generalization to be taken seriously.

Given her own views about Islam, it is hardly surprising that Benard rules out completely any possibility for dialogue with Islamists or even with non-violent Muslim traditionalists, conveniently forgetting, of course, America?s long history of close cooperation with such groups in the not so distant past. Likewise, she is hostile to the idea of serious dialogue with ?traditionalist? Muslims.  ?Accommodating traditionalists to an excessive degree?, she says, can weaken America?s own case and can be understood by the ?traditionalists? as ?appeasement and fear?.  In this way she frames many Muslims who take their faith seriously as America?s principal enemy, reinforcing the misplaced image of Islam as on a violent collision course with the West. She refuses to admit that there could be even an element of truth in the Islamist critique of America, or to even consider the obvious fact that radical Islamism cannot be understood without taking into account the question of Western imperialism and Zionist expansionism. In her self-righteous defence of ?American? values, which she uncritically equates with the values of what she calls global modernity, she refuses to recognize any common ground with Islamists and ?traditionalist? Muslims that can form the basis of a meaningful dialogue with them. Instead, she approvingly refers to what she calls as ?some critics? who believe that America should be ?holding firm? to American values, insisting that offers of ?ecumenism? can easily be mistaken as ?weakness?. Since she sees ?basic modern values? as under attack from an assertive Islam, she insists that America must respond by ?affirm[ing] the values of Western civilization?. In short, she appears to argue, America must ready itself for nothing less than a grand clash of civilizations.

In her vehement opposition to even the most basic Muslim demands, she seems to regard every sign of Muslim assertion as part of a grand Islamist ploy against America that must be curbed at all costs. Her lengthy diatribe against the right of American Muslim women to wear the hijab is a case in point. For her, wearing the hijab is no innocuous question of the right of a Muslim woman to choose how to dress or the right of a community to maintain what it sees as its markers of identity. Unlike a Sikh man wearing a turban, a Jew wearing a skull-cup or a Hindu woman a sari, she says, a Muslim woman donning the hijab is a powerful symbolic political act of defiance, which, therefore, must not be tolerated. ?One can cast hijab as an issue of freedom of expression and of pluralism, but that ignores the larger context?, she says. ?And the larger context?, she adds, ?is that hijab is neither a neutral lifestyle issue nor a religious requirement. It has become a political statement?. For America to remain silent in the hijab debate, she claims, is to play into the hands of anti-American Islamic ?fundamentalists?, for wearing the hijab is apparently, or so we are told, ?seen as winning a battle against American culture?. She refers to the hijab as a ?minefield?, insisting that ?the hidden meaning behind the hijab is very dangerous? for it allegedly ?symbolises the militant intentions of holy warriors?, and ?serves as the flag of the Islamic crusade?. Although she does not say so explicitly, she appears to argue that America should follow the French example and ban the hijab at once.

No dialogue, other than a dialogue of the deaf, can be expected to follow from the suggestions that this ill-conceived report makes. The report signals a dogged refusal to consider alternative views, a trait that American policy ?experts? like Benard seem to share with their radical Islamist foes. While no one can deny the necessity of progressive and more open understandings of Islam, as indeed of other religions as well, it is unlikely that many Muslims would willingly embrace the brand of ?Islam? that Benard and her ilk see themselves as engaged in fabricating. Moreover, no solution to the vexed issue of the relations between Muslims and the West can emerge without seriously tackling the question of Western imperialism, something that Benard simply refuses to recognize.


Cheryl Benard?s report, ?Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies?, is available on the web, and can be accessed on

Originally published on the Islam-interfaith website and reprinted with permission of the author