West will do more harm than good by wading into Islam debate, study finds
Washington - As the United States and Europe confront attacks inspired by the violent ideology of the Islamic State (ISIS), a new report warns that, while the West’s military role in confronting jihadists in Iraq and Syria is important, it should stay away from the ideological battles raging in the Muslim world.
“Whose Islam is it? Who gets to decide?” Geneive Abdo of the Atlantic Council asked during the release of the report in Washington, describing what she calls a “market of religious opinion” in the Muslim world. Answers should be formulated by Muslims themselves, not by outside forces, Abdo said. As for the West, “there should be a reluctance to take sides”.
That view is certainly not shared by everyone. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist and Harvard scholar who supports calls for a reformation of Islam, argued that Washington should get involved in the religious debates.
“A battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs last year. “The United States needs to start helping the right side win.”
Extremists influenced, and in some cases steered, by ISIS have killed more than 100 people in France, Belgium, the United States and other countries this year alone. The 28-year-old suspect arrested in September after allegedly planting bombs in New York and New Jersey is thought to have been inspired by the ideas of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
As the United States and its allies attack ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq, Western politicians have also waded into the religious debate.
In his last speech to the UN General Assembly as US president, Barack Obama lamented the “perversions of a great faith”. Earlier this year, US Secretary John Kerry declared that ISIS members were “apostates” of Islam who had “hijacked a great religion”. Using another acronym for ISIS, Jeh Johnson, secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, said: “ISIL, though it claims the banner of Islam, occupies no part of [the] religion, a religion founded on peace.”
The report by Abdo and co-author Nathan Brown of George Washington University titled Religion, Identity and Countering Violent Extremism argued that active efforts by the West to shape the debate in the Muslim world are counterproductive and doomed to fail because they lack credibility. “Western governments are widely seen in the region as not merely secular but actively hostile to Islam,” the report said.
The authors warned against Western initiatives “to find the right religious actors to engage and support” in the Middle East. Such efforts are “likely to draw Western governments not only into religious controversies where they have no role but also into partisan political struggles they do not fully understand”, Abdo and Brown wrote.
The report argued that a weakening of state-sponsored religious authorities and the rise of social media have given extremists new opportunities to find followers, especially among the “economically and politically marginalised”.
As a result, competition between states and non-state actors is increasing. A sheikh in Egypt could be followed and admired by people from all across the region “and nobody questions whether he has a religious education or not”, Abdo said. “There are many competitors. There are many voices.”
ISIS benefits from that development, Abdo and Brown said. “ISIS propagates a violent and almost messianic reading of the faith… untrammelled by corrupt politicians and a compliant and feckless religious establishment.”
Brown said Western policymakers should make greater efforts to understand Islam and the debates within the region. That does not mean taking sides or endorsing particular religious systems or players as a model, he said.
Instead, the West should concentrate on military, political and economic “playing fields” in the region, Brown said. “Those are the ones where we can play a much more active role.”
In addition, Abdo and Brown urged US policymakers to encourage governments in the region to make sure that the debate about Islam is peaceful and to “highlight that repressive state policies increase extremist tendencies”.
The report comes as Western military planners looking at retaking the Iraqi city of Mosul and the jihadist group’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, in northern Syria are thinking of ways to prevent the re-emergence of sectarian extremism after ISIS rule has ended.
There were lessons learned from the US invasion in Iraq in 2003, when a lack of post-war planning unleashed widespread sectarian violence, said Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, which published the report. Planning for “some decent governance” following military confrontations was a key to success, he said.