restricted access Islam Is Not the Solution (or the Problem)
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Islam Is Not the Solution (or the Problem)

The quest to repair, reinterpret, reform, or otherwise fix Islam can be seen in a range of official and nongovernmental initiatives, the likes of which were hardly imaginable before Al Qaeda's emergence. Colloquia on ijtihad (the interpretation of Islam), conferences promoting liberal Islamic networks, and the funding of liberal Muslim thinkers and their writings are but a few examples of recent efforts to support Muslim voices that have been drowned out by the din of Islamist populism. This development should warm many hearts in the Arab world. After all, Islamists themselves have long argued that democratic reform requires a transformation of Muslim consciousness, asserting that the evolution of Islamic identity is the source of the problem and thus the core of the solution.1

That an expanding circle of academics, journalists, and policymakers in the United States has adopted some version of this argument is a trend that holds both promise and concern. Because, with few exceptions, Islamists remain the best organized and most influential opposition forces in the Arab world, any policy that does not engage mainstream Islamists, particularly advocates of a more pluralistic Islam, will fail to be credible or effective.Yet, without understanding the intricacies of Islamist politics, U.S. efforts to enlist Islamists and their ideas in the cause of democracy will do little good and might do considerable harm. The problem is not merely that an uncritical engagement might strengthen illiberal Islamist forces.2 The more fundamental problem is the erroneous assumption that Islam itself provides the foundation of political identity. [End Page 97]

Challenging this assumption and the misleading policies that have emerged from it is tricky. Who today would assail a policy that, to its credit, has broken with the "soft bigotry of low expectations"3 that long guided Washington's approach to the Middle East? As President George W. Bush has repeatedly stated, it is wrong to assume that "millions of men and women are condemned by history or culture to live in despotism."4 Yet, even if bigoted notions about an intrinsically "authoritarian" Islam are dangerous, so too is the facile conviction that, with the proper formula and a dose of wise clerical leadership, Islam and democracy will join forces. One should be wary of replacing an outdated ethnocentrism with an equally simplistic universalism. To jump from one to the other conflates a vaguely messianic impulse to bridge the divide between the Islamic world and the West with the more prosaic task of grasping how the thorny question of identity, and not merely Islam itself, fits into the complex puzzle of democratic transformation.

On this score, the "Islam is the solution" approach—a policy that seeks to promote democracy through supporting new Islamic thinking and new Islamic parties—suffers from three shortcomings. For one, it greatly underestimates the political, social, and ideological obstacles to disseminating a liberal Islamic ethos. These barriers are so formidable that, for the foreseeable future, any effective engagement with Islamists will require dealing with activists, many of whom espouse ideas profoundly at odds with U.S. notions of democracy and freedom.

Second, naming Islam as the solution exaggerates the extent to which Islam shapes Muslims' political identity. Not only do ethnicity and tribal affiliation often trump religion, but many Muslims, both practicing and nonpracticing, believe that their version of Islam should be separated or at least distanced from politics. Indeed, little consensus exists in the Arab world about the proper relationship between mosque and state. On the contrary, that world is rent by profound divisions over the very question of national identity—what it means to be Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian, Bahraini, or Iraqi.

Finally, the idea of Islamic democracy fails to recognize that there is no Islamic solution to such identity conflicts. As the drama in Iraq demonstrates, absent consensus over national identity, this solution requires power-sharing arrangements that offer as many groups and voices as possible a seat at the table of multiparty government. This kind of consensus-building [End Page 98] approach cannot succeed unless all groups check their religions at the door. Indeed, they must agree to constitutional and legal protections...


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