Islam's Way to Freedom

Thomas E Farr


he many strands of Islamist radicalism are a terrible threat to vital American interests. The dangers include transnational terrorism fueled by jihad and the growth of extreme Shari'a law in such key Muslim states as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—all while the Iranian clerical regime supports Islamist extremists and seeks the capacity for nuclear weapons. These threats are unlikely to be defeated by U.S. military power alone, even when that power is combined with good intelligence, efficient law enforcement, and creative diplomacy. What American foreign policy needs, as well, is a new reKgious realism. Despite President Bush's own strong religious beliefs, the "freedom agenda," designed by his administration to drain the swamps of radicalism, was largely devoid of sound thinking about religion. If American diplomacy in the next administration is to be successful, it must no longer treat religion as peripheral to the activity of governing, especially democratic governing. The strength of Islamist radicalism derives from certain claims inferred from Islam's sacred texts. The central claim is that God wills the world to be subject to Islam—elaborated in such concepts as tawhid (the absolute oneness of God), jihad (the struggle to serve God's purposes), and shari'a (the path to be followed in Muslim life). Radicals also exploit historical labels such as jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic era of ignorance and paganism, by applying them to contemporary Muslim rulers such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

THOMAS F. FARR is visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. This article is adapted from an essay in Foreign Affairs, which also appears in his new book, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vial to American National Security (Oxford University Press).

Even though most Muslims reject violence, the extremists' use of sacred texts lends their actions authenticity and recruiting power. Young Muslims may have an array of reasons for becoming terrorists: among them oppression, rage, joblessness, and poverty. But social and economic pathologies are transformed into Islamist extremism by a powerful sense of religious obligation. The radicals insist that their central claim—God's desire for Islam's triumph—requires no interpretation. According to them, true Muslims will pursue it by any means necessary, including dissimulation, civil coercion, and the killing of innocents. As one of the earliest extremists, Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), put it, if in a defensive jihad the innocent are killed with the guilty, God will sort them out in the next life. Radicals believe God is pleased by their actions to defend Islam and extend its rule, actions that will win them his favor in this world and paradise in the next. "Western nations" (a term increasingly reserved for the United States) are said to threaten Islam, not simply by military assault, but—far more insidiously—by the infiltration of democratic institutions that bring moral and spiritual decay. Radicals insist that America's "freedom agenda" means the MTV agenda (with some justification: A head of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors once opined that "Britney Spears represents the sound of freedom"). The democratic virtue of "religious freedom" is seen either as a front for Christian missionaries or as laïcité—the French system of marginalizing and controlling religion, employed by Turkey throughout the twentieth century. Either version of religious liberty, say the radicals, is a Trojan horse inserted by the Americans to destroy Islam. The United States' decade-long policy of promoting religious freedom has done little to overcome these arguments. Far from being detoxified by successful military attacks or even resounding military defeat, radical

some not. here are explanations for our longstanding reluctance to tackle this problem. But stable democracy requires more than the constitutions and political liberties we have managed to broker in Iraq and Afghanistan. But prudence need not yield indecision. or paralysis." let alone of the United States brokering one. social. Pioneering work by such social scientists as Brian Grim of the Pew Forum and Daniel Philpott of the University of Notre Dame has helped clarify the point. but America's foreign-policy establishment is leery of alienating the United States' Kemalist allies. Decades of American support for tyrants in the Middle East have helped retard the growth of moderate political Islam. T U nlike many of his predecessors. Daniel Mahoney. an Islamic political party that is capable of liberalism. Kemalist and post-Kemalist governments built a secularist legal system. Unfortunately. "Most advanced statistical tests suggest there is indeed a critical independent contribution that religious freedom is making. In short. conservative and liberal alike. of human rights and civil liberties. in most countries in the world—the linchpin of liberties is religious liberty. America's current policies may succeed (indeed. As Grim puts it. for instance. policymakers in the United States remain tempted by the argument that radical ideas and movements can be suppressed by our authoritarian allies in the region. History strongly suggests that political and religious repression. such as freedom of speech and assembly. in both law and culture. We must encourage nascent liberal Islamic political and social movements to put religious freedom at the core of their political theologies. some of these thinkers want to solve the problem of Ghristianity the same way— viewing any political theology as an infection to be cured by secularist antibiotics. such findings tell us that if we want democracy to grow in Muslim lands—especially as a means for draining the swamps of the pathologies that nurture extremism—we must figure out how to advance religious freedom. that few outsiders would even consider it. religious persecution. stable democracies are a path to moderation in the lands of Islam. our diplomats have neither the policy direction nor the expertise to engage an Islamic party on the relation between . Many conservatives despair of Muslims ever achieving "liberal Islamic democracy. a task that can be accomplished only by Muslims themselves. has written sagely of neoconservative overreach in assuming that ordered liberty is the default human condition. while not the root cause of Islamist extremism. have succeeded) in finding and removing radical Islamist leaders. in fact. So daunting. Of course. isolationism. But these policies are insufficient. And here's what the Bush strategists never fully understood: In highly religious societies— which is to say." Among other things. This is a tall order. equality under the law. American poKcy should encourage that development. and in disrupting the planning and communications of extremist cadres. As Mustafa Akyol has noted. however. ensuring its survival and its export. Democracies typically require economic growth as well. a Turkish public square devoid of Islam has attracted the ersatz religion of secular Ataturkism. and must provide its antidote as well. One of our problems is that many Western thinkers. and the embrace. Without it. They believe the solution to extremism is to encourage Muslim governments to remove their religion from xhe public square. The only good reason for America to do so is that the stakes are too high for it to stay on the sidelines. have equated Islamist extremism with any form of political Islam. But when despots like Egypt's Mubarak or Saudi Arabia's Abdullah crack down on extremists. they are in fact encouraging extremism. and economic goods.NOVEMBER 2008 25 The presence of religious freedom is highly correlated with political. The evidence suggests that democracies mature when they possess a "bundled commodity" of core rights. blocks its most effective remedy—the development of liberal democratic political theologies. some reasonable. and religious extremism. usually by arbitrary arrest. External actors can have an influence on this process. This was the approach taken by Turkey's Kemal Ataturk. with the state-enforced removal of religion from politics. arid religious freedom. The difficult task of containing radical Islam requires altering the theological dynamic that sustains it. democracy withers or implodes. But even if those scruples were set aside. Islamist convictions are more likely to intensify with perceptions of victimization and martyrdom. President Bush at least understood that rooted. backed by a secularist bureaucracy and a powerful military establishment committed to keeping Islam out of public view. but no agenda is likely to succeed if it ignores the theologies that drive political culture in the lands of Islam—theologies that already provide the poison that sustains radicalism. The absence of religious liberty can yield democracy-killing religious conflict. Today we are seeing a clash between Turkey's secularist culture and its ruling AKP. Throughout the twentieth century. and execution. only liberal democratic political Islam can defeat radical Islam. torture.

3 billion people can be separated from politics. The United States needs to realign its policies to support the emergence of democratic political theologies within the lands of Islam. it is all the more important as an object of foreign policy. Who are the dissimulators. especially its national security. to . It will learn how to encourage religious actors who can lead their communities toward democratic norms by making arguments embedded within Islam. A refurbished policy could help overcome such fears. in human affairs. At least five states in that region—Iraq. is the opposite of realism. It becomes easier to heed the warnings of Richard Pipes and others: The Brothers are clever dissimulators seeking our destruction. This is particularly unfortunate: While the AKJP is making headway in embracing many of the fundamental freedoms. or that American diplomacy can afford not to engage political Islam. it will require both political-constitutional changes and internal theological development. Both suggest that Islamic political and civil society are competing in the democratic public square. encourage religious actors to embrace democratic institutions. and Egypt—are of critical importance to the United States' security. Current American religious-freedom policy is seen by the majority of religious communities and reformers in these countries as unilateralism and cultural imperialism. which is open to democratic and. FIRST THINGS T A truly realistic American foreign policy will alter its approach to religion and democracy. and which ones are searching in that direction? Consider the trajectory of events in Turkey and Indonesia. The interests of the United States. foreign policy while advancing U. It is now clear that the United States did not pay sufficient attention to this factor in its planning. or nationality. he United States' democracy programs currently possess no strategy to engage Islam as a driver of political culture or to convince Muslims that religiouis liberty is necessary if Islam and democracy are to flourish.S.26 religion and state in a stable democracy. or that religious liberty is vital to democracy. this will require structural and intellectual shifts. Iran. security interests in the Muslim world and elsewhere? First. S o how can a new strategy of religious freedom lend consistency to U. law. religion can act as a multiplier of both destructive and constructive behaviors. formidable obstacles. and lead to religious freedom and durable democracy. by adopting an overarching principle: Religion is normative.S. In the Muslim world. however. To assume that the religion of 1. accordingly. Sistani's brand of Shiism. is that Islam is unlikely to be privatized any time soon. The official American policy of "advancing international religious freedom" (the result of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act) has played almost no role in the implementation of the Bush doctrine—as though American history gives us little reason to believe that religion is important to human dignity or the common good. From this perspective. they can reduce the appeal of extremism and encourage internal reformist thinking. demand that policymakers and diplomats put political Islam on the policy table and leam how to discern the qualities of its agents. but each presents distinct. and social norms—and if one can believe that. The problem is most urgent in the greater Middle East. Within the American foreign-policy establishment. Iraq has a quasi-liberal constitution and has held free elections. we will be like the frog who was boiled so slowly that he never realized he was being killed. and that. Pakistan. One carl sympathize with this view of American diplomacy. in other words. The consolidation of democracy in any one of them would provide a boost to reform in nearby countries. American diplomacy. it makes sense to avoid any serious interaction with such groups as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. then there is no need to waste much effort on Islamic reKgious beliefs and how those beliefs affect political behavior. Saudi Arabia. When faith is associated with social identity. A lasting solution will require theological sanction by Iraqi religious actors who can speak from the heart of their respective communities. since each is a major source of Islamist extremism. Like political and economic motives. and who are the earnest? Which Islamists see religious freedom and human dignity embedded in the Qur'an and hadith. ethnicity. should work to empower such religious leaders as the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his Sunni counterparts. it is lagging in the most important—religious freedom. Both have demonstrated that Iraqi political culture is driven by religion. by bargaining on the basis of their interests. It is comforting to suppose that time will reduce the salience of religion in political authority. The truth. Democratic bargaining. can combine with religious reform to deprive extremism of its power. If we engage them. Our policymakers and diplomats seem to believe that the old secularization theory—the debunked idea that religion will always move to the margins as modernity advances—is somehow sdU operative. Policymakers should approach it much as they do economics and politics—as something that drives the behavior of people and governments in important ways. not epiphenomenal. often with more-intense results.

increased with authoritarianism and decreased with democracy. where Sistani was born and educated. and Washington should support a non-Wahhabi Islamic polity that is capable of developing liberal norms. Pakistan's capability for nuclear weapons and its status as a safe haven for Islamist extremists make it an exceptionally important case. have succeeded in connecting dissent with treason. has played a critical role in the development of political culture. By judicious support for such efforts. S audi Arabia is the most difficult of the Muslim states to envision as a democracy. or not.NOVEMBER 2008 27 some extent. would revoke the Camp David Accords. a fairly independent judiciary. It could also play a positive role in Iran. and work to restore a caliphate. Should it gain power. Pakistan's military. Iran has substantial democratic potential. It should also support religious actors capable of undermining extremism by developing a more liberal political theology. the Islamist opposition movement. however. their popularity has I n truth. If free elections were held. and where he now has many followers. Unlike the Turkish military. Pakistani generals (including former general Pervez Musharraf) have supported extremist Islamist parties as a means of retaining power. Historically. For the time being. Despite indications that some Brothers are adopting liberal norms. Among other things this means the United States should communicate that it is interested in. and open to. a professional and an entrepreneurial class. notwithstanding mild reformist tendencies shown by King Abdullah. According to the Mubarak government. however. liberal norms. Over the years the United States has paid Cairo more than $50 billion to buy stability and to keep the Hd on radical Islam. The United States cannot kill Islamist radicalism by unconditional support for authoritarian regimes. the United States refuses to talk to them officially and rejects opportunities to influence their evolution. Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. Even in Iraq. by Muslims speaking from the heart of Islam. the investment has paid off. precipitate war with Israel. It can provide a theological warrant for tolerance and. It must find out precisely what the Brothers are and whether they are capable of political-theological evolution. let alone its goals. For example. the Catholic University of America's Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion has held substantive exchanges with Iranian jurists on topics from family law to weapons of mass destruction. The United States must not repeat the mistakes it made in Iran during the late 1970s. including the Muslim Brotherhood. This could take several forms. and a Christian Copt community that accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the population. extremism and terrorism will ultimately be defeated. sustaining madrassa reform. including a constitutional monarchy. A littlestudied path to Iranian democratic reform lies with Iranian jurists who might be diverted from the Khomeini model of clerical despotism. Shiite reformers. if we assume the continued success of the military surge. like that of Turkey. to permit the development of nationallevel Islamic political parties. it has some experience of constitutional rule. . and no political or social institution has been effective in countering its influence. It is the largest of the Arab states and the traditional center of Sunni jurisprudence. the United States can encourage internal reform that rejects both theocracy and terrorism as inimical to Shiism. and conducting a public debate over Islam and democracy. religious freedom. In Egypt. It should certainly encourage the moderate political center and moreeffective action against Islamist extremists. both Sunni and Shiite. represents a critical step toward consolidating Iraqi democracy. But radical Islamists have not achieved electoral success on their own in Pakistan. This is the logic that gave us the September 11 attacks. Washington should urge the disbandment of the religion-and-morals police called the mutawiyin (currently under unusual scrutiny for its usual extremist activities). that are open to democracy. But American policymakers should still find ways to work with religious scholars in Qom and elsewhere. American aid has prevented neither the growing appeal of radical Islam in Egypt nor its continued export—both of which are increased by Mubarak's policies. The United States should adopt a broader antiradical agenda in Pakistan. The Wahhabi establishment and its pernicious political theology remain deeply rooted. the United States should adopt a policy of engaging all religious and political communities. the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt arguably has the greatest potential for lasting democratic reform. some civil society. over time. American diplomacy should be working to change this dynamic—pressing Abdullah. despite popular dissatisfaction with the current government. Despite a half century of authoritarian regimes. And the only means of affording them the opportunity is durable democracy grounded in religious freedom for all—especially for Muslims. the Muslim Brotherhood would very probably win. for example. waking up one morning to face an Islamist group in power without any secure understanding of its vocabulary.

brought home in tow. politics. diplomats in the 2007 Public Diplomacy strategy—"avoid using religious language"—should be reversed. subject to Wahhabi influences for decades. been the missing link. the winds. necessarily. 0 Caravel My worn sails are lowered. Washington should support the development of Islamist feminism. reglobe my running lamps. The Economist recently noted the irony: "The strange thing is that when America has tried to tackle religious politics abroad—especially jihadist violence—it has drawn no lessons from its domestic success. Training at the Foreign Service Institute should be revamped. — Wiley Clements . Why has a country so rooted in pluralism made so little of religious freedom?" This must change. we must supplement sound military strategy. Does it include. good intelligence.S.28 FIRST THINGS The objective should be to encourage the Brotherhood to explain what Islamic democracy would mean in Egypt. Ordered liberty demands realism about human nature. vigorous law enforcement. denied dry docking.S. and stateto-state diplomacy with what has. At the least. society. remembering how the gale's song goes. to demand full equality under the law for women and religious minorities. Americans embraced a system of religious liberty that was and remains unprecedented. Just over a century later. or the separation of religion from politics. In the 1660s. recruit a crew of hands. Though the wind blows fresh at daybreak and the beckoning horizon draws taut my stays. this wotold force the organization to clarify its understanding of religious freedom and. If we are to defeat Islamist radicalism. Commander of the ocean seas. A privately funded Islamic Institute of American Studies on U. The United States' system of religious freedom is far from perfect. the stars. they must be grounded in religious freedom. Survivor of a hundred storms. If democracies are to succeed in highly religious societies. moored to the outermost buoy. and stowed below. It did not result from the Enlightenment alone. I may not go. my Master yet may come for me. renew my planks and caulking. Handled correctly. soil could bring the best jurists and religious leaders from across the Muslim world to study United States history. The self-defeating instruction to U. but from the tandem development of theology and politics. a potentially fruitful skirmish in the Muslim war of ideas. that nascent liberals will be empowered by such a discourse. and—most important—religion. colonial Congregationalists hanged Quakers on Boston Commons. But even so. flaked. the right to debate Islamic teachings in public. it will increase understanding of what the Brotherhood in power would portend. to change religions? It is by no means inevitable. set blazoned sails to my spars. have not been radicalized in the way that many of Europe's Muslims have. but certainly possible. then shall I ride again on evening's tide. until now. I lie condemned by a salvage agent's ruthless reckoning to be hauled on shore and broken up. this prow may lift no more to the green wave's rocking. on deck my Master walking. This strategy of discovery could include several elements adaptable to a global policy American diplomats must speak not only the Brotherhood's Arabic language but know their religious vocabulary as well. Surely that system has contributed to the fact that American Muslims. for example. regird my timbering. of pluralist democracy. but it remains vigorous and adaptive.

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