RAND Corporation's Ungracious Strategy For a “Civil Democratic Islam” - By Javeed Akhter

The RAND corporation recently published an analysis of Muslims and a suggested a methodology of dealing with them. This was published under the innocuous and inviting title “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies”. The conspectus of the white paper is included as an endnote. [i]

Muslims Searching For Partners.

The Rand Corporation is an old well established and influential think tank that has the reputation of being objective in its approach. It publishes occasional papers on Islam and Muslims that have been thoughtful and provocative. I therefore approached Cheryl Benard's white paper “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies” with reasonably high expectations. One of my expectations was that the author would be proposing ways of conducting a civil dialogue between the Muslim community, which by and large is both moderate and peaceful, and elements in the West that could be persuaded to be fair and balanced. I was quickly disappointed.

Failure to Thrive.

The premise from which the author begins is that the Muslim world is sick, has a “failure to thrive”, and additionally has “a loss connection to the global mainstream”. Unless it is influenced by outside sources, the author believes, the Islamic world would both implode into serious instability and explode into major violence. The implication that the fault lies entirely with the Muslim world and the West needs to fix it is unsettling and inaccurate.

Is it not possible that the “failure to thrive”, a curious term that is used by pediatricians to describe children who are not gaining proper weight, might be because of the manner in which the West has exploited Muslim lands during the colonial years and continues to do so now through various ploys like globalization. Could it be the Western foreign policy that firmly promoted “national self interest” and preservation of the “status quo” has something to do with the failure of political institutions to thrive in Muslim countries? The new paradigm of US foreign policy is to see the world in solid black and white. No grey areas are allowed, no nuances appreciated and no self-criticism entertained. Failure to thrive is not always due to endogenous causes but may also be due to exogenous reasons and often due to both.

The failure of democracy to thrive in Iran for a long time was because Britain and the US killed it when they got rid of the reformist Mosaddeq. Algerian democracy was nipped in the bud because of the fear that the party expected to come into power favored Islam over secularism. All of the current dictators, kings, illiberal democracies [1] and occupying nations in the Middle-East owe their survival at least in part to the West. The ruler of Uzbekistan, ironically named Islam Karimov, is every bit as brutal and ruthless as Saddam Husein and yet is supported by the US and its Western allies. For all the rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East the US policy remains as conflicted and inconsistent as ever.

Democracy is the best form of governance available but for Muslims all over the world justice and protection of the minorities is equally important. Democracy can become a plutocracy as it is happening in the US with no real voice for dispersed minorities like the Muslims. Democracy is possible in Muslim countries. Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, the three most populous Muslim nations, are democratic. Separation of church and state is also an important issue. There has been historically a de facto separation of church and state in Muslim countries with the piety minded acting as the conscience of the community opposing the Caliph.

Loss of Connection (Of Muslims) To the Global Mainstream.

The other major problem that the white paper identifies is a “loss of connection (of Muslims) to the global mainstream”. What is not mentioned in the RAND analysis is that the reason for the alienation of Muslims from the West, is the issue of “double standards” the West so brazenly practices when dealing with Muslim nations. Could it be that the reason for Muslims feel disconnected with the global mainstream is this one sided and even callous manner in which legitimate Muslim issues like the grievances and rights of people in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and other region are dealt with? Issues that loom large on the Muslim radar seem not appear to register at all on the West's radar.

I wonder when the author uses the word term “global” does she mean “Western” or is it that in her mind the “West” is the “globe”? The use of the word global by the author reminds of the “world series” of major league baseball played between two US cities like New York and Chicago. Does this global mainstream include Africa and Asia?

The Muslim Plurality.

The author shows some understanding of the ongoing “struggle within Islam” and the plurality of views amongst Muslims. This is an improvement over the prevailing practice of looking at Muslims as one monolithic entity but lacks sufficient depth. Using what she calls “marker issues” like democracy, beating your wife and polygamy the author attempts to pigeonhole Muslims into four categories, the fundamentalists, traditionalists, modernists and secularists and even more sub categories. I attempted to stratify myself and my close friends into one of these four suggested categories. I found that using the author's “marker issues” approach I could place myself at least two of the four groupings and remembered that occasionally I have been called as belonging to one of the other two groups. I have seen as much spousal abuse among non-Muslims as Muslims if not more. The label one might acquire is as dependant on one's own views on an issue as it is on the labelers own perspective. To someone to my right in the spectrum I might be a liberal and to others to my left I would be a conservative. Issues are nuanced and the position of an individual on a particular issue may vary.

Reading through this monograph it soon becomes apparent that the author's attempt at understanding the complex and continuous Muslim intellectual spectrum is not to positively influence the “struggle within Islam” but to find out ways to manipulate it. This should not have surprised me as the paper is published by the “National securities research division” of RAND. Nevertheless it is both ungracious and disappointing.

The RAND Recipe to Influence Muslims.

Using this approach of identifying the various types of Muslims, the author encourages the West to interact with those that follow the Hanafi school of law rather than those that are Wahabi. I am in fact a Hanafi. I know that as a fact because my Mom told me so. Nevertheless Imam Hanifa, whose school of law is called Hanafi, would probably not recognize me as one of the followers of his tradition. In fact most Muslims do not follow one or the other schools of legal thought assiduously. Their belonging to a legal tradition is a function of birth in a country where that tradition may be prevalent. It is convenience as much as tradition that seems to drive most Muslim practice. There are liberals and conservatives in each school of thought. The generalizations that the author proposes are divorced from reality.

The author advises the West to augment the “modernist”, boost the “traditionalist”, confront the “fundamentalist”, help the Sufis overcome their opponents and selectively prop up the “secularist”. I missed the author's advice on dealing among others with Shafi`is, Malikis and Tablighis. Where does the author think the West should come down between the Shia and the Sunni?

Has the author wondered that outside attempts at manipulating and sowing discord could be counterproductive for the West and might actually bring these various groups together? The recipe the author provides to help in the resolution of the political, theological and cultural dilemma Muslims are caught in is both cynical and naïve. It reminds me of the old and failed British colonial policy of “divide and conquer”. Any attempt to follow this advice would be a sure prescription for failure and would cause further polarization.

Muslims Looking For Partners For A Network Of The Just.

The author Benard would have done better to focus on the concept of justice and fair play when dealing with nations and people. There should be no double standard and there should be a balance and evenhandedness in dealing with legitimate Muslim grievances and rights of oppressed Muslims and all minorities. It is only by establishing a network of the just can humanity hope to achieve the high ideals it is capable of and attain a peaceful and prosperous future. Muslims all over the world are looking for partners among all people including the Western nations that may be persuaded to be impartial. Muslims in their current plight as they look for creative solutions for the future would welcome friends with genuine good intentions.

Javeed Akhter

[1] Fareed Zakariya's term

[i] RAND paper: “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies”. (http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1716/MR1716.sum.pdf) There is no question that contemporary Islam is in a volatile state, engaged in An internal and external struggle over its values, its identity, and its place in the world. Rival versions are contending for spiritual and political dominance. This conflict has serious costs and economic, social, political, and security implications for the rest of the world. Consequently, the West is making an increased effort to come to terms with, to understand, and to influence the outcome of this struggle. Clearly, the United States, the modern industrialized world, and indeed the international community as a whole would prefer an Islamic world that is compatible with the rest of the system: democratic, economically viable, politically stable, socially progressive, and follows the rules and norms of international conduct. They also want to prevent a “clash of civilizations” in all of its possible variants—from increased domestic unrest caused by conflicts between Muslim minorities and “native” populations in the West to increased militancy across the Muslim world and its consequences, instability and terrorism. It therefore seems judicious to encourage the elements within the Islamic mix that are most compatible with global peace and the international community and that are friendly to democracy and modernity. However, correctly identifying these elements and finding the most suitable way to cooperate with them is not always easy. Islam's current crisis has two main components: a failure to thrive and a loss of connection to the global mainstream. At the same time, the Islamic world has fallen out of step with contemporary global culture, an uncomfortable situation for both sides. Muslims disagree on what to do about this, and they disagree on what their society ultimately should look like. We can distinguish four essential positions:
• Fundamentalists reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture.
• Traditionalists want a conservative society. They are suspicious of modernity, innovation, and change.
• Modernists want the Islamic world to become part of global modernity.
They want to modernize and reform Islam to bring it into line with the age.
• Secularists want the Islamic world to accept a division of church and state in the manner of Western industrial democracies, with religion relegated to the private sphere.
• Support the modernists first:
• Support the traditionalists against the fundamentalists:
• Confront and oppose the fundamentalists:
• Selectively support secularists


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