Outlining proposals for how the US can distort Islam for its own interests

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 11, 1425 2004-05-01

Book Review

by Zafar Bangash (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1425)

Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies by Cheryl Benard. Pub: Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 2004. Pp: 118. Pbk: $20. (Also available on-line to download.)

Military assaults are but one dimension of the US’s global war against Islam; more insidious is the intellectual war within and outside the Muslim world. This takes many forms, from crude anti-Muslim propaganda to demands for changes in school curricula in Muslim countries, and projecting and propping up pro-Western secular Muslims as "true representatives" of the Muslims. Despite such a huge arsenal at its disposal, the US is not winning the war for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims; on the contrary the US, together with its zionist protégé, is the most hated entity in the world today.

The US and its apologists, however, do not give up easily. There are a number of think-tanks, supposedly independent but in essence acting as fronts for the government, that provide intellectual underpinning to government propaganda. Take, for instance, the Rand Corporation, which has offices in a number of cities. It is essentially a revolving door through which people enter the US state department and other governmental organizations. It has traditionally played the role of bouncing ideas and preparing policy papers for the government. The advantage of such an arrangement is that, should an idea prove unpopular or unworkable, the government can deny having had anything to do with it.

Since Muslims, both within and outside the US, have now been declared enemy number one, a number of so-called academics have made a career of denigrating Islam and Muslims. Daniel Pipes has gained notoriety for his strident anti-Muslim rhetoric and writings: the kind of language he uses against Muslims– "brown-skinned people who eat strange foods and do not exactly maintain Germanic standards of hygiene", for example– would be considered racist if used for other people, but passes as acceptable comment against Muslims. Pipes, a well-known zionist, was appointed last year by George Bush to the US Institute of Peace, over the objections of Muslims and a number of congressmen. Being extremely antagonistic to Islam and Muslims, Pipes has now formed a group whose stated aim is to change Islam and create a "modern" version of it. Among those joining him in this enterprise is Hussain Haqani, a one-time media advisor to two Pakistani prime ministers: Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

Pipes, however, is not the only Islamophobe; there are a host of others, among them Cheryl Benard, director of research at the Boltzmann Institute in Vienna, Austria, who also acts as consultant at the Rand Corporation in Washington DC. She is the author of several books, primarily dealing with women’s issues but some also dabbling in politics (see, for instance, The Government of God: Iran’s Islamic Republic, NY, 1984, authored jointly with Zalmay Khalilzad, her husband). Khalilzad is the Afghan-born American who is US president George Bush’s pointman in Kabul and current viceroy of Kabul. Benard is now stationed in Doha, Qatar, which serves as the base of US Central Command in the Middle East. Khalilzad has been involved in America’s Afghan policy since the early eighties, when he advocated support for the idea of Afghan mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan (on April 17, when a New York Times correspondent reminded him of his long friendship with Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, one of Afghanistan’s mujahideen leaders, Khalilzad retorted that yesterday’s friends could become today’s enemies, and insisted that the conversation be left at that). It was Khalilzad who urged Washington in 1997 to make contact with the Taliban, but in 2000 decided there was no point in dealing with them any more. The attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 was also part of Khalilzad’s favoured plan; it is his job to sort out its consequences.

His wife has not been idle either. While in Qatar, part of her mission is also to keep a close watch on "fundamentalist" Muslims, whom the Arab world seems to produce in abundance. The Rand Corporation has published her paper, essentially a policy manual, outlining how the West in general, and the US in particular, should deal with the "troublesome" Muslims. In Civil Democratic Islam–Partners, Resources, and Strategies, she outlines the internal struggle within the world of Islam and how the West must influence its outcome. She writes in the introduction: "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 following the rules and norms of international conduct" (p.ix). Ignoring for a moment the self-serving claims about democracy, economic viability and political stability in the West, one cannot help but note that claims made by the French orientalist, Olivier Roy, only a decade earlier (1994) in his book, The Failure of Political Islam, appear to have been abandoned; now Islam must be dealt with at another level.

While claiming that the West would like to prevent a "clash of civilizations", both domestically because of increased "unrest caused by conflicts between Muslim minorities and ‘native’ populations in the West," and "internationally due to increased militancy across the Muslim world and its consequences, instability and terrorism," she fails to explain why there should be increased domestic unrest. Since September 2001 there has been a raft of Muslim-specific laws enacted in the West curtailing their rights. The notion of due process has been thrown out the window to an extent that would normally be called fascism; yet now, against Muslims, it goes under the rubric of dealing with the threat of domestic terrorism. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that Muslims are becoming restless or fighting with the "natives"; on the contrary, an increasing number of "natives" are realising that the policies their governments are pursuing are poisonous and causing an erosion of their own civil liberties as well.

Benard proposes that it would be best to deal with and encourage those Muslims who are closest in their thinking to the West; but identifying them is not easy. She is, however, quick to opine that "Islam’s current crisis" springs from "a failure to thrive and a loss of connection to the global mainstream". Islam faces no such crisis; Muslims may, be but not the ones she is berating. The failures in the Muslim world can be laid almost wholly on the shoulders of the pro-West secular Muslim elites, who are also backed by the West to remain in power. Nor do the many other options tested by Muslims– nationalism, pan-Arabism, Arab socialism et al–have anything to do with Islam. As Malek Bennabi, the Algerian revolutionary writer, pointed out, whenever the Muslims realize that a certain Western ideology they have tried has failed, the West is quick to come up with another Western alternative, to prevent the Muslims from going for an Islamic option. The only solution that has emerged from the roots of Islam is the Islamic Revolution, which, contrary to Benard’s assertions, is not a failure. It has been tried in only one country so far, namely Iran, which has held its own despite a vicious campaign, led by the US, to undermine it.

Benard divides Muslims into four neat categories: Fundamentalists, Traditionalists, Modernists and Secularists. The first two are dismissed as impossible to deal with, so there is no point in even trying to converse with them. She proposes to prop up the other two, saying that the modernists want to "modernize" Islam while the secularists believe in a clear separation of state and church: religion would be relegated utterly to the private domain. This is a Christian prescription for the Muslim world; Western writers want Islam and Muslims to go through the same experiences as the Church went through in its medieval history, resulting in its total transformation. Islam needs no such experimentation; it is quite capable of ordering its affairs without the prescriptions of Western anti-Muslim scholars.

Her strongest venom is directed against the "fundamentalists", whom she accuses of being bent "on damaging and destroying democratic modernity". She offers no evidence: none is deemed necessary, but "supporting them is not an option", she declares authoritatively. Whether those whom she calls "fundamentalists" would like to deal with the US is a moot point. The traditionalists, in her view, hold more moderate views, but she cautions that even among them there are those who are close to the fundamentalists.

Her favourite Muslims are those she refers to as "modernists" and "secularists", but she admits that they are generally "in a weaker position than the other groups, lacking powerful backing, financial resources, an effective infrastructure, and a public platform." The secularists’ weakness, she says, is that "they have trouble addressing the traditional sector of an Islamic audience." She also identifies their other weaknesses, and proposes appropriate remedies, arguing that the success of the West’s agenda in the Muslim world depends on the ability of the modernists to convince the majority of Muslims, who are generally conservative in outlook.

Benard prescribes several methods to support the modernists and secularists, ranging from publishing and distributing their works at subsidized costs, encouraging them to write for mass audiences and the young, such as in large-circulation dailies, to introducing their views in Islamic education curricula. She readily admits that the fundamentalists and traditionalists are better organized because they have websites, publishing houses, schools, institutes and many other vehicles for disseminating their views that are not readily available to the modernists and secularists (though one wonders why she thinks that they are not). If the modernists and secularists are right, one wonders why their views find so little acceptance in the Muslim world? Apparently Benard does not believe in freedom of expression or democracy, as commonly understood, or she would not advocate imposing the views of those whom most of the Muslims have rejected.

Some of her prescriptions are, in any case, already being implemented. Journalists in Pakistan have confirmed that, soon after the attack on the Pentagon, the US ambassador invited a number of writers to the American embassy and told them to write pro-US articles. The embassy promised it would ensure the articles were published, and the writers would be paid directly by the embassy. Later the embassy staff started supplying the articles themselves, using the names of various Pakistani journalists, who still got paid. Regarding changes in school curricula, a crisis has erupted in Pakistan because various school boards have changed textbooks, deleting all Qur’anic references to jihad, the kuffar and so on, under pressure from the government (which takes its orders from Washington, of course). Most parents have refused to buy the new textbooks, prompting vigorous debate in government circles.

Some of Benard’s proposals are very funny. She suggests that Sufis be mobilized to challenge the fundamentalists. Perhaps she has people like Shaikh Kabbani in mind, who made a splash in the late nineties when he claimed at a White House reception that 90 percent of all mosques in North America are controlled by the Wahhabis. This is completely false; although it is true that some mosques are influenced by Wahhabi thinking, their proportion is very small. More problematical, however, is whether any self-respecting Sufi would want to be seen in the company of the likes of Benard, Khalilzad or Bush. The Sufis of Central Asia and the Caucasus have a distinguished history of resistance; its latest episode is the Chechen resistance. They are not likely to sacrifice their centuries-long movement for the sake of America’s non-existent friendship, nor to launch a war for its sake.

Benard makes three other proposals that Muslims must guard against: first, that secularism and modernism be positioned as a "counterculture" for disaffected Muslim youth; two, that an awareness of pre- and non-Islamic history and culture of Muslim societies be highlighted in the media and the curricula; and three, that traditionalists be used to counter the fundamentalists. In many Muslim societies ruled by pro-Western secular elites, this is already being practised; in Pakistan pre- and non-Islamic culture is being touted as the common heritage of all peoples in the subcontinent. Similarly in Egypt, the pre-Islamic heritage of the Pharaohs is projected as the "true" heritage of Egypt, rather that what Islam has bequeathed to the people.

The proposal that conflict be encouraged between traditionalists and fundamentalists is more sinister, and unfortunately some Muslims may fall for it. In the eighties the US was quite successful in using otherwise committed Muslims against the Islamic Republic of Iran by branding the Revolution as "Shia". Today, a similar attempt is under way to divide Muslims along Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi lines. This is a dangerous trap, and we must avoid it at all costs. Although Muslims must debate all issues honestly, these debates must be conducted within the Islamic movement, not at the behest of foreign powers, especially one that has proved its pathological hatred of Islam. The world of Islam has already paid a heavy price for sectarianism; there is no need to reopen such wounds, no matter how tempting the opportunity is to undermine the Wahhabis.

The Muslims’ real struggle is against a superpower whose leaders have become intoxicated by the power of technology. The experience of Iraq should alert the Muslims to this reality; the overthrow of Saddam Husain, a hated dictator, has not brought freedom or respite to the people of Iraq. Muslims must wage their own battles and refuse to become tools and cat’s-paws of an aggressive and uncouth superpower.

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