Thursday 19 June 2008

No such thing as a 'moderate' theocrat

Andrew Sullivan links to this piece by Stephen A. Cook, which argues against Western governments adopting a strategy of support for 'moderate Islam'.  The article carries the attention-grabbing headline 'The myth of moderate Islam', but this is misleading, since Cook's principal argument is that secular governments have no business expressing theological preferences or advancing the cause of particular belief systems (something I wrote about here).

Cook gives two main reasons. The first is that Islamic factions that present themselves as 'moderate' often turn out to be no such thing once they gain power. The second and more compelling argument is the impossibility of agreeing on a definition of 'moderate'. He gives the examples of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who has expressed 'moderate' views on the role of women and political reform, but at the same time supports suicide attacks against Israeli citizens), Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the 'moderate' former Iranian president, who once implored his fellow countrymen to kill westerners wherever they could find them), and Turkey's 'moderate Islamist' AKP, whose real agenda seems to be the creeping Islamisation of Turkish society. Cook concludes:

Given the wildly different criteria for what constitutes 'a moderate', policymakers will run in circles trying to determine who is a moderate and worthy of support, and who is not. One person's moderate is another person's radical, and another person's moderate is little more than a patsy of the West. A policy built on support for moderate Islam is only asking for trouble.

A smarter position is to avoid theological discussions altogether. As with all faiths, there will be heated debates between competing groups within Islam over the proper interpretation of sacred texts and the relationship between religion and politics. Yet because these arguments are so opaque to outsiders, policymakers should resist the urge to jump in. Given that moderation is in the eye of the beholder, Washington should not have an ideological litmus test for whom it wishes to engage. Rather, policymakers should focus on identifying those who can contribute pragmatic solution to the many problems we confront in the region, 'moderate' or not.

It may be whistling in the wind, but surely an even smarter and bolder strategy would be to support those flickering signs of secular, democratic political and civil life emerging in parts of the Middle East. (I think the problem with this option - certainly for the current US administration - is that those movements are almost invariably on the Left.) Am I the only one to find western governments' attempts to engage with 'moderate Islam' faintly patronising and colonialist (as well as defeatist), as if accepting that some nations, and some ethnic groups within our own countries, are never going to be ready for the kind of secular modernity we take for granted, and that therefore some form of theocracy is always going to be their lot - so it might as well be a relatively mild and acceptable kind?

No comments: