On “Moderate Islam”

Steven Cook has an excellent article in Foreign Policy on the mistake that Western policymakers make when they urge “boosting moderate Islam”.

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 solutions to the many problems we confront in the region, “moderate” or not.

This is one of those insights that is just blindingly obvious, yet doesn’t actually appear to be part of the debate. It’s definitely something worth thinking about. Read the whole thing, especially its descriptions of “moderate” Muslims who aren’t really friends of the West. It also really gets to the point that we should be focusing on trying to persuade unfriendly governments to support our policies, and work on infiltrating and dismantling terrorist organizations–not trying to encourage the dominance of one religious sect over another.

(link via Andrew Sullivan)

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Religion, Terrorism,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Bithead says:

    I remarked on this point a couple years ago, and identified the problem with trying to address the religion itself, and thereby what constitutes a Islamic moderate:

    This is one reason I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with the phrase “Islamic fundamentalism”; There is still a great deal of argument as to specifically what that phrase means, because the fundamentals of Islam are still in the discussion stage, even among its most adherent followers. For someone to call themselves fundamentalist, assumes that said person has a fundamental understanding of their religion. Yet, that still is ill defined at best, because they themselves can’t agree on what it means, on any more than a superficial level. Without that understanding, the phrase “Islamic fundamentalism” simply does not apply anymore than “Fundamental Christianity” does to pre-Guttenburg Christians.

    On that same basis, then, it seems clear to me that “boosting moderate Islam”, requires we have an understanding of the meaning of that phrase. And we don’t… because in reality, they don’t either.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think the problem is a little more complex than that. There are policy preferences on the one hand and attitudes that support the development of modern societies on the other. They don’t necessarily go in lock step. In principle I can envision an radical Islamist supporting some particular policy of ours. Does that make it prudent to support the radical Islamist?

  3. Dantheman says: