By Barry Rubin
Barry Rubin: Zeyno, you begin your book with this sentence: “The most important ideological struggle in the world today is within Islam.” Can you explain the nature of this struggle and how it is going?
Zeyno Baran: This struggle is essentially a Muslim civil war over whose definition of Islam will be accepted as “mainstream”: will it be the version of the Islamists (shared by all political-religious radicals, both non-violent and violent) or that of traditional Muslims (cultural, secular, and pious) One will become accepted by a majority of Muslims, and by extension, of non-Muslims. Since the 1970s Islamists have made tremendous headway in this struggle thanks to money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region; they were thus able to establish institutes and networks all over the world to spread Islamism.
Today, many Muslims don’t even realize what they believe to be authentic Islam is in fact a primarily political ideology of recent origin. Non-Islamists are still lacking in the financial resources—whether state or private—necessary to organize effectively against the Islamists; this is true as much in the West (the focus of this book) as in Muslim-majority countries. So, in the short term I argue that Islamists will continue to be winning in this struggle. That said, I believe in the longer term both non-Islamist Muslims and non-Muslims will eventually wake up to the realization that Islamism is a serious ideological challenge to universal human rights.
Barry Rubin: Precisely what is a “moderate Muslim”? Hasn’t that term been subject of a lot of misuse and misunderstanding?
Zeyno Baran: You are exactly right—the misuse of the label “moderate Muslim,” by Islamist groups operating in the West, has indeed led to major misunderstandings. This is precisely why I used this term in this book—to clear up this misunderstanding and reclaim the term from the Islamists, many of whom represent themselves as “moderates” to Western policy makers. American and European policy makers have accepted as “moderate” people who do not commit violence; to me, however, that is a very narrow definition.
An Islamist that participates in the electoral process yet does so with the goal of limiting women’s rights or of introducing a sharia regime is not moderate. The contributors to this book are all true moderates—those who fully support both universal human rights and the teachings of the Islamic faith. Being “moderate” does not mean they are not pious, which is another common misunderstanding of the term.
Barry Rubin: Why is it wrong to base the definition of a “moderate” Muslim on simply those who don’t use violence?
Zeyno Baran: The true divide within Islam is not between violence and nonviolence, but between moderation and extremism. Few Muslims resort to violence—but many more share the thinking of the violent extremism. Unless the ideology of Islamism is understood as the root cause of the violence, I don’t believe we’ll see an end to the terrorism and radicalism among Muslim communities. Moderation has to start with thought; if we are giving a free pass to those with extremist ideologies as “moderates,” then the true moderates will continue to be weakened.
Barry Rubin: How have the U.S., Canadian, and European governments helped the radicals and hurt the moderates?
Zeyno Baran: Western governments, in their desire to “engage with Muslims,” have often reached out to well-established Islamist organizations as their “partners”. In doing so, these governments did not realize that they were lending legitimacy to these Islamists in the internal struggle against their moderate opponents. With the Islamists being the main “go-to Muslims” for Western governments, it has been much harder for the true moderates to make their voices heard.
Barry Rubin: Why are Western media and institutions so easily fooled by radicals, and why do they seem to favor them?
Zeyno Baran: I think when Western media and institutions look for “Muslim voices,” they automatically gravitate to those who most closely resemble their preconception of what an “authentic” Muslim sounds like—a conception that has, of course, been shaped by Islamist propaganda. In recent years, an “authentic” voice has been one that is opposed to US policies, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is strongly critical of Israel. Many in the media share these views as well, so it is in some ways a natural fit.
The true moderates are often accused of being neo-conservative or “not really Muslim” when they support US policies or express a more balanced view of the state of Israel; these ideas seem to Western journalists and policymakers to be “un-Muslim,” as if there were a single Muslim way of thinking! Certainly, the Islamists argue there are certain “Muslim opinions” on some issues—such as the Middle East peace process—but that’s because they are trying to establish their own view as the single dominant one. It is as wrong as saying there is a “Christian opinion” on an issue, given the vast range of views held by individual Christians.
Barry Rubin: How does assimilation and acculturation work with Muslim immigrants in the West and how should it work?
Zeyno Baran: Each country has had different policies and different experiences, but in general, European countries for many decades paid little attention to assimilation; in particular, the UK and the Netherlands followed an openly multiculturalist policy that avoided any mention of assimilation and/or acculturation. This led to Muslim immigrant enclaves being formed in parts of European cities; when an area becomes heavily Islamic, then Islamists come in with their institutions and mosques, and establish themselves as the interlocutors between the immigrant community and Western authorities.
Even after many of these governments decided to change their policies and developed programs for increased acculturation, they continued to work with the Islamists, whose ultimate responsibility is not to Muslim immigrants, but to the global Muslim umma (community) as they understand it. Since these “representatives” had no interest whatsoever in promoting the integration and assimilation of European Muslims, this led to frustration on the part of Western governments and societies, which began wondering whether Muslims can ever truly become “Western.” In turn, this frustration—directed towards all Muslims, not just the extremists—fostered a sense of anger and victimization on the part of the Muslim immigrants, who felt they would never be accepted as long as they remained Muslim.
A better way to ensure social cohesion would be to address the pragmatic needs of Muslim immigrants—jobs, education, equal rights—in accordance with the social norms of the country, with a sensitivity to different religious/cultural backgrounds. In practice, this would mean allowing the establishment of dignified prayer places for Muslims, while not assuming all Muslims go to the mosque all the time, or that the mosque is the only social place for Muslims. There need to be many other places where Muslims can go to socialize with each other and non-Muslims; these will develop naturally if Europeans can move away from characterizing these populations as “Muslim first.”
Barry Rubin: Has the concept of multiculturalism helped or hurt in this struggle?
Zeyno Baran: Despite being born of good intentions, the Western policies of multiculturalism have made it harder for Muslims to become Western. The pendulum of respect for cultural/religious difference has swung too far, and Muslims have been trapped into their Muslim identity as “the other,” instead of being assisted in becoming one of “us.”
One of the recent and most clear examples of this is the wearing of the burqa in the West. For years multiculturalists have looked the other way when seeing women covered from head to toe in a style contrary to most Western norms as well as to Islam itself. Islam simply mandates modesty in dress, which for many women traditionally meant the headscarf, but never the full covering. Yet, until recently, in another unintended consequence of multiculturalism, few Westerners were willing to tackle this issue as they did not want to be seen as intolerant or bigoted. The few that have spoken out have been silenced with threats of being labeled “racist”; thus, intolerable forms of social behavior have continued to the point where they have become acceptable.
Barry Rubin: How can Western societies “win over” Muslims without losing their own identity or surrendering to the Islamists?
Zeyno Baran: The question is which Muslims? The Islamists would never be won over since their long term goal is to see a world that is ruled with sharia. If Western societies continue to try to judge their success in “winning over Muslims” by giving into Islamist demands, then they’ll continue to lose their identity and their basic freedoms. But if Western societies were to side with non-Islamist Muslims, and learn from them how best to counter the short- and long-term goals of the Islamists, then I would say there is a great possibility that the West will not only successfully defend its own values and norms, but also help Muslims usher in a desperately-needed Islamic Renaissance.
Barry Rubin: How can moderates justify their interpretations of Islam when they appear to differ with the most important and basic Islamic texts?
Zeyno Baran: Many of these texts have been written centuries ago and in a particular context. Many moderates read them recognizing that what may have been a great social advancement in the 8th century cannot be taken literally in the 21st century. Over the centuries, there were many different voices widely debating how to interpret the Qur’an or the hadiths; moderates follow the tradition of those who have used their rationality and interpreted revelation as well as historic developments within their correct context. There are also many moderates who have not read many of the basic Islamic texts; yet they are no less legitimate, because 1) many of the radicals have never read many of these texts either and 2) Islam is not just about the written text but the living tradition. Indeed, for centuries Muslims learned the basics of their religion orally, passing down teachings from one generation to another.
The recent radical trend we see among Muslims is due to radicals picking and choosing certain passages from the Qur’an and other key texts, interpreting them in a way to make their case, and then presenting them as the most legitimate interpretations. Again, I’ll draw an analogy with Christianity—it is as if saying that only one denomination’s interpretation of basic texts is the correct one. Paraphrasing Bernard Lewis, the situation we face within Islam is as if a KKK-controlled state found major sources of oil, and used the money to spread its own version of Islam as the most correct form and the whole world gradually began seeing them as the most authentic voices.
Barry Rubin: The Islamists are so well financed and well-organized how can the moderates compete? How can they win?
Zeyno Baran: This is the most difficult question. The moderates have not been able to compete and won’t be able to compete unless there is help from the West. Theoretically some of the Muslim-majority countries that are threatened by Islamists could help, but in practice they are often too afraid to challenge them for fear of being labeled as “apostates.”
The West knows from its own history the damage religious extremists cause to societies and the religion itself; they can help the moderates by no longer giving Islamists a free pass while their activists are working to undermine Muslim moderates and Western (or universal) values. They can also help by increasing visibility of the moderates’ work, such as those in The Other Muslims who argue for secular rule using Islam’s own texts and history, or those who push for Islamic Renaissance, without which I believe we’ll never quite win against the radicals who are increasingly becoming the mainstream.
PajamasMedia published my interview with Zeyno Baran on her book. It is available here. For your convenience I’m including the text here. If you reprint or forward please be sure to credit PajamasMedia.
An Interview with Zeyno Baran, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and editor of The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular. (Palgrave-Macmillan), 190 p., $21.60
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), and editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).