You Can’t Strengthen Moderate Islam By Rejecting Moderate Muslims

Marc Lynch has a tremendous — and tremendously important — essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs examining the rise of political Islam in the West, confronting some misconceptions about it, and rigorously framing some of the genuine challenges that Islamism poses to democratic pluralism.

Among other treats, Lynch does an excellent job of dismantling liberal hawk Paul Berman’s crude and tendentious treatment of Islamism’s relationship with fascism (which Hussein Ibish also dealt with here) and demonstrating how Berman and others who accuse moderate Islamists like Tariq Ramadan of engaging in “stealth jihad” have utterly missed the significance of Ramadan’s work in blunting the appeal of Salafist fundamentalism among Muslim publics.

The most helpful strategic victory in the struggle against Islamist radicalism,” Lynch write, “would be to undermine the narrative that the West is at war with Islam.”

There should be no tolerance for Islamist extremists who threaten writers, intimidate women, or support al Qaeda’s terrorism. But defending [anti-Islam activist Ayaan] Hirsi Ali from death threats should not necessarily mean embracing her diagnosis of Islam. Berman’s culture war would marginalize the pragmatists and empower the extremists. Muslim communities are more likely to reject such extremists when they do not feel that their faith is being attacked as fascist or that they can only be accepted if they embrace Israel and the policy preferences of American conservatives.

This is a hugely important point. It’s common enough to hear American foreign policy writers recognize that what’s going on is not a “war between the West and Islam,” but rather a struggle within Islam over what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world. And yet, when presented with an actual Muslim intellectual who is engaged in this struggle on the side of moderation, far too many of those writers complain that those Muslims aren’t engaging in the struggle in precisely the right way, or in a way that’s perfectly consonant with modern Western liberalism.

The implications of this for our debates over how best to confront Islamic extremism are significant. There’s no question that Islamism, even moderate Islamism, poses some difficult challenges to liberalism. But to focus exclusively on areas of disagreement is to deny ourselves needed allies in a struggle against violent, ultra-conservative extremism. Paul Berman may be less of a conspiracy-theorist than Frank Gaffney, less of a Bond villain than Daniel Pipes, and less of a clownish bigot than Andrew McCarthy, but he’s engaged in essentially the same program: The maintenance of a sort of Catch-22 wherein Islamists can only ever demonstrate their true peaceful intentions by categorically rejecting Islamism. Not only is this intellectually irresponsible, it’s a perfect strategy for helping the extremists win the debate within Muslim communities.