The Outsider Role In
Transforming Islam

By Terrell E. Arnold

From the beginning the Bush administration has shown that it has at best limited regard for the Constitutional separation of church and state. His early introduction of so-called "faith-based initiatives" has been followed by a pattern of special favors to religious groups, and non-sectarian groups have been critical of this habit with little effect. Bush and key Republican leaders who work most closely with him have cultivated the Christian right and in turn have forged close links to Zionists, especially leaders of Israel's Likud party. However, to date no foray into Christianizing American policy has gone so far as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice along with close in neo-conservative supporters of the President. .
In a recent speech in Dallas, Texas, Rice apparently abandoned all other rationales for the US presence in Iraq, and said that bringing democracy and free markets to the Middle East is "the moral mission of our time". She also is reported to have said that this mission could take at least a generation to accomplish. Norman Podhoretz, a leading light of the neo-conservative Bush supporters, called this mission "the reformation and modernization of Islam."
Rice and the neo-conservatives have leaped suddenly from the high precipice of fear for our lives to the high mission of transforming Islam. This leap is quite startling. It puts the President, but more important the United States, in the role of beginning a crusade against traditional Islam. The Podhoretz theme particularly sounds like a declaration of war on Islam. At minimum, it will fuel the Al Qaida recruitment of new terrorists, while turning Islamic governments generally away from us.
This agenda bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding, outright ignorance or both about what is happening in most of Islam. It literally uses the behavior of the extremists, in essence the agendas and actions of about 20 known Muslim terrorist groups, at worst count less than 100,000 individuals including all of al Qaida and its loose affiliates, to define the spiritual and political leanings and desires of one billion Muslims. While the Rice/Podhoretz formula is now targeted on the Middle East, it does an enormous disservice to Muslims the world over.
Fundamentalist Muslims have problems of coping with the modern world that are about on a par with the problems of fundamentalist Christians. The basic problem for both is a pervasive set of influences that constantly challenge the central themes of faith and practice, and in the modern world of electronic, print and film media, as well as the Internet, there is no sheltered place. Such exposure is an intense secularizing pressure that practicing Muslims fear erodes traditions and provides new and frequently corrupting behavioral examples. At the same time secular groups criticize religious leaders who are too far behind the curve, that curve defined as the leading edge of "modernizing" influence.
The Islamic vectors for the modernizing process are business and professional people and the young, especially urban youth and university students. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran the younger generations are likely to share a belief in the idea of secular governance combined with a goal of overturning present oligarchic or autarchic governments, and in the case of Iran, a fundamentalist one. On the religious side, leading clerics and Islamic thinkers of recent times have been Shiites, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hesballah, in Lebanon. With some frequency the United States is "the enemy" of both, because on the one hand it is the bringer of modernizing influences, while on the other it is the > ally of the oligarchs supporting the status quo. > In this picture, "reformation" of Islam is a poor choice of words. The task is not reform but adaptation, and the danger of adaptation, as fundamentalists of all spectra know full well, is the alteration of traditional values. The young in Muslim countries are not only at odds with the fundamentalists but opposed to existing governments. Those elements comprise a struggle of serious consequence for Islamic societies.
Islam will not be responsive to promptings for change from the outside or by outsiders. What change may come must come from inside, and that has always been a slow process. The struggle is how to benefit from new technologies, new ideas that contribute to survivability and the quality of life, as well as alter lifestyles, without sacrificing belief systems. No one does that well or quickly, but the fundamentalists of all faith systems do it least well.
What must be faced is that this kind of pressure brings out the worst in fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims. All three systems generally eschew resorting to violence, but the fundamentalists take to it when they see their systems threatened. The young, however, are most often fighting battles that are not about faith but about freedom. That, unfortunately, is where we are, and all of us must understand it or we will destroy ourselves. The solutions of these problems cannot be left by default to the fundamentalists in any society, but at the same time it is not productive to provoke the fundamentalists to acts that can destroy a society.
In this environment, the Rice/Podhoretz strategy is a dangerous path, and it should be abandoned now. At best it would be seen in Islamic countries as uninformed meddling. At worst, it would be taken as a provocation to holy war. What is most likely to work with Islamic societies is a slow process of persuading present leadership to (a) give ground to younger generations who will bring their own mixtures of belief and pragmatism to the task, while (b) weeding out the hard line extremists among the fundamentalists but leaving room for pacific fundamentalist behavior. Suppressing the young produces one kind of revolution. Suppressing the Mullahs produces another. When they end up on the same side, as in Iran, the combination is deadly because the traditionalists and the changelings may share a common enemy: us.
In approaching this challenge, it is worth remembering that Islamic societies have been wrestling with modernization for at least two centuries. Egyptian, Sudanese, Pakistani, Iranian, Lebanese, Tunisian and other scholars, mostly Sunni Muslims, have written and thought a great deal about it. Moreover, the intensity of the pressures in this struggle has grown with each new generation of technology, especially information systems.
Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida represent an anti-modern pressure on Islamic societies. However, except for alliances with extremists, an Al Qaida presence is acceptable in few Muslim countries, and thus Bin Laden is also an outsider attempting to transform Islam. Bin Laden's dream of an Islamic Caliphate is a medieval, even pre-medieval scheme, and his chances of achieving it are somewhere between dim and none. But he is using every modern device at his disposal to challenge the authority of governments of Muslim countries, and his minimum success may be to make the task of dealing with fundamentalist extremists more difficult for each of those governments.
At present the pressures in Islamic societies are enormous. However, given that fact the number and extremity of violent actions remain small for Islam as a whole. In most Islamic countries, the problems of modernization are complicated by poverty, lack of education, and disease. But inexpensive and pervasive information and entertainment systems are everywhere promoting change. And those systems challenge even the most repressive of governments, because the systems are carriers of both secularizing and > liberalizing thought. They will in time lead to more diverse societies.
Adopting the transformation of Islam as a moral imperative of American policy will not succeed because it puts critical choices and actions in the wrong hands. Recognition of the complexity of the issues for Islamic societies and steady, enlightened promotion of diversity within those societies will accomplish as much as outsiders can achieve, but the outcome will take time. Christians in general would be deeply offended and angered if an Islamic government adopted such a policy toward them. Why should Muslims view such an interventionist policy as in any way a friendly act?
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome your comments at
From Patrick Hedemark
Dear Sir,
I only recently discovered your article asking a series of questions along the lines of "If you were in Saddam's postion - what would you do?" published in your archive section of the site.
I will say only this - there was not much he could have done other than what he did do.
The Bush Administration - acting in concert on behalf of the interests of forces that have been in place far longer than this present administration - are simply moving the "game plan" along to the next level. Those forces never had any desire for anything other than complete forfeiture of the control of Iraq by the Baath Regime. Saddam is only the leader of this regime.
What these men knew all along was that the portrayal of Saddam as "brutal dictator" - works well in the worldwide pool of opinion and opinion makers - but those who understand raw power - know all too well the diverse elements that have always been competing for control of Iraq and thus required that he or whomever will always require a very very heavy hand to bring these disparate elements together in what the West would call - a democratic government.
In short - he was doing fine until he threatened their established Pre 90's relationship - and from that point forward his departure was most desired. His transfer of his Petro Dollars from the US$ to the Euro roundabout 2000 was the "straw that broke the camels back" and guarranteed that the principal power brokers in New York, London and DC felt they now had no other choice but to find or create the pretense for his necessary removal. Their are other forces at play in the game as well. Israel's aspirations for land, oil, water, and security also served to move this all forward.
Now what could he have done or should he be doing?
I believe that we are now seeing his actual "game plan" unfold.
His army - contrary to popular presentation was not "defeated". They took a vacation. That is all.
They knew from experience in 91 exactly what to expect. They are now slowly delivering on their promise to exact some serious "pounds of flesh" and they will escalate this - according to their plans. They are now choosing when and where - the battle will occur. They are armed to the teeth with the necessary means to conduct a guerilla war for as long as it takes to rid their country of all foreign forces. The US is only beginning to feel the effects of their foolish misstep in this country. We have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the last 13 years. Sadddam is not the only Iraqi pissed off about this. This is sure. They are now following the Sun Stzu Play book to the letter.
There is no need to ask what we would do if we were in his shoes really. It makes for interesting conversation but the truth is - it is far more relevant to study what the Iraqis are indeed now actually doing! > What we should be asking is "What would you do if you > were the newly-elected President of the United States > in 2004"? How would you act to restore some semblance of sanity, integrity, honesty, clarity, and above all - morality and honor to the intentions and actions of the United States?
Now, THAT is a very good question and one that our present Administration would do well to ask themselves at this present moment in their hopefully single term of residence in Washington DC.
Patrick Hedemark




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