Partners, Resources, and Strategies
By: Cheryl Benard
Contemporary Islam is struggling within itself over its values, identity, and place in the world, with rivals contending for spiritual and political dominance--as well as with the "outside" world. In Western eyes, the ideal Islamic community would be democratic, economically viable, politically stable, and socially progressive and would follow the rules and norms of international conduct. But as the international community strives to understand all this and, possibly, influence the outcome, the best approaches--or even whom to approach--are not always easy to determine. As an aid to the process, this report compares and contrasts the subgroups within Islam. The author recommends careful deliberation in deciding how to proceed, taking into account the symbolic weight of certain issues, the meaning likely to be assigned to any positions U.S. policymakers might take on these issues, the consequences for other Islamic actors, and the opportunity costs and possible unintended consequences. With all that in mind, the author then makes her own series of recommendations.
RAND | Monograph/Reports | Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies
Islam's own internal struggles make it difficult for outsiders to understand the actors and the issues. The author sheds light on these issues and suggests ways for the international community to cope.
Review: Civil Democratic Islam By Cheryl Benard
Since September 11, many authors, scholars, policymakers and researchers have contemplated the role of Islam in Muslim societies. At a time when the geostrategic, cultural, and sociological frontiers of the Muslim world are being redrawn in Washington and London , a strategy for the West to counter Muslim “fundamentalism” by supporting Muslim “moderates” has been drawn up in a report funded partially by a conservative American think-tank. The report, entitled Civil Democratic Islam: partners, resources, strategies, was drawn up by the US-based RAND corporation, with financial support from the conservative Smith Richardson Foundation, a trust fund that annually hands out in excess of $100 million to research organizations and universities.
The report is the latest in a long series of policy papers dedicated to further the military, economic, and cultural onslaught of the West on the Muslim World. In a briefing given in summer 2002 to a top Pentagon advisory board, former RAND analyst Laurent Murawiec described Saudi Arabia as the “kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” to US interests in the Middle East . He argued that Washington should demand that Saudi Arabia stop supporting “terrorism” or face seizures of its oil fields and its financial assets in the US . Murawiec urged a multi-stage imperial campaign in the Middle East, beginning with Iraq (“the tactical pivot”), continuing to Saudi Arabia (“the strategic pivot”) and finally to Egypt (“the prize”).
Civil Democratic Islam was written by Cheryl Benard, a sociologist who had previously published feminist-themed novels (including Moghul Buffet and Veiled Courage) that ridicule religious figures and portray Muslim women as oppressed individuals living under the rule of totalitarian megalomaniac male patriarchs.
Despite the objection of millions of Muslim women to the controversial French ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, in French public schools, Benard insisted in a recent commentary for the Christian Science Monitor that the new law is a positive push for women’s rights: “Throughout the Islamic world the hijab is often something girls and women wear because they are forced to – a symbol of restriction and intimidation.” Although a sociologist, Benard positions herself as an authority on Islamic jurisprudence, citing among other things a claim made by an unknown Egyptian author who contends that “the head scarf is not an obligation, but derives from an erroneous reading of the Koran.”
"Muslims are compartmentalized depending on their degree of affinity for Western values and concepts."
Interesting to note is that Cheryl Benard is married to Zalmay Khalilzad, who is currently a Special Assistant to President Bush and the chief National Security Council (NSC) official for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia . Khalilzad is known to be probably the first and only Afghan-American neoconservative, with clearly hawkish views. During the 1980s he was able to secure himself a permanent position in the State Department’s Policy Planning Council, working under neoconservative mastermind Paul Wolfowitz. He then served as undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration during its war on Iraq in 1991. After the 2000 election, Vice President Dick Cheney selected Khalilzad to head Bush Jr.’s transition team for defense issues.
Khalilzad is also known to have been involved in long-running US efforts to obtain direct access to oil and gas reserves in Central Asia, serving as an energy consultant to Chevron and as an advisor to US oil giant Unocal, which was interested in building a gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan via Afghanistan. He is also known to have courted anti-Saddam and anti-Taliban groups both prior to and after the US invasion of both countries.
In Civil Democratic Islam, Cheryl Benard makes her intentions clear. The goal is the construction of a new, passive, Islamic discourse tailored to suit the West’s post-September 11 agenda. Elaborated in the most explicit of terms, the author leaves no doubts concerning the grandiose ambitions of her project: “It is no easy matter to transform a major world religion. If ‘nation-building’ is a daunting task, ‘religion-building’ is immeasurably more daunting and complex,” [emphasis added].
Benard explains that Islam’s current crisis has two main components: “a failure to thrive and a loss of connection to the global mainstream.” From the author’s perspective, the Muslim world is civilization’s problem-child, “fallen out of step with contemporary global culture.” Again, the author utilizes convenient classical Orientalist discourse to stereotypically depict Muslims. Once more, Muslims are the “backward barbarians” whose lifestyle is antithetical to that of the West. If the modern West is dynamic, the world of Islam is stagnant. While the West honors human life and freedom, Islam is plagued by despots, terrorists, endless “hadith wars,” and fanatic explosive-wearing youth who glorify death and encourage nihilistic concepts such as martyrdom. No reference is made to the West’s support for totalitarian secular regimes, Israel ’s endless pogroms against the Palestinians and ethnic cleansing perpetrated against Muslims in Eastern Europe and Chechnya , and of course, the US ’ carpet bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq is conveniently neglected.
The report suggests forging close ties with forces in the Islamic world that are more amicable to the West, identifying four essential ideological positions in Muslim societies vying for control over Muslim hearts and minds:
Fundamentalists who “reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture”
Traditionalists who “are suspicious of modernity, innovation and change”
Modernists who “want the Islamic world to become part of global modernity”
Secularists who “want the Islamic world to accept a separation of religion and state.”
The report says that the modernists and secularists are closest to the West, but are generally in a weaker position than the other groups, lacking money, infrastructure and a political platform. It suggests a strategy of supporting modernists and secularists by publishing their work at subsidized costs, encouraging them to write for mass audiences, getting their views into the Islamic school curriculum and helping them in the new media world that is dominated by fundamentalists and traditionalists.
It further recommends that traditionalists should be supported against fundamentalists, and that the US should pursue a policy of “encouraging disagreements” between the two. Another suggested strategy would be to confront and oppose fundamentalists by challenging their interpretation of Islam and exposing their links with illegal groups and activities. Furthermore, Benard urges the strengthening of Sufism, since it represents a more passive and tolerant interpretation of Islam.
What is striking to note is that in almost all areas of the report, Muslims are not dealt with as reasonable individuals with legitimate fears, but are conveniently compartmentalized into subgroups for analysis depending on their degree of affinity for Western values and concepts. Those subgroups are to be used as pawns to further the interests of US hegemony – a policy of “divide and rule.”
Rather than facing contemporary problems of marginalization and subordination imposed by despotic Western-supported regimes or by imperialist designs on their region, Muslims are portrayed as people who are out of touch with reality, as rigid ideologues who are endlessly engaged in age-old theological debates.
From the author’s perspective, Muslim violence and protest is not a reaction to injustice, but is simply an expression of illiterate, uneducated masses being led by well-funded, disciplined fundamentalists. The fundamentalists, we are told, are the real danger, because they advocate an “aggressive, expansionist version of Islam that does not shy away from violence… Their unit of reference is the not the nation-state or the ethnic group, but the Muslim community, the Ummah; gaining control of particular Islamic countries can be a step on this path but is not the main goal.” Ironically, if using violence to achieve political goals and gain control of particular countries implies fundamentalism, then US foreign policy in the Muslim world is unbridled radicalism par excellence.
"Benard’s suggestions are Machiavellian, seeking to enforce Western hegemony."
Surprisingly, the author admits that even “many important secularists in the Islamic World are unfriendly or even extremely hostile to us [the West] on other grounds.” Again, the main reason for their hatred is not the ugly reality of the US’ policies in the Middle East, but rather misguided ways of thinking manifested in “leftist ideologies, anti-Americanism and aggressive nationalism.” Benard’s insinuations are clear: When Muslims hate or use violence, it is because they are inherently radical or misguided, but when the modern, enlightened, benevolent West uses the same tactics or espouses similar objectives, its behavior is either conveniently disregarded or immediately rationalized.
Ultimately, Benard’s suggestions are nothing more than a Machiavellian manifesto that seeks to enforce Western hegemony and cultural imperialism through an archaic policy of “divide and rule.” The type of Islam that Benard espouses is a passive and weak Islam that can be easily penetrated and hence reformulated to suit the West’s agenda.
The role model for Benard is Turkey , whom she regards as “one of the Islamic world’s most successful states” because of its policy of “aggressive secularism.” The author seems to forget that despite decades of “aggressive secularism,” two Islamist governments were elected by the Turks in recent years, the last of which refused to grant the US access to Turkey ’s military facilities prior to the war on Iraq .
Not only does the author want to deform some of the basic aspects of Islam – issues such as jihad, shahada (martyrdom), and hijab – but she goes as far as to question the authenticity of the Qu’ran itself, when she contemptibly suggests that “it is widely accepted that at least two suras were lost” from the Muslim holy book. To make nefarious suggestions about the Qu’ran, without any citation or evidence, is not only repugnant, but an exercise in poor scholarship. One suspects that if similar statements were made about Jewish scripture the author would have been prosecuted for anti-Semitism.
Benard’s policy recommendations, despite their virulent anti-Islamic undertones and their divisive implications for the Muslim world, are nothing new in the political lexicon of US foreign policymaking. Two decades ago, while Shi’ite fundamentalism emanating from Iran was considered the biggest threat to Western civilization, hundreds of Sunni Muslim “radicals” were being armed by the United States to wage jihad against the Soviet Union. The operating assumption at the time was that the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam was innately conservative and therefore a natural ally of the US against the communists and the radical Shi’ites. Today, Sufis, modernists, secularists and some Shi’ites are being seen as a counterweight to Sunni fundamentalists. Indeed, history repeats itself in twisted ways.
Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt . He has an MA in International Relations and is specialized in security studies, decision- making, nuclear politics, Middle East politics and the politics of Islam. He is currently assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo .
Paul Reynolds, “Preventing a ‘Clash of Civilization’” BBC News March 29, 2004
Jack Shafer, “The Power Point that Rocked the Pentagon,” Slate MSN August 7, 2002
Cheryl Benard, “French Tussle Over Muslim Head Scarf is Positive Push for Women’s Rights,” RAND January 5, 2004
“ Iran Expert Khalilzadeh to Take Over US Policy in Near East ,” Iran Expert January 7, 2002
Cheryl Benard, “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies,” RAND
See “Appendix A: Hadith Wars” where the author refers to the manipulation of prophetic sayings as “a tactical tool” to be used in winning debates against fundamentalists. Ibid., pp.49-55
Tony Karon, “The Shi’ites the U.S. Thinks it Knows,” Time.com March 11th, 2004