Friday, February 20, 2015

Countering Violent Extremism the Right Way, by Michael Rubin

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the offices of French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attack by Islamist extremists on a kosher market, President Barack Obama invited political and religious leaders to a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The whole summit is a bit amorphous and unfortunately seems to be the latest example of foreign policy by photo-op rather than substance.

 Crippling the U.S. effort is an unwillingness to address the theological component: violent interpretations of Islam. I have spent the last several days in Morocco, witness to the academic and diplomatic effort to counter extremism which was a major subject of discussion at the Marrakech Security Forum, and then in Rabat, where I was able to sit in on workshops in which Moroccan graduates of religious studies programs and peer leaders addressed strategies to identify and counter radicalism among their peers.
I have previously addressed some aspects of Morocco’s strategy to promote religious moderation, here. Morocco has pioneered the Mourchidat program, in which both men and women together study the same religious curriculum, but combine it with instruction in psychology, sociology, and history so that they can discuss and explain religion to ordinary people so that extremists do not have a blank slate upon which they can declare their interpretation of Islam to be the correct one.
In addition, the Moroccans have set up networks to reach across society in order to nip radicalization in the bud, and provide alternatives. Think a religious equivalent of Boys and Girls Clubs, one in which young people undertake activities that provide alternatives to the Islamist vision. Other groups reach out via children’s books, cartoons, and interactive websites, some for children, and others for serious discussion and debate about religion and radicalism. See, for example,, whose offices I visited today.
Many Western diplomats and experts understand that change will have to come from within. Moroccan religious leaders recognize there is no single summit or call for international attention which can moderate growing extremism within Islam. Rather, it is a decades-long struggle that requires building a group of religious scholars that have credibility to push back upon those Saudi- and Qatar-funded and Muslim Brotherhood-oriented scholars inclined either to politicize Islam or to push more intolerant lines.
It also means not dismissing moderation in places such as Morocco as simply peripheral to the world of Islam. Today, the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina lay in Saudi Arabia, but that is only because Ibn Saud in 1925 conquered the previous Kingdom of Hejaz. The reality is that Nejd, from where the Saudis came, was long obscure and marginal to Islamic history, and that Saudi Arabia itself and the brand of Islam which it (and Qatar) promotes was not relevant until they used oil wealth to promote it. Morocco and Moroccan religious scholars have traditionally been far more influential throughout Africa and during both the Umayyad and Fatimid eras, as well as under the Almoravids. In many ways, the Islam practiced in and increasingly promoted by Morocco is far more authentic than the Wahhabism espoused by Saudi Arabia.
Nor should Western officials dismiss voices of moderation simply because calls for moderation against extremism occur alongside political agendas. Here, the case of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is instructive. In late December, Sisi made an extraordinary speech at Al-Azhar University calling upon theologians to revolutionize and modernize religion. His speech was largely ignored in the United States and the West, but it reverberated across the Maghreb and the Middle East. American diplomats seem more intent on antagonizing and isolating Sisi or dismissing his call to revolutionize Islam as a political ploy to further undercut the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if that were the case, however, what’s wrong with that? Radical Islamism and the theology preached by the Muslim Brotherhood are inherently political. The only difference between Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood is that Sisi seeks to promote a vision of religion which embraces tolerance and enables greater individual liberty, while the Brotherhood seeks to constrain interpretations and de-legitimize those who seek interpretations of Islam which conform with individual liberty and broader religious tolerance.
In sum, there’s no shortage in the Middle East of efforts to counter violent extremism. Those in the region who seek to counter violent extremism don’t tie their hands with political correctness: They recognize that the problem lies within interpretations of Islam, and simply seek to counter those interpretations with better ones. Denying the legitimacy of the religious basis for extremism, however, is counterproductive. It is also arrogant, as the people who least have credibility to define what Islam is or is not are those like President Obama whose legitimacy is entirely political and not based in theology.
So what should the West do? We must embrace those like the Moroccan and Egyptian governments which actively seek to promote moderation. Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Sisi—and the religious scholars who work alongside them—have much greater standing to lead the drive than a White House intent on a photo-op or an easy answer. We must not stand in the way of those voices who acknowledge the need for contemporary interpretations that focus on the present and future rather than the past.
And we must not fall into the trap of assuming compromise means finding the lowest common denominator. Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) might be the loudest in the United States because their financiers provide the resources to enable them to be, but that does not mean anyone should treat them as sincere in the effort to counter radicalization; rather, we should recognize that their main goal is to obfuscate the theological roots of radicalism and undercut the sincere efforts of moderates across the Middle East and elsewhere to promote moderation, modernity, and tolerance within Islam.