April 27, 2004


The Muslim Renovatio and U.S. Strategy (Michael Vlahos, 04/27/2004, Tech Central Station)

[T]here is a third explanatory model, and it exposes what is wrong with the two prevailing frameworks. This model describes neither terrorism nor civil war, but rather a "world-historical" movement of Islamic revival. Terrorism in this reality-framework is an expression neither of criminal evil nor of an evil vision. Rather, violent radical elements are only a small part of a much broader movement for Islamic restoration, or in the traditional sense inherited from Late Antiquity, of renovatio. Renovatio, or another Roman favorite, reparatio, speaks more directly to Islamist visions than words like "revival," which in the Western consciousness at least refer more narrowly to simpler religious "awakenings." For Muslims at least, their vision is one of an entire order restored, of not simply religion but of an entire, "rightly guided" way of life brought back as it should be. For a generation and more the drive for this Islamic restoration has been gathering strength and asserting itself.

This alternative model suggests that terrorism cannot be truly abstracted as a separate phenomenon within the Muslim World, but instead must be seen as part of a bigger change movement within that world. Likewise, there is no civil war between mythical "moderates" - meaning "reasonable" Muslims who just want to live and let live - and wild-eyed "radicals" who would burn it all down. In contrast the larger Islamist restoration movement seeks to purify the Muslim World of corrupt and apostate tyrants. The movement has many elements and agendas, and thus many paths to this goal. Like many broad movements with revolutionary goals, most are non-violent. The example of Islamists in Egypt and Turkey suggests that the majority of Islamists seek their goals through peaceful means, and the world they would create is couched in surprisingly moderate and tolerant terms.

But the goal shared by all Islamists is nonetheless a radical goal. The restoration of Islam would mean an end to Western style secular civil society in the Muslim World, even if it led to an Islamic civil society that Westerners might not find uncomfortable.

If this model is closer to actual "reality" in the Muslim World than the two frameworks currently underpinning US strategy and policy, it suggests strongly a rethinking of both strategy and policy. If the Islamist restoration movement is the core dynamic of change within the Muslim World, and truly of world-historical proportions, this suggests a very changed world, admittedly over the historical long term. [...]

[H]ow can we know whether the Islamist renovatio is truly the core dynamic of change in the Muslim World, as opposed to either terrorism - a criminal assault on the Muslim establishment - or civil war - the vision of radical Islam versus the life of "regular" Muslim societies?[iv] This alternative model must be more deliberately explored before it can openly compete with our current explanatory frameworks. This cannot be done in a single paper or through simple argument. Instead it is proposed here that to test this third model, we should ask four questions:

* What is the Islamist movement - and what is its political strength?
* What is the role of fighting groups in a broader Islamist movement?
* What is the historical trajectory of the Islamist movement?
* What is the role of the United States in this prospective big change?

What follows then is a suggestion of how we might go about thinking through these questions, if not actually "answering" them. Think of it as a critical hypothesis to be tested. [...]

In Iran the revolution slowly lost the fervent support, and then even the loyalty of its own people. Islam can perhaps best be understood - in contrast to religious life in the modern West - as a complete "blueprint for life." Thus its success both for the individual and society depends on inner motivation and collective participation. The Islamic Republic of Iran, Abdo argues, reduced Islam to mere ideology, a set of rules enforced from above by the state. Rather than a way of life shared by all, and defended by all, Islam became just another recipe for state tyranny.

Thus radical Islam failed to take formal control in the Muslim World; and where it did, including places like Afghanistan, it failed effectively to lead. Thus commentators like Judith Miller declared Islamism in steep decline at century's end.

But there was another quieter brand of Islamist making real headway at the same time. These are non-violent Islamists, what some call "moderate Islamists," but whose beliefs and goals might be better served by Raymond Baker's term, "New Islamists." The success of the New Islamist movement in Egypt suggests a strong alternative path - for an Islamic renovatio achieved without violent struggle. This path may be important now more than ever, given the failure of radical Islamist struggles.

Egypt is important because it represents the heart of the Arab-Sunni World. It is also at the core of Islamism. Radical Islamists attempted to overthrow the regime in the 1990s and were contained. But Islamist thinkers - like Qtub - who themselves were non-violent were also imprisoned and even executed, as though they were radical fighters.

Yet Islamists in Egypt have still managed to bring the rest of society to their vision. Even if the corrupt Mubarak regime still rules, the heart of the people is with the Islamists. The regime acknowledges this in its genuflection to the Islamist message.

But one of the most telling aspects of this evolution in Egyptian society is not so much that the New Islamists succeeded where the radicals had failed, but rather that both the radicals and the state unconsciously conspired to solidify and legitimate the New Islamists. On one hand, the radicals alienated Muslim society through the viciousness of their violence, which at the same time exposed their inability to topple the state. But the state, for its part, showed itself to be incapable of addressing the urgent needs of society that had given the radicals their authority - among the people - to make change in the first place.

This is a prevailing theme in Islamic tradition, and one apropos to the possibility of Islamism as a world-historical movement. The state in Islam traditionally was never vested with the responsibility for regulating and sustaining civil society. Rather, Islam itself through the Ulama took on that role. In Egypt today it is the New Islamists that have come to represent the leadership of society.

In contrast to Iran, this is an Islamic revolution from the bottom up and achieved without violent insurgency. The New Islamists may not yet wield formal political power, but their aims certainly follow that trajectory. [...]

[A]s a hypothetical excursion, let us say that Islamism - the prospect of an Islamic renovatio - is assured. If this, then, represents the future to be, what would that tell us about what we are experiencing today?

Looking back it would suggest that what is happening today - including the specter of terrorism - is part of an unfolding grand narrative. Of course this is not a story that anyone in the West can accept. It is however exactly what Muslims everywhere - whether or not they support radical violence - look to as the future. The compelling question for us: who is right?

Even if this war comes to form a "grand narrative" its outcome will undoubtedly in the end please no one. Yet it may be useful to posit a grand narrative, in the sense of a big historical story full of upheaval and change. After all there are some well-known examples of historical big change, full of people and ideas in conflict.

There is in fact a favorite comparison already: the Protestant Reformation. "Islam has not yet had its Reformation," we all declare. [...]

Of course this comparison suggests that big change in Islam is only beginning. And also, it elides the fact that the good changes - like modern democracy - came only after a century and more of bitter war.[...]

[P]uritanical (or fundamentalist or radical) Islamism may succeed even if, or perhaps even because it is defeated. It will succeed if it opens up space for creative change within Islam, and if it prevents the imposition of Western values on the Muslim World. Likewise, American success in the mid-term in bringing democratic change to Islam may in fact be the catalyst for renewed resistance - and resistance not confined simply to radical groups, but a universal rising against us. It was after all Hapsburg-Catholic success in the Counter-Reformation that ultimately forced the new Protestant North to come together, that brought conflict to a head and insured the survival of the very cause it sought so strenuously to eradicate. [...]

If US war aims seek to create a democratic consensus in the Muslim World, there is little room in this vision even for the New Islamist. The current US paradigm of democracy demands the creation of a secular civil society in the American manner. There is absolutely no room in US Iraq planning for an Islamic Republic, even along the relatively tolerant and pluralistic lines of New Islamist thought.

Furthermore, current US policy seems unaware that its secular democratic paradigm is unacceptable to Islamists. To them it represents a form of religious conversion and threatens the very possibility of achieving a "rightly guided" Islamic way of life in Muslim societies. To the contrary, American policymakers and strategists tend to see all Islamists as unreconstructed medieval men. What is missing is an ability to properly differentiate between fiery radicals and very much more thoughtful New Islamists.

This is an exceptionally good essay that we excerpt at greater length than our usual policy to get some sense of its fullness, but be sure to follow the link and read the whole thing.

Perhaps the most interesting way to approach the argument here is to reverse the entire thing and look at the Renavatio in the West. Well, really it's just in America, but that's the point. Just as the kind of totalitarianism that Islam has tended to require inevitably fails, so too does secularism as excessive as that adopted by most of our allies--and nearly by us, until the reversal came in 1980. What the conservative movement in America has been about for some time now and what has been greatly accelerated by President Bush is the project to diminish the state and restore the centrality of civil society--and with it the domination of daily life by religion.

Critics who perceive some inkling of this grand project will sometimes worry that it is an attempt to move America towards theocracy--nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a far more radical endeavor, seeking not to gain access to state powers but to remove power from the State. Thus creation of a "culture of life" to restore the rights that pre-exist the State; tax cuts to bleed the State of revenue; an Opportunity Society to make men independent of government as regards health and retirement; school vouchers to break the State monopoly on education; the Faith-Based Initiative to return the provision of social services back to churches and charities; etc.; etc.; etc...

In effect, conservatism in America is attempting something not too different from what Mr. Vlahos credits New Islamists with attempting. The question as regards Islam is: do the New Islamists understand that it is best for them to eschew governmental power and allow both government and economics to be relatively secular and quite free? Or are they destined to establish totalitarianism? The rapidity with which the Iranian experiment with totalitarianism collapsed would seem to give us some reason to hope that its example can generally be avoided in the future.

The question as regards America is: can the secular State, once created, successfully have its powers devolved back to civil society? Or are we destined to keep sliding into the same kind of suicidal secular decline that we see in Europe? The coming election will go some considerable distance to determining whether the counter-revolution will continue.

What both groups are groping towards is pretty much the republicanism of the Founders, with a fairly minimalist, somewhat liberal, kind of democratic central government but then a tightly knit civil society that depends for its continued health on the virtue of its citizenry. It may be that this is too high a wire for men to walk, too fine a balance to strike, but we've seen that the alternative extremes are disastrous, so what other choice do we really have but to try to make the American experiment work?

Horror and humiliation in Fallujah (Spengler, 4/27/04, Asia Times)

Analysts unfriendly to the Muslim world speak of a "pride-and-honor culture", in which the prickliness of the Arab street regarding the Palestine issue and so-called honor killings are supposed manifestations of the same social traits. There is another way to look at the matter. Among the world's religions Christianity and Islam alone have the capacity for mass absorption of converts from different races and ethnic groups. It is hard to tell which of the two is growing faster. One of them will be the world's dominant religion in the 21st century. There is a radical difference between Islamic and Christian conversion. Both seek to supercede Judaism, but in different ways. Christianity offers a New Israel, called out from among the nations by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Because God's love for mankind is the premise of the New Israel, there is a limit to Christian tolerance for bloodshed. To propose open genocide, the Nazis had to repudiate Christianity and embrace paganism only.

The Christian's participation in the vicarious sacrifice of the Cross offers salvation at the end of the soul's journey. Christian practice puts enormous effort into sustaining the conviction of the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven: prayers, hymns, cathedrals, paintings, and so forth. No such concept of individual spiritual transformation exists in mainstream Islam. The individual submits wholly to Allah, who controls all things without qualification. That is Islam's enormous strength; the individual believer can leave behind the carping self-doubt of the Christians. For the same reason, however, setbacks to the Ummah are a challenge to the faith of every believer, for all events are in the hands of Allah, not those who have submitted to His will. Success therefore is a theological necessity for Islam. Humiliation for Jews and Christians is a chastisement from God; did not Christ accept His humiliation on the cross? For Islam, humiliation is a refutation of the faith itself.

For a generation, Western policy towards the Muslim world has emphasized deference towards Muslim sensibilities, the Bush White House emphatically included. It does not occur to Muslim radicals that their enhanced status in the Islamic world might prompt the West to undertake the opposite, namely to humiliate some aspects and some leaders of Islam, if not the religion itself. The Islamists' vision of the future is audacious, as Dr Mansoor recounts:

Irrespective of their color, religion, or culture, we can see that their foothold and leadership methods are taking hold. This has been transferred across the world to China, South America, the Middle East, the Far East, South Asia, as well as the Central Asian republics. The general dismay coupled with the dividing lines of rich and poor in the world and the complexities of culture and capitalism are allowing their message to gain ground steadily. This means more recruits, more audacious plans in the pipeline, and even more difficulty in using third generation forces to counter fourth generation asymmetric threats which appear and disappear like ghosts. The question for me is not the method of implementation, widely regarded as terrorism, throughout the world. This has always been in existence. The question for me is the message and why it is so blindingly powerful. The message provides the impetus to the heart, and perception drives the mind into the court of the Islamist.

Again, the opposite may be the case. Muslims of different ethnicity and sect are more likely to fall out when the credibility of the Islamists suffers a reverse. During the past week, the United States has for the first time humiliated the Islamic world openly and without compunction, in the small matter of the West Bank settlements. If it continues in this direction, Dr Mansoor's scenario may not work out as he expects.

The temptation to apocalyptic thinking is always a danger. It's really a sign of our own desire for self-importance: sure there are billions of us and I'm just a cipher, but I was there when we blew the joint up. Behind the hysterical fears of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War was a devout wish for it to happen and give our lives significance, however briefly. Likewise, folks now want a final showdown between the West and Islam.

The reality is far more mundane, a certainty that Islam will evolve towards the model of liberal democracy, because that is the only system that allows enough freedom in economics and politics for affluence to develop and people to be financially secure. In this regard Islam is just like the other universalist ideologies that Mr. Spengler ignores--communism, Nazism, socialism, secularism--which have failed so spectacularly and been forced either out of existence or to the brink. The difference is that Islam can remain a perfectly valid set of beliefs around which to arrange the rest of society.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2004 11:54 PM

And exterminating the Copts.

What a fool he is.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 28, 2004 12:25 AM

While the Iranian experiment collapsed, it's leaders have not, and now the Revolutionary Guard it taking over the nuke program so there's no leaks.

And that's made them all the more dangerous, they see the writing on the wall.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 28, 2004 12:30 AM


I knew Michael Vlahos years ago when we were both working at the Center for Naval Analyses (he as an analyst, myself in one of the administrative departments). He's no kind of a fool.

Posted by: Joe at April 28, 2004 5:29 AM

Might the problem be that "we" are hyperanalyzing the problem, hoping to understand it and explain it and find "solutions"--ways to avoid doing what might well be, alas, inevitable?

Given that we are being confronted with an "other" whose aims are simple, oft-stated, and consistent. And consistently backed up by actions?

We don't want to deal with it (and there are good reasons for not wanting to). We see this "other" as we view ourselves: sensible, passionate, occasionally irrational but ultimately rational creatures, who act in their own interest (despite the occasional blips).

But there will come a time when the analysis must end and the choice will have to be made, no matter how desperately one might wish to avoid making it.

It has therefore always been a question not of "if," but of when. 9/11 has accelerated the issue, though there are still many of us (and intelligence really has nothing to do with it) who are grasping at whatever flotsam and jetsam might help stave off what does seem to be the inevitable.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 28, 2004 6:05 AM


That's focussing on the wrong other though. Secularism threatens us as civil Islamism does not.

Posted by: oj at April 28, 2004 8:10 AM

Spengler has an interesting piece which, if I understand it, seems to back Barry.

Posted by: Peter B at April 28, 2004 9:04 AM

I'm with Barry. All this analysis assumes two facts not in evidence:

The Muslims are sensible, and that they have similar goals as ours. That's why I think Vlahos is a fool.

Yesterday, 100 Muslims in Thailand attacked men with rifles with knives, then retreated to a mosque where they used the loudspeaker to exhort the local Muslims to revolt, but in a dialect the locals didn't understand.

I don't think they were reacting agaisnt the malaise of Old Europe.

They were being, in their minds, not merely sensible but of the avant-garde.

Vlahos should read "How Natives Think" by Marshall Sahlins.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 28, 2004 11:19 PM

All human beings are greedy and want better lives--totalitarianism can't provide them their desires.

Posted by: oj at April 28, 2004 11:31 PM

Great two articles, orrin. I've always contended that *understanding* the Religion and how people think about it is the key to understanding the battle and what it will take to win. One should not take lightly the observation that success is an essential part of Islamic belief:


Much food for thought. I will probably post something on it at my website.

In the meantime, my first impression is that everyone is partially right at first blush: The tenor of the argument is that there IS an islamist Reformation taking place among those who are radical believers in Islam. These are the ones who form the "Religion of Peace" that Bush mentions.

And I think Harry is right, in that they won't succeed: Some reform can probably be carried out if one rejects the applicability TO TODAY of associated commentaries and all of Mohammed's recorded judgments and urges a pure Koranism. That would be the analog to protestantism's "Sola Scriptura". However, I don't think a Pure Islam would survive an intellectual collision with Pure Christianity, in that the two foundation documents are entirely different. One is realist, the other triumphalist.

Posted by: Ptah at April 29, 2004 9:39 PM


Islam won't survive the confrontation intact, that's the essence of Reform.

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 9:52 PM