Soumayya Ghannoushi: Why Muslims won't vote for the West's protégés

Undermining mainstream Islamic figures only strengthens violent extremism
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It has become almost impossible to invoke Islam or Muslims without reference to the vague and ever-changing categories of "moderation" and "extremism". Two years ago, the Rand Corporation, a think tank close to decision-making circles in Washington, issued a 66-page report entitled Civil Democratic Islam: Partners & Resources, which identified three elements within the Islamic mix, "the traditionalists, the fundamentalists, the modernists and secularists". The document recommended a strategy that strengthens the latter, or those who are "closest to the West in terms of values and policies" and compatible with "the contemporary international order".

But how is this strategy faring on the ground today? We needn't look further than Iraq for an answer. In the recent elections held in the country, the "liberal modernists" were entirely swept aside by the Shia Islamists, headed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The "modernists" won a dismal share of the votes, much to the American administration's dismay. Were open, free elections to be allowed in other Arab lands, it is likely that the same scenario would be replicated. The problem with "Arab democracy" is that the forces it is likely to yield are not the West's protégés, but the so-called "hardliners": those committed to their nations' sovereignty over their lands and resources.

There is nothing new about the strategy of promoting certain elements of the Muslim body at the expense of others. Consecutive colonial administrations in the Arab and Islamic world have sought to marginalise the Muslim masses and their local institutions in favour of domesticated westernised élites allied to the stakes and interests of foreign dominance.

The erosion of the traditional learning centres generated an institutional vacuum, which paved the way for the symbolic and cultural anarchy reigning across much of the Muslim world today. Amid this chaos, shadowy figures like al-Zarqawi and Bin Laden were able to surface and proclaim for themselves the right to pronounce on behalf of millions of Muslims worldwide.

The policy of engineering the cultural and political Islamic map through pockets of alienated élites imposed on the Muslim majority is at the root of the crisis of confidence and climate of tension marking relations between the Western world and Islam. Rather than reaching out to the Muslim masses through their real representatives, the West has been indulging in a futile monologue, conversing only with those who echo its own words and speak for its own interests. In this one-sided discourse, the finger is always pointed to the Muslim body, its way of life, history and cultural traditions, never to the complexity of reality, with its power struggles and power mechanisms.

A similar pattern appears to be emerging in Britain where mainstream Islamic figures and organisations have found themselves at the receiving end of a concerted attack by sectors of the media and press aimed at stripping them of credibility and legitimacy. Undermining such forces, however, can be a very dangerous policy to pursue in these times of global instability and globalised terrorism. It risks strengthening the voices of violent extremism by deepening the sense of alienation among vast sections of the Muslim minority and isolating them even further from an environment perceived as hostile.

The truth we must face is that, whether we like it or not, mainstream Islamic leaders are infinitely more capable of standing up to the violent factions within their communities than the West's much-loved "modernists" ever will be. If they are to be dismissed on the grounds of "traditionalism" and "orthodoxy", who will be left for the government to talk to and co-operate with? Will it be the so-called "modernists", who have no standing in the Muslim community and no sense of its concerns, or the militants who see the West as the absolute incarnation of evil and call for its destruction?

The terms "moderate" and "fundamentalist", it must be remembered, do not exist in a vacuum. For over two centuries, they have been an integral part of the cold and hot conflicts playing themselves out across the vast stretches of the Muslim world. Take the turbaned Shia clerics who have lined up behind the American invasion. These, we are told are "enlightened moderates". Not the turbaned Shia clerics a few miles away in Tehran though. Those are "dangerous fundamentalists". "Reform" and "traditionalism", like "moderation" and "extremism" are best seen as key words in the dictionary of global hegemony, subject to the will to power, with its erratic whims and turns.

The writer is a columnist on al-jazeera.net

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