Cruel To Be Kind

Why Washington should not reach out to Muslim moderates.

Nawaz Sharif

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, with whom the United States had long cultivated a close relationship, has been widely seen as a setback for the forces of moderation in Pakistan and as another imposing obstacle to victory in the so-called “battle of ideas” in the “war on terror.” With Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf discredited and Bhutto eliminated, the Bush administration responded in part by “reaching out” to Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister it had held at arm’s length because it did not see him as a faithful ally. For those who have long criticized the administration for its overly narrow definition of moderation, this seemed a promising development, consistent with the ubiquitous calls in Washington to support Pakistan’s teetering democratic system more than individual politicians.

Few, beyond those conservatives troubled by Sharif’s ties to Islamist forces, have questioned whether this move is wise. The relative silence reflects a broader bipartisan consensus. The Bush administration, Republican presidential candidates, and their Democratic counterparts all agree on the problem—the United States is losing the battle of ideas—and the solution: “reaching out” to Muslim moderates. During an election season, bipartisan consensus is rare, and when there is consensus, it should send up warning flags. The diagnosis of what ails the battle of ideas is on target, but the proposed treatment is wrong—with implications for U.S. policy in Pakistan and around the Muslim world.

The architects of U.S. counterterrorist policy have long identified the cultivation of Muslim moderates as a priority, yet they have made little progress. The reason is not a lack of effort, as some Democratic candidates have implied. Nor is it simply that Iraq hangs like a millstone around America’s neck—though it does. Nor is the problem that U.S. policy-makers are uncomfortable supporting Muslim moderates who criticize U.S. foreign policy—though they are. Nor is it simply that many policy-makers hold a skewed vision of the “Muslim moderate” that excludes Islamists, even those committed to playing by the democratic rules of the game—though they do.

The fundamental problem lies with the strategy itself. Muslim moderates cannot be mobilized until they exist as a legitimate political force with an agenda distinct from that of their extremist co-religionists. Typically suspect in the eyes of their fellow Muslims, the last thing they need is for Westerners, and especially Americans, to “reach out” to them and to embrace them as potential “allies and partners.”

Explicit or even implicit support from the United States has been the kiss of death for politicians in the Arab and Muslim world, as Lebanon’s former President Amin Gemayel discovered in the August 2007 parliamentary elections, when a relatively unknown candidate defeated him. A Saudi reformer observed afterward, “The minute you are counted on or backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you’ll never win.”

Outside the Middle East, the situation is little better. In Indonesia, even post-tsunami U.S. assistance, hailed for having tempered anti-Americanism in that country, has created an opening for radical groups and left moderates vulnerable. Nongovernmental organizations across the Muslim world are reportedly reluctant to accept U.S. aid for fear of being labeled American stooges.

This is not to suggest that bolstering legitimate Muslim moderates is unimportant. Just the opposite. It is crucial. They would constitute a credible political alternative for Muslim populaces, and their rise would translate into a decline in support for more extremist elements. Only they could forge connections across social and political boundaries, break down barriers, and link Western authorities with alienated Muslim populations. But they cannot act as brokers if they are perceived as the loyal servants of U.S. interests.

Muslim moderates acquire and maintain legitimacy by adopting an ambivalent political posture that distances them both from more extreme Islamists and from true-believing Westernizers. Their rhetoric is cobbled together from these opposed sources. Controversial Islamist philosopher Tariq Ramadan is popular among European Muslims because he has so effectively sustained such an ambivalent stance. This is partly the source of Nawaz Sharif’s popularity, as well.

Current U.S. policy, however, seeks to render moderates less ambivalent, and that goes far in explaining its failings. The more the United States reaches out to Muslim moderates to bring them into the liberal fold, the more closely they appear to be aligned with the United States, and the less legitimacy they enjoy with the community that really matters: their co-religionists. When the United States reaches out, that welcoming gesture is, consequently, rarely reciprocated. Instead, Muslim moderates feel required to respond by affirming their anti-Western credentials, blurring the lines between themselves and the extremists. A recent study found that initial Islamist enthusiasm for U.S.-sponsored democracy-promotion programs in several Arab nations gave way everywhere to “boycotts and disrupted engagement” as Islamist political parties felt compelled to distance themselves from the United States.

Paradoxically, though, this suggests that the West’s criticism, more than its love, may be what Muslim moderates desperately need if they are to become a political force to be reckoned with. By taking a public stance that distances the moderates from the Western camp, Western leaders could help boost moderates’ local appeal. Tough Western rhetoric that seeks to isolate moderates, by, for instance, charging them with being extremists in mufti, may do more to help the moderates’ cause than a more inclusive rhetoric ever could. Ironically, American suspicion of Tariq Ramadan—to the point of failing to issue this ivory-tower academic a visa, thereby preventing him from taking up a post at Notre Dame—has only boosted his standing among fellow Muslims. Similarly, those who question whether Nawaz Sharif is really a worthy partner for the United States are his unwitting allies, bolstering his legitimacy, while those well-intentioned sorts who insist that the United States can work with Sharif to build a stable Pakistan harm his political prospects.

If this strategy were followed, public diplomacy would emphasize the abiding differences between Western and Islamist political and religious cultures, rather than the commonalities. The conventional wisdom in favor of reaching out to Muslim moderates makes sense only at a later stage, once their reputation and credibility are well-established.

The danger is that such a policy may be too clever by half. Moderate Muslims, shocked by the harsh rhetorical turn, might throw in their lot with the extremists. But they will have to accept that, in the short-to-medium run and for their own good, their best friends in the West may not sound all that different from their worst enemies—in public, at least. Western, and especially American, publics, who have often shown little patience for Muslim grievances, might turn to a boundless war on Islam. But they will have to learn that authentic Islamist moderates will be unsparing in their criticism of both extremism and the West.

Americans cannot afford to embrace the “clash of civilizations,” nor is the struggle to sustain a politics of moderation in the Muslim world condemned to failure. The United States may be losing the battle of ideas, but its travails suggest a way forward. When it comes to Muslim moderates, the United States should consider being cruel to be kind.