Building Moderate Muslim Networks

  • Published

Building Moderate Muslim Networks by Angel Rabasa, Cheryl Benard, Lowell Schwartz, and Peter Sickle. RAND, 2007, 216 pp.

Building Moderate Muslim Networks offers the tantalizing promise of thwarting radical Islamism with Cold War–era public diplomacy methods designed to grow liberal networks. The challenge comes in extrapolating these techniques to promote “moderate” Muslim networks. The authors’ efforts to do so produce mixed results, though they do represent a positive movement toward dealing with the critical philosophical gap in the intellectual life of the Muslim world.

The authors look to increased government funding to stimulate the growth of moderate networks, thereby promoting democracy and undercutting terrorism. To show the potential for growth, they highlight many existing networks and individuals. From this starting point, they suggest a variety of means, albeit cursory, to develop moderate networks. This “roadmap” follows current national defense and security strategies; however, its over-reliance on Eurocentric methodology fails to account for the modern realities of a complex Muslim world. It also constantly runs into the problem of determining who is a “moderate” Muslim.

This book draws heavily on previous RAND studies written by its lead authors, Rabasa and Benard, especially their 2004, The Muslim World After 9/11, and the 2003, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. Rabasa’s pre-9/11 work includes research into Indonesian military and political affairs. Benard adds academic insight into public diplomacy and civic change in the Muslim world as well as practical experience from living in the region. Schwartz’ background focuses on Cold War issues, while Peter Sickle is a new author.

Their central argument is deceptively simple: Find or form groups that share common values with the United States. Select leaders and fund them according to their adherence to US policy. Since the United States won the Cold War doing this, a similar effort in Muslim countries should work, given sufficient resources that could come from defunding current media outreach efforts like Radio Sawa. Oddly, this runs counter to the Cold War model in which Radio Free Europe worked in tandem with public diplomacy. The authors show great confidence that suitable human resources exist within indigenous and expatriate Muslim communities to overcome state, radical, and community resistance and bring about democracy, even within the boundaries of our authoritarian allies.

Unfortunately, they build their plan on large, untenable assumptions. First, they dismiss as negligible any repercussions Muslim leaders will face when overt US support becomes known. Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim is cited as a positive example. Recently, American efforts to free him from Egyptian incarceration received wide circulation and ultimately proved successful. Yet, many Egyptian citizens immediately dismissed him as a US lackey, thus stripping him of his hard-earned credibility.

The authors seem oblivious to the flaws in their selection criteria. Though promoting American-style democracy, Western legal systems, and a clear opposition to “illegitimate” violence may appeal to Americans, not every Muslim may embrace them all. Rigid criteria will eliminate many useful actors while alienating others, given the volatile tides of American policy that bring changing demands. The authors even suggest continuous validation of leaders to “an ever-evolving . . . set of criteria” is essential to success (p. xxi). Finally, what the authors see as “moderate” Muslims, many in the Muslim world sees as marginal believers, if not heretics.

Behavior and outcome monitoring provide the essential tools for program success. The authors say such monitoring would validate and improve this system; they fail, however, to develop the idea. They also call for a database of moderate partner information without discussing why. Likewise, their banal acknowledgment that mechanisms must be put into place to promote feedback and spur progress goes undeveloped.

The authors correctly underscore the need for a better-funded and integrated effort to win the war of ideas, especially when promoting essentially alien ideas like democratic theory, press freedoms, gender equality, and policy advocacy. Most notably, they recommend pursuing this first with Muslim populations in the Pacific, where Islamists hold less sway and some moderate networks already exist. Governments there also place fewer hurdles in the way of liberal networks growing amongst major Muslim population centers. Europe and the United States would be secondary venues. In each, intellectuals, activists, journalists, and religious leaders deemed moderate or liberal would be primary targets. US funding of conferences, NGOs, research, publishing, and so forth would serve as the primary vehicle for change.

Though a valuable call for nonkinetic initiatives, this book fails to acknowledge the mixed results seen in traditional public diplomacy, let alone third-party financing of movements. Shockingly, some US efforts have even been co-opted by Islamists. Though advocates of public diplomacy have long heralded great potential returns, they have struggled to quantify results. Further, problems inherent to target selection, message production, and so forth remain contentious.

This book proves valuable in suggesting possible alternatives for both pre- and postconflict environments in the Muslim world. It provides valuable points of departure for those looking to mesh the US experience with those of the Muslim world. It also points to many valuable works produced by liberal Muslims who seek to advance democracy. However, it works from some crippling assumptions that largely spring from a failure to look beyond the American perspective. Politically, it discounts the damage caused by the appearance of the United States as a colonial puppet master. Functionally, it demands allies fit a rigid but evolving straightjacket of policy compliance. Meanwhile, US enemies gain alliance wherever common cause can be found. In religious terms, it fails to assess accurately broadly held views in the Muslim world. What the authors call “moderate” Muslims represent small minorities of elites within the Muslim world. They are alien to the common Muslim experience. To some, they are even heretical. Thus, these moderates serve as uncertain vehicles for sweeping reforms. This book merits reading as a source of previously successful networking efforts, though care must be taken to remember that these techniques may not readily transfer to the Muslim world.

Col Brett Morris, USAF
Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."