There is no doubt that “moderate Islam” – in the sense of a coherent body of alternative views that are liberal – is very weak, in many places virtually non-existent, and politically of no importance in the Middle East. That’s the reality and it will be so for many decades.
The important battle should be to show the “Islam must be moderate” group are preaching a fantasy that has no connection to reality. The alternative is not “moderate Islam” in theological terms but those who see themselves as pious Muslims and yet are relatively moderate politically, more tolerant socially, and oppose revolutionary Islamism. They do not want to impose a Sharia dictatorship, seek to destroy U.S. and Western interests (or the West itself), and even if they hate Israel they are not prepared to risk their lives and devote extensive resources to trying to commit genocide against it.
There are millions of such people and they are the main victims of Islamist terrorism and repression. This factor is a strategic point of enormous importance. And even the Saudis—despite their giving lots of money to promote extremist Islam outside the Middle East and their repressive form of Islam at home—are strategic allies in this struggle because they don’t want revolutionary Islamism, in either its Iranian or Brotherhood versions, to seize state power and dominate the region.
The problem is not that the radicals represent “true” Islam or that moderation is inevitably weak because of a certain sura in the Koran. The problem is that the radicals are winning in large part because of terrible Western policies, including a lack of help for the political moderates. One can see mainstream cleric moving in the Islamists’ direction on many issues, such as suicide terrorism, the acceptance of what is in effect a new offensive jihad, and so on.
To ignore the extremist tendencies built into Islam is foolish but to make them all of Islam is also foolish, not merely because it is tactically unwise but because it is not true. To believe that Westerners are going to change Islam by flattering and reinterpreting it would be a joke if it were not such a tragic, bloody error.
What we need is a coherent strategy and energetic education of those who think that there is no such thing as Islamism, that most Islamists are moderate, that Islam as a religion of peace will inevitably triumph, and that the current policy of ignoring real moderates and rewarding radicals makes sense.
The Islam-is-good school makes the West defenseless to understand and deal with the threat. The Islam-is-bad school discredits serious critiques of Islamism and honest analysis of Islam, thus letting their opponents win the debates and blind the West to the best strategy and potential allies.
If you want an image for what’s happening here is my view: two forces are fighting to control the steering wheel of a speeding car. Both have a claim to ownership; neither one is a hijacker. Since we are standing right in front of the car, we need to help the one that doesn’t want to run us down rather than loudly and persistently insist that the would-be murderer is the proper owner.
This debate may be fun for those involved but it is a waste of time because it is an argument over abstractions that can never be settled.
What is needed is to see what is happening in the real world among actual political forces and people: to attack the lies that Islamism is not a threat and that it has no legitimate connection with Islam; to show the extremism and broad base of support for revolutionary Islamism; and to formulate a strategy for victory that includes identifying and supporting allies including many Muslims. This is a life-and-death political battle, not a theological debate.