On June 18, The Intercept published an article by Mehdi Hasan and Ryan Grim claiming a leaked State Department memo advises the Trump administration to push for an Islamic reformation. The memo is said to speak specifically to Iran and ISIS by injecting “ideological competition.”
Some responded with attacks on the publication, arguing that The Intercept is “funded by Qatar and is an anti-American enemy propaganda outfit.” Yet the appropriate response isn’t to whether The Intercept has a radical agenda, but whether the story is true.
Judging by experience with neoconservatives, at least the attitude is true. Within those circles, a pieced-together understanding of Islam usually hinges on selected passages of medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Taymiyyah, a complex scholar with a challenging, brilliant body of work. This limited understanding is symptomatic of how many people in these circles view the Islamic faith, and often those who serve as vessels for this faith.
Beyond Ibn Taymiyyah, Islamic thought within the White House’s sphere of influence mostly hinges on hadiths, without recognizing hadiths for what they are: secondhand sources of verified sayings about religious life in Islam, none of which supersede the Quran. Hadiths are often the texts Islamic hate preachers reference to advocate genocide against Jews. So a simple way to counter the message of hate imams is to challenge the authority of hadiths in doctrinal hierarchy.
However, when privately discussing driving reform by challenging the authority of hadiths, Muslim reformers often meet opposition by neoconservatives who apparently believe they understand Islam better than Muslims do. This habit of seeing Islam through a narrow lens reinforces the likelihood that the Washington memo pushing for Islamic reformation is not simply one of many memos, but a significant strategy.
Reformation Isn’t Possible Without Understanding
That strategy has merit, but if ideological competition is driven by leadership that lacks understanding of Islam, and fails to exhibit basic compassion and respect for its followers, then that strategy is not only doomed to fail but will also risk impeding authentic Muslim reform initiatives. It will become highly damaging to ongoing reform work within Muslim communities whose perennial efforts with minimal funding or support are vulnerable to being overshadowed by an ideological war machine funded by the U.S. government.
In his book, “God Is Not One,” Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, describes this approach as little more than a spectator sport. “Unfortunately, this crucial conversation rarely advances beyond a ping-pong match of cliches in which some claim that Islam is a religion of peace while others claim that islam is a religion of war,” he writes. “One side ignores Quranic passages and Islamic traditions that have been used to justify war on unbelievers, while the other ignores Islam’s just-war injunctions against killing women, children, civilians, and fellow Muslims…The reason for all this ignoring is our collective ignorance. We are incapable of reckoning with Islam because we know almost nothing about it.”
Many Americans have little meaningful exposure to Muslims, Islamic studies, and Islam as an organic faith that has always flexed and adapted. Given that, it’s likely any attempt to instill an ideological competition will fail and stand alongside many other failed U.S. interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. However, ideological weaponization of faith is not impossible. Russia already uses this strategy.
Weaponizing Religion for Politics
The New York Times ran a series called “The Dark Arts,” on how Russia covertly projects power. Their September 14 2016 issue featured a front-page article by Andrew Higgins on “Dark Arts: Power Through Religion” that detailed Russia’s initiative to use faith to exert influence. It describes how the Kremlin invested years of lobbying to secure a $100 million “spiritual and cultural center” in a Paris neighborhood that may be used as a listening post but also demonstrates Russia’s might as a religious power.
Higgins goes on to describe “The merging of political, diplomatic and religious interests,” adding that “While tanks and artillery have been Russia’s weapons of choice to project its power into neighboring Ukraine and George, Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country’s reach and influence.”
Historically, religion has been frequently used to shape political agendas, as is currently being explored against Iran and ISIS, and is in place with Saudi reforms under Muhammad bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In his in-depth book, “Evolution of God,” Robert Wright charts a stunning narrative of political manipulation of a god identity.
A professor of philosophy at Princeton and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Wright even details the contentious naming of god between Judaism and Christianity before Islam adopted “Allah.” Seismic theological shifts to understand divinity and integrate it within the structure of civilization through “religion” have been an ongoing conversation throughout history, including Islamic history.
Robert R. Reilly, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, details key struggles in Islamic political history that shaped the future of Islam and the current crisis of free thought, which currently makes it very challenging to inject reformation. In “The Closing of the Muslim Mind,” Reilly asserts how Islam’s original free thinkers, the Mu’tazilites, who opposed pre-destination and advocated for free will (and consequent responsibility of actions), were raised to power and influence only through political support.
Aligned with the Aristotelian view of rational good, the Mu’tazilites and like-minded Arab philosophers were supported by the ruling power, Caliph al-Ma’mun. Reilly describes Caliph al-Ma’mun as “the greatest supporter of Greek thought in Islamic history,” adding that, “in al-Ma’mun’s court, Christians such as Theodore Abu Qurrah, bishop of Harran and a disciple of St. John of Damascus, could appear before the caliph to debate Muslim theologians over the truth of their respective religions.”
Caliph al-Ma’mun recognized Mu’tazilites’ value to his larger vision for a free-thinking society, and therefore shaped ideological reformation through inclusion and collaboration with like-minded allies. He gave Mut’tazilites political support and power, rather than attempting to influence ideology unilaterally. That’s something we don’t see happening yet with the Trump administration. It’s instead advancing conversations on Islamic reform as ideological isolationists.
What Islam Needs Is De-Politicization
In conversation, Sheikh Uthman Khan, academic dean of Critical Loyalty, questions whether the government understands what reform means: “If the idea is to attack militant Islam, you don’t need reformation, all you need is to go back to the original faith or religion. Theocracy or Islamism is just an innovation within the religion. The militant approach to Islam came in only after the death of the prophet when Muslims wanted to spread Islam out into other localities. During this militant approach is when Islam is actually being codified. So all of the codification of religion is going to reflect that militant approach.”
Other leading Muslims across the globe favor this approach of returning back to Islam’s origin. They are working within the faith to initiate change. Khan also questions the lack of invitations for consultation and recommendations on policy initiatives.
“If there are no Muslims on board,” he adds, “then it [reform] doesn’t make any sense because now you’re changing the religion according to whatever religion the government follows. So if the government is more Christian, then you’re Christianizing Islam. If it’s Jewish, then you’re making Islam into a Jewish religion. You’re just forming it according to how you want it. There needs to be some subjectivity in there, some sort of small subjectivity from Muslims. All Muslims have one mindset and belief system, which is believing in Allah, the Quran and the prophet. The details may differ, but we can’t change the theology without bringing Muslims into the picture.”
Instead of collaboration, so far authentic Muslim voices have been excluded. The absence of American Muslim presence from this year’s White House Iftar dinner underscores the cross-spectrum concern that the Trump administration doesn’t know how to engage American Muslims — and perhaps isn’t interested in doing so.
The Iftar Dinner Was One Failed Opportunity
This year the White House resumed the traditional dinner on June 6 after cancelling it altogether last year, yet it was almost exclusively attended by Washington diplomats, except for Palestinian dignitaries. Muslim American reaction to the state dinner was mixed, ranging from protests by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Islamist organizations outside the White House, to private feelings of shock and insult among progressive Muslim communities, to relief that a difficult decision didn’t need to be made this year.
Given the current climate and tensions in an administration that struggles with minority presence and policies such as the travel ban, not effectively handling race tensions regarding neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, and the current border crisis, an invitation from the White House would be heavily weighed.
For Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, it was simply business as usual. Under George W. Bush, in the era after 9/11, the White House Iftar dinner was a political tool to show that Islam wasn’t the enemy. Including American Muslim leaders and organizations helped reinforce the message that Islam is a religion of peace. “If it was just diplomats, that would be a restoration of the practice in the past,” Schwartz shared via email.
Soraya Deen, founder of Muslim Women Speakers, sympathizes with the administration in light of the protests against the Iftar dinner’s exclusion of Muslim organizations, including the host of Islamist lobbyists that courted favor during the Obama era: “All what I have seen is the mainstream Muslim organizations attack him every time — and then [they] want to be invited?” Soraya shared. “Policies are being made, laws are being written. This is not a private relationship but a public one. We must reach out, not lash out.”
Her answer begs the question: is the White House Iftar dinner a theological space, and if so, is exclusion from that space a form of alienating Muslims in theological spaces? The other (and more important) question is, when policies are being enacted that affect Muslim Americans or include Muslims, would it not be prudent for the administration to build inroads with Muslim American leaders and organizations?
The President Has Reached Out Before
One year ago, President Trump spoke in Saudi Arabia asking for Muslim support in tackling in counter-extremism efforts. In what was billed as the “Riyadh speech,” he invited a Muslim renaissance. That was not the first time we saw Trump attempt to initiate important change. In his 2016 foreign policy speech, Trump suggested radical Islam was a philosophical problem: “First, we need a long-term plan to halt the spread and reach of radical Islam. Containing the spread of radical Islam must be a major foreign policy goal of the United States and indeed the world. Events may require the use of military force, but it’s also a philosophical struggle.”
Since his election, the Trump administration has severed government relations with American Islamists — Muslim lobbyist and advocacy groups that work to mainstream orthodox Muslim views through political channels, often at the expense of silencing dissenting Muslims. However, in its place there is now only a concerning lack of curiosity and conversation about who Muslims are and the rich discourse and movement taking place within our communities.
When the administration then entertains Islamic reform as a means to challenge theocracy and Islamic militancy, they risk introducing change from a disadvantage because they don’t understand the ideology or how to shape it. The Trump administration would benefit from inviting Muslims who are looking to address common concerns.
The Trump presidency will likely continue to be aggressively be challenged, making it impossible for President Trump to play peacemaker in a traditional role, as we witnessed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Trump presidency’s most iconic legacy could be masterfully using public hysteria against his presidency as a channel through which he can make a significant positive difference.
The Opportunity Awaits the Choice to Act
Speaking at the 2017 Fox News’ 100 Days special with host Martha MacCallum, Muslim Reformer Raheel Raza applauded Trump’s ability to abandon appeasement and diplomatic platitudes.
“As a democratically elected leader of this country, he has the right to implement policy about longterm safety and security,” Raza explains. “That there is a radical jihadist ideology that is at play is well-known to everyone. It’s not something we can hide our heads under the sand like Obama did for 8 years — and appeasement was his problem. President Trump doesn’t have to be about appeasement. He has to implement that policies that will be of benefit of both American Muslims and non Muslims in the whole country.”
President Trump has more allies than he might realize among Muslims and Americans, including key individuals in the military sector with vast experience in Muslim societies. While talking with veteran Jason Howk, I learned of a top Marine Corps general who recently joined a Ramadan dinner. Gen. Robert Neller, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was invited this month to a Baltimore mosque by veteran Marine and Ahmadi Muslim Manor Shams.
“The military veterans, that just spent almost two decades living in Muslim countries and befriended and were often kept alive by Muslims in some rough times, are the perfect vehicle for better inclusion of Muslims in American communities,” Howk shares.
Howk engages civilization populations who often have little exposure to Islam or Muslims. With a master’s degree in Middle East and South Asia Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School, and studies in Dari and Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, Howk is a perfect example of the broad-based inclusion and partnership that could come together, along with trusted Muslim thought leaders, under a Trump administration.
There are other retired non-Muslim American special forces operatives, PhD graduates with niche areas of study, reformers, theologians, and others with deep understanding of how to build a solution-oriented structure. There are people who understand how to speak a very rare language to translate between the “Muslim world” and Western bureaucracy. The Trump administration should seek them out, and talk to them.
Privately, many disclose they feel as if conservatives on the hill don’t even know Muslim reformers exist. Publicly, liberal organizations like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center continue to elevate and support Islamist organizations (in many cases because they simply don’t know better and haven’t seen a viable counter to mainstream Muslim representation). When the Trump administration ignores Muslims and allies, he’s not teaching anyone how to work with us.