Interpreting Islam to Muslims
By Graham E. Fuller
Feb 24, 2015
Can’t we ever learn? Here goes the White House again, appointing a “new” task force designed to “blunt the ISIS message.” Washington seems to believe that a main source of ISIS success to date lies in American failure to get the right word out, to tell Muslims what the true story is about Islam, ISIS, and American goals.
If we think back to 2001—George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terrorism” (GWOT)—we might recall that he appointed not one, but three successive PR experts and spinmeisters to bring the truth about America’s GWOT to the Muslim world. We had Charlotte Beers (a “legendary” advertising executive), Margaret Tutwiler (a skilled political operative on domestic spin), and then Karen Hughes, a vice president of a huge public relations firm. Each was pressed into service to “sell America”; all quickly found their swords blunted on trips overseas in talking to real Muslims who found these accomplished professional PR experts to be grossly out of touch with regional realities. Such campaigns were designed to show what a great place the US was, how multicultural the US is, and how noble our goals were in the Middle East. It didn’t sell. Few Muslims thought the US was a terrible place, but they surely thought that US policies were terrible—indeed literally murderous in the death and destruction visited upon their societies in regional wars.
Now we read in the New York Times that a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the State Department has been established. It will take charge of an all-agency message to address the Muslim world on the horrors of ISIS. Actually ISIS has been doing a pretty good job by itself in showing the Muslim world the horrors of its policies. Yes, there are indeed idealistic, naïve or angry Muslim youth who have headed off to help fight for ISIS, but their numbers do not constitute a movement, although fanatic individuals anywhere can be dangerous even as loners. Evidence already suggests that their exposure to ISIS is likely disillusioning to many of them, even life-threatening. They don’t need Washington to tell them so.
The State Department, with its cadre of experienced officers who have served overseas, along with many CIA field officers, might be able to improve the US message—compared to the PR executives of Bush’s era. But the myopia is the same: our belief that the key problem in fighting terrorism is that Muslims just aren’t well enough informed about American policies, about what “real” Islam should be, and why they therefore fall for ISIS propaganda.
Bush never did very well as Mufassir-in-Chief (an expert in interpretation of the Qur’an) in trying to convince Muslims that GWOT was really in the best interests of the Muslim world. Indeed, the Iranians first coined a phrase for Washington’s vision of Islam: “American Islam.” In American eyes that means “good Islam”, an Islam that encourages Muslims to be pious, righteous and pray but who would never think about any of Islam’s political or social ideals or about social justice—implications that could lead to political action, rebellion, resistance to autocracy, or opposition to western intervention.
In the 1950s, the Roman Catholic Church had its “worker priests” linked to the labor movement in Europe, and later its “Liberation Theology” in Latin America. It was led by priests who believed that the Gospel contains vital social and political content; they encouraged political and social movements by workers to improve their abysmal working conditions and to change the autocratic nature of Latin governance. Some turned violent. (Actually Jesus himself preached a potentially revolutionary message and undertook social action including against the money-lenders in the Temple, upsetting the Jewish establishment of the time. Indeed, Pope Francis today has much to say about the huge social and economic gaps in the world that he sees as a dangerous byproduct of unfettered capitalism.)
Few Muslims or students of Islam believe that the violent, cherry-picked Salafi/Wahhabi interpretations of Islam by ISIS represent mainstream Islamic faith or that its bloodshed and butchery, including of large numbers of Muslims, is what Islam is really all about. But Muslims must themselves be the ultimate force against ISIS, however much time it takes to get organized. US embrace, much less leadership, of an anti-ISIS ideological campaign lacks credibility and legitimacy in Muslim eyes and is seen as self-serving, and even cynical: many wonder whether incineration of innocent civilians via collateral damage of drone strikes or bombing is nastier than ISIS executions—even if we in the US don’t get to see the drones on our television screens.
The heart of the problem is this: the West, and especially the US, cannot simply go on finding flaws, blemishes, failures, and religious misinterpretations of Islam within Muslim society and religious practice—to serve as the primary explanation for the recent horrific range of violence in the region that was not common decades ago. To be sure, Muslim societies are indeed flawed, in well-known and serious ways: absence of democracy, poverty, poor education, absence of political or social justice, authoritarian rule, poor governance. All Muslims know this far better, and at first hand, than we do in the West—that’s what movements of political Islam and the whole Arab Spring have been all about.
We cannot blithely continue—as nearly all these US PR campaigns still do—to identify such shortcomings of the Muslim world as the sole source of the problem. From any objective perspective, western and especially American policies (wars, interventions) have contributed hugely to the current unprecedented state of anarchy, violence, chaos, dislocation, war, rage and radicalization. When our PR campaigns artfully point the finger back at Muslim societies, and offer American interpretations of “true Islam” (i.e., not anti-American Islam), we persuade few and anger many in the region.
Washington needs to begin to regain its credibility by examining and acknowledging—at least to itself—its own role in fomenting the exceptional violence of this last decade. (If there is to be a “long war” against terrorism in the region, as some neo-conservatives predict, it may in reality be the decade or more required for the US to change its image via concrete actions. More specifically, ending the actions that have been so incendiary in the region. First and foremost, begin with the removal of US boots on the grounds in Muslim lands. That’s the indispensable prerequisite before we get on to more complex issues.
Muslims can, do, and will condemn ISIS actions and its vision of Islam. They do it every day. It will probably require more time for them move into decisive action—which involves military but also bold social and intellectual resistance, which today can be dangerous, especially in closed societies. But the Middle East belongs to the Middle East. Islam is their own religion—that is being used to ends that most Muslims abhor. Let’s not dilute their message by piling on with our own simple, self-serving interpretations of Islam. Such a course only compromises Muslims’ own religious, social, political and ideological efforts to gain control of their own societies, sovereignties and destinies. For us this is an ugly, but not existential issue. For Muslims it is existential.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, a former senior political scientist at RAND, and a current adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of numerous books about the Middle East, including The Future of Political Islam, A World Without Islam, a memoir Three Truths and a Lie, and the forthcoming Turkey and the Arab Spring. He has lived and worked in the Muslim world for nearly two decades.