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Obama's Surprising Reversal

Abram N. Shulsky

Among the many intriguing revelations in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview with President Obama, one of the most surprising was that (privately, to be sure) the president “has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.” This remark is not note-worthy in terms of its content – many have made a similar observation. But it is surprising in terms of who made it: It contradicts the president’s consistent and strongly held position that our current terrorism problem has nothing to do with Islam. Even the Islamic State itself, the president has said, “is not ‘Islamic’.”

Following up on this general point, the interview recounted the president’s reflections, in a conversation with the Australian prime minister, on the adverse changes in Indonesian religious life in the years since he had lived there as a boy. According to the president, Indonesia had moved from a “relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation.” The cause was the flooding of the country with Wahhabi imams and teachers and the creation of Wahhabi madrassas and seminaries, all supported by funds from Saudis and other Gulf Arabs.

These Wahhabi figures and institutions undermined the authority of the then-existing Indonesian religious authorities; from the Wahhabi point of view, Indonesian Islam (like the Islam traditionally practiced in many parts of the world) was insufficiently rigorous, and had incorporated into itself too many practices not traceable directly back to the days of the Prophet and his Companions (the salaf – hence the term “Salafist”). Practices such as worshipping at the shrines of famous pious men of the past were seen as derogating from the monotheism at the heart of Islam. Like Cromwell’s soldiers destroying saints’ statues in an English church, the Wahhabis insist on an austere version of the religion in keeping with their notions of purity.

While the Wahhabis, and Salafis in general, claim to be restoring the original “pure” Islam of the time of the Prophet, they are in fact a “revolutionary” force targeting “traditional” Islamic practices as they have developed over the centuries. Typically, these practices are embedded in the cultures of Muslim-majority countries; Indonesia, where Islam was traditionally very open, is a particularly salient case. In many ways, the traditional practices – for example, the rule that each of the four (Sunni) schools of law be regarded as legitimate by adherents of the other schools – represent pragmatic adjustments, in the name of unity and the maintenance of peace, to the actual diversity of the Muslim world. In others, for example worshipping at shrines, they accommodate local sentiment and the longing for a more “tangible” connection with the divine. The insistence on sweeping away all these “compromises” is what gives Salafism its revolutionary aspect.

What is particularly striking is the president’s implicit recognition that the Saudi propagation of Wahhabism is connected, if only implicitly, with terrorism. While these imams and madrassas did not necessarily preach terrorism, they do and did advocate a version of Islam that made amicable co-existence with members of other faiths, and the acceptance of local cultural traditions, more difficult, if not impossible. As the president’s remarks implies, the failure to combat successfully this extreme view of Islam makes a “comprehensive” solution to Islamist terrorism impossible.

The raises, or should raise, the question of whether the U.S. government is in a position to do anything to counteract the propagation of rigid and intolerant versions of Islam and to support those who promote the “reconciliation” to modernity that the president sees as necessary. But the administration’s official position that the current terrorism problem has nothing to do with Islam hampers the discussion of this extremely important point. If one could get past this obstacle, there would be two important questions to consider.

First, what is the nature of the counterarguments that we should wish to promote? The president’s description of it as an Islam “reconcil[ing] itself to modernity and undergo[ing] some of the reforms that have change Christianity” is not particularly helpful. Radical Islamist extremism is in some ways already “modern,” as its masterful use of information technology illustrates. And, as has been indicated, Salafism – in its assault on the accumulation of centuries of religious tradition – bears some resemblance to the Reformation. (While Protestantism embraced liberal democracy before Catholicism did, the extent to which this is connected with the doctrines of Luther and Calvin is a difficult question. In any case, the different historical situations surrounding the origins of Christianity and Islam suggest that “reformation” would proceed differently in the two cases.)

It would be beneficial, where possible, to strengthen “traditional” Islam – the Islam that over the centuries had accommodated itself to political life; in many cases, however, it may already have been weakened beyond salvaging. There are however, a variety of other Muslim voices that we could also support. These thinkers adopt various strategies for interpreting and invigorating the Islamic tradition. Thus, the Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman argued that while, with respect to such issues as slavery and the status of women, “the spirit of the Qur’anic legislation exhibits an obvious direction towards the progressive embodiment of the fundamental human values of freedom and responsibility in fresh legislation, nevertheless the actual legislation of the Qur’an had partly to accept the then existing society as a term of reference.” Thus, for modern Muslims, he argued, the standard to apply is not “the strictly legal injunctions of the Qur’an” but rather the “progressive” spirit that they showed in modifying and making more humane the practices extant in the Arabian society of the time. This is but one example: fortunately, we need not choose among the various voices of this sort – indeed, the invigoration of a debate among them would itself be a benefit.

Second, many doubt that non-Muslims can in any way play a helpful role in this debate, even if only by providing support, platforms and networking opportunities to positive voices. The president himself would appear to be of this opinion. The notion that any sort of American support would “taint” the beneficiary is not one to be dismissed lightly. Nevertheless, the U.S. government has found ways around this dilemma in the past (for example, by the creation of the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy, as well as by other means) and could do something similar in the future if the political will were present.

It is probably too late for this administration to develop any programs based on the presidential insight contained in the recent interview. But the next one could do worse than to reflect and build on it.

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