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The Myth of Moderate Islam

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 17, 2008
Foreign Policy

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Of all the cures commonly proposed for the many ailments afflicting the Middle East, there is one tonic nearly everyone seems to agree on: boosting moderate Islam.

It sounds eminently reasonable. If Islamic extremism is the problem, moderate Islam must be the solution. It follows that Western governments should therefore find ways to make the moderates more powerful and encourage the extremists to become more moderate. Allow Islamists to compete and accumulate power, the argument goes, and they will have little incentive to radicalize. Furthermore, assuming the mundane tasks of day-to-day governance will compel even the most extreme groups to focus more on filling potholes than on destroying the Great Satan.

But this belief is dead wrong. Not only is it impossible to agree on a working definition of the word “moderate,” but there is scant evidence that extremists really do moderate once they assume power.

Consider, for example, Hezbollah. The Shiite organization provides state-like services such as education and healthcare for the people of south Beirut and southern Lebanon. The organization, which has had representatives in the Lebanese Parliament since 1992, has often demonstrated a surprising degree of pragmatism. It took part in a May 2005 electoral alliance with several of its adversaries in order to maximize electoral returns in crucial districts. Just a few months earlier, during Lebanon’s “independence uprising,” which pushed Hezbollah’s ally, Syria, out of Lebanon, the organization struck a tone of national unity.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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