America defeated Fascism in World War II and Communism in the Cold War. We are now fighting the Long War — against violent Islamism. The most important battle against this new global totalitarian ideology is the battle of ideas. Muslim countries and intellectuals must lead this campaign and offer tolerant Islam as the alternative path forward for Muslims everywhere. And America should vigorously support their efforts.
Islam is one of the world’s great religions. Muslims created a sophisticated culture during the Middle Ages and their empires ruled vast lands. In the Modern Era, these empires disintegrated and many of the Muslim lands became colonies of Western countries. But even the postcolonial era has been challenging. Muslim countries have lagged in economic development despite rich natural resources. No Muslim country is on the IMF list of 34 advanced economies. Western-style democracy has been accepted by most countries of the world, but only barely among the 49 Muslim majority countries: In the 2017 Freedom House survey of liberty, just 2 were ranked “Free,” while 20 were ranked “Partly Free” and 27 “Not Free.”
Islamism is a political movement. Islamists want Muslim societies to conform to Shariah, a system of religious and legal principles based on the Koran and tradition. Most Muslim countries limit the legal application of Shariah to family matters and follow Western law in commercial and criminal matters. Most Islamist political parties pursue their goals through peaceful means.
Violent Islamism wants to impose on the whole world a radical form of Islam. Their solution for the Muslim countries’ difficulties with modernity is to return to the extreme Shariah practices of the Middle Ages. Violent Islamists are at war with Muslims who practice a more tolerant version of Islam, and want to conquer and convert non-Muslim countries and their people. Shariah law as applied by the current Iranian government, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS has brought with it the savagery of public beheadings, stonings and amputations, and subservience of women. They view terrorist attacks around the world, and especially against the West, as a legitimate strategy against infidels.
The Bush and Obama administrations had the same ineffective strategy in the battle of ideas against violent Islamism: Believing that democracies are more peaceful than autocracies, America promoted Western democracy in Muslim countries. It has not worked: Democracy did not win over any Muslim country and violent Islamism did not lose any momentum — as shown by the rise of ISIS. America — mistrusted by many Muslims because of its liberal social ideas and alliance with Israel — was the wrong messenger. And democracy was not an appealing message for most Muslim populations and their leaders.
A far more effective strategy would be for Muslims themselves, governments and intellectuals, to promote tolerant Islam, with America providing strong support. That Muslim governments may be imperfect by Western democratic standards is far less important than defeating violent Islamism before its practitioners acquire weapons of mass destruction. Tolerant Islam has no quarrel with non-Islamic countries, condemns terrorism, protects religious minorities, protects and enhances the role of women, and limits Shariah law to family matters.
Tolerant Islam already has broad acceptance in the Muslim world. In Morocco, for example, the constitution recognizes Islam as the state religion, but also protects other religions. Morocco teaches tolerance in all its schools, especially those training clergy. In a first in the Arab world, Morocco trained and appointed hundreds of women preachers and gave women equal rights in the household. We also find tolerant Islam in Turkey and Indonesia, where secularism is enshrined in their constitutions.
Two prominent Arab leaders have recently made momentous statements in support of tolerant Islam. The first was the “Amman Message,” issued in 2004 by King Abdullah II of Jordan and endorsed by over 500 Sunni and Shia senior clerics and political leaders. In a blow to violent Islamists, the message recognized as authentically Islamic several moderate Islamic schools of theology. The second was the 2014 speech by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Al-Azhar mosque, the world’s foremost center of Sunni learning. Mr. el-Sissi bravely challenged Muslim clerics to lead a “religious revolution” and interpret Islam from a “more enlightened perspective.”
Support for tolerant Islam is not limited to Muslim governments. For decades now, it has been promoted by numerous Muslim intellectuals, both lay people and clergy, living in both Muslim countries and the West.
America should ensure that Muslim governments and intellectuals be the face of the campaign promoting tolerant Islam. America should support Muslim governments’ efforts that only tolerant Islam is taught in schools, preached at Friday prayers, and propagated in their media. We should also support Muslim intellectuals in forming think tanks and holding conferences promoting tolerant Islam, and help publicize their work. Finally, we need to enlist the private sector, especially Google, Facebook and Twitter, in designing a comprehensive internet strategy to promote tolerant Islam and counteract violent Islamism’s sophisticated use of cyberspace.
The Long War and its battle of ideas against violent Islamism will take many decades. Our best allies are peace-loving Muslims everywhere who make up the vast majority of this great religion. The best way to engage them in this struggle is to help them promote the tolerant Islam they already follow.
• Dan Negrea is a New York private equity investor.