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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Preventing a 'clash of civilisations'

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

A strategy for the West to counter Islamic extremism by supporting Islamic moderates has been put forward in a report funded in part by a conservative American foundation.

Osama Bin Laden
Report considers how to counter Osama Bin Laden

It says that the West should help religious "modernists" in the Islamic world in order to prevent a "clash of civilisations."

It states: "It seems judicious to encourage the elements within the Islamic mix that are most compatible with global peace and the international community and that are friendly to democracy and modernity."

The report, called "Civil Democratic Islam: partners, resources and strategies", was drawn up by the Rand Corporation with financial help from the Smith Richardson Foundation, a conservative trust fund which hands out more than $120 million a year to universities and other research organisations.

It is a sign perhaps that some American conservatives, many of whom want to press democratic reform in Muslim countries, realize that a focused approach is needed.

Suspicions

It is a contribution to a debate well under way in the West. The latest manifestation of this debate was a recent speech by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey, who wondered why Islam was "associated with violence throughout the world." His conclusion is not dissimilar to that of this report.

"Is extremism so ineluctably bound up with its faith that we are at last seeing its true character? Or could it be that a fight for the soul of Islam is going on that requires another great faith, Christianity, to support and encourage the vast majority of Muslims who resist this identification of their faith with terrorism?" he asked.

The United States and its allies need to be more discriminating in the way they perceive and interact with groups who call themselves Islamic
Cheryl Benard, Rand Corp

The recommendations have also come as the Bush administration is proposing to use the G8 summit in the American state of Georgia in June to push the issue of democratic and social reform in the Middle East. The summit will coincide with the handover of power in Iraq to an interim Iraqi government.

The Bush initiative has raised suspicions in Arab countries and among some of America's European allies who do not want anything imposed from the outside.

Islam's crisis

The report's writer, Cheryl Benard, said: "The United States and its allies need to be more discriminating in the way they perceive and interact with groups who call themselves Islamic.

"The term is too vague, and it doesn't really help us when we are looking to encourage progress and democratic principles, while being supportive of religious beliefs."

The report states: "Islam's current crisis has two main components: a failure to thrive and a loss of connection to the global mainstream. The Islamic world has been marked by a long period of backwardness and comparative powerlessness."

It says that Muslims disagree on what to do about this and identifies four essential positions in Muslim societies:

  • Fundamentalists who "reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture."

  • Traditionalists who "are suspicious of modernity, innovation and change."

  • Modernists who "want the Islamic world to become part of global modernity."

  • Secularists who "want the Islamic world to accept a division of religion and state."

    The report says that the modernists and secularists are closest to the West but are general in a weaker position than the other groups, lacking money, infrastructure and a public platform.

    Education

    It suggests a strategy of supporting the modernists first. This would be done by, for example, publishing and distributing their works at subsidised cost, encouraging them to write for mass audiences and for youth, getting their views into the Islamic curriculum and helping them in the new media world which is dominated by fundamentalist and traditionalists.

    It goes onto the say that traditionalists should be supported against the fundamentalists by publicising the traditionalist criticism of extremism and by" encouraging disagreements" between the two positions. It says that "in such places as Central Asia, they (traditionalists) may need to be educated and trained in orthodox Islam to be able to stand their ground."

    A third strategy would be "to confront and oppose the fundamentalists" by, among other things, challenging their interpretation of Islam and revealing their links with illegal groups and activities.

    Support for the secularists would be cautious and very selective, for example by encouraging "recognition of fundamentalism as a shared enemy."

    The latest draft of the US government's own proposals are reported to include the promotion of parliamentary exchanges, the offering of advice on legislation, support for literacy campaigns, and the promotion of more access to personal and development finance.

    The Rand approach is more overtly political and has definite diplomatic gains in mind.


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