July 1, 2006

Moderate Islamists Found

I wrote a shorter version of this piece for one of the largest American newspapers, one that gets a hefty dose of criticism almost every day. The editor rejected it because it wasn’t “groundbreaking enough.” I wish he would have been honest with me. Genuinely moderate Islamists are about as hard to find as Zoroastrians in Nebraska. So I rewrote the piece - in blog narrative style instead of newspaper style - and published it here. I don't have time to submit it to other editors right now, but I do think it should get out into the world rather than languish unread on my computer. Please hit the Pay Pal link at the bottom so I can justify my decision to give it to you for free.

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ - When I went to the Middle East for a six-month extended visit I wanted to see if I could find a genuinely moderate Islamist political party, one that not only practices democracy but also believes in it. There was a slight chance Hezbollah might fit that description. Lebanon’s Party of God has mellowed somewhat with age and participates in elections. But Hezbollah, unfortunately, is psychotic as ever. Hassan Nasrallah and his goon squad are instinctively belligerent and authoritarian even if Lebanon’s post-war democratic culture keeps them in check. Hezbollah is liberal and even pacifist compared with Hamas and Al Qaeda, but they nevertheless are a violent warmongering proxy militia for two despotic regimes in the Middle East.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is better. They aren’t armed, they don’t even try to kill Israeli soldiers (let alone civilians), and they at least pretend to be opposed to terrorism. But they are only moderate compared with their violent fellow Islamists. Ideologically they don’t differ much.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, though, does seem to be genuinely moderate. Its leaders appear to have more in common with conservative Christian Democrats in Europe than with any terrorist organization or Middle Eastern religious dictatorship.

I met with Ali Muhammad, Director of the Suleimaniya bureau of the KIU, Iraqi Kurdistan’s third largest (and growing) political party, in his office. He provided his own in-house translator, a plump woman in a dark brown abaya. My own translator, because he was a stranger, was not to be trusted.

Ali looked to be in his sixties. He wore a trimmed beard, glasses, and a distinctly unfashionable Western suit and tie. He greeted me warmly in English. I greeted him and thanked him in Kurdish. Then we spoke to each other through our translator.

“How do you feel about the U.S. occupation of Iraq?” I said.

“We blame Saddam for the occupation,” he said. “Life is much better here now. But of course no one wants his country to be occupied.”

“Do you think the U.S. soldiers should leave now?” I said. “Or would it be better if they waited until later?”

“It is better to wait until the Iraqi army is strong and the country is calm,” he said.

“What do you think of the West in general?” I said.

“The West is a successful civilization,” he said. “But we think it is too materialistic and technological. If the Islamic East united with the civilized West, all of humanity would benefit.”

Isn’t materialism a problem in the Middle East, too? Saddam’s palaces, the skyscrapers and malls in Dubai…

“When I talked about materialism, I did not mean wealth,” he said. “I mean that humans need both the material and spiritual sides of existence. Each civilization has a material side and a soul side. Western people are missing parts of the soul side. But the soul side in the West isn’t zero. Human rights are much more respected there than here.” His translator spoke slowly and gave me time to write everything down. “Islam is the medium between socialism and capitalism. In socialism everything is soulless. In capitalism there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. In Islam we can possess things, but not with such a huge distance between the rich and the poor.”

One of Ali Muhammad’s office assistants brought me hot milk in a Turkish coffee glass, a tall thin can of 7-UP with a straw, and a plate of fresh fruit.

Ali Muhammad wanted to keep talking, so I let him.

“In the West there is absolute freedom,” he said. “In Islam there is not. Our freedom as individuals is combined with the freedom of the whole society. General customs must be regarded in Islam. Our families are stronger than yours. There are many problems in the West when young people leave home at 18.” (Middle Easterners tend to leave home when they are closer to 30.) “You have unmarried mothers. Abortion. Crime. Gay marriage. These things are completely against the soul of human beings. They reduce the brightness of the West.”

“Are you opposed to Western culture then?” I said.

“The West is not an enemy,” he said. “We think about Western Civilization as part of the whole human experience. We would like to help you reform it, but we do not want to destroy it. We are not violent. We support civil mechanisms for change.”

“What do you think about Sayyid Qutb and the Hideous Schizophrenia?” I said. Sayyid Qutb is considered the founder of modern Islamism and the intellect behind Al Qaeda theology. He believed - until he was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the dungeons of Egypt - that the liberal post-Christian West threatens Islamic civilization because it promotes, among other things, the separation of religion and the state. Qutb believed this separation triggered an epidemic psychological breakdown in the West that he dubbed the Hideous Schizophrenia, and that this breakdown is spreading to the Middle East.

“Qutb was wrong,” he said, parting ways with Osama bin Laden on the most elementary level. “Compare Islam and Christianity. In the Middle Ages, Christians were burning scientists. Then Muslims had a great civilization. The Christians were theocratic then. Muslims were not. We do not believe in a theocratic government that rules the people in the name of Allah. Power should come from the people. Christianity wasn’t weakened because it was separate from the state. Christianity was weakened when it supported oppressive states. The same thing is happening in Iran. Iranians are turning against the religion itself along with the theocratic oppressive state.”

“Are you opposed to theocracy then?” I said. “If you win power in Kurdistan will you not govern according to Islamic law?”

“In Islam we have stable things and changeable things,” he said. “80 percent of Islam is changeable things.” Say what you will about Islamists. Ali Muhammad’s religious-political ideology is a long way from the iron rule of 7th Century Taliban.

“Should alcohol be legal or banned?” I said. When I asked this question of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essem El-Erian he refused to give me a straight answer.

“In Islam it is prohibited to drink alcohol in public,” Ali Muhammad said. “Drinking at home is fine. If someone wants to buy alcohol and drink it in his house, we should not chase him. We prefer to treat alcohol the same way we treat cigarettes when we create non-smoking sections.”

“Should women be required to wear the hijab over their hair?” I said, referring to the modest Islamic headscarf worn by conservative women in public.

“We don’t force people to wear the hijab,” he said. “There are two types of Islamic rules: personal and general. Individual matters are advised, not required. Advisements by Islam should not be imposed. Islam prohibits only things that harm an entire society.”

Ali Muhammad believes this is the right balance, that Islam is therefore superior to Judaism and Christianity.

“The Koran includes both regulation and advice,” he said. “The Torah included only regulation. The New Testament included only advice.”

Whether the Koran advises certain behaviors or imposes them is a matter of debate within the Islamic world. Most Kurds are conservative compared with, say, Lebanese, Turks, and Tunisians. But their religious tradition, the thing they are conserving, is more lenient than the traditions in some parts of the Middle East. Kurdistan is a blessedly undogmatic place. My translator Birzo Abdulkadir seemed to speak for many when he explained why, despite Kurdistan’s conservatism, it isn’t a backwater like some other places I’ve been: “I have read the Koran in its original language. I know it’s more flexible than most Arab imams admit.”

“There is nothing about Islam that we should be afraid to talk about,” Ali Muhammad said. “It is the best system. But there are and have been problems. We don’t deny that.”

I started to ask another question, and he changed the subject. He wanted to make sure I heard the following and wrote it down:

“We have five members in our leadership committee who are women,” he said. “They were elected, and we do not use quotas. We also have a woman in our political bureau. Women and men work together. Below the leadership level, the numbers of men and women are the same.”

I looked at our translator, a woman, in the eye. There was no need for me to say what I was thinking, to ask the obvious question. She knew. And she nodded. What Ali Muhammad just told me was true.

Assuming Ali Muhammad was honest with me, the very existence of the Kurdistan Islamic Union is a relief. Osama bin Laden will never calm down and become a mainstream religious conservative. He will be a radical and a fascist until somebody punches his ticket. But if the KIU can find a way to reconcile an authoritarian religion with modern democracy there is no reason other similar moderately conservative political parties can’t form elsewhere to compete with the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the theocratic Iranian state.

I do believe Ali Muhammad was sincere in his moderation, that he wasn't just jerking me around for good press. It was painfully obvious that Essam El-Erian of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was concealing his real opinions from me so I wouldn't expose him and his organization as radical nutjobs.

As a reality check, though, I asked my translator Alan Atoof in Suleimaniya about the KIU. Alan is a secular liberal whose family is from the part of Iraqi Kurdistan that was besieged by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ansar al Islam until U.S. Special Forces and the Peshmerga drove them into Iran three years ago. You have to look long and hard to find someone more opposed to violent jihadists. He simply will not put up with these people, and I wanted to know what he thought of the Kurdistan Islamic Union. Do they practice taqiyya? Are they Salafists or Wahhabis in moderate drag?

Not according to Alan, they aren't. His uncle is a member of the KIU, and he knows them well and in person. He confirms that they are genuinely moderate and reasonable people who don't pose a threat to Kurdistan's secular culture and politics.

Before leaving his office I asked Ali Muhammad if he could recommend a nice restaurant for dinner. He suggested what he thought of as a “Western” restaurant (it wasn’t) in suburban Suleimaniya. And he sent his son Iqbal Ali Muhammad to pick me up at my hotel, take me to the restaurant, and continue discussing religion and politics.

So Iqbal met me in the lobby of the Suleimaniya Palace hotel, a shabby place whose name is a ridiculous lie. At first Iqbal was fantastically uptight and humorless, a grim caricature of an Islamist in a blue suit and tie. He was Scandinavian in his stiffness and in his unwillingness to smile or laugh or show human warmth. Most Kurds are outgoing and gregarious, but this guy acted like he was dropped from outer space. Well, I thought, he is an Islamist.

As it turned out, though, he wasn’t uptight at all. He was just a bit shy. He drove us to the restaurant in his SUV, ordered us fresh fish from one of Kurdistan’s lakes, and loosened up as though we were sharing a bottle of wine. We did not share a bottle of wine even though it was available. He would have said nothing if I ordered a glass for myself. But I did not wish to be rude so I ordered a soft drink instead.

He was less interested in politics than his father. Mostly we talked about more casual matters. It was a conversation, not an interview, so I didn't bust out my notebook and grill him. But he was a smart young man - a lawyer - and I did jot down a few things he said.

“We will go to war with Christians against Muslims if the Muslims are on the wrong side,” he said. That’s exactly what the Kurds did when they sided with the United States against Saddam Hussein, just as the U.S. sided with Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims against Slobo and his exterminationist regime in Belgrade. This casual comment by Iqbal, a self-identifying Islamist, was perhaps the most poignant refutation of the “clash of civilizations” idea I have yet heard.

Iqbal did turn out to be a bit of a bigot, but not in an anti-Western or anti-American way. “The Arab, he is wild,” he said. “He is not a civilized person.”

I tried to defend Arabs generally. He knew I lived in Beirut at the time, that I had experienced a different side of Arab culture than he had. He smiled patiently while I sat there picking the bones out of my fish and sounding like a self-conscious politically correct American naif. But I wasn't naive. I knew very well what Saddam Hussein and his Baath regime did to the Kurds. Iqbal Ali Muhammad was born in Halabja. He was six years old when the Anfal Campaign reached his home town, when Saddam Hussein doused him and his family with chemical weapons. He still has a hard time breathing when walking up stairs. And he would not let me convince him that most Arabs are more civilized than those who nearly killed him.

Just as I was beginning to think he and his father had no good reason to refer to themselves as Islamists, that the Kurds therefore really - truly! - are different, out came the sadly typical (for the region) paranoid comment: “I think America let Osama bin Laden go free on purpose.”

Look, I said. He killed thousands of Americans. We don't let a guy like that get away. Just because we have not killed or captured him yet doesn't mean that's by design.

So many Middle Easterners think the United States is so all-powerful that we can do anything at any time, that nothing is beyond our capabilities, that everything wrong is therefore designed to be wrong on purpose.

I explained to him that the U.S. is a powerful country, but it's still just one country. Americans are flawed and limited humans just like the Kurds. He took me seriously, and he was willing to climb down from his crazy position much faster and more completely than I expected.

“It is good that we are having this conversation,” he said. “We can tell each other when we are wrong.”

Iqbal Ali Muhammad.jpg
Iqbal Ali Muhammad

If all the world’s Islamists were like these mellow Kurdish Islamists there would be no Terror War and there would be no talk of any clash of civilizations. It’s no accident, nor is it merely a convenience, that the Kurds of Iraq are American allies.

Not all Muslims are terrorists, obviously. Most people in the world know that much at least. It’s also apparently true that not all Islamists are terrorists or even extremists. These guys made me rethink my idea of what an Islamist even is. Call me foolish if you like. But Iqbal repeated the same refrain I heard over and over again in Iraqi Kurdistan, something I almost never hear in Arab countries: “Extremes are bad. The middle is better.”

Postscript: Please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. I went all the way to Iraq to get this interview and - let’s be honest - you probably never would have heard of these people if I hadn’t done that.

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Michael Totten
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Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 1, 2006 3:30 AM
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