On Daniel Pipes and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy
by Kemal Silay, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, Salim Mansur, Nawab Agha, et al
Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum is an American scholar with significant academic credentials in the study of Islam and a long record as an investigator and opponent of radical trends in the global Muslim community. His views are often controversial and he is targeted for abuse by many Muslim extremists and their sympathizers. But his knowledge of Islam, the Arabic language, and related topics is thorough. He received his doctorate from Harvard University and has served the U.S. government at various levels. He has authored a dozen books and publishes the authoritative Middle East Quarterly.
The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) is a Washington-based think tank that professes to support moderate Islam, with a target audience primarily in the U.S. Government. It is partially funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Congressionally-financed program headed by Carl Gershman. Pipes and others have criticized CSID, and have questioned the wisdom of NED in supporting CSID. CSID's record in identifying and promoting people it views as moderate Muslims is suspect, and NED's decision to support CSID is worse.
Put simply, CSID is a front for some of the most obnoxious members of the "Wahhabi lobby" in America. It was founded in 1999 by a group of Western Arabist academics and foreign-born Islamist ideological functionaries, meeting at Georgetown University in Washington. They included Jamal Barzinji, an officer in the financial network supporting the Safa Group of Companies. These entities, and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Va., were targets of Operation GreenQuest in March 2002, a joint federal antiterrorism inquiry that is described as the largest terror-financing investigation mounted by the U.S. government. Barzinji, whose name is sometimes rendered as Barazanji, concluded his term on the CSID board in 2003, but remains associated with the organization.
A core element among the CSID founders consisted of individuals prominent in supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader Sami Al-Arian, who has been convicted in a U.S. court of assisting PIJ and is subject to deportation. Al-Arian himself, late last year, was called as a witness in the investigation of IIIT, but refused to testify. In a bizarre posture, Al-Arian claimed that if he were to disclose what he knows about IIIT, which has always claimed to be a non-extremist, non-activist, and anti-violence think-tank, "his life would be in danger." The obvious dissonance between claiming that it is dangerous to one's life to disclose facts about IIIT and the arguments by IIIT about its benevolent role has yet to be remarked in mainstream American media.
Antony T. Sullivan is listed as vice-chair of CSID in 2007. He was a supporter of Sami Al-Arian, and is an inveterate apologist for radical Islam as a Middle East studies specialist.
Louay Safi is a leading figure in CSID and director of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)'s Leadership Development Center in Plainfield, IN. ISNA is a Saudi-founded organization that promotes Wahhabism, the most extreme, fundamentalist, exclusionist, and jihadist form of Sunni Islam, among American Muslims. Most recently, in an unsealed indictment in a federal terrorism case, U.S. vs. Holy Land Foundation (HLF), et al, the U.S. government has included ISNA and its associated body, the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), as unindicted co-conspirators with HLF and, in so doing, designated them as fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the U.S. Safi has become well-known for his virulent attacks on moderate and other dissenting American Muslim voices.
Abdulwahab Alkebsi is NED's main coordinator of Islamic programs and is a former Executive Director of CSID. His prior career included a post as deputy director of the now-defunct American Muslim Council (AMC), an Islamist group.
Sullivan and Safi were formerly associated with the Middle East Affairs Journal, published by the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR), headquartered in Annandale, Va. UASR was a front group created by Musa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader deported by the U.S. to Jordan, who now apparently lives in Syria. The UASR board included Abdurrahman Alamoudi, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison on October 15, 2004, for illegal dealings, including money laundering, involving the government of Libya.
As for NED and CSID, the problems in their relationship are, from our perspective, simple and few. First, Gershman, NED's head, and others like him, have no expertise as interpreters of Islam. They are disoriented and lost in dealing with Muslims. Second, NED has created a value system that rewards radical Muslims when they do not commit continuous acts of violence and especially if they embrace electoral processes.
Pipes understands that the radicals cannot be judged by their strategies for gaining power but by their intentions once they get power. In the most significant recent example, the "soft-Islamist" AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, in the latest Turkish electoral battle, posed as a party committed to secular and clean governance. Yet in its views on Muslim religious minorities like the 18 million Turkish Alevis (Sufi-Shia secularists), as well as other issues including the status of Christians in Turkey, AKP shows its true, fundamentalist character. It is a Sunni-centric movement with radical tendencies.
Similarly, many Westerners are thrilled to see the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood proclaim itself a movement that seeks power through elections rather than through armed struggle. Such Westerners want to give the MB the benefit of the doubt, but the MB continues to support Hamas in Israel and Sunni terrorism in Iraq, where U.S. and coalition troops, as well as Shia Muslims and spiritual Sufis, are brutally murdered daily.
Pipes has drawn a line against the radicals and refuses to cross it. He understands, as we understand, that until the extremists give up their ideology, their vision for a "democratic" imposition of an Islamic state remains dangerous. In some respects it is even more dangerous than the violent jihad of Al-Qaida, because it lulls Westerners into a state of incaution.
NED, in funding CSID, has shown that it cannot draw such a line. It wishes to convince itself and others that as long as those who excuse terrorism in Israel or Iraq are willing to accept voting rather than immediate killing in Egypt and Turkey, they are potential partners of the West in the transformation of the Muslim world in the direction of public accountability, popular sovereignty, and pluralism. Because Gershman and others like him cannot fathom the history and development of Islamic thought, they must depend on superficial criteria in choosing partners for U.S. policy in the Muslim world. Contracting out one's understanding of Islam to the Islamists, as NED has done by supporting CSID, is an improvised and insecure way to approach what may be the most significant and existential challenge of our time.
Now, however, comes an associate of Gershman, Joshua Muravchik, who assails Daniel Pipes in Contentions, a blog run by Commentary magazine. Therein, Muravchik writes, "Pipes's case against Gershman is that the NED supports the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and that Gershman himself spoke at its 2004 annual conference… I think his attack on Gershman is off-base… I don't buy Pipes's take on the CSID or his criticism of Gershman for involvement with it. I myself am a member of CSID and spoke at its 2006 conference. In addition to speaking, I attended the entire weekend. I found it an interesting mix. It included Islamists or Islamist-sympathizers who called themselves democrats… I don't expect genuine Muslim democrats to blackball Islamists who call themselves democrats. I expect them to argue with them."
Muravchik, like Gershman, overlooks many aspects of the ongoing transformation of the Islamic world, in which the confrontation with radicalism is the central contemporary issue. We may summarize the difference between their viewpoint and ours by noting that the RAND Corporation recently issued a report titled Building Moderate Muslim Networks, the basic sentiment of which we support.
What we might call the RAND-Pipes-CIP approach begins by identifying leading, tested, and long-established moderate tendencies and personalities that already serve as alternative advocates to Islamist ideology. Such elements are numerous in the Muslim global community or umma, but are seldom sought out or privileged to gain media access in the West. RAND includes, in its survey of established moderates, the indigenous European Muslim communities in the Balkans and, at the other end of the globe, mass movements in Southeast Asia. The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) movement in Indonesia, identified with former president Abdurrahman Wahid, has 40 million members, and, on the basis of Sufi spirituality as well as support for secular rule, has created an immense structure of schools, hospitals, and similar institutions to serve the daily needs of the Indonesian people.
Between the Balkans and southeast Asia and beyond, many such moderates exist: Sufis and traditional Muslims in French-speaking West Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia; the previously-mentioned Turkish Alevis; increasing numbers of critics of the unworkable and unpopular clerical regime in Iran; new exponents of Islamic thought in the post-Soviet Muslim republics striving for democracy; profoundly resilient Sufi and secular trends in Pakistan; the mass of Indian Muslims, who participate in that country's democracy, and many more.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamists are often praised in the West for the social and other services they provide, in the absence of proper policies by corrupt governments in Muslim countries. But the Indonesian NU and Sufi institutions throughout the umma have provided such benefits for centuries, without recourse to extremism. The Islamists imitate the authentic moderates in this area, so why not first establish dialogue with those whose record in religious works is clear?
We believe supporting the known moderate tendencies in Islam, rather than attempting to fit Islamist radicals into a moderate category by exaggerating the adaptation of the latter to democratic forms such as voting, represents the more sensible and strategically-focused approach for Westerners. But to enable the moderates in opposing Islamic radicals one must understand the corpus of moderate theological arguments and antecedents. Furthermore, to assist the moderates in defeating extremism the purview of Islam must be extended beyond the Arab world, which, along with Turkey, has been the focus of NED and CSID. Contrary to the doctrine inculcated in generations of "experts" by the Middle East Studies academic sector in the U.S., Islam is neither limited to nor led by the Arab oil sheikhs.
Because NED defines "modernity" simply as voting, it cannot penetrate the essential religious issues that serve as pretexts for Islamist radicalism. These involve yearning for a "purified" Islam, shorn of its past intellectual pluralism and spiritual traditions, and a repudiation of secular governance – an "Islamic Reformation" that has led in every prior case to violence, even when it does not begin with violence. This vision of an ideological state, supposedly religion-centered, is reflected in the notable and demagogic Muslim Brotherhood slogan, "Islam is the Solution." Such a state will be exclusionary and backward-looking, whether it is established by voting or shooting.
We believe that Western help in the triumph of moderate Islam requires escaping from certain rigid frameworks. Getting beyond the Beltway is the first step; adopting a sound perspective on the theological roots of Islamist ideology is a second; moving away from a fixation on the Arab states is a third; understanding what Islamists seek, rather than what they do with ballots and bullets, remains the summary issue.
We know the Islamists well. Some of us have participated in CSID events, but ceased to do so when it became apparent their goal was merely to camouflage radicals as moderates. We recognize the difference between challenge and argument directed to them, something we constantly pursue, and providing Congressional support and cachet to an institution like CSID that certifies them as moderates and democrats when their previous record has been radical and anti-democratic.
However one agrees or disagrees with Daniel Pipes, he knows who the real moderates are in Islam because he knows the history and theology of Islam. Others may be excited to hear that the Muslim Brotherhood has sworn off violence in Egypt, if not in Israel. We are not satisfied with such promises. We do not trust them. Nor is Daniel Pipes satisfied with such promises; nor does he trust them. All other matters aside, that alone counts.
We also note that Joshua Muravchik states that he does not "like the term 'moderate Islam.'" The Prophet Muhammad said, "I want my umma to be a community of moderation." That suffices for us. There is a reason the radicals want to be considered moderate, and it is not merely to gain Western acceptance; it also lies in the deep desire we believe exists in the worldwide Muslim majority, to follow an Islam that serves as a normal religion, providing for the spiritual needs of the umma, rather than extreme forms of political mobilization.
Islam is not a sound-bite topic. There is a large gap between the Western intellect and Islam. That is the problem that CSID claims to address, that NED says it is concerned with, and that impends on the future of humanity. But for Western intellectuals to help close this gap they must first learn about Islam and its existing moderate currents, and they can then propose effective means toward avoidance of the "clash of civilizations."
We will close with a comment recently received from a Bosnian Muslim, discussing the Wahhabi invaders who are fighting to take over Islam in the Balkan region: "I used to gaze into their faces, and believe me they are more than ready to kill us: ordinary Bosnian Hanafi Muslims. I clearly see it as I see this day. The only thing that prevents them from conducting that is the state, law enforcement and their small number which guarantees them complete disappearance if they commence such an adventure... They will kill us first. I have no doubt about that. We are their first and last targets; accepting Islam you transformed yourself into their target."
Daniel Pipes is not a Muslim. But like us, he has looked in the faces of the Islamist radicals and has seen the danger they represent for the world. He has also recognized the authentic moderates, and hopes to make them primary in the deliberations of Westerners. On this, we support him in his criticism of the NED and CSID.
Prof. Kemal Silay, President, Center for Islamic Pluralism