American Foreign Policy and Islamic Renewal

The United States still lacks an integrated and sustainable strategy to confront religious extremism in the Muslim world. Policymakers have failed to recognize that the challenge is not only a conflict with the West but also involves ideological shifts within the Muslim world. These shifts have precipitated a major battle for the future of Islam as a faith and a civilization.

  • The single most important initiative the United States can take to combat Islamist extremism is to support “Islamic renewal,” a diffuse but growing social, political, and intellectual movement whose goal is profound reform of Muslim societies and polities. The United States must engage moderate Islam because core aspects of the religion have an enormous moderating and modernizing potential that policymakers have overlooked.
  • Previous efforts to address the challenges of the Muslim world have often contradicted one another and worked at cross-purposes. There is a visible misunderstanding of the region’s political culture, particularly regarding the questions of terrorism, extremism, and political reform. Security cooperation with authoritarian regimes to deal with the terrorist threat has reinforced negative attitudes about the United States and its policies.
  • Democracy promotion efforts are likely to empower fundamentalists in many Muslim states. Although desirable in principle, free elections may not be the best mechanisms to negotiate substantive political issues, and deep suspicion toward formal authority structures persists in Muslim societies.
  • Islamic renewal seeks to reclaim the religion’s heritage from extremist, traditionalist, and fundamentalist groups. Today’s reformers have a long history and cultural tradition to draw upon. From the early period of Islam, when the Prophet Muhammad saw himself as a religious reformer, to the adoption of modern public and international law, Islam has shown great potential to adapt and modernize. Today the movement is on the ground and has the capacity to make coherent a scattered cluster of reformist ideas on social and political issues.
  • American policy could tip the balance between extremist and modernist interpretations of Islam and seize a great opportunity for constructive engagement. The U.S. strategy should be to support the renewal movement, which could reform Islam and mobilize Muslim constituencies against religious extremism.
  • Policy priorities should be to promote Muslim modernist works and ideas, engage the rising moderate Islamist parties on normative grounds, and put more emphasis on substantive social, educational, and religious reforms. As fault lines become apparent, U.S. agencies already are taking sides by supporting moderate Islamic leaders over others.


Nearly five years after 9/11, the United States still lacks an integrated and sustainable strategy to confront religious extremism in the Muslim world. The challenges in Iraq and uncertainties in Afghanistan are raising doubts about the current thrust of the “global war on terrorism.” The prospect of electoral victories by hard-line Islamists is dimming the hope that promoting democracy will produce moderate regimes and good relations with the United States. And attempts to win “hearts and minds” through public diplomacy have not yielded significant results. A June 2006 Pew Global Attitudes survey shows that unfavorable opinions of the United States are still widespread in five traditionally moderate Muslim countries (Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey).

Missing from U.S. policies is the recognition that the challenge comes not only from conflict with western modernity but also ideological conflicts inside the Muslim world. A simmering, historically rooted battle within Islam pits modernists against radical Islamists. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, conservative Sunni regimes unleashed their own brand of puritanical Islam to counter the growing ideological influence and political dynamism of the Shi’ite revolution. Saudi financial largesse and Wahabism, a doctrine that advocates a literal, legalistic, and purist interpretation of the Qur’an, have influenced the Sunni response to the Shi’ite challenge.

Sunni extremists have gained ground during the past three decades as a result of the poor social and economic performance and repressive nature of Muslim political regimes. The three Arab Human Development Reports published by the United Nations between 2002 and 2004 show the Arab part of the Muslim world lagging behind other regions in social opportunity, knowledge, and good governance.1 Fragmentation of religious authority in Sunni Islam and official religious scholars’ reluctance or failure to reinterpret Islamic laws also are serious problems. With no institutionalized authority comparable to the Catholic papacy and the Shi’ite velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist), an independent legal scholar, a respected preacher, or even a fanatic can issue a fatwa (a religious edict or opinion). Although the vast majority of fatwas issued on any given day are about mundane matters and have nothing to do with politics or violence, they undermine the authority of official religious institutions, which in turn use the prevailing “anarchy of fatwas” to monopolize and limit the scope of ijtihad, or reasoned interpretation.

Standard economic and political reform policies, often touted as the solution to the Muslim world’s problems, are necessary but no longer sufficient to address a crisis of this magnitude. Perhaps a freer political environment and social and economic incentives could have reinforced ideological moderation if they had been implemented decades ago.

Today, however, the major battle is over the soul of Islam and will require substantive, normative, and institutional reforms. The outcome of this religious and ideological contest will be determined by the balance of power and influence between radical Islamists, bent on imposing a puritanical form of Islam through intimidation and violence, and moderate Muslims who aim to renew Islam from within.

The single most important step the United States can take to combat Islamist extremism is to support “Islamic renewal,” a recent, diffuse but growing social, political, and intellectual movement that aims to cultivate modern norms and address modern needs by drawing on Islamic traditions. Its objective is profound reform of Muslim societies and polities. Although they do not comprise an ideologically homogenous and uniformly committed movement, various actors with similar agendas and significant social backing are involved. The movement may include women’s groups such as the Sisters in Islam networks in Indonesia and Malaysia, AISHA Arab Women Forum, Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, or the anonymous group of progressive Muslim women that published “Claiming our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies.” It includes moderate Islamist parties, such as Egypt and Jordan’s wasat parties, which call for “self-reform,” and Turkey’s and Morocco’s Justice and Development parties, which define themselves as modern political actors taking progressive Islamic positions. And it includes hundreds of active democracy networks (such as the Philippine Council for Islam Democracy, the U.S.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, or the International Center for Islam and Pluralism in Indonesia), and lively Web sites that foster international communication and transmission of progressive Islamic ideas (Liberal Islam Network, Liberal,,

In general, the Islamic renewal movement comprises four broad groups. Proponents of “civic Islam” include civil society organizations that advocate women’s equality, human rights, social responsibility, environmental protection, and similar social issues but make no overt claim to political power. Referring to the progressive teachings of Islam, they call on regimes to enact reforms and respect basic rights. Proponents of “Islam and democracy” include parties and movements that see no incompatibility between Islamic values and teachings and modern democratic principles. This group advocates participation in the political process with the goal of achieving power and applying political reforms on the basis of Islamic principles. Proponents of “reforms within Islam” include leading religious figures, scholars, and academic institutions that call for reinterpretation of Islamic laws, a historical reading of Islam and the Qur’an, and the modernization of Islamic knowledge. “Culturally modern Islam” developed mainly among Muslim communities living in the West. These diaspora groups and organizations, which try to articulate a “western Islamic identity,” see no tension between being a Muslim and a citizen of a western democracy. Tying these diverse actors together is their commitment to modernize Islamic institutions, traditions, and practices.

In some instances the Islamic renewal movement also includes governments. In Malaysia, for example, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi uses his country’s broad and entrenched tradition of democratic Islam as a model to call for religious moderation throughout the Muslim world. In Morocco, the monarchy applied progressive interpretations of specific clauses in Islamic law to reform the family code and grant women equal civil rights in 2004. In a parallel effort, the government opened one of Morocco’s most prestigious seminaries to women, and some fifty women imams and preachers (murshidat) graduated in 2006; sixty more enrolled that year. This is a first in Islamic history and a major breakthrough for a conservative society in which women have been excluded from the public sphere. Thanks to the education ministry’s revision of school curricula and textbooks, Moroccan children learn about religious freedom and tolerance, universal principles of human rights, minority rights, and gender equality. The revisions draw on both international agreements and Islamic principles. To carry out these reforms, the monarchy carefully chose the language to explain the changes and involved civil society, religious scholars, political parties, the government, and the parliament.

The United States is well positioned to support this movement and engage “moderate” Islam. Contrary to common perceptions in the West, the word “moderate” accurately describes the vast majority of Muslims, who reject violence, yearn for justice and accountable governance, and value Muslim traditions of family, knowledge, and prosperity. An oft-cited saying of the Prophet Muhammad honors any Muslim who bequeaths “good offspring, useful knowledge, or honestly earned wealth.” Emphasizing these aspects of Islam will discredit the extremists’ message of hate, despair, and destruction. Moreover, these aspects of Islam have an enormous potential for religious moderation that the United States is better placed to understand and appreciate than secular Europe, communist China, nationalist Russia, or the region’s repressive governments. Among all liberal democracies, the United States shows the broadest social and political support for religious compassion, religious figures and institutions, religiously based charities, and even virtuous politics. Yet many U.S. policymakers and strategists have overlooked Islam’s ethical appeal.2

The United States can support reforms in the Muslim world by refocusing its existing U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs, its democratization projects, and its public diplomacy initiatives to pay more attention to ongoing ideological conflicts. These reforms are more likely than forced regime change, democratic elections, or skilled marketing of U.S. foreign policies to build open and peaceful Muslim societies and good U.S.-Muslim relations.

This report discusses the inadequacy of current policies toward the Muslim world in light of its internal ideological conflict. We then develop the idea of “Islamic renewal.” The third section outlines specific recommendations for the U.S. government and other international actors.

A definitional note: “Islamist” political parties and movements seek to legitimate or overturn a political order on the basis of their interpretation of Islamic principles. “Extremist” groups eschew nonviolence in the name of the principles of the pious ancestors (al-salaf al-salih) and literal interpretation of the Qur’an. “Moderate” parties and movements accept and apply human reason to Islamic principles, law, or precedents. They see no incompatibility between participation in the modern political process and Islamic values. Within these camps, theological variations and differing degrees of “extremism” and “moderation” are the products of local power relations.


  1. The United States should support the establishment of a “Muslim World Foundation” to foster the development of peaceful, prosperous, and open Muslim societies and polities. Modeled after the Asia Foundation and funded by an act of Congress, such a body would focus on the major crosscutting challenges, including religious reforms, facing Muslim societies. But a Muslim World Foundation need not be an exclusively U.S. body. The United States could adopt a centuries-old Islamic endowment tradition called wakf, used by leaders, states, and wealthy individuals to provide for charities, schools, and universities. The Muslim World Foundation would draw on local and international experts, donors, and partners. And it would collaborate with government and nongovernmental associates across the Muslim world to pursue its agenda. As a nonprofit and independent organization, the Muslim World Foundation would retain its intellectual credibility and ability to act as a convener and peacemaker, regardless of international tensions or U.S. policies.
  2. The United States should provide special grants to American universities to promote Muslim modernist works and ideas and translate them into concrete policies. Muslim modernist thinkers are scattered throughout the world, and when they meet—on rare occasions—their debates and conference proceedings are not translated into practical reform policies. It is essential to establish regional forums where Muslim modernist thinkers meet regularly to sort out political, philosophical, and ideological differences and identify common denominators and goals. It is not sufficient to mobilize modernists to express themselves. It is also important to identify specific reform policies to be addressed to people and governments in the Muslim world, as well as to the international community—including western powers, the United Nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the International Court of Justice, and the World Bank.
    The Arab Human Development Reports provide a very useful model. A similar series, exposing in stark terms the decay of Islamic cultures and civilizations and written by respected, diverse, and sympathetic Muslim scholars, would get the Muslim world’s attention.
  3. The United States should engage Islamist parties on normative grounds. Throughout the region, Islamist parties have emerged as major actors and likely winners when allowed to compete without constraint. Some of these parties run on conservative agendas and promise to apply strict Sharia; others are more liberal and advocate a modern social agenda. Yet most are pragmatic and willing to compromise on how much of Islamic law should be applied. This raises the issue of how to integrate Islamists into the democratic process without compromising the spirit of democracy or the rules and procedures that sustain it.
    In other words, the rationale of organizing free elections to promote democracy is questionable if the likely winners might subvert democratic norms and procedures. Yet too many procedural constraints and prenegotiated arrangements could delegitimize the democratic process. When incentives are offered to moderate Islamists, the conservative rank-and-file and constituencies may rebel. Hence, institutional constraints to limit the power of Islamists, or incentives that look like cooptation measures, may actually backfire.
    Instead of coercion and cooptation, “normative engagement” is a more constructive strategy. That is, debate with Islamists must take place about substantive issues such as civil liberties, freedom of worship, individual autonomy, women’s rights, the rights of minorities, political pluralism, limitations on the powers of the state, and similar issues. For example: How would verbal commitment to the full range of civil and political rights play out in the real world? If Islamist leaders qualify the relevance of “divine sovereignty” and emphasize the role of elected rulers, that does not guarantee they will respect modern democratic rights. Anti-democratic norms and restrictions can be imposed in the name of a conservative majority that believes ultimate sovereignty rests with God. Islamist leaders are not clear about whom they represent. Some Islamic principles may well be compatible with modern democratic norms, but the challenge is how Muslims choose to apply them. The possibility exists that different, even contradictory, interpretations of Islamic principles can arise and, in the absence of institutionalized religious authority accepted by all, lead to the subversion of democratic norms.
  4. The United States should put more emphasis on substantive social, educational, and religious reforms. National elections are essential to democratic legislative and executive authority. But if abstracted from substantive issues, the exercise will result in a superficial formal process manipulated by semi-authoritarian rulers and radical Islamists. Concern with normative, substantive issues does not preclude other crucial institutional reforms. The development of a robust civil society, an independent judiciary, a transparent government, a depoliticized military, and accountable security forces is just as important for creating hospitable conditions for democratic representation. Moreover, combining limited elections with serious institutional reforms to enhance the state’s performance and accountability can easily be justified according to Islamic discursive conventions. Equally important, however, is the need for the U.S. government to encourage religious reforms to modernize Islamic principles, teachings, institutions, practices, and jurisprudence. The cornerstone of these reforms is the effort to expand the conceptual boundaries and foundations of Sharia beyond the Qur’an and Sunna, or what Muslims consider the fundamental basis of Islam. In other words, it is important to establish publicly that ijtihad has been a major source in the formulation of Islamic law. This point is important in justifying modern advances in women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and the accommodation of cultural and religious differences on Islamic grounds.
  5. The United States should refocus and coordinate public diplomacy, democracy promotion, and aid programs to reinforce Islamic religious reforms and renewal. Public diplomacy should link American values and Islam’s humanist traditions. Muslims are proud of a golden-age heritage they associate with openness, tolerance, and scientific achievements. Islamic traditions are entirely compatible with American values such as tolerance and entrepreneurship. Emphasizing these aspects of Islam and similar American values will help discredit Islamic extremists.
    Democracy initiatives should include religious reform. If permissible, organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy should expand their programs beyond elections, political parties, and parliaments. Nothing in their mandate would prevent them from supporting the modern training of religious scholars, judges, and imams; providing special scholarships to women studying religious topics; and reprinting and disseminating writings by modernist Muslim scholars. The United States should support local groups at the forefront of these reforms.
  6. The United States should consider supporting religious charities. Because many Muslim governments’ social safety nets are weak or nonexistent, religious organizations provide many services to the needy, including clinics, child care, and disaster relief. Concerns that these networks are linked to terrorism are often misplaced. Extremists with a global jihadist agenda do not open local “soup kitchens” to build electoral support. They pursue different strategies. USAID should work with Islamic social networks and give impetus to moderate Islam by funding small charities and training programs for youth and women.


1. Arab Human Development Report 2002, Creating Opportunities for Future Generations; 2003, Building a Knowledge Society; 2004, Freedom and Good Governance (New York: United Nations Development Program).

2. Roxanne Euben, The Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Western Rationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

About the Report

This report is part of the Muslim World Initiative’s “Islamic Renewal Project: Translating Islamic Reformist Ideas into Concrete Policies” of the United States Institute of Peace. The project’s main objective is to “mobilize the moderates” in the Muslim world by broadening societal support for modernist Islam around a coherent vision and translating that vision into enduring pacts, viable institutions, and concrete policies. It includes the collection of a database on Islamic modernist networks across the globe and the organization of a series of regional workshops held in predominantly Muslim countries and countries where Muslims constitute significant minorities.

The major argument of this report is that the problem of “religious extremism” in the Muslim world is an ideological challenge best confronted by drawing on Islam’s humanist and progressive traditions. The author would like to thank Daniel Brumberg, Michael Kofman, David Smock, Paul Stares, and Mona Yacoubian for comments on earlier drafts of this report. Any shortcomings are the author’s sole responsibility.

Dr. Abdeslam Maghraoui joined the Institute as director of the Muslim World Initiative in 2004. His research and published works focus on religion, politics, and reform in Muslim societies and the connections between terrorism, political violence, and vacuums of authority. He holds a Ph.D. in comparative politics from Princeton University’s Department of Politics.

Of Related Interest

A number of other publications from the United States Institute of Peace examine issues related to Islam.

Abdeslam E.M. Maghraoui
Director, Muslim World Initiative

Phone: (202) 429-3849

E-mail: [email protected]

Abdeslam Maghraoui joined USIP as the director for the Muslim World Initiative, part of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, in 2004. His research focuses on political power, authority, and legitimacy in contemporary Muslim societies.

Prior to joining the Institute, Maghraoui was visiting lecturer and resident scholar at Princeton University’s Department of Politics and the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.

Previously, he was director of Al-Madina, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accountable governance in the Arab world. As director of Al-Madina, Maghraoui developed research and managed programs on building the capacity of civil society associations in North Africa.

He holds a Ph.D. in comparative politics from Princeton University.



  • American Foreign Policy and Islamic Renewal
    Special Report, June 2006
  • What Do Islamists Really Want?
    USIPeace Briefing, May 2006
  • Liberalism without Democracy: Lessons from Egypt’s Experiment, 1922-1936 (2006).
  • “Negotiating Political Identity: Clues from Psychoanalytic Theory,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies (Vol. 14, No. 1 &2, 2004).
  • “Ambiguities of Sovereignty: Morocco, The Hague, and the Western Sahara Dispute,” Mediterranean Politics (Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2003).
  • “Depoliticization in Morocco,” Journal of Democracy (Volume 13, Number 4, October, 2002).


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