Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Evangelical-Islamist Encounters on the Frontlines of Change, Part I: Democracy Matures from Within

Chris Seiple


October 5, 2012

By Chris Seiple

This is the first in a series of articles examining the political challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa. 

In the past year, I have made four trips to the Middle East/North Africa (MENA): one to Morocco, one to Israel-Palestine and two to Tunisia, where I spent some time in dialogue with Islamists and Salafis. On the second trip to Tunisia, I witnessed an intense conversation with 19 Salafis from five MENA countries which took place during the attacks on our embassy in Cairo and the murder of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.

The MENA region is at its most pivotal moment since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, when the Europeans provided the region with its state boundaries. The region’s exercise in statehood, however, has been a total failure. Whether secular (Bathist in Syria/Iraq), sacred (Saudi Arabia) or socialist (Gamal Nasser in Egypt), each experiment with statehood has been one of humiliation. Arab authoritarianism has left the proud Arab people without opportunity—without jobs and without justice—as the rest of the world passes them by. 

America supported Arab authoritarianism in the name of stability and oil. Al Qaeda is an outgrowth of that authoritarianism, preaching that the Arab regimes were apostate, in part, because of their collusion with America. The war in Iraq—to some, an attempt to bring the sunlight of democracy that would prevent terrorist organizations from developing, to others, the worst kind of imperialism—only caused further humiliation as the Americans did what the Arabs could not do for themselves.

The “Arab Spring” has brought the promise of democracy in a much better way: from within. And the Arabs have to figure it out for themselves.

In the historical context of the nature of revolutions and counter-revolutions, the MENA transition from dictatorship toward democracy is still broadly heading in the right direction. Continued progress, however, is by no means assured. Now is not a time for self-fulfilling prophecies: “us” vs. “them,” or vice-versa. Now is a time to engage the world as it is.

It is an easy thing to stereotype a culture and/or a religion. Nevertheless, as we consider how best to point out the specks and logs in the MENA region’s eye, we should remember two questions, lest we forget what we look like after glancing in the mirror (James 1:23-7). 

Why did it take 101 years to get from the “Emancipation Proclamation” to the Civil Rights Act of 1964? And why did it take so long when white Americans and black Americans were, generally speaking, Protestant and largely of a similar, evangelical theology?

If it takes that long for people of the same faith to get along better as different people groups in a maturing democratic context, can we really expect all Arab Sunnis to immediately figure out how they are going to treat each other, within Islam, and other minority ethnic and religious groups?

This logic is not an excuse for non-democratic behavior. But it does remind us that it is simply not natural for the majority culture to include the minority.

Indeed, the natural thing is for man to form religion in his own image, taking the mystery and majesty out of faith in order to possess an ideological check that has all the answers. The result is a god that always agrees with man, a god much more likely to condone violence against those who do not meet the increasingly narrow standards of the checklist. Every faith group on the planet has had this “religious” experience.

We should therefore not shy away from naming Islam as part of the problem. There are some “Islamists” and “Salafis” who believe that their interpretation of Islam is the only way, and they will kill anyone who disagrees—especially Americans and even fellow Muslims who believe differently. While they are clearly a small minority, we cannot sugarcoat this issue: In a fallen world, we will sometimes have to kill the terrorists before they kill us.

Nor should we therefore shy away from naming Islam as part of the solution. I happened to be with six Libyan Salafis as news broke of the death of Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues. The Salafis condemned and apologized for the attack. A young Libyan Salafi told me that the Benghazi attack is “not our Libya and not our Islam.”

It is not yet clear what “their Islam” is and how it might prevent terrorism. I do believe, however, that if I choose not to define against them now, I might not have to defend against them later. I would rather risk being called politically and theologically naïve now, by engaging and building relationships with Islamists and Salafis, than ask “what if” later. Even more importantly, God commands me to love my neighbor and my enemy—whether that enemy is real, imagined, or potential.

In other words, engaging Islamists and Salafis is not only the right thing to do, it’s in our self-interest. If we can develop and then maintain a seat at the table with them, we can cooperate without compromise. Such influence begins with the basic understanding that they are better positioned than Christian Americans to condemn and constrain terrorism committed in the name of Islam.

—Chris Seiple is the President of the Institute for Global Engagement.

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