Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pragmatism and Moderation in Islam

Stephen A. Cook:

Given the wildly different criteria for what constitutes “a moderate,” policymakers will run in circles trying to determine who is a moderate and worthy of support, and who is not. One person’s moderate is another person’s radical, and another person’s moderate is little more than a patsy of the West. A policy built on support for moderate Islam is only asking for trouble.

A smarter position is to avoid theological discussions altogether. As with all faiths, there will be heated debates between competing groups within Islam over the proper interpretation of sacred texts and the relationship between religion and politics. Yet because these arguments are so opaque to outsiders, policymakers should resist the urge to jump in. Given that moderation is in the eye of the beholder, Washington should not have an ideological litmus test for whom it wishes to engage. Rather, policymakers should focus on identifying those who can contribute pragmatic solutions to the many problems we confront in the region, “moderate” or not.
Identifying moderates is thorny -- there I agree. I fail to see how identifying "those who can contribute pragmatic solutions" is any easier, and nothing in Cook's article actually sharpens the distinction.

It certainly doesn't help matters that moderates and non-moderates alike always think their programs are eminently pragmatic; the distinction, if it exists, will not come from asking all the moderates and non-moderates to raise their hands if they have pragmatic answers on offer.

I would say that "avoiding theological discussions altogether" is exactly the wrong approach to this, delicate though it may be to do so. One can get a very reliable sense of both moderation and pragmatism from the extent to which a given political figure chooses to ground his political program in the Koran, the hadith, and similar "sacred" sources: the moderate and pragmatic voices will show the greater willingness to see past primitive fables.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

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