The Koran-The Official American Version

July 30, 2009

Our concern with Islamic fundamentalism, although obviously justifiable, has resulted in some bad policies and practices. Fear has this effect. Think of the Patriot Act. 

Well, here’s another one: providing government-funded translations of “moderate” Islamic literature to population groups, such as Uzbeks, who may not be able to read the Arabic originals. Apparently, this project is being pushed by some at the U.S. Agency for International Development .  

The rationale for this proposed project is that the absence of access to so-called “moderate” Islamic writings results in fundamentalist groups being able to persuade the believers that their version of Islam is the only version of Islam.  Their selective use of Islamic texts can go unchallenged as there are no competing texts available, for example, texts that would emphasize that suicide is a grave sin.  

There are at least two problems with the proposal.  One is that such a government-funded program is prohibited by the Establishment Clause.  The government should not be in the business of deciding which religious views should be promoted.  This prohibition holds even when the government is promoting a religious view not because it endorses its tenets but for some ulterior motive. 

The Establishment Clause is the obvious objection, but there is a deeper objection as well.  If we are ever to make significant progress in fostering democracy in Islamic countries, we need to get people in these countries to begin using nonreligious reasons for justifying personal actions and public policy.  Even if in the short term we persuade some to moderate their conduct through reference to religious writings, in the long run reinforcing the role of religion will leave these same populations vulnerable to whatever new brand of Islam comes along. Faith-based reasoning (if it can be called that) is the real problem.  We need to break the mindset that sees religion as providing the answers to all our problems.  

I understand the desire to combat Islamic fundamentalism, and perhaps, prevent terrorist acts, but except in true emergency situations (e.g., a credible threat of an imminent nuclear detonation), we should not sacrifice our principles and sound policy for a quick fix.  

A personal footnote: readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been silent for most of July.  I have been on medical leave, and am still in the process of recovering, but I hope to contribute a few posts to Free Thinking before my return to work in a couple of weeks. 


#1 ckoproske on Thursday July 30, 2009 at 7:50pm

Get well soon Ron!

As for sticking to our principles, this is a debate I’ve had incessantly with students of Middle Eastern politics and the IR community.  I make arguments similar to yours, but they contend that at the end of the day, these principles do absolutely nothing to liberalize or affect Islamic states. 

Reza Aslan and Noah Feldman would be the prime American proponents of the more conciliatory view - that reform has to be sold through Shariah.

I think it’s a difficult balancing act.  Do you really think that if the US gov espoused the CFI ideological mantra of reason, science, and secularism as non-negotiable principles in foreign policy, we’d have positive results in the Islamic world?

#2 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday July 31, 2009 at 4:26am

Colin, thanks for your good wishes. Hope to be fully recovered and back to work soon.
In response to your question, no, I do not think an explicitly secular approach is the best way to proceed in the Islamic world, or elsewhere for that matter. But one can act consistent with secular principles without trumpeting it. And actions, as opposed to words, are often the best means of persuasion. If we can show the Islamic world that it is possible to resolve differences without resort to violence or suppression and to have economic prosperity without reliance on “guidance” from the Koran, this will ultimately go further than debates over the meaning of religious texts. Those who are clamoring for democracy and fundamental freedoms in Iran and elsewhere are not doing so because they have discovered another interpretation of the Koran or other Islamic writinngs but, at least in part, because they are aware of how people in the West are living. Take the money that might go to fund translations of “moderate” Islamic writings and use it to support better radio broadcasts and other means of communication that will allow Islamic populations to have a better understanding of what life is like in the West.
At the end of the day, there is no approach that is going to transform the Islamic world overnight. But I do firmly believe that arguing that “this scripture is better than that scripture” is not the way to go.

#3 gray1 on Tuesday August 04, 2009 at 12:26pm

I suspect the cultural equalivent of “White man speak with forked tongue” might develop for the above described case.  Am I to believe that educated and wealthy moslems do not subscribe to spreading truth to their less fortunate brothers?  Shame shame. So much for “duty”.

#4 asanta on Tuesday August 04, 2009 at 11:45pm

Get better soon, Ron. Don’t overexert yourself.

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