Marc Lynch

Indonesia and the Obama approach to what used to be called the “war of ideas”

Indonesia and the Obama approach to what used to be called the “war of ideas”

 Andrew Higgins has a very good piece in the Washington Post today about the fortunes of Islamic moderates in Indonesia.  It demonstrates how overt American attempts to promote "moderate Muslims" or "liberal Islam" routinely backfire — and offers more evidence in support of the Obama administration’s hands-off, disaggregated approach to what used to be called the "war of ideas". I’ve seen this again and again in the Arab world, and its fascinating to see how it is playing out in Indonesia (a case I follow much less closely).  His account offers considerable support to the argument I’ve often made that less is more when it comes to America’s role in intra-Islamic battles. And his story shows the value of moving away from sharp binary oppositions defined by "violent extremism" towards a more nuanced and disaggregated approach defined by, as they say,  mutual interests and mutual respect.

Higgins writes that there are many reasons why Indonesia favorable views of the U.S. have gone from 15% in 2003 to 63% today, that al-Qaeda’s terrorism is generally viewed with revulsion, and that moderate Islam is a normal part of the political system.  One important reason,

 said Masdar Mas’udi, a senior cleric at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s — and the world’s — largest Islamic organization, is that the United States has backed away from overt intrusions into religious matters. A foe of hard-line Muslims who has worked closely with Americans, Mas’udi said he now believes that U.S. intervention in theological quarrels often provides radicals with "a sparring partner" that strengthens them. These days, instead of tinkering with religious doctrine, a pet project focuses on providing organic rice seeds to poor Muslim farmers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington deployed money and rhetoric in a big push to bolster "moderate" Muslims against what Bush called the "real and profound ideology" of "Islamo-fascism." Obama, promising a "new beginning between America and Muslims around the world," has avoided dividing Muslims into competing theological camps. He has denounced "violent extremists" but, in a June speech in Cairo, stated that "Islam is not part of the problem."


The aggressive approach favored until the last year or so of the Bush administration of trying to use American resources to build up "moderate" alternatives to an undifferentiated Islamist menace often strengthened the hand of the radicals while undercutting the centrists who might otherwise have gained traction. Identifying "moderate Muslims" by the U.S. consistently tarnished their credibility with the audiences which they most needed to reach.  Funding them made American "idea warriors" feel all robust, but generally had little positive effect and often made things worse.  This needs to be taken into account when people start complaining about the administration’s slashing of financial support for certain kinds of organizations and projects which were defined by the old "war of ideas" paradigm. 

The Obama administration understands this dynamic extremely well. As the Cairo speech showed, he has designed America’s outreach to the Muslim world around deflating the extremists through indirect action and a reorientation towards common interests.  Instead of building up al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements with an exaggerated focus on "violent extremism", he isolates and marginalizes them by switching the conversation to other things about which ordinary Muslims and Arabs care far more.  

While there hasn’t been as much public follow-up to the Cairo speech yet as many of us had hoped, the internal work that they’ve been doing is beginning to pay dividends.  The new $150 million Arab technology fund announced the other day (to little American notice) is only one of a whole range of programs which will likely be rolled out in the coming months.  This approach has already dramatically and impressively undermined the appeal and relevance of al-Qaeda in the Arab world– an important achievement all the more noteworthy for the administration’s not making a big deal of it.