The US State and the Making of a Secular Islam

This piece is part two of a three part policy report on the secularization of the Muslim mind. You can read part one here and part three here

Fear and the “Bad Muslim”: Identity and Radical Islam

Islamic fundamentalists… [are determined] to restore the superiority of the Islamic civilization by resuscitating the past. They seek to impose the Sharia, a code of law based on the Koran that recognizes no separation of church and state. Though they look to the past as a guide for the future, they are not conservatives but revolutionaries. Before they build the new, they intend to destroy the old– Richard Nixon, former President of the United States 1

Far before Al-Qaeda had declared its war against America, policy makers and government officials in Washington began to warn of a new threat to the secular liberal order, one more pervasive than the defeated USSR. The identification of a new enemy following the end of the Soviet Union was necessary if the United States sought to continue its political and ideological hegemony. That enemy was Islam. Dan Quayle, the Vice President between 1989 and 1993, warned that Islam was an ideological threat to Western civilization, no different from Nazism and Communism.² Because politics is an integral component of Islam, it is immune to secularization and does not conform to the traditional Western conception of religion. Bernard Lewis, a British American historian dubbed as the West’s leading interpreter of the Middle East, stated:

Islam was … associated with the exercise of power from the very beginning … This association between religion and power, between community and polity, can … be seen in … the religious texts in which Muslims base their beliefs. One consequence is that in Islam religion is not, as it is in Christendom, one sector or segment of life regulating some matters and excluding others; it is concerned with the whole of life, not a limited but a total jurisdiction.3

In contrast to Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations approach, Lewis called for a more nuanced engagement with the Muslim world. American policy towards Muslims, he argued, should begin with the recognition that ‘political Islam’ was not the only driving force in the Muslim world and that “there are others” who do not subscribe to the political commitments of Islam. The battle was therefore, not just a battle between Western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism, but also a war within Islam, a war between good Muslims and bad Muslims. Both Huntington’s and Lewis’s narratives converged on the fact that Islam was a threat to Western civilization and immune to secularization. They differed, however, on how to confront this threat. Lewis’s good versus bad Muslim thesis provided the Bush administration and post-9/11 government projects with a strategy for engagement with the Muslim world.

September 11th prompted an arbitrary domestic war against so-called homegrown Muslim extremists. A culture of fear was perpetuated to legitimize the aggressive targeting of Muslims across the United States and abroad. The product of fear depended on the production of an ‘enemy’ that could not be reduced to a particular individual, organization, or movement but rather: radical ideas. Following the killing of Bin Laden, polls showed that Americans “were more anxious about Muslim Americans being terrorists than they had before.” 4

Under the Obama administration, the United States even engaged in the extrajudicial killing of its own citizens, including the sixteen-year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdurrahman. The law, reserved for the civilized, was not extended to citizens held in indefinite military detentions, without trial, in Guantanamo Bay. Quintan Wiktorowicz, the mastermind behind the Obama administration’s counter-radicalization policies, worked closely with the British government and appropriated a series of draconian measures, including the embedding of informants, surveillance, engagement, and propaganda aimed at the Muslim community in America.

There has been a proliferation of international and multilateral initiatives led by the United States including the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Hedayah Center in Abu Dhabi established in 2011. An example of such initiatives is the annual state-sponsored conference by the UAE called the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. This forum was established in 2014 to counter the impact of the Arab Revolutions. President Obama had praised this forum and Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah for leading the charge against extremism. By enlisting Muslim scholars from the West and the Muslim world, such forums have been able to push a narrative that criminalizes any dissent, demonizes political Islam, and advances a political agenda spearheaded by the United States.

In 2015, the bipartisan Countering Violent Extremism act (CVE) led to the establishment of the CVE office at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism was renamed the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. Contrary to official claims that these policies target groups or organizations with violent intentions, they target all Muslims, regardless of any affiliation.

Spearheading these measures, the FBI produced a model for confronting what they ambiguously dubbed “jihadist” ideology. Between 2012 and 2015 alone, the FBI and local law enforcement convened more than 2,500 engagement events that aimed to “foster trust, improve awareness, and educate communities about violent risk factors in order to stop radicalization to violence before it starts.”5 How was radicalization defined? According to this model, young Muslims progressed through four stages: pre-radicalization, identification, indoctrination, and action. The second step included indicators such as growing a beard and wearing traditional Islamic clothing and “increased activity in a pro-Muslim social group.”6 Radicalization, according to these models was an intellectual process. These four stages were linked to three other components of radicalization: grievance, ideology/narrative, and mobilization. Pre-radicalization begins with grievance, a “perceived persecution of Muslims throughout the world; a sense of uprootedness, alienation, or lack of acceptance; feelings of discrimination, especially among second or third generation immigrants; or a general search for identity.”7 This was followed by identification and indoctrination through ideology; namely, the process through which a Muslim adopts a “defined direction,” in accordance with an ideology that identifies with “the ummah (community) or ummat al-mu’minin (the community of the believers). Defending against “them”—the non-believers conducting an alleged war against Islam—secures a strong bond among the followers while alienating them from Western citizens. In addition to identifying to a global Muslim community, this “radical” ideology is committed to the idea of “God’s undisputed and sole sovereignty (hakimiyyat Allah), and views the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad as the only acceptable sources to define right and wrong.”8 Violent action results from mobilization, acting upon this ideology, in countering the aggressions of the West.

In the name of national security, secularization took one more aggressive trajectory in which propensity to violence and terrorism was equated with Muslims’ adherence to an “alien ideology” –a worldview that does not conform to the precepts of the secular order. Discontentment with an increasingly oppressive status-quo, identification with a global Muslim community, and a commitment to God’s sovereignty became indicators of a “bad Muslim” – a violent Muslim, the enemy.

A report published by the National Security Research Division of the RAND Corporation proclaims,

it is no easy matter to transform a major world religion [Islam]…’religion-building’ is immeasurably more perilous and complex. Islam is neither a homogeneous entity nor a simple system.

The report warns that the threat to U.S. hegemony and strategic interests are not only “fundamentalist groups” (who seek to gain political power and “impose” Islam, using the Muslim Ummah as a unit of reference, not the nation-state or an ethnic group), but also those “traditionalists,” who in believing that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, are committed to “preserve orthodox norms and values and conservative behaviors.” The strategy proposed to solve the problem of Islamic radicalism is for the United States and the West to “consider very carefully which elements, trends, and forces within Islam they intend to strengthen,” so as to develop a Western Islam, an American Islam. 9 In his paper entitled Establishing Official Islam? The Law and Strategy of Counter-Radicalization, law professor Samuel Rascoff explains:

For the government to formulate (or to pick out from among rival options) and endorse a preferred conception of Islam – in effect to play the role of theologian and missionary – raises potentially serious concerns rooted in the Establishment Clause and the values it enshrines. That the government has proved capable of shaping religious beliefs and practices in the past, sometimes with a distinctly heavy hand, hardly supplies a compelling legal foundation for the present preoccupation with Official Islam.10

It is abundantly clear that the State, far from being neutral in relation to Islam, is actively engaged in determining what the Deen of Islam should look like and what defines a bad Muslim.

Making the “Good Muslim”: A Secular Islam

The desire to transform Islam in its own image is not an innocent and docile process. It has been a pivotal aspect of the American strategy for domination, not just over the Muslim body and lands, but also the Muslim heart and mind. It is crucial that the Muslim community understands the implications of this strategy. The War on Terror is not merely an imperial military venture, but also one that is committed to the promotion of a secular theology, the ideological wing of the global War on Terror. In extending this arbitrary authority onto Islam, the West seeks to reform Islam in accordance with the Protestant reformation: to reduce Islam to individualistic ethics, devoid of political substance, and consequently subservient to the higher-order of the Secular State. The countering violent extremism indicators on radicalization (grievances, ideological identification, and mobilization) are in reality indicators of the non-secular Muslim, where political awareness become grievances, empowerment through identification with Islam as an alternative mode of living become negative ideological identification, and collective grassroots politics become mobilization for violence.

A good Muslim cannot express grievances and discontent towards the ongoing American aggressions against the Muslim world. A good Muslim cannot identify with Islam as an ideological alternative with a political system and must reduce Islam to one of many competing cultures and ethnicities. A good Muslim cannot mobilize as part of a global Ummah, but must be confined to an individualistic, nominal Islam, devoid of any emancipatory potential and stripped of its communal commitments. A good Muslim must abandon Islamic values for secular liberal values and pacify his Islamic identity.

According to the RAND report, those most favorable to an American Islam are those youth, women, and Muslim moderates through which the United States can then reach out to difficult regions in the world such as the Middle East.11 In using Muslim women as symbols of the emergent American Islam, the State Department has actively promoted Muslim American women as representatives of religious freedoms in America.

The search of a Moderate / Secular Muslim became more prominent after 9/11 with various government and non-government entities debating the characteristics of the Moderate / Secular Muslim. In a report entitled, ‘Hearts, Minds, and Dollars: In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism,’ government initiatives are brought into the limelight including the Muslim World Outreach which had at its disposal $1.3 billion and aimed at “transforming Islam from within.”¹²

What, then, constitutes the good Muslim, i.e. the Secular Muslim? A good Muslim is a Muslim who recognizes that Islam is but one of many competing and historical sets of individual beliefs. Subsumed under the tutelage of the Secular State and ideology, Islam cannot serve as a divine reference-point but only a set of practices and symbols bearing no significance beyond that of the individual’s private life, within the standards of liberal values and devoid of any Islamic polity.

Works Cited:

  1. Nixon, Richard. Seize the Moment: America’s Challenge in a One-Superpower World. (1992)
  2. Yazdani, Enayatollah. “US Policy Towards the Islamic World.” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, vol. 7, no. 2-3, 2008, pp. 1–10.,
  3. Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the West. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. (1994)
  6. FBI Counterterrorism Division, “The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad,” May 10, 2006, 10.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Bernard, C., Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. (2003)
  10. Rascoff, Samuel J. “Establishing official Islam? The law and strategy of counter-radicalization.” Stanford Law Review (2012): 125-189.
  11. Bernard, C., Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. (2003)
  12. Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (2006): 323-347

About the Authors:

Ali Harfouch is a guest contributor. He is a Beirut-based lecturer and has a Masters in Political Science. His interests are Islamic politics, metaphysics, and epistemology. You can follow him on Twitter here

Dr. Abdur-Rafay is a guest contributor. He is a physician by profession and his interests are Islamic politics and activism. You can follow him on Facebook here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

3 thoughts on “The US State and the Making of a Secular Islam

  1. Very interesting and thoughtful article, looking forward to the 3rd. I hope you will support the attempts of Europeans to express our dismay at the liberal world, just as we attempt to shrug off the pro-war sentiment that has plagued the Right; we support a more complex view of Islam.

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