THE BLOG
01/29/2016 01:20 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Can the U.S. Speak Islamic?

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Obama Administration just announced that it will, one more time, reorganize its failing campaign to counter ISIS's message. The large number of agencies involved will be better coordinated; message-making will be localized; and new leadership--the fourth in recent memory--will be installed.

None of this will do any good because the problem is not that the messenger is disorganized, but that he carries the wrong message. Moreover, the reasons for adhering to the wrong message run far and deep and are not easily overcome.

The basic overarching message the US is sending to the Muslim world comes in two extreme messages. On the one hand, the US claims that Islam is a religion of love and peace and that the terrorists who used it to justify their barbaric acts have usurped it. This is what President George W. Bush stated the day after 9/11. This thesis was echoed after the Paris attacks by Secretary of State John Kerry who holds that "the biggest error we could make would be to blame Muslims for crimes...that their faith utterly rejects".

On the other hand, the leading Republication presidential candidate equates Muslims with terrorists. The National Review's Rich Lowry accused the White House of promoting "a haze of euphemism and cowardice" for avoiding terms like radical Islam.

This is a false debate. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, does contain texts that justify violence such as the Quran's exhortation to "Slay the idolaters where so ever you find them," (9:5) and the Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that "I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah" (Muslim 1.9.30). And--texts that reject violence such as "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and "And do not take any human being's life - that God willed to be sacred - other than in [the pursuit of] justice" (17:33). Both are revered texts and not outliers or twisted iterations of Islam. Indeed this profound ambiguity is captured in the word "jihad," a term which literally means "struggle," but is interpreted by some as holy war to kill all infidels, and by others as a spiritual struggle towards self-improvement.

It follows clearly that the best way for those who seek to engage Muslims in a moral dialogue should point to the peaceful interpretation of Islam, but not seem naïve, ignorant, or disingenuous by claiming that all of Islam is a religion of love and peace. This thesis is supported by a detailed analysis of public opinion polls that show that most Muslims reject the violent interpretations of Islam. If the US could ally itself with these voices, it would find many allies.

The reason the US does not get it is not accidental. The US's first, second, and third commitments are the promotion of human rights and democracy. However, the same polls show that the same majority of Muslims who reject violence is not in favor of human rights (and not democracy the way we understand it). To put it differently, the US wants to tell Muslims how great the ideas of John Locke and Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson are--but these lines find only relatively few buyers in the Muslim world.

Second, the US firmly believes in separation of church and state. Most Muslims, in both the Jihadists and the violence-abhorring camps, seek more religion in their lives, polls show. Finally, the US equates the good life with one of materialistic affluence, a life not available to most people in countries like Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Bangladesh (among others).

Hence if the US is to be heard in the Muslim world, it will have to downplay all it believes true and blue (for instance, ask the National Endowment for Democracy to focus its preaching on some other parts of the world)--and instead promote moderate, but illiberal Islam. This is not something the State Department can possibly do, given that Congress would zero its budget within days if it proceeds along these lines. It is hence left to civil society bodies (NGOs) in the US and elsewhere, maybe with some indirect funding help from the US, the way the US funded left but anti-communist bodies during the Cold War, to carry the day. We do need different messengers, but we can find them only once we abandon messages that seem to be screaming disingenuous, and formulate messages that relate to values moderate Muslims hold dear, rather than to those we presume all people are bound to respect.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age, was released in 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Send an email to icps@gwu.edu to subscribe to his monthly newsletter.