06/12/2007 11:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Illiberal Moderates: the Global Swing Vote

Nowhere is the curse of dichotomies more evident than in the opposition of Islamists to "liberal" Muslims. It presumes that a Muslim is either a supporter of terrorism -- most likely a Wahhabi -- or of democracy and human rights. i.e. liberals. The effect of this division of Muslims into two camps is that those who are neither -- the moderate but illiberal Muslims - disappear from view. Evidence however shows that they constitute the majority of Muslims, many found in large Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh. These illiberal moderates reject terrorism but favor strong religious regimes, regimes that do not give a quarter for women's rights and view freedom of speech as dangerous. Much more than a conceptual misperception is at issue; the Islamist vs. liberal dichotomy vastly exaggerates the size of the camp of those the West must vie with, and conceals the great legions of its potential allies.

The evidence that the majority of Muslims are actually opposed to violence but do not favor our kind of polities, I am the first to grant, is complex and must be pieced together from a variety of public opinion polls and other studies. It is still quite telling. For instance, polls conducted in 2005-6 found only 13 percent of Moroccans, 17 percent of Turks and 10 percent of Indonesians supported suicide bombing. 72 percent of Afghans strongly supported disarming the local warlord armies, and 70 percent didn't believe attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan were justifiable. Only minorities of 35 percent of Pakistanis and 22 percent of Egyptians supported Islamic extremist groups.

Arab Muslims are said to be less moderate than others, and Palestinians especially supportive of violence. However a 2006 poll found that 73 percent of Palestinians favored a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel, and 62 percent believed that Hamas should change its position on the destruction of the Israeli state. Eighty-six percent of Palestinians believed that public protests were justifiable against Denmark for the allegedly insulting cartoons of Muhammad published in the Danish press -- however, only 8 percent held that the reaction should have been violent.

Muslims who reject violence could be liberals; indeed some are. However, one can gain an indication of the number of those who are illiberal by examining the number of Muslims who support a still stronger role for Islam in their country. For instance, large majorities of Pakistan (86 percent), Indonesia (82 percent), and Bangladesh (74 percent) favored a greater role for Islam in their nation's politics, according to a 2002 poll. Pluralities of those surveyed in Jordan (42 percent), Saudi Arabia (48 percent), and the United Arab Emirates (45 percent) in 2004 believed that the clergy should play a greater role in their governments. About half of Egyptians hold that clerics should govern their political system.

An overwhelming majority of the women polled in eight Muslims countries cited violent extremism as the aspect of their societies they resent most but these women did not favor gender equality, which they associate, negatively, with the West. The same majorities did not think that adopting Western values would help the Muslim world's political and economic progress.

Numerous scholars and journalists who lived in or reported from various Muslim nations came to similar conclusions. They found in most instances that while immoderate Islamists are on the rise, most people in places as different as Malaysia and Tunisia -- and even in Iran -- favor neither holy wars nor terrorism, but rather seek a religious society, in which personal and social matters are governed by Muslim religious authorities. Thus according to Mahmoud Dicko, a Mali preacher, a religious Islamic society would be ideal, "But I'm not for imposing my vision," rejecting the forceful introduction of Shariah law. The nonviolent tradition in Malaysia enjoys considerable mainstream support. Sisters in Islam, a nongovernmental organization, made the key point well:

"Religion depends upon faith and will, and this would be meaningless if induced by force. Islam itself means submission to the will of God; and the willing submission of the self to faith and belief must be attained through conviction and reason, not through coercion and duress." A leader of the Ansar ed-Din, a Nigerian Muslim group, explains: "The Sharia cuts off the hands of thieves. But if you preach the right way, the thief will not steal" and that "I know what the Qur'an says: it says not to kill, it says to be peaceful. If a fundamentalist comes to my house I wouldn't even offer him tea."

In Iran, where I visited as a guest of the reformers, the most frequently cited refrain from the Koran was: "there should be no compulsion in religion." The reformers stressed that they wanted a religious civil society, one in which people heeded religious tenets and authorities, but did so because they believed in them rather were coerced to obey.

The importance of these findings for Western foreign policy is hard to overstate. The findings suggest that if the West continues to insist that only liberal Muslims are reliable allies, it will continue to treat the majority of Muslims as enemies, at least as people we must contend with, just the way Bernard Lewis has it. If, on the other hand, the West recognizes that it can advance global -- and local -- security by working with all those Muslims who reject violence, it will find that the same pivotal majorities can be won over.

Furthermore, both Public Diplomacy and the conventional type must be refocused to promote norms and alliances that reject the use of force, rather than promote democracy and human rights. Also, the U.S. and its allies best cease to ally themselves mainly with secular leaders, and work with moderate Muslim religious leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Shia parts of Iraq. And, the U.S. should recall that it too has dress codes and has had "dry states," and stop using its forces to fight Muslim bans on the consumption of alcohol, on the public exposure of skin and hair, and other such non-violent expressions of religious devotion.

Finally, the West would do best not to ally itself with the Sunnis against Shia (in the Middle East) or with Shias against Sunnis (in Iraq), but rather work with moderates of all persuasions--to isolate, pacify and eventually convert the violent Muslim minorities.

To insist that non liberal Muslims (let alone all Muslims) are "dangerous" is incompatible with the facts, morally dubious, and very unwise foundation for foreign policy.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at George Washington University. His most recent book Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy just published by Yale University Press.