The Muslim Civil War: 'The Most Important Ideological Struggle in the World Today'

Zeyno Baran is a  senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and editor of The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular, recently published by Palgrave-Macmillan and available from She recently spoke with frequent PJM contributor Barry Rubin:

Barry Rubin: Zeyno, you begin your book with this sentence: “The most important ideological struggle in the world today is within Islam.” Can you explain the nature of this struggle and how it is going?

Zeyno Baran: This struggle is essentially a Muslim civil war over whose definition of Islam will be accepted as “mainstream.” Will it be the version of the Islamists (shared by all political-religious radicals, both non-violent and violent)? Or that of traditional Muslims (cultural, secular, and pious)? One will become accepted by a majority of Muslims, and by extension, of non-Muslims. Since the 1970s Islamists have made tremendous headway in this struggle thanks to money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region; they were thus able to establish institutes and networks all over the world to spread Islamism. Today, many Muslims don’t even realize what they believe to be authentic Islam is in fact a primarily political ideology of recent origin. Non-Islamists are still lacking in the financial resources -- whether state or private -- necessary to organize effectively against the Islamists; this is true as much in the West (the focus of this book) as in Muslim-majority countries. So, in the short term I argue that Islamists will continue to be winning in this struggle. That said, I believe in the longer term both non-Islamist Muslims and non-Muslims will eventually wake up to the realization that Islamism is a serious ideological challenge to universal human rights.

Barry Rubin: Precisely what is a “moderate Muslim”? Hasn't that term been subject of a lot of misuse and misunderstanding?

Zeyno Baran: You are exactly right -- the misuse of the label “moderate Muslim,” by Islamist groups operating in the West, has indeed led to major misunderstandings. This is  precisely why I used this term in this book -- to clear up this misunderstanding and  reclaim the term from the Islamists, many of whom represent themselves as  “moderates” to Western policy makers. American and European policy makers have accepted as “moderate” people who do not commit violence; to me, however, that is a very narrow definition. An Islamist that participates in the electoral process yet does so with the goal of limiting women’s rights or of introducing a sharia regime is not moderate. The contributors to this book are all true moderates -- those who fully support both universal human rights and the teachings of the Islamic faith. Being “moderate” does not mean they are not pious, which is another common misunderstanding of the term.

Barry Rubin: Why is it wrong to base the definition of a “moderate” Muslim on simply those who don’t use violence?

Zeyno Baran: The true divide within Islam is not between violence and nonviolence, but between moderation and extremism. Few Muslims resort to violence -- but many more share the thinking of the violent extremism. Unless the ideology of Islamism is understood as the root cause of the violence, I don’t believe we’ll see an end to the terrorism and radicalism among Muslim communities. Moderation has to start with thought; if we are giving a free pass to those with extremist ideologies as “moderates,” then the true moderates will continue to be weakened.

Barry Rubin: How have the U.S., Canadian, and European governments helped the radicals and hurt the moderates?

Zeyno Baran: Western governments, in their desire to “engage with Muslims,” have often reached out to well-established Islamist organizations as their “partners.” In doing so, these governments did not realize that they were lending legitimacy to these Islamists in the internal struggle against their moderate opponents. With the Islamists being the main “go-to Muslims” for Western governments, it has been much harder for the true moderates to make their voices heard.

Barry Rubin: Why are Western media and institutions so easily fooled by radicals, and why do they seem to favor them?

Zeyno Baran: I think when Western media and institutions look for “Muslim voices,” they automatically gravitate to those who most closely resemble their preconception of what an “authentic” Muslim sounds like -- a conception that has, of course, been shaped by Islamist propaganda. In recent years, an “authentic” voice has been one that is  opposed to U.S. policies, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is strongly critical of Israel. Many in the media share these views as well, so it is in some ways a natural fit. The true moderates are often accused of being neo-conservative or “not really Muslim” when they support U.S. policies or express a more balanced view of the state of Israel; these ideas seem to Western journalists and policy makers to be “un-Muslim,” as if there were a single Muslim way of thinking!  Certainly, the Islamists argue there are certain “Muslim opinions” on some issues -- such as the Middle East peace process -- but that’s because they are trying to establish their own view as the single dominant one. It is as wrong as saying there is a “Christian opinion” on an issue, given the vast range of views held by individual Christians.