RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan recently spoke with Sadanand Dhume, a columnist for "The Wall Street Journal Asia " and the author of "My Friend the Fanatic: Travels With a Radical Islamist." Dhume spoke about the forces driving extremism in the Muslim world and the direction it is likely to take.
RFE/RL: How would you define radical Islam?
The way I look at it is that Islam is one of the world's great faiths and it is the faith of 1.1 billion people. Radical Islam is a political ideology which is followed by a minority of Muslims and it seeks to impose itself on every aspect of the state and society. It's a set of all-encompassing laws which the radical Islamists believe come from God and must be placed on Earth to govern every aspect of society and the state.
And that's the difference between an ordinary Muslim, who just believes in his faith and goes about living their life like anybody else, and a radical Islamist, who is driven by this kind of messianic idea of remaking the world.
RFE/RL: In which segments of society does radical Islam have the biggest presence?
Radical Islam is particularly popular among young, educated men; and I think what draws people to this is the simplicity of the answer and the all-encompassing nature of the answer that it provides. Very often these educated men are the first people of their families to have an education. Very often they come from a technical background: engineering, medicine, science, and mathematics. Because the idea is so simple and because the idea is almost mechanical, if you impose Shari'a, everything else falls into place. It appeals to their mode of thinking.
Dhume says what draws people to radical Islam is the simplicity of the answer and the all-encompassing nature of the answer that it provides.
They tend to come from backgrounds where you are taught to view the world in black and white. And they tend to come from backgrounds where there is a certain amount of flux in the family and they're seeking to understand the world. And this philosophy -- this political ideology -- presents itself as a solution to these very complex problems.
RFE/RL: Who is currently winning the tug-of-war between radical Islam and moderate, integrated Islam in the Muslim world?
Who has preponderance, I would still say it's the moderates. But who has momentum? I would have to concede that in many places it is the radicals.
This tug-of-war between radical Islam and moderate Islam is going to continue a long way. I think that moderate Islam has the advantage to the degree that most Muslims, like most people anywhere or of any faith, are moderate. But I think radical Islam, because it is extremely well-organized and has a powerful idea, is certainly gaining momentum in many places. And so, in terms of who has preponderance, I would still say it's the moderates. But who has momentum? I would have to concede that in many places it is the radicals.
RFE/RL: Can radical Muslims be unradicalized and reintegrated into mainstream society?
There are violent radicals and then there are radicals who pursue the same goals but not through violent means. I think the violent radicals are generally the people who are hardest to negotiate with because the fact that they have taken up violence or very often terrorism puts them beyond the pale.
The question about whether nonviolent radical Islamists can be changed over time, I think the answer is "yes," to a degree. For example, in the 1960s, the Muslim Brotherhood did not believe in participating in elections. Now they are willing to participate in elections. So I think that there are changes that occur. I think it's false to pretend that they are unchanging. However, I think the room for making the kinds of compromises that we would recognize as liberal in the broader sense is relatively narrow.
RFE/RL: In which direction do you see Islam heading, both in the short and long term?
Very often, modernization and globalization raise all kinds of questions. I don't castigate people for looking around for answers. I just happen to disagree with this particular set of answers because I think they do more harm than good. I don't know about the direction in which the Muslim world is headed right now. I'm not particularly optimistic in the short-term.
At least since the 1970s, the pendulum has swung away from the modernizers and toward the Islamists. If you look back in 1975, you look at country after country -- you look at Iran, look at Indonesia, look at Pakistan, look at even at Egypt -- I think that in country after country, what you've seen is the people who were willing to kind of deal with these European or Western -- I would call them universal ideas rooted in the Enlightenment -- have at some level given ground to radical Islamists at some level. But history is fluid and the pendulum could swing again.
RFE/RL: What factors will shape which direction Islam heads?
I think there are too many factors to count. I think we are going to have to see what happens, for example, with the Arab Spring. We are going to see whether democracy takes root. We are going to have to see how societies are able to come to terms with the market economy, which is now been proved to be the only reliable way to generate prosperity.
So I think that some of the large questions -- whether countries can come to terms with on the political side, representative democracy, and on the economic side, markets -- those are the two things that are going to be the most important in shaping which way things turn out.