The Importance of Illiberal Moderates (i)


As social analysis suffers from an over-abundance of terms, the introduction of any new term calls for justification. After a few lines concerning matters of definition, we shall see that the term “illiberal moderates” serves to highlight a profound difference in one’s view of the world, points to a major shift in the direction of foreign policy, and speaks volumes as to the question of what makes a good citizen. It serves to show that although large segments of the people of the world, Muslims included, do not favor Western-style liberal democratic regimes, they abhor terrorism and war. It highlights the deep difference between a foreign policy that seeks to rely on military force to democratize nations (“regime change”), one that views all illiberals as a threat to global stability and national security—and a foreign policy that views all those who swear off terrorism and war as at least potential allies, allowing gradual and largely homegrown democratization to follow.


A new term, matters of definition

I define “Illiberal Moderates” as those who disavow violence (under most circumstances) but who do not favor a liberal-democratic regime or the full plethora of human rights.(ii) These illiberals are moderate not because they often hold intermediate beliefs, and hold them with limited certitude but—by definition—because they reject the use of force to impose their beliefs. True, those who hold strong beliefs—one-sided and unencumbered by doubt—are also prone to embrace the use of force to promote their beliefs, but the correlation is far from high. Thus many millions of Evangelical Christians in the U.S. subscribe to strong religious beliefs (sometimes called fundamentalist) but do not support bombing abortion clinics, stoning gays or riding them out of town, or other acts of violence to impose their norms. Many ultra-orthodox Jews do not favor violent acts against Palestinians or Jewish atheists. The same holds for hundreds of millions of Muslims. (The term “extremist” or “radical” confuses the matter because it is sometimes used to refer to those who have strong beliefs and sometimes to those who are willing to apply force. Increasingly the term “Islamist,” as distinct from Muslim, is employed to refer to immoderate Muslims—those who legitimate the use of force).

Many moderates are nevertheless illiberal in the political science sense of the term (not to be confused with the term as it used in public parlance, in which in the U.S. it refers to progressive people, and in parts of Europe, to laissez-faire conservatives). Illiberals do not consider Westminster democracy the preferred political system, and do not favor many human rights, such as the freedom of speech and women’s rights.(iii) 

Other treatments

A brief examination of two texts highlights the workload the term “illiberal moderates” can carry. Amr Hamzawy in a seminal essay writes that some Arab groups “embrace nonviolence, pragmatism and democratic procedures,” and adds that “Islamist movements in these countries now see the wisdom of competing peacefully for shares of political power and working within existing institutions to promote gradual democratic openings.” Hamzawy’s lines, like scores of other such statements, combine the commitment to non-violence with a commitment to democratic procedures, contrasting them with those who favor violence and oppose democratic procedures, an opposition that obscures the third group, which favors neither, namely the illiberal moderates.

Similarly, an often-cited RAND report, “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,”(iv)  sees the challenge the West faces as that of “radical” Islam, which relies on “dogmatic” interpretations of Islam. It is contrasted with moderate Muslims, defined as those who share “key dimensions of democratic culture.” This is a perfectly legitimate distinction but it harps back to the thesis that only democratic regimes are reliable partners in peace and all dogmatic religious interpretations endanger our security. This, I argue, is not the case. Saudi Arabia and Yemen for instance are not threatening U.S. security in the usual sense of the term.(v)

One may ask, how does our concept differ from Fareed Zakaria’s concept of illiberal democracy? Zakaria considers democratic regimes those that hold free and fair elections, where the rule of the people prevails, but by his definition such a regime could include one in which there is an extreme tyranny of the majority.(vi)Individual rights, the rights ensconced in the constitution and that are not subject to voting, which cannot be set aside by the majority of the elected representatives, he defines as liberal. Hence in his view there are illiberal democracies, and liberal regimes that are not democratic. Actually most others consider a regime as only truly democratic when it is also framed by a constitution that defends individual rights, i.e., all true democracies are liberal ones. In any case, the line I draw is not between liberals and democrats, a rather artificial distinction, but between liberal democrats and those who reject both the democratic form of government and many individual rights. My main point is that it is a profound intellectual mistake, morally dubious judgment, and a gross foreign policy error to assume that all or even most illiberals also favor the exercise of violence, are dangerous Jihadists.


Remapping the world

In the past there has been a strong tendency to lump illiberal moderates with those who favor violence because it was assumed that only liberals make reliable partners in peace. Regime change was considered essential to ensure that illiberal nations would not bring war to other nations, neither harbor nor support terrorists, nor violently oppress people at home. Often, much more implicitly, it is assumed that religious people tend to be fanatics, and fanatics tend to be violent people. Hence the “separation of mosque and state” has been promoted by the U.S. and its allies as a key element of the new Iraqi and Afghani constitutions. Moreover, it was assumed that the world is rapidly liberalizing, hence the remaining illiberal groups can be marginalized if not altogether ignored.

In contrast, the term “illiberal moderate” seeks to call attention to the fact that billions of people, including hundreds of millions of Muslims, are not liberals, are not about to become liberals, and that there is no way to make their governments into liberal democracies in the foreseeable future, but at the same time, most of them do not favor terrorism and pose no threat to Western security or world peace. And moreover that the political and ideological trends show at least as much increase in fundamentalism and Islamist following as they do for increased liberalism. This is not to suggest that Islam is in principle incompatible with liberal democracy, only that many Muslims who reject terrorism currently and in the foreseeable future do not favor democratization. If this observation is a valid one, lumping these illiberal moderates with those who are pro-violence grossly misguides foreign policy. It vastly increases the ranks of those that the U.S. and its allies view as the foe, and pushes potential allies in the war against terrorism—into the camp of those with whom we must contend.


A global swing vote

Polls suggests that large segments of the Muslim populations in North Africa, Turkey, Mali, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and India hold illiberal, moderate beliefs.(vii)Though it should be noted that none of these polls was designed with assessing the size of the illiberal moderate camp, and hence they allow at best an estimate of the numbers involved. If one adds non-statistical sources, for instance observations by seasoned reporters, social scientists, and travelers, one may reach the same conclusion I reached, namely the majority of the citizens of the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are illiberal moderates.(viii)


Assuming this observation is a valid one, it stresses the importance of focusing, for now, on dealing with the immoderate, violent minority, and not treating illiberal moderates as part of their camp. However, even if illiberal moderates should constitute a minority, they are clearly the equivalent of the global swing vote between the liberals and the immoderates. Hence they are best courted rather than rejected.


(i)For an expanded version of these arguments, see attached article “The Global Importance of Illiberal Moderates” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 19, Sept. 2006.

(ii) Amitai Etzioni, “The Global Importance of Illiberal Moderates” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 19, Sept. 2006, 369; Amitai Etzioni, Security First (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), Part III.

(iii) Some, when asked by those who conduct public opinion polls, state that they favor democracy and human rights, but when probed reveal that they would deny jobs to, and cut all social ties with Muslims who have converted to Christianity, ban the sales of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, refuse the publication of cartoons offending the Prophet, and require their wives and daughters to stay in the back of the house if guest are visiting. When these illiberals state that they do subscribe to democracy, their notion of what it entails is often quite non-Western. Thus David Brooks quotes a member of a prominent Egyptian family who argues that the meaning of democracy is obedience to the word of God. (David Brooks “Keeping Faith In Democracy” New York Times, February 26, 2006)

(iv) Angel Rabasa, Cheryl Benard, Lowell H. Schwartz, Peter Sickle, “Building Moderate Muslim Networks” (Washington DC: RAND Corporation, 2007)

(v) One may argue that their authoritarian regimes preparing the ground to future anti-Western attacks, but so do attempts to democratize these nations by outsiders.

(vi) Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 1997; Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003)

(vii)Amitai Etzioni, Security First (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 140

(viii)Amitai Etzioni, Security First (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 134.