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How America changed its approach to political Islam

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Considered opinionHow America changed its approach to political Islam

By Shadi Hamid, Peter Mandaville, and William McCants

Published 5 October 2017

The United States needs answers for questions not just about the nature of Islamist movements, but also about the more politically difficult question of what the United States should do about them. How the United States and Europe should respond—or even whether they should treat Islamist parties as distinctive in the first place—has been a contentious question since at least the early 1990s. The Arab Spring, two decades later, brought this “Islamist dilemma” back to the fore, and Washington found itself, again, conflicted.

Sometimes Islamist groups succeed. Sometimes they underperform. But they almost always matter. The United States thus needs answers for questions not just about the nature of Islamist movements, but also about the more politically difficult question of what the United States should do about them.

Shadi Hamid, Peter Mandaville, and William McCants write in The Atlantic that how the United States and Europe should respond—or even whether they should treat Islamist parties as distinctive in the first place—has been a contentious question since at least the early 1990s. The Arab Spring, two decades later, brought this “Islamist dilemma” back to the fore, and Washington found itself, again, conflicted.

Hamid, Mandaville, and McCants continue:

Understanding the dilemma confronting the United States requires going back a few decades. Although we know from declassified State Department cables that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was on Washington’s radar during the 1950s and 1960s, American foreign policy granted no particular significance to Islamists, other than to wonder whether their religious nature might make them useful partners in checking the spread of “Third World” socialism.

Political Islam did not attract serious attention from American officials until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. For some time, the events of that year shaped American understandings of Islamism even though Iran’s Shiite revolutionary ideology wasn’t in line with the orientation of most other Islamists and was highly atypical even within Shiite history and tradition.

The event that set the tone for U.S. policy toward Sunni Islamist movements (of the Muslim Brotherhood ilk) was the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991. When it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution, the military intervened to annul the results, plunging Algeria into civil war for the better part of a decade. In a spring 1992 speech, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian indicated that the Algerian army’s intervention had been prudent because Islamists coming to power through the ballot box would have been a case of “one man, one vote, one time.” In other words, Islamists would make instrumental use of the ballot box to capture the state, only to subsequently dismantle democracy.

Sunni Islamist movements, meanwhile, were evolving rapidly with the times. By the mid-1990s, there were clear signs that these groups could no longer be understood through the original vision of Islamist “founding fathers”—such as the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna or Pakistan’s Abul Ala Mawdudi. By the mid-2000s, Islamist parties had become fixtures in the mainstream politics of Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and Kuwait. In Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose roots lay in Turkey’s Islamist movement, won its first landslide victory.

….

By the time the Arab uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, the United States had already begun thinking about a new approach toward Islamists. In 2010, the National Security Council began work on a Presidential Study Directive focused on the question of what a push for genuine political reform in the Middle East would look like—including the normalization of Islamists as political actors. The immediate challenge after the revolutions of 2011 was therefore not one of deciding whether to increase engagement with Islamists—the Obama administration had already come around on that issue—but rather the question of how and to what extent to undertake such a shift.

….

Whatever the Trump administration does (or doesn’t) do, political Islam will remain a potent social force and a lightning rod for regional politics. Today, Islamists constitute the ruling government in Morocco, a major opposition force in Jordan, and a significant political counterweight in Kuwait. A recent Brookings poll of experts suggested it likely that Islamists would return to power in Tunisia by 2020, and perhaps also in Syria and Yemen in the aftermath of those civil wars. If, or when, that happens, we will find ourselves having much the same debates. Hopefully, by then, we will have better answers for a problem that will have plagued the United States for nearly three decades.

Read the full article: Shadi Hamid, Peter Mandaville, and William McCants, “How America Changed Its Approach to Political Islam,” The Atlantic (4 October 2017)

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