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August 2002

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The United States and Islam: Fundamentalism and the Future

Despite the current availability of numerous analytical inquiries into the events of 9/11 and their causes, we believe the author, a research assistant at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York, presents below views that repay study. He recounts the failures of U. S. policy, but notes holding "that U. S. policy alone sustained the growing trend of extremism smacks of reductionism and oversimplification."—Ed.

Introduction: Rethinking Islam After 9/11
It has become painfully obvious that 9/11 drastically changed the course of U. S. foreign policy. Since last fall, U. S. military and intelligence personnel have expanded operations in many countries, starting with Afghanistan and then with the Philippines, Yemen, and Georgia; even now, much talk has focused upon injecting American troops into Indonesia. Indeed, the broadening war on terrorism may yet develop into one of the most costly and protracted episodes of U. S. foreign policy, integrating defense spending, overseas military involvement, and concentrated diplomatic initiatives in the hope of preventing another incident of iconic terrorism.

 The most startling lesson of 9/11, however, derives from the realization that American diplomacy must now recognize Islam as both a distinct religionthe world’s fastest growing faithas well as a diverse political tradition that manifests in the lived social experiences of over 1.2 billion people across sixty countries. For better or for worse, Islam has quickly gained salience in the post-Cold War era as a complex variable whose nuances and effects may well determine the prosperity and security of large swathes of the world. Islam is not simply a rigid system of set beliefs that revolves around the holy script of the Qur’an and the sovereignty of Allah; it is, unlike Christianity and Judaism, a truly communal religion that intimately influences the attitudes of its believers. In other words, it is not simply the thin veneer covering the contours of the non-Western world: it is the terrain itself. Recognizing the vibrancy and importance of Islam requires the attention and contribution of all those who participate in the complex process of crafting U. S. foreign policy and its diplomatic efforts, from the smallest think tanks to the huddled corners of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff.

Unfortunately, if the political declarations and statements of prominent statesmen are any indicator, this endeavor has faltered. Of course, every major political figure in Washington has stressed that radical fundamentalism, not Islam per se, is the real enemy; President Bush, in his first congressional speech after 9/11, even described how extremist Muslim terrorists had "hijacked Islam." Yet disappointingly, public explanations and descriptions of Islam’s diversity stopped there. Consequently, even though the tremendous majority of the world’s Muslims oppose terrorism, oppression, extremism, and violence, the stereotypical image of the Muslim madman wielding a Qur’an in one hand and a submachine gun or bomb in the other have not been fully erased. At a time when significant portions of the Muslim world associate the United States with the political dynamics that have caused the poor social and economic conditions in their countries, such half-hearted efforts do little to bridge the cultural gaps between the West and the rest. Indeed, simply stating that Islam is not the enemy, as echoed by a litany of pundits and analysts, ignores the serious shortcomings of American foreign policy in the past that have contributed to the rise of radical Islamist movements.

Furthermore, if public diplomacy, as Foreign Service officer Matt Lussenhop states in his excellent commentary ("Creativity & Patience: Public Diplomacy Post Sept.-11" in American Diplomacy [click here ], must "break through the iron curtain" of misunderstanding that segregates the Western and Islamic worlds, then it must also honestly confront its past failures and acknowledge the disparate elements of Islamic politics that currently engulf a fifth of the world’s population.

Past Problems of U. S. Policy Towards the Muslim World
Forging constructive relations with Muslim countries and peoples requires a frank examination of the checkered history of U. S. policy towards these actors. Past U. S. policy has suffered from three major problems. First, blind adherence to strategic interests vis-à-vis the Muslim world has contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. For example, the United States shares an intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia that revolves around arms transfers, an enduring military presence, and political support for the Saudi regime, despite the Saudi’s government destitute record on human rights and democracy. By engaging in this tight bilateral relationship, the United States gains a front-line presence against Iraq and Iran, an inlet into the rich oil reserves of the Arabian peninsula, and a flank in the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict. Yet while the United States has ensured the stability and security of this country, the Saudi government has for several decades used its substantial resources to fund conservative Islamic movements worldwide, many of which have now become violent, militant organizations. Some of the more notorious groups, such as Palestinian Hamas, the Taliban movement, and the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), have received considerable backing at some point from the Saudi government. In another example, the triangle of support for the over 20,000 mujahedeen fighters battling the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, which involved Saudi financing, American intelligence and arms, and Pakistani training and logistics, groomed many individuals who would later play a prominent role at the forefront of Islamic fundamentalist networks and groups. Many of these Islamic warriors felt abandoned and betrayed when the United States abruptly ceased its support for them after Soviet collapse; as a result, many returned home disillusioned. These Afghan War veterans would apply their expertise in warfare in political struggles within their native countries a decade later, such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, and Kashmir. Their paramilitary skills also went to use in attacking American targets at home and abroad, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995-6 attacks of U. S. military installations in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 bombing of the U. S.S Cole in Yemen.

The second basic problem is that the United States has unduly supported authoritarian governments in Muslim countries that attack and suppress religious opposition movements, including progressive, moderate Islamic groups and parties. In turn, this repression radicalizes these religious movements and spurs them to move underground and engage in violence in lieu of meaningful political participation. In Central Asia, the United States has long supported the leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, even though their hard-line tactics treat the civil and political rights of religious elements little better than their Soviet predecessors. This support has deepened after 9/11, since these states comprise a useful linchpin in which to maintain a strong U. S. military presence in Central Asia. Consequently, even moderate Islamic political parties cannot freely operate without harassment. Violent Islamic terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Freedom Party), have arisen precisely in reaction to these governments, and they see the United States as partially responsible for the political oppression at home. Egypt is another shining example; domestic groups like Islamic Jihad and other Muslim brotherhoods (jamaats) target violence at their government as well as American symbols, and they perceive the two as equally oppressive. Thus, the rapid anti-American sentiment evoked by militant Muslim groups across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Mindanao, is deeply rooted in perceived U. S. support for their governments’ refusal to include them within formal political governance.

Finally, the United States foreign policy establishment never fully recovered from the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which tainted perceptions of Islam for policymakers during the next two decades. Hyperbolic Islamist rhetoric rather than mainstream Muslim voices thus shaped American policy: Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980’s was seen as representative of the Muslim world, and Ayatollah Khomeini its implicit spokesperson. As a result, Islamist movements founded upon the banner of Qur’anic prescriptions and Islamic law (shari’a) became regarded in Washington as the harbinger of bloody Islamic revolution, despite the fact that the most of them wished to peacefully participate via democratic means, as in Jordan, Syria, and Morocco. A number of countries thus received U. S. supportin the form of military training or economic assistanceby simply citing the dark threat of Muslim oppositions, a list including the Central Asian states, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Tunisia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. However, the hard-line repression of these governments only further entrenched Islamic activists, instigating many to turn to terrorist or guerrilla tactics in order to make their voices heard.

As a result, U. S. policy was caught in a vicious cycle: by supporting dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, it aimed to contain the devilish possibility of another Islamic revolution by crushing Islamist groups and their ideology. By engaging in repressive tactics that forced Islamist extremists to move underground, however, those governments never confronted the severe institutional weaknesses of their political systems, particularly the lack of an inclusive model of politics, which further radicalized Islamists and gave them an active incentive to violently contest their government. Thus, the United States became associated with an anti-Islamic mentality, making itself a target of Islamic extremists.

Yet while U. S. policies have labored under serious flaws in the past, they have not entirely been responsible for violent Islamist movements. Indeed, to articulate that U. S. policy alone sustained the growing trend of extremism smacks of reductionism and oversimplification. Certain religious and social developments with little relation to American policies have transposed themselves across Muslim populations, transforming the very essence of Islamic identity and spawning an intellectual and political struggle for the minds and hearts of the Muslim world. Hence, confronting the follies of U. S. policy constitutes only one part of the deeper puzzle that 9/11 presented: within the Islamic world, who are the radical fundamentalists, and why should the United States care about them?

The Struggle Within: Radical Islam
The Islamic world, encompassing 1.2 billion Muslims across nearly 60 countries, is now experiencing a transformative period of internal evolution that has only deepened and intensified with the forces of globalization. The Islamic world is only in its 14th century of history, and since the 1960’s, with the failure of Arab nationalism, socialism, and other ideologies, Islamismalso known as fundamentalism, neo-traditionalism, Islamic radicalism, and other hyperbolic "isms" has emerged as the most captivating sociopolitical ideal and mode of political praxis for those citizens who feel dislocated and alienated by the Muslim world’s lack of power relative to the West. Islamism’s numbers include disenchanted youths, the unemployed, and the burgeoning middle classes. Various guerrilla and terrorist movements, such as the infamous Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, express the violent aspects of Islamism. The movement as a whole, however, also comprises intellectual and spiritual components far removed from bombings and violence. Several aspects about Islamism deserve explication in the aim of vividly illustrating its multidimensionality: its ideological roots, the response of governments, and the central role of jihad as an organizing creed.

Islamism manifests as a mobilized political movement cross-cutting national and cultural lines, founded upon a conservative reading of the Qur’an and sharia, which aims to transform extant Muslim communities and societies into idealized versions of the Islamic state. The vision of Islamists, then, defies secularism, Westernization, and globalization; the remedy for socioeconomic inequality, political stagnation, and lack of social opportunities in Muslim countries lies in a traditional interpretation of Islam that would purify society and root out the corrupting influences of barbarism (jahili) that the modern age has brought to the Muslim world. Such a belief can be summarized in the popular slogan, "Islam is the solution." Since the late 1960’s, Islamism has rapidly gained popularity in many Muslim countries; some Islamists work peacefully within civil society, while others are willing to engage in violence in order to institute their goals.

Additionally, U. S. support for governments in Muslim countries, which attempt to suppress these Islamists out of fear of revolution, has resulted in anti-American sentiment across several demographic segments, particularly the middle-class and university students. Opposing the Islamists are many moderate and liberal Islamic intellectuals and social activists who view their counterparts’ ideology as morally bankrupt. Islamic feminists, for instance, have made considerable gains in bringing to light the dire gender inequities in their societies over the past decade. Moreover, unlike the Islamists, these activists believe that liberal democracy need not be diametrically opposed to Islam.

Recognizing that Islamism is merely one strand of a multi-faceted era of Islam, however, has become extraordinarily difficult at a time when Muslim leaders themselves have straddled the line between religion and politics. In response to the rapid amalgamation of Islamist networks, various Muslim leaders have recognized the power of fundamentalist rhetoric and accordingly make popular appeals that heavily traffic in the language and symbolism of Islamic traditionalism in order to win broad-based support for their policies. For instance, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek proclaims himself as the "believer president," even though his government has imprisoned thousands of Islamist activists. Arab leaders, from Jordan’s royal family to Algeria’s President Boutaflika, have funded mosques in their name and often lead public prayers, even though they have struggled against Islamist opposition groups for the last decade. Notably, however, the invocation of Islamic symbols and images by these Muslim leaders does not denote that they are attempting to become more Islamic, or, attempting to follow in the footsteps of Iran. Far from it, the widespread practice of calling for a "return to Islam," as has been especially prevalent in Indonesian and Malaysian politics in recent years, signifies a decidedly secular attempt by political elites to win social backing for their policies by ensconcing their political positions in the common language of Islam. Most of these appeals are designed to ensure that Islamists do not contest the state; they are not genuine efforts to integrate Islamism into state structures and institutions. In these cases, Islam is not the issue: it is about political power and the question of who wields it.

The final observation about Islamism focuses upon the concept of jihad, since it has come to dominate any kind of analysis of Islam since 9/11. Jihad has a special place within Islamism; bin Laden, for instance, issued his infamous fatwa (religious decree) calling for an international jihad against Americans and Jews several years ago. Indeed, most Islamist groups are predicated upon a return to the purity of a mythical Islam through jihad. Western media outlets have popularly defined this term as "holy struggle," and applied it to any conflict in which Muslims seem to be waging violence against a non-Muslim state or population. Generically, however, the concept actually means being virtuous Muslim through struggle, to become a pious believer through spiritual effort and social conscience. Islamists, such as bin Laden, have transformed the notion of jihad into a clarion call for violence against the West, even though in traditional legal, theological, and political texts, jihad has little to do with formalized war.

The traditionalist conception of jihad within Islamism is significant because it indicates how globalization has facilitated the expansion of fundamentalism. The Internet and other communications technologies have spread and propagated the narrow definition of jihad so that now it has become part of Islamists’ daily vocabularies. From e-mail and global express mail to videotape recordings of Islamist academic lectures and terrorist training sessions, the tools and instruments of Islamist movements have been found in mosques and Islamic schools (madrassahs) in countries as disparate and distant as Ecuador and Singapore.

Conclusion: Transcending Civilizations
After 9/11, much talk has celebrated the views of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington and his colleagues, whose "clash of civilizations" thesis has gained new credence and currency. His argument articulates that the next paradigm for international conflict will center not upon ideology, but rather on the differences between civilizations, defined as blocs of states and peoples who adhere to the same basic identity and share strong historical and social ties. According to him, there exist immutable, irreconcilable differences between civilizations, such as the rift between the West, with its secular values and emphasis on liberal humanism, and the Islamic world, which has not fully accepted secularism and has yet to undergo democratization. Academics, journalists, and policymakers have accepted this civilizational thesis as a poignant, simple model that explains why a handful of Muslim extremists would kill thousands of Americans. According to them, the West and Islam are speeding head-first into a titanic conflict of values, beliefs, and identitiesin short, an epic clash of civilizations.

This pessimistic view, however, precludes the possibility for peaceful relations between the United States and the Muslim world. It is true that the United States has ignominiously inherited from Europe the mantle of being a neo-colonial, imperialist power, whose corporations, military forces, and consumer products seem to penetrate much of the Muslim world; but American policymakers need not fall into the trap of believing that violent Islamism indicates the future of Islam. Muslim states are gradually becoming more progressive, and an increasing number of liberal Muslim activists, scholars, and students are challenging the conservative traditions of fundamentalism. Moreover, Islamism has not captured state institutions in most Muslim countries, and almost all Muslim states are largely secular in structure if not in language. The few self-proclaimed Islamic states that do existsuch as Sudan and Iran—are mired in internal political and social struggles that betray the monolithic portrait of Islamism that their leaders evince. If the entire Islamic world was fundamentalist and therefore anti-Western, a clash of civilizations would indeed occur. But this is certainly not the case, nor will it ever be.

The United States can take several concrete steps to fashion more constructive relations with Muslim polities. To challenge Islamic fundamentalism, it should pursue long-term policies that discourage their emergence. It must encourage greater political pluralism and democracy; for instance, the United States can apply strong diplomatic and political pressure for authoritarian governments in Muslim countries to better respect Islamic groups and parties rather than turning a blind eye to their repression. Such a suggestion especially applies to the Central Asian states, which have increasingly cracked down on religious movements in recent months. The United States must also shake off its fear of Islamic revolution, much as it once feared the specter of Communist revolution. No revolutionary Islamist movement has ever evolved in a democratic setting, and most Islamist groups only turn to violence after being attacked, jailed, excluded, and otherwise besieged by wary governments. The FIS in Algeria, for instance, fairly participated in the 1992 national elections; only after its victory was nullified by a military coup and its party outlawed by decree did it engage in a violent campaign of guerrilla warfare that has thus far claimed almost 100,000 lives. Concomitant to this cognitive shift, the United States must be more articulate and vocal in its understanding of radical Islam and the complex struggles within the Islamic world. Just as U. S. policymakers have often mistakenly perceived Islam as a singular, fixed actor with an unchanging set of traditionalist values, many Muslim leaders and activists abroad identify the United States with caricatured traits of American culture, such as militarism, racism, and greedy capitalism. Public diplomacy plays an active role in evoking a fairer image of the United States to the broader Islamic world, and proactive campaigning can erase much of the negativity surrounding the image of America. Granted, such a tactic may not gather full steam at a time when the unilateral military thinking of the Pentagon and White House dominate the entire foreign policy establishment. But it is a strategy that is certainly a better option than past policies, and one that might work if given a fair chance.

In short, the road ahead at best will meander steeply uphill, with difficult obstacles and roadblocks littering the path. But given the mixed history of U. S. foreign policy towards the Muslim world, the momentous transformations occurring within that world, and the opportunities created by the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath, now is the best time that the United States can transcend the dooming prophecies of the clash of civilizations and reach across the gulf of misunderstanding to the Muslim world.

August 2, 2002


Sean Yom has particular research interests at Brown University in Islamic studies and in ethics and international relations. His current appointment is with Carnegie’s Justice and World Economy Program.

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