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June 2008

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U.S. Foreign Policy and Islamist Politics

Reviewed by John M. Handley, Ph.D.

US Foreign Policy and Islamist Politics, by Ahmad S. Moussalli, Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-8130-3149-1), 225 pages, $59.95.

Ahmed Moussalli teaches political science and Islamic studies at the American University in Beirut. This is Dr. Moussalli's fifth book to address Islam and the West and, for a short book, it contains considerable information on Islam in two of its five chapters. Most Western readers will, understandably, either disregard the other three chapters or take some umbrage with his rather blatant anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli positions.

The first chapter addresses “the West” and the “making of the Islamic threat.” This chapter, unfairly and unrealistically, blames the West for all the problems, past and present, which currently represent an Islamic threat. The second chapter discusses “the West” and “the making of the Islamic image.” Again, similar to the previous chapter, the author devotes his time to assailing the West in general and the United States specifically for Islam's problems. The third and forth chapters, however, are both very helpful in understanding Islam and Islamic motivations. The third chapter summarizes the context, the major writings, and the ideologies of all “modern” Islamic thinkers for the past 150 years or so, while the fourth chapter provides a series of case studies on 24 of the major Islamic movements that have risen over this same time period.

The last chapter presents an unconvincing case study of Iran and the Middle East peace process and another case study, somewhat more believable, of Islamic movements after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, followed by a short, eight-page, conclusion and policy recommendations section that includes 33 specific actions the U.S. government should undertake, few of which the United States would even consider reasonable, mush less “doable.” For example, to bring about a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian issue, the United States must “accept the majority Arab view denouncing the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon.” (166) If memory serves, there are no Israelis in southern Lebanon, and Israel did not start the war that resulted in Syria losing the Golan Heights or the Palestinians losing their former portion of Jerusalem. Yet nowhere in this book are the Arab states ever blamed for anything they either did or failed to do. Generally, throughout the book the author constantly refers to the Israelis as Zionists and to the United States as the major Zionist supporter, which gives the reader a certain sense of what to expect.

The first paragraph of the first page sets the tone for what will follow in 170 pages of text with the statement: “Even after the Second Gulf War, the United States has maintained the same geo-strategic policies in the region: alliances with unpopular governments that serve U.S. interests, the control of oil, and support for the military superiority of Israel.” (1) With oil presently at over $130 a barrel, the United States obviously has very poor control over oil production. Additionally, no one ever seems prepared to point out that although the United States imports 75% of the oil it uses, with 25% coming from U.S. owned and operated wells, some 87% of the remaining 75% of imported oil comes from non-Middle East sources, with the bulk from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. But let's not let facts stand in the way of America-bashing.

Occasionally the author makes a comment that simply begs for explanation, such as: “Terrorism has decreased within most Islamic countries because of general Muslim opposition to violence in Islamic communities…” (3) Really? Decreased from what to what? The author provides no statistics and names no specific Muslim states. In a similar vein, the author opines that the increased numbers of “…women conforming to an Islamic dress code attest to [their] growing religious sentiment.” (4) One wonders who gathered the statistics to support such a statement. Was duress a factor?

When the author uses the term “the West,” he invariably includes the United States and all European states that previously controlled any portion of the Middle East or North Africa. The West, collectively, is characterized as an exploiter, a colonialist, and an imperialist. These terms are repeated scores of times within the pages of this short book, yet it might seem fair to some to view the oil producing states as exploiters, not just of the West, but of their own nationals who reap little if any benefit from oil profits. The United States, to my knowledge, has never established a colony in the Middle East and gave up imperialism after granting the Philippines independence on 4 July 1946. To constantly refer to the United States as an exploiter, a colonialist, and an imperialist may appeal to a certain segment of the U.S. body politic, but it seems doomed to fail in influencing policy makers, regardless of which political party runs the administration.

The author makes several startling claims about Islam, or at least startling for this Westerner. Three examples should suffice. First, Dr. Moussalli states that there is really no large difference between a moderate Muslim and a radical Muslim. Both are really fundamentalists, but the radical turns to violence more quickly than the moderate. In the end, both believe in and will use violence to further the Islamic cause. Second, there are two kinds of law: God-made and human-made. The Islamic law, shari'a, comes from God and is the only law acceptable to a Muslim. All other laws, whether based on Judaism or Christianity, are man-made laws and are thus corrupt and unacceptable to Muslims. Third, there are only two types of people on this earth: the party of God (hizb Allah) and the party of Satan (hizb al-shaytan). Muslims belong to the party of God while the non-Muslim world belongs to the party of Satan. It is the duty of every Muslim to bring non-believers to the party of God, even if one has to kill them to do so. (91-94)

On more than one occasion the author seems to contradict himself. For example, he states: “The Iranian government no longer absolutely rejects the existence of Israel or a peace process that leads to the restoration of Muslim lands…” (146-147), while later quoting the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, “…that Iran will never recognize Israel as a state because it has violated the legitimate rights of Palestinians.” (148) With all the current bluster exhibited by Iran's president, the author concludes that “Iran has been edging toward realistic pacifism.” (149) The reader has only to take the author's word for this movement since he offers no concrete examples of Iranian pacifism. Perhaps the most disturbing point the author raises is the idea that the Koran (Qur'an) may be read and even memorized by Muslims, but only an Imam, or teacher, is authorized to interpret what the sacred writing means. Thus if an Imam directs a true believer to do something, that believer is obligated to do it, without questioning what he or she was directed to do. This aspect of Islam holds true for all Muslims, but is even more strictly followed by Shi'ites than Sunnis.

All in all, this is not a book I would recommend on how to improve U.S. foreign policy in the region, since the author rarely offers a policy that would be acceptable to any administration. The chapters on Islamic ideology and Islamic movements do provide useful information to anyone interested in these two aspects of the book, but it is hardly worth the price for this information. I simply cannot recommend this book to anyone interested in U.S. Middle East foreign policy or in Islamist politics.


Colonel (ret.) John M. Handley, Ph.D., American Diplomacy Publishers Vice-President for Outreach, is Adjunct Professor of International Relations for Webster University's Ft. Bragg and Pope AFB campuses. Col. Handley spent most of his Army career in military intelligence, including as Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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