America and political Islam

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Hamas’s win has once again propelled political Islam to the centre of America’s war on terror. However, Hamas’s victory is not the first for Islamists. Throughout much of the Middle East, Islamists have made unprecedented gains via the ballot box and marginalized their opponents–”the modernists whose raison d’etre is to secularise Islam.

Amidst this background, fundamental questions are now being asked about the effectiveness of Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. While the US media debates the merits of Arab democracy and the success of the Islamists in Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and other countries, a fierce debate goes unreported within America’s foreign policy establishment about America’s relationship with political Islam.

The divergent views are not over the nuances of Bush’s democracy agenda but are more about America’s reliance on Islamists as the principal partner for transforming the Muslim world into an oasis of democracy and liberal values.

Oddly enough, it is amongst the neoconservative movement that these conflicting views are the sharpest. On October 24 2005, neoconservatives Daniel Pipes director of the Middle East Form and Ruel Marc Gerecht a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute went head to head in a debate entitled “Should the United States Support Islamists?” Gerecht a strong proponent of using political Islam to buttress US interests in the Muslim world argued: “the United States must support the participation of Islamists in democratic elections. Since the authoritarian regimes currently in power will not permit the development of democratic institutions, open elections should be the first step in the reform process. Islamist political parties must be included in these elections due to their significant popular support because a ban on their participation would discredit the electoral process–”robbing it of legitimacy.” He also recognized that as the Middle East becomes more democratic, it will be more anti-American and anti-Zionist; however, there is little the United States will be able to do about this trend. Gerecht did not view support for moderates as a viable option, due to their lack of popularity.

Pipes on his part argued: “facilitating the immediate political participation of Islamists is tantamount to helping the enemy. He cited four distinct characteristics of Islamist movements that render them anathema to a democratic society: devotion to Sharia, rejection of Western influence, totalitarian ideology, and a drive to power.” Pipes held that both violent and non-violent Islamists share these characteristics as part of the same movement striving towards radical change. Pipes concluded that it is preferable to have in power today’s dictators rather than tomorrow’s Islamists. He preferred a twenty-year goal, which would allow the U.S. to focus its efforts on a long-term democratic transformation. He was dismayed at the scheduling of the Iraqi elections only twenty-two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, saying that the appropriate interval would have been more like twenty-two years.

Such opposing views are not new to American foreign policy makers; rather they are a product of a long standing effort to formulate a coherent policy towards the Islamic world. At present there a two schools of thought that dominate American thinking on this subject. The first, led by Professor Barnard Lewis and his disciples such as Samuel Huntington and the arch neoconservative Richard Perle maintain that political Islam by definition is anti-democratic and anti-Western. Co-existence with Islam is not possible unless there is a major revision of Islamic texts such as the Quran–”otherwise the clash of civilisations is inevitable. Lewis asserted his clash of civilisation theory as early as 1964 when he wrote in his book the ‘Middle East and the West’: “We [must] view the present discontents of the Middle East not as a conflict between states and nations, but as a clash of civilisations.” Furthermore, the confrontationalists advocate that America can never trust Islamists and must do more to assist modernists to take power in the Muslim countries.

The other school of thought led by Professor John Esposito espouses that the West has nothing to fear from political Islam and those Islamists who eschew violence can be accommodated. These accommodationists insist that through the inclusion of Islamists in government, Muslims will quickly lose confidence in their ability to rule by Islam and will naturally turn to secular values to solve their problems. Thus America will be able to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Islamic world.

Despite their apparent differences, both confrontationalists and the accommodationists recognise that America’s continued support for dictatorships in the Muslim world breeds anti-western sentiments and is an incubator of Islamic radicalism. After September 11 2001, both concur that America must promote democracy to counter the rise of political Islam.

For decades these two factions have competed for influence amongst policy makers and US government officials. For the most part, successive US governments adopted a pragmatic approach and used political Islam to bolster US client states and support the jihad against the Communists. But the demise of the Soviet Union ushered in a period where US officials began to search for a new enemy to replace communism and many ended up subscribing to the two dominant views on political Islam.

It was not until 1992 that a serious effort was undertaken by Edward Djerejian; the then US assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern affairs to sift through the arguments put forward by both factions and come up with a policy on political Islam. The accommodationists prevailed and some of their views were expressed by Djerejian who delivered a speech entitled "The US, Islam, and the Middle East in a Changing World." In the speech he said, “The US government does not view Islam as the new ‘ism’ confronting the West or threatening world peace. The cold war is not being replaced with a new competition between Islam and the West. The crusades have been over for a long time”

Nevertheless the speech failed to provide a coherent framework on how to combat political Islam. The Clinton administration continued to traverse the path followed by previous administrations Exploitation of political Islam to stabilise dictatorships and protect US interests throughout the Muslim world became the mainstay of the Clinton era. This remained the case till September 11 2001. Thereafter, newfound support for the clash of civilisation theory gained popularity in the US and was immediately embraced by the hawks in the Bush administration. But resistance from the State Department, and other government institutions, together with America’s failure to stabilise Iraq and Afghanistan prevented the hawks from launching a full scale crusade against political Islam.

Instead, the Bush administration announced its Greater Middle East Initiative and carefully weighed up its policy towards Islamists. In some parts of the Muslim world the US chose to collaborate with Islamists to form governments, while in other parts, America opted to minimise their participation in government. Through these tactics the US is hoping to replace the autocratic regimes of the Muslim world with the Turkish model of democracy.

For instance, in 2002, America colluded with Musharraf to facilitate Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) spectacular rise to power in return for shoring up Musharraf’s sagging popularity and preventing the secular parties from forming a viable opposition. When questioned about the success of religious parties that they represented a failure of US policy, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher replied, “I reject that opinion from the start. We think that the Pakistani people and the government have already demonstrated their strong opposition to terrorism and extremism, their desire to move their society in a more moderate and stable direction. We look forward to working with them on that and we hope that all the parties will be committed to moving in that direction.” Musharraf used the Islamists to cement his pro-American policies by voting through the Legal Framework Order (LFO) in 2004. He then reneged on his promise to step down as COAS, leaving the Islamists bemused and angry. Later, in the local elections of 2005, Musharraf conducted a wide spread purge of the Islamists and favoured secular minded politicians instead.

In Iraq, America has collaborated with Ayatollah Sistani and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to cobble together an Iraqi government that can rule on her behalf. She has also employed the very same Islamists to prevent others in Southern Iraq undermining her occupation. When Muqtada as-Sadr resisted America’s writ, Sistani openly sided with the US to reign in the firebrand cleric and his mahdi army. While America’s tolerance of Shia theologians horrifies many in the West, some US intellectuals fully endorsed it. Gerecht in his book “The Islamic Paradox” wrote:”… secular Shites, not religious oriented ones, are probably the most serious long-term threat to the development of a viable democratic Iraq.”

Hamas’s success in the Palestinian election has less to do with the corruption of the PLO and more to do with the policies of Israel and the US. Both Israel and the US hated Yasir Arafat and considered him to close to the British. Hence they systematically destroyed Arafat’s security apparatus and rendered it ineffective against the Palestinian resistance groups. When Abbas (America’s preferred choice) ascended to power he inherited an organisation marred with factional in fighting and unable to curb the activities of Hamas. The weakness of the PLO combined with Israeli military operations against Hamas fuelled Hamas’s popularity. In July 2000 the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted a poll and found that in popularity terms Fatah tallied 42 percent and Hamas 11 percent. The Israelis effectively used Hamas to destroy the PLO. Dreyfuss author of the book “Devil’s Game” quotes Martha Kessler, a senior CIA analyst who said,”We saw Israel cultivate Islam as a counterweight to Palestinian nationalism.” The author also quotes Philip Wilcox, a former US ambassador who headed the US consulate in Jerusalem and who said, “There were consistent rumours that Israeli secret service gave covert support to Hamas, because they were seen as rivals to the PLO.”

America has tolerated Israeli endeavours to sideline the PLO, as long as Israel does not undermine her plans to for a two state solution. In return, America declared Hamas a terrorist organisation and pressed her EU allies to do likewise. America has also called upon Hamas to disarm and to recognise Israel. In response, Hamas’s senior leader Khalid Mishaal has publicly offered some concessions. He said that Hamas could agree to a "long-term truce" with Israel if it were willing to return to the 1967 borders and recognise the rights of Palestinians to self-determination.

America’s flexible approach towards political Islam signals two things. First, America’s military might has failed to curb the rise of political Islam and this has forced America to establish new partnerships with Islamists with the aim of replacing the current dictatorships and monarchies with some semblance of democracies.

Second, the Bush administration is not settled on the modalities of engagement with Islamists. Oscillating between the approaches advocated by confrontationalists and the accommodationists on some occasions, and in other situations adopting a mixture of both, leaves America open to charges of hypocrisy –” not to mention uncertainty.

Such circumstances leave the door wide-open for America’s opponents –” those among western powers who seek to thwart America’s hegemony in the Muslim world and those amongst the Islamists who desire to re-establish the Caliphate. In both situations the winner is political Islam.

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