America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?

Fawaz A. Gerges
Cambridge University Press, 1999
282 pp., $21.95 pb

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

The terrorist attacks of September 11 have thrust scholars of Islam from the relative obscurity of their academic niches into the public spotlight. From now on, the work such scholars have produced over the last several decades will be scrutinized to see how prescient it appears in light of 9/11.

Published in 1999, America and Political Islam, by Fawaz A. Gerges, the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, contains no references in its index to Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, and indeed the book has little to say about international networks of militant Islamic terrorism. Nonetheless, this balanced, well-researched study of American foreign policy in the Islamic world from the Carter to the Clinton administrations, by a preeminent Arab-American scholar, should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand how Washington responded to the rise and spread of political Islam at the close of the 20th century. Gerges's analysis and policy recommendations are debatable, but, rather than being rendered moot by 9/11, they seem more relevant than ever.

American foreign policy in the Middle East, Gerges maintains, has always been riven by internal conflicts, pulled in opposing directions by two groups of experts he terms "confrontationalists" and "accommodationists." For decades, these two groups have been debating not only in academia and in scholarly journals, but also within elite policy-making circles in the State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council. Gerges thinks the two groups have exerted roughly equal influence on administrative decision-making, regardless of which party was in the White House.

Including such figures as Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and Daniel Pipes, the confrontationalists generally view Islam as the main enemy confronting the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pipes goes further, asserting that "fundamentalists challenge the West more profoundly than Communists did or do. The latter disagree with our policies but not with our whole view of the world, including the way we dress, mate and pray" (24). Rather than pressuring pro-Western Arab regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to democratize and show greater respect for human rights, the confrontationalists advise Washington to join these pro-American regimes in their battles against their own indigenous Islamist movements. The confrontationalists also recommend that America and Europe tighten immigration policies in order to stem the flood of Muslim immigrants to Western nations--a process the confrontationalists see as having created bastions of anti-Western Islamic extremism within the West's own borders.

In sharp contrast, "accommodationists" such as John Esposito, Graham Fuller, and Ian Lesser reject the confrontationalist claim that political Islam is inherently anti-Western and anti-democratic. On the contrary, say Fuller and Lesser, "The West [is] a daily reality in the lives of nearly all Muslims [and] a culture many of whose features Muslims admire: education, technology, concepts of liberty, respect for human rights, rule of law, and improved standards of living" (31). The accommodationists maintain that the rise of political Islam has been caused less by the inherent appeal of religious fanaticism than by political disenfranchisement and socioeconomic woes, especially among the Arab masses. According to the accommodationists, rather than continuing to back corrupt, despotic Arab regimes simply because they are allies, the U.S. should prod these regimes to open the political process to peacefully-inclined Islamist parties. Accommodationists also urge America to encourage Arab regimes to liberalize their state-controlled economies by fostering free-market entrepreneurialism.

In part due to internal disputes between confrontationalists and accommodationists, U.S. policy in the Middle East, Gerges claims, has never been guided by any overarching political vision, but rather has tended to be enacted on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. Moreover, when push comes to shove, American policy has almost always sided with the status quo, rather than supporting potentially disruptive reform. Such conservative thinking has been most evident when it comes to the two traditionally preeminent concerns of the American foreign policy establishment: maintaining the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf states, and advancing the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. Indeed, Gerges sees Washington as most willing to actively back democratization precisely in those Arab states, such as Algeria, in which American interests are least involved.

The second half of America and Political Islam proceeds to an in-depth analysis of American policies in four representative Arab states: Iran, Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey. While it's unfortunate that Gerges omits chapters on Saudi Arabia and Iraq (the absence of the latter means that he devotes no discussion to the Persian Gulf War), these case studies allow the author to draw nuanced, well-supported conclusions about U.S. policy in the region. Though he doesn't say so explicitly, such conclusions place Gerges squarely in the accommodationist camp.

All four chapters are engaging and important, but, for reasons of space, let me focus on perhaps the most intriguing and significant case--Iran. Gerges claims that the fundamentalist revolution in Iran, which toppled the pro-American Shah and led to a protracted and humiliating "hostage crisis" (which, in turn, undermined Carter's reelection bid), left the traumatized American foreign policy establishment with what he terms an "Iranian complex," which profoundly affected Washington's subsequent behavior not only toward Iran, but also toward any ensuing manifestations of political Islam, whether of Shi'i or Sunni extraction.

Not that Gerges finds U.S. antagonism toward Iran entirely irrational. On the contrary, he acknowledges that the rhetoric of the mullahs who control Iran has been consistently and ferociously anti-Western. (It was the Ayatollah Khomeini, after all, who first dubbed America "the Great Satan.") Gerges grants that Iran sponsors terrorism, though he feels such sponsorship is limited primarily to the Lebanon-based Hizbollah. Nor does Gerges deny Iran's unremitting hostility to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, given its rote denunciations of Israel as a "criminal Zionist entity."

Nonetheless, Gerges thinks America's "Iranian complex" has blinded Washington to the rise in Iran of genuine political reform, widespread popular opposition to the draconian rule of the Iranian clerics, and significant overtures to the West by Iran's more moderate leaders. For example, at his first press conference after being elected president by an overwhelming majority, Mohammed Khatami (who has since been locked in a fierce power struggle with the mullahs), declared "great respect" for the "great people of the United States," labeled Iranian/American hostility "a great source of sorrow," and concluded: "Instead of talking with forked tongues, we want to have a rational dialogue" (136). For Gerges, Khatami's agenda isn't hard to discern, since his country's impoverished economy would be boosted enormously by the establishment of trading relations with the U.S. Such internal developments in Iran, Gerges claims, provide an opportunity for a rapprochement that is entirely in American interests, since a less isolated Iran would likely shed the adversarial, conspiratorial mentality which he sees as the driving force behind not only Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, but also its attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

In the cases of Algeria, Turkey, and Egypt, Islamist parties have gained political legitimacy at the ballot box, only to have the ruling regimes (backed by their respective militaries) repress the Islamists with varying degrees of ruthlessness--invariably with tacit American approval. (In Algeria, this process has spawned a bloody, still ongoing civil war.) Confrontationalists tend to support such repressions because they believe that allowing Islamists to gain power democratically will result (in the words of one State Department official) in "one person, one vote, one time." But Gerges doubts that most freely elected Islamists would swiftly replace the very institutions that brought them to power with fanatically anti-Western theocracies. On the contrary, he suspects the reverse is more likely--that Islamists will moderate their ideologies when confronted with the realities of governance. In the case of Turkey, for example, the popularly elected prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamist Refah Party, did not essentially alter Turkey's historically pro-American and pro-Israeli foreign policy before Turkey's generals forced him to resign. Gerges also thinks that the Arab masses will be stabilized, rather than incited, by having a say in their political futures.

No pollyanna, Gerges understands that American encouragement of democratization in the Muslim world poses real risks. But he believes that Washington runs a greater risk if it continues to support unpopular, dictatorial Arab regimes--a policy he thinks far more likely to incite, sooner or later, radically anti-Western Islamist revolutions, as happened in Iran. Gerges also makes the indisputable point that America will remain hypocritical so long as it touts itself as the bastion of liberal democracy, while simultaneously discouraging democratization in the Third World.

Gerges is too sanguine about the willingness of Islamist parties to respect democratic rules and institutions, and he may overestimate American influence in the Middle East. Nonetheless, I think America and Political Islam provides useful instruction as our nation seeks to construct rational policies toward the Muslim world in the wake of September 11. First, though one might assume that 9/11 has strengthened the hand of Washington's confrontationalists, this is far from self-evident. On the contrary, President Bush's speeches have repeatedly endorsed the accommodationist view that America is not at war with Islam, but rather with terrorism. Moreover, Bush has enlisted in the U.S. anti-terrorism coalition such Muslim states as Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (albeit with considerable uneasiness on all sides). Admittedly, if Bush follows his swift destruction of the Taliban and al Qaeda with an attempt to topple Saddam Hussein, then the confrontationalists in his administration will have won the day.

Finally, I think post-Taliban Afghanistan provides a golden opportunity for Bush to heed accommodationists like Gerges by actively, substantively supporting democratization in an Islamic country. As of this writing, an interim Afghan government, composed of both Northern Alliance factions and ethnic Pashtuns from the South, is in charge and has promised to turn over power to democratically-elected leadership. Clearly, Afghanistan's path to democratization is fraught with peril, given deep-seated rivalries among various anti-Taliban factions, and given that this war-torn country has no experience with democracy. But America has garnered enormous good will by liberating the Afghan people from Taliban rule. We must stay the course by pumping economic aid into this desperately poor country, and by ensuring that United Nations peacekeeping forces maintain a viable presence for as long as they are needed. In short, it's time for America to practice what it preaches.

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