Wednesday, August 1, 2007

American Policy Towards Islamism

...the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

-George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct"

I take momentary pause from my larger foray into grand strategy in response to several interesting pieces I have read in recent weeks, all of which speak, however indirectly, to a reevaluation of American policy towards Islamist movements around the World. An op-ed by Nicholas Thompson advocates a revival in Kennan-esque strategic thinking as it relates to America's conflict with radical Islam. He argues that Kennan's thinking was often misinterpreted as advocating the kind of bellicose, military containment that subsequently prevailed during the Cold War era; in reality Kennan was supposedly advocating a purely political strategy in which the United States used persuasion and superior example to counter Soviet perfidity. I just re-read Kennan's original article, and I am not entirely convinced that his interpretation is correct (I fail to see how Kennan's advice that "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points" does not imply at least some level of military action); but I see what he is driving at. American resources and political capital would be much better applied building schools in Muslim countries than providing high tech weapons to ostensibly friendly Muslim governments.

The second piece I found interesting was posted by Jeb at Foreign Policy Watch, detailing the emergence of a womens' rights movement within political Islam (Jeb struggles, as do the movement's advocates, with the term "feminism," as many of the movements' precepts clash with those of western feminist thought). This is significant because a key concern of many in the West, particularly western liberals, is that Islamist movements are inherently hostile to many of the basic human rights for which liberals have spent centuries fighting and for which they hope one day to gain universal recognition. To be sure, such movements are in their infancy, and I have little confidence that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood would immediately adopt a progressive Islamic position on such issues the moment they took power; but the fact that such principles of human dignity are gaining political space within the broader Islamist movement demonstrates that Islamist thinking need not be inherently hostile to core progressive human values.

Finally, Shadi Hamid of the Project on Middle East Democracy has argued in several forums (here and here) that the United States needs to recognize that Islamism is the only viable reformist ideology in the Muslim world, and that vainly pushing for liberal reforms that lack popular constituencies while continuing to support corrupt but secular autocrats is a recipie for disaster. He suggests that the United States open dialogue with any Islamist movement that renounces violence and commits itself to political participation through the democratic process (this would include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, as well as non-violent movements in Morocco and Jordan, but exclude Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which have armed wings). He argues that democratic participation is likely to moderate some of their policy prescriptions that Americans find distasteful, such as curtailment of women's rights and opposition to Israel, while giving the population of the Middle East a constructive outlet for their political frustrations that will undercut support for truly radical and violent groups such as al-Qaeda and Hamas.

Tying this all together, I would argue that American Cold War Policy went most dangerously astray when U.S. leaders failed to look at local Communist and Socialist movements in a nuanced way, seeing agents of Moscow in what were actually nationalist movements that expressed their desire for self-determination and justice in the language of Marx. This logic led America to abandon all of her "moral and political leadership" in places like Vietnam and Iran, with devastating consequences. If the United States is serious about building a democratic Middle East, one with the institutions capable of undercutting the threat to global peace that Radical Islam represents, it will have to realize that not everyone invoking the name of Allah need be counted among its enemies. It will require the courage to abandon the false stability of corrupt autocrats and embrace the uncertainty of moderate Islamism. If that does not prove possible, I fear we shall continue to stumble about in moral, political and strategic darkness.


Jeb said...
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Jeb said...

Matt -

This is an extremely smart, insightful post that really gets at the problem with American perceptions of Islamism. As you point out, there is little understanding amongst policymakers about the nuances and differences between various Islamist groups. I am in complete agreement that it is a tremendous mistake that "everyone invoking the name of Allah need be counted among [our] enemies."