Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

America and the 'Problem' of Islam

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Egyptian university students gather on November 26, 2013, in Alexandria, Egypt, to protest the anti-demonstration law, which bans protests without prior police approval. (Ibrahim Ramadan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Egyptian university students gather on November 26, 2013, in Alexandria, Egypt, to protest the anti-demonstration law, which bans protests without prior police approval. (Ibrahim Ramadan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Due to the attacks of September 11 and their aftermath, American officials, analysts, and journalists had to do something they otherwise likely wouldn’t have done. They had to have—or were expected to have—some basic understanding of Islam and its role in politics, which is not to say that they succeeded in their efforts.

For American policymakers, it was a thankless and somewhat odd endeavor. Should they involve themselves in internal questions of Islamic belief and practice? The answer would seem to be no. But this is different than saying that American officials shouldn’t have any opinions about the role that Islam plays in politics and public life. That is a different sort of question, and one that directly concerns and affects US policy in the Middle East and beyond. If Islamist movements rise to power through democratic elections—as they did in countries as varied Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Iraq—then there is simply no way for American observers to avoid the “problem” of Islam.

A Tale of Two Officials

The distinction between Islam, as belief and theology, and Islam, as it manifests itself politically, can be illustrated with a tale of two former secretaries of state, John Kerry and Condoleezza Rice.

President Barack Obama’s tenure witnessed the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS. The “Islamic” in the group’s name caused any number of headaches. It also provided an easy talking point for Western officials, who found themselves tempted to dissociate the Islamic State from Islam. This was as welcome as it was well-intentioned. At times, however, it went too far, inviting more befuddlement than insight. In prepared remarks to the Brookings Institution in December 2015, Kerry made the unusual step of referring to ISIS as “apostates.”1 Later, in February 2016, he said “[Daesh] are also above all apostates, people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceive people in order to fight for their purposes.”2

Of course, there was an irony in a top US official deciding, with seeming certainty, who qualified as an apostate, a word with a distinct legal import in Islamic law. The other irony was that in declaring ISIS apostates, Kerry was mimicking ISIS’s own practice of condemning Muslims with whom they disagreed—which was most of them—as disbelievers. Theology aside, calling ISIS apostates, or really anything else, had negligible policy import. Even if it were good rhetoric, that’s all it would have been, having little bearing on the actual fight against ISIS.

When assessing what the United States got right and wrong about Islam after September 11, the Islamic State doesn’t, or shouldn’t, figure too prominently. It was an incredibly influential group for several years, but it was not significant in terms of mass support or representativeness in the broader Muslim world. On the other hand, nonviolent Islamist movements and parties did have both mass support and staying power, which they would often translate into electoral success. With this in mind, the longer-term problem for the United States, at least on the level of strategy, is whether it should continue tying itself to authoritarian regimes in the region in the name of stability. The flip side of this question is what the United States should do when democratization produces “bad” outcomes in strategically vital countries, as it seemingly did during the Arab Spring.

More proximate concerns like terrorism may seem more urgent, but a counter-terrorism policy isn’t the same thing as a strategy. As a tactical matter, the United States, regardless of administration, employs law enforcement and targeting to apprehend and kill terrorists. A strategy, in contrast, requires some vision of what the Middle East can and should look like in decades to come—and this requires careful consideration of the internal political struggles of Muslim-majority nations.

These struggles center around questions of the sources of legitimate authority and the nature and meaning of the modern nation-state. The nature of the state, in turn, is intimately tied to the question of Islam’s appropriate role in a country’s political life, whether that be in electoral competition, legislation, or the constitutional order. Interestingly, one of the rare former officials with a similar interpretation is Condoleezza Rice, likely due to her formative experiences with the thorny “democratic dilemmas” that arose during her tenure as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. She writes in her memoirs, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, that “religion and politics don’t mix easily—but the exclusion of religious people from politics doesn’t work either” and that “the region desperately needs an answer to [this] challenge.”3

If this is the question worth asking in the hope of finding an answer, then it is worth noting that it is not new. It was first posed in the early 1990s in the context of Algeria. For the first time, the United States was confronted with an Islamist dilemma when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) found itself on the verge of victory in the December 1991 parliamentary elections. The staunchly secular military stepped in and annulled the elections—ending democracy in the name of saving it. By turning a blind eye to the coup and even encouraging it, the United States along with its European allies helped ensure that the dilemma would remain—entirely unresolved—over the subsequent decades. And so here we are today, engaged in many of the same debates and much of the same speculation about what would happen if Islamist parties came to power through the democratic process.

The Return of the Islamist Dilemma

For obvious reasons, the Middle East became a core priority—or an unhealthy preoccupation, depending on your perspective—after the September 11 attacks, less than a year into the George W. Bush administration. Bush’s subsequent Freedom Agenda was bound to raise similar questions about whether democratization would propel Islam’s role in politics to the forefront. And it did.

The Freedom Agenda drew considerably from a controversial intellectual premise. In many ways, it was a patriotic update of so-called “blame America first” arguments associated with left-wing activists, which made it all the more ironic coming from Bush and the neoconservatives.4 The Bush administration’s argument was intuitive: Citizens are more likely to resort to violence if they lack peaceful means to express their grievances. And those means could only come about in a democratic context that afforded genuine political space for dissent, civil negotiation, and compromise. Accordingly, the attacks on September 11 did not happen because they hated our freedom, but, rather, because the Middle East’s stifling political environment bred anger, frustration, and violence. Since the United States had been partly responsible for promoting authoritarianism in the region, it was also responsible for promoting the antidote.

The Bush administration’s commitment to the Freedom Agenda didn’t last, however. After a brief period of apparent democratic opening in 2004 and 2005, US officials backtracked after Islamist parties made significant electoral gains across the region. In the Palestinian territories, the election of the militant group Hamas in January 2006 became the new cautionary tale. While the Bush administration understood the importance of elections, perhaps to a fault, it incorrectly assumed they would produce “moderate” outcomes.5

In the world as it was, Hamas won by a clear margin, but it could have been otherwise, couldn’t it? There was a counterfactual history in which the “moderates” of Fatah might have won instead, and those who believed in such a world would have been drawing on a considerable academic literature. The belief that participation and moderation went hand in hand also happened to be intuitive—even if it turned out to be wrong. As Bush’s deputy national security advisor, Elliott Abrams, explained it to me: “The assumption was that the average person is concerned about educating his or her children, making a living.” In retrospect, he—like so many others—wondered how much good faith to extend to a fickle electorate. As Abrams reflected:

There’s no question that some of the vote for Hamas was a protest vote against Fatah. But how much of it was that? And how much of it was the notion that Israel needs to be destroyed, and the only way to do that effectively is through violence? It's not zero. I mean, is it 5 percent? Is it 35 percent? Same thing in Egypt. When people vote for the Brotherhood, what are they voting for? And how many of them were actually, truly Islamists? Maybe we were much too optimistic in thinking, ‘You know, they're voting for good government. They're voting to end corruption.’6

There’s no question that some of the vote for Hamas was a protest vote against Fatah. But how much of it was that? And how much of it was the notion that Israel needs to be destroyed, and the only way to do that effectively is through violence? It's not zero. I mean, is it 5 percent? Is it 35 percent? Same thing in Egypt. When people vote for the Brotherhood, what are they voting for? And how many of them were actually, truly Islamists? Maybe we were much too optimistic in thinking, ‘You know, they're voting for good government. They're voting to end corruption.’

The language of moderation was predominant at the time, with scholars of political Islam (including myself) attempting to assess the moderation, or lack thereof, of Islamist movements over time.7 The moderation framework has largely gone out of fashion, in part because moderation cannot help but be relative, raising the question of relative to what? This is where assessments of not just Islamists but of Islam itself become relevant. If judged according to Western standards of secularism, liberalism, and gender equality, Islamist movements would be considered immoderate or outright radicals. In religiously conservative societies, however, Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood ilk are well within the cultural mainstream and are best classified on a secular-Islamist spectrum as center-right, with Salafi movements somewhere on the further-right. In contrast, it is secularists and liberals who would be considered outside the mainstream. For example, advocating for full gender equality—including, say, equal inheritance between the sexes—would be considered radical rather than moderate if one takes the actual societies in question as the point of reference.

The Bush administration’s elevation of democracy as a core element of its Middle East policy was unprecedented up until that point. The Freedom Agenda—and the fact that it was constantly touted by administration officials —made the question of Islamist parties’ participation inescapable. In the summer of 2003, Richard Haass, then the director of policy planning at the State Department, attempted to address that question:

Some have argued that the US is prepared only to support electoral outcomes that please Washington, which is untrue. The US will support democratic processes even if those empowered do not choose policies strategically in line with US interest… Let there be no misunderstanding: the US is not opposed to parties with an Islamic character in positions of responsibility.8

But to “not oppose” parties with an Islamic character was easier said than done, and it was unclear if Haass’ position had much buy-in across the Bush administration. President Bush’s idealization of democracy as something resembling a panacea was stirring, but it led to blind spots. Many in the Bush administration, like many Americans, were inclined to think that good things went together. So, if democracy was good, which it was, then it would lead to good outcomes. When it didn’t, the dampening of enthusiasm was palpable. In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a major speech in Cairo where she presented democracy promotion as the centerpiece of America’s strategy in the region.9 But the message ended up being muddled. In the question-and-answer portion of the event, a reporter asked if the United States had any contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the country’s largest opposition bloc. Rice replied, “We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and we don’t—we won’t.”10

Taking Religion Seriously

With the renewed focus on the Middle East, there was a proliferation of academic studies on Islam, Islamism, and the compatibility of Islam and democracy. In the early-to-mid 2000s, there was a profound shift in how Islamist movements were discussed. Mostly gone was the old nomenclature of “Islamic fundamentalists,” which had been popularized by a generation of scholars who were inclined to see political manifestations of Islam as an inherent threat to Western interests and values. As recently as 1995, John Voll, a leading scholar of Islam at Georgetown University, noted that “‘fundamentalism’ remains the most commonly utilized identification of the various revivalist impulses among Muslims. More technically accurate terms and neologisms have not gained wide acceptance.”11

The term Islamic fundamentalism, having gained currency after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and drawing on already negative associations with Christian fundamentalism, couldn’t help but be used pejoratively.12 As a growing number of younger scholars went to study and conduct fieldwork in the Middle East after September 11, a more conciliatory discourse grew influential. What resulted was the near disappearance of “Islamic fundamentalists” in short order, to be replaced by the more neutral “Islamists.” As it so happened, this was a term that most Islamists in the Arab world came to use for themselves in Arabic (islamiyoun). While seemingly symbolic, the change in vocabulary was substantive as well. Most Islamists were not fundamentalists. They were modernists par excellence, attempting to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern-nation state. They did so by de-emphasizing the classical tradition and instead emphasizing Islamic interpretive tools, such as maslaha (public interest) and maqasid (the objectives of the law), to accommodate democratic competition, political pluralism, and even interest-bearing loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Of course, the discomfort with the idea of Islamist movements remains. Islamism is not the same of Islam, but when it comes to understanding Western fears, the two are difficult to disentangle. After all, fear of Islamism is fueled by the presumption on the part of Western political elites that political development and social progress require a conscious effort to constrain and limit religion’s role in public life. So, in this sense, the problem of Islamism is also a problem of Islam, even if it shouldn’t be.

Islamism versus Islam

After September 11, the conversation around Islam inevitably focused on Islam and democracy.13 And any conversation about the compatibility of Islam and democracy couldn’t avoid addressing Islamism and Islamist parties, since they were precisely the ones most likely to perform well in elections, perhaps even winning them outright.

In the broadest sense, Islamists are those who believe that Islamic law or Islamic values should play a central role in public life. They feel Islam has things to say about how politics should be conducted and how other people—not just themselves—should behave in both private and public. But this sentiment, on its own, is not enough to be or become an Islamist. As the Princeton historian Michael Cook writes, Islamists are “at pains to construe their politics out of their Islamic heritage.”14 One must, in other words, decide to act politically as an Islamist.15

With this two-pronged definition, the distinction between Islam and Islamism becomes clearer. Large majorities in Muslim-majority countries may say they want Islam to play a prominent role in politics, but this does not mean they are Islamists. It simply means that they are ordinary people who believe what the preponderance of Muslims have believed from the very beginning—that Islam and politics cannot, and should not, be separated.

So, definitionally, there should be no reason to assume the existence of Islamists where they do not exist. But the essential conundrum remains regardless. To the extent that US policymakers see Islam as a “problem cluster,” they are also likely to see secularization as if not necessarily the solution then at least something positive worth encouraging.16 Or they may see moderation as entailing a move from Islamic sensibilities to less explicitly Islamic ones—which is why “moderate Muslims” and “moderate Islam” became preoccupations in a post-9/11 context.17 In the Middle East, ostensibly secular autocrats were well aware of this, and they acted accordingly. They could argue that an “enlightened” autocracy, however repressive, represented the best opportunity to secure the freedom and safety of the various groups that suffer—or are thought to suffer—under democratization in religiously conservative contexts: women and religious minorities.18 When it came to Christians in countries like Egypt, worst-case scenarios were assumed. It was simply too risky. As one American commentator put it: “Every attempt at democracy, and every democratic-like government that has been set up in Muslim-majority countries, has inflicted great harm on its religious minorities.”19

If ordinary citizens were conservative and retrograde on things like gender equality and minority rights, then top-down, authoritarian leaders might be bad in theory, but perhaps, in a world of necessary evils, they could be seen as an instrument of progress. Or so the thinking went. If democracy was supposed to produce good outcomes, with electorates like these it clearly wouldn’t. All the reason to be circumspect about the right of those citizens to vote in meaningful elections in the first place.

On intellectual grounds as well as on principle, the Obama administration would have disagreed with such an account. Obama and his top aides supported Islamist participation in politics. How could they not, particularly during a period as momentous as the Arab Spring, when the tide of history seemed to be turning? As one senior White House official recalled it: “Obama started off very much of the view that we need to accept that Islamists will have a role in government. I think he came in very much believing in that and he wanted to be the president who would have an open mind about Islamists.”20 Even as late as the day of Egypt’s July 3, 2013 military coup, President Obama was reiterating the importance of including all parties in Egyptian politics, and he made a note to mention religious parties. “The United States continues to believe firmly,” Obama said, “that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties—secular and religious, civilian and military.”21

America’s Islam Problem

It wasn’t necessarily surprising that Obama—the president with the most experience around Muslims and in the Muslim world—would be more accepting of the role that Islam might play in public life. But this is only one part of the story. Sometimes, theory and practice diverge. Chastening experiences in the Middle East took their toll. As the Arab Spring turned dark, so, too, did Obama. He was known to privately joke, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” He wondered why people in the Middle East couldn’t just “be like the Scandinavians.”22 He said the region was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”23 It bothered him that a growing number of Indonesian women were donning headscarves.24 In his 2016 interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama also put the blame on Muslims for not being sufficiently peaceful. Muslims, he said, need to “undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.”25 He spoke of a “reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.” In remarks after a terrorist attack, he argued that it was “the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization.”26 Taken together, these statements betray a particular kind of fatalism toward a people, a culture, a religion. Too many Muslims, it seemed, were intent on defying history’s arc. As Goldberg notes, “One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems.”27

Like so many others, Obama found himself frustrated by a region that seemed stubbornly resistant to change. If the region was hopeless, it raised the question of why it might be so. In the search for answers, it was natural to look at the Middle East and think that the role of “tribalism”—including religion and a culture shaped indelibly by religion—might be part of the problem. In some sense, it was part of the problem.

Almost immediately, in those first few months of the Arab Spring, the role of Islam in public life and Islam’s relationship to the state became the subject of intense disagreement. Despite underemployment, income inequality, and poverty being the most proximate concerns for ordinary citizens, they were only discussed sparingly, in part because there was little to discuss. Most parties mouthed the same banalities. Candidates routinely promised more jobs, better wages, and campaigns to root out poverty, corruption, and any number of other social ills. If you wanted to distinguish yourself from the competition, discussing the economy was probably not going to rally the base. “Left” and “right” weren’t the relevant metrics, because a traditional left-right spectrum failed to reflect the primary cleavage in these societies, which revolved around religion and identity.28 To the extent, then, that Arab nations descended into conflict, it seemed to have at least something to do with religion. But it does not follow that Islam itself was the problem. Rather, the problem was, and still is, the inability to accommodate competing conceptions of Islam’s role in politics and public life.

To devise a US approach to the region that seeks to accommodate Islam’s public role rather than limit it, however, is not likely to be popular among American politicians and officials, at least not if it’s phrased in precisely that way. Individual policymakers do not consciously think about how to manipulate Islam’s public role in foreign countries, but they do not need to. As it often does, culture provides the backdrop against which individuals (and governments) make decisions, even if they themselves are unaware of how those background assumptions shape their behavior. As Fawaz Gerges, author of America and Political Islam, writes: “At the heart of [the] US reservoir of images and ideas on Islam lie not only fear and bewilderment but also deep misgivings about mixing religion and politics.”29

Indeed, these misgivings are real and enduring. But then there is the question of why such concerns would affect the American perception of Islamists and not others. After all, most if not all governments in the Middle East mix religion and politics—even those that are more secularly oriented and “progressive.” The reason for this is deceptively simple. Autocratic regimes are insulated from their populations, but only up to a point. Because Islam remains resonant, and because Muslim populations remain religiously conservative to one degree or another, to fail to promote your own brand of Islam is to leave an ideological vacuum that opponents can exploit. Religion, then, becomes not merely a private matter but a question of national security. So governments must monitor and regulate Islamic knowledge and production. These manifestations of Islam are just as “political”; they just happen to be political in a different way.

That the United States was never able to come to terms with a certain kind of oppositional Islam—one that sought power through normal politics but also opposed American regional hegemony——is, now, a reality more than three decades in the making. As a reality, it may be too late to undo. Undoing it would require a fundamental reorientation of American policy in the Middle East—a reorientation that would be entirely novel.

For the better part of seven decades, the United States has allied itself with authoritarian regimes that have promoted some form of “statist Islam,” in which religion plays a prominent, even central, role in public life (as in Saudi Arabia). This state-centered, top-down version of Islam is meant to serve the state, and not the other way around. It has little room for political participation or the independence of religious scholars. Unsurprisingly, then, this is an Islam that has been perceived, at least by successive American administrations, as more palatable, manageable, and less likely to challenge US national security interests.

That is one way of seeing it. But if one of the foundational problems of the modern Middle East—or perhaps even the foundational problem—is the failure of the nation-state to come to a peaceable, popularly acceptable accommodation with Islam, then America’s preference for a domesticated, statist Islam can be cast in a different and less positive light. The “problem” of Islam hasn’t been resolved. It has merely been postponed.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and assistant research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary. He is the author most recently of The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.