As the specter of Communism has receded with the end of the Cold War, few international developments have generated more anxiety in US public imagination than the perceived threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Samuel Huntington’s warning of a coming “clash of civilizations” has contributed to a view of Islamist movements and governments as the vanguard of a conflict between the West and the Muslim world. Like Communism before it, “Islamic fundamentalism” evokes images of a deadly virus spread by revolutionary regimes, such as Iran and Sudan, whose alleged aim is to develop a pan-Islamic bloc rich in resources and potentially armed with an “Islamic bomb” in order to wage jihad against the West. Films and television programs routinely vilify Islam as a debased religion and Muslims as little more than hostage-taking terrorists seeking to avenge themselves on innocent Americans.

Until recently, official US policy statements regularly embraced alarmist representations of the “Islamic threat.” The Islamic revolution in Iran challenged the Cold War US strategy of supporting anti-Communist Islamic forces as a counterweight to leftist currents of Arab nationalism. “Islamic fundamentalism” became shorthand for a host of threats to US hegemony, both real and imagined.

Recently, however, US policymakers have distanced themselves from the demonization of Islam and apocalyptic notions of an inevitable clash of civilizations. In a highly publicized speech in 1992, then Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian declared that “the United States Government does not view Islam as the next ’ism’ confronting the West and threatening world peace. That is an overly simplistic response to a complex reality. The Cold War is not being replaced with a new competition between Islam and the West.” [1]

The Clinton administration claims to differentiate between “moderate” Islamists who reject violence and “extremist” Islamic groups that employ violence or seek elections as the first step towards imposing Islamic rule by force. Increasingly, US officials suggest that dialogue and engagement with “moderates” as well as improved social conditions throughout the region should replace indiscriminate confrontation.

Nevertheless, current US policy towards Islamists is ambiguous, characterized by both confrontation and engagement. On one hand, the US still treats Islamist governments and activists as security threats. Policymakers have placed counter-terrorism at the top of international and domestic agendas, winning support for sweeping domestic “anti-terrorism” legislation premised largely on the need to confront “Islamic terror.” The Clinton administration applied its “rogue state” doctrine of containment and isolation with particular vigor to Islamist states, such as Iran and Sudan, while steadfastly supporting Egypt and Tunisia in their brutal repression of all shades of Islamist activism in the name of eradicating “terrorism.” The Clinton administration expressed little concern over the subversion of the democratically elected Islamist government in Turkey by its secular military oligarchy.

On the other hand, the US has urged the military regime in Algeria to initiate a dialogue with “moderate” Islamists and to include them in democratic elections under international supervision. American diplomats have held discussions with leaders of various Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt, Islamists from Morocco and Tunisia, and officials from the political wing of the Palestinian group Hamas. Most dramatically, the US appears to be adopting a less confrontational policy toward Iran in the wake of Khatami’s victory in the 1997 presidential elections.

Ambiguity in current US policy toward Islamism reflects a growing divide within the US foreign policy establishment between two different perceptions of Islamist movements and appropriate strategic responses to them. On a deeper level, however, this divide reflects an emerging post-Cold War strategic paradigm based on transnational liberalization that challenges many of the historic methods of US intervention and hegemony in the Middle East, traditionally based on support for authoritarian social orders. In short, current US policy toward Islamism is a barometer of a clash between two paradigms: the conservative Cold War vision of Huntington and the neo-liberal “end of history” triumphalism of Fukuyama. Before assessing which paradigm will prevail in the formulation of US policy, we must first examine each view.

Confronting the “Islamic Threat”

On one side of the cleavage is the popular view of Islam as the “new Communism” and a grave threat to Western civilization. This view is vigorously promoted in the US by an alliance of frustrated Cold Warriors looking for a new threat to justify the national security state and the pro-Israel establishment led by AIPAC, who are concerned about Israel’s waning strategic value to the US and growing pressures to reach a territorial accommodation with the Palestinians. Notable purveyors of this line include Daniel Pipes, editor of Middle East Quarterly; Peter Rodman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former member of the Reagan National Security Council; syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer; and Bernard Lewis, doyen of Middle East studies at Princeton University. It is well entrenched in such devoutly pro-Israel media outlets as The New Republic, The Weekly Standard and The Atlantic Monthly. An egregious example of this perspective on Islamism was the PBS program “Jihad in America,” produced by ubiquitous “terrorism expert” Stephen Emerson, well-known for his pro-Israel sympathies, who claimed that an “Islamic Internationale” was directing an elaborate political and financial network of Islamic terrorist cells throughout the United States. [2]

Uniting proponents of this view is the belief that “Muslim fundamentalism” constitutes an openly revisionist approach to the regional and international systems. According to Charles Krauthammer, “Islamic fundamentalism” is particularly dangerous because it is “the only expressly anti-Western ideology of any importance in the world and it means to destroy the Western position, Western institutions and Western culture, wherever it can.” [3] Such anti-Islamic sentiments draw upon “neo-Orientalist” discourses that stress the inherently anti-modern and anti-democratic nature of Islam. Thus, Stephen Emerson claims that “the hatred of the West by militant Islamic fundamentalists is not tied to any particular act or event. Rather, fundamentalists equate the mere existence of the West — its economic, political and cultural systems — as an intrinsic attack on Islam.” [4]

Proponents of this view deride the notion of “Islamic moderates.” [5] Those who claim that Islam is capable of reforms compatible with democracy or who see the possibility of some accommodation with the West are characterized as “apologists” or “relativists.” While some Islamist movements may be willing to seek power through democratic means, their program, once in power, will replace democracy with totalitarian theocracy, an outcome referred to as “one person, one vote, one time.” US policymakers are therefore urged to confront Islamic rogue states militarily. Appropriate policy must include punishing acts of terrorism, blocking any Islamic regime’s access to weapons of mass destruction, preventing any Islamist takeover of state power in the region and maintaining a strong US deterrent presence in the Gulf It is also desirable to mount unilateral and extraterritorial efforts, such as the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which stipulates economic sanctions against any company or individual in the world investing more than $20 million per year in the energy industries of Iran and Libya. According to the Islam-as-threat school of policymaking, the US should unequivocally support regimes threatened by Islamists, even those such as Algeria and Egypt, which indiscriminately imprison and torture innocent civilians. Peter Rodman advises that the US “should not push them into political experiments they consider dangerous,” such as political liberalization or Islamist participation in political processes. [6] This “lesser of two evils” approach is reminiscent of the hoary Kirkpatrick doctrine espousing the virtues of supporting authoritarian dictatorships over Communist revolutionaries. Former anti-Communist crusaders like Daniel Pipes even argue that the US will now have to side with leftists against Islamists when necessary. [7]

The “Islamic threat” scenario reproduces the Cold War paradigm of mutually hostile blocs and ideologies, thus perpetuating familiar modes of US intervention in the Third World that rely upon high levels of militarization. For these policymakers, defending a global network of authoritarian political and social arrangements remains the most expedient way for the US to maintain its hegemony and the operation of international capital. [8] Confronting the “Islamic threat” provides the best pretext for preserving the existing status quo of authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes and alliances that served US Cold War aims of ensuring the flow of cheap oil, providing military bases for US power projection and guaranteeing Israel’s military hegemony in the region.

Coopting “Moderate” Islamists

On the other side of the divide are those who reject the notion of an inevitable “clash” between Islam and the West, maintaining that the US can reach an accommodation with certain Islamists. European leaders strongly urge the US to adopt such a view. Many petroleum firms, corporations and energy investors denied access to markets and investments in the name of containing the “Islamic threat” are also backing a less confrontational policy. Recently, key members of the foreign policy elite, including James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Pelletreau, have called for a more nuanced and constructive policy toward Islamism in general and Iran in particular.[9]

Some of the strongest voices rejecting the “Islamic threat” scenario come from Middle East specialists and scholars in the US. Georgetown University professor John Esposito and former CIA analyst Graham Fuller, among others, challenge “neo-Orientalist” notions of a monolithic, anti-democratic and inherently anti-Western Islam. [10] They cite important differences among the various Islamist movements labeled “fundamentalist,” stressing that most violent groups represent the extreme fringe. These scholars argue that Islamism has been nurtured by the failure of existing secular regimes to deliver economic justice and democracy, coupled with popular desires for independence from Western domination. Moreover, they suggest that US policy is partly responsible for the emergence of such movements due to its support of repressive dictatorships and its unconditional support of Israel. Therefore, a crusade against Islam through strictly “national security” means could further polarize Muslim societies and deepen resentment of the West in the Islamic world.

This perspective informs a call from within the foreign policy establishment for a new approach to Islamism. According to this view, US policy should replace its strict containment of Islamist states with policies of constructive engagement and “critical dialogue” so favored in other venues, such as China. “Carrots” such as economic integration are more likely to influence these states than the “stick” of isolation.

According to this view, the US can prevent the growth of violent Islamist movements by halting its unconditional support of corrupt and repressive regimes that claim to be defending US interests by fighting “fundamentalism.” It should instead nurture non-violent Islamic “moderates” by supporting their inclusion in political processes that may lead Islamists to abandon some of the rigidity that characterizes them in opposition. Many cite Jordan as a model, noting the relative success of King Hussein’s strategy of coopting internal Islamic opponents by incorporating them into the political system. Those who advise the US to engage moderate Islamists also argue for a proactive approach to the social and economic causes of militant opposition. They favor increasing US Aid for International Development funding for programs designed to enhance development, strengthen democratic institutions and support human rights.

Proponents of this policy, fearful of repeating the mistakes made in Iran, urge the US to adopt a more accommodating policy toward Islamists. However, a more accommodating US approach would also reflect a deeper paradigmatic shift in the dominant aims and methods of US intervention in the Third World over the past two decades. The intellectual edifice of this emerging paradigm derives from Fukuyama’s “end of history” liberal universalism rather than Huntington’s conservative “clash.” [11] Its primary expression is the strident neo-liberalism of the “Washington consensus” shared by Western governments, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For neo-liberals, the primary enemy is no longer Communism or Islamism, but any barrier to free trade and unfettered markets, such as national economic protectionism, redistributive social programs or restrictions on foreign investment.

Under the neo-liberal paradigm, authoritarian and statist modes of social control constitute fetters to fluid social relations, patterns of deregulated integration and capital accumulation that enable neo-liberal globalization. Thus, Cold War modes of support for corrupt and repressive pro-US dictatorships should be replaced by the encouragement of more consensual modes of social control under the missionary rubric of “promoting democracy.” [12] Controlled liberalization limited to elections among competing elites — “low-intensity democracy” — is one way to relieve the pressures that accompany neo-liberal restructuring and IMF-imposed “reforms” while preempting challenges from subordinate classes and groups demanding fundamental changes and a larger role in the political system.

“Democracy promotion” interventions spearheaded by the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and other agencies do not target governments per se, but “civil society” — trade unions, political parties, mass media, professional associations and other non-governmental organizations. The central aim of civil society building is to transcend “backward” ethnic, religious or other communal forms of affiliations in favor of liberal models of “emancipated individuals” and “public spheres” whose media of interaction are contract and exchange. [13] This form of social organization is more amenable to the neo-liberal reforms demanded by the US, IMF and World Bank.

Thus, the exigencies of neo-liberal globalization compel the US to employ new liberal strategies for addressing the challenge of Islamism. Incorporating Islamists into existing political systems would disperse responsibility for the state’s difficulties while defusing popular opposition to severe economic “reforms” mandated by the IMF. Islamist organizations could also help fill the gap caused by the rollback of welfare states and social services under neo-liberal structural adjustment programs. Finally, increased involvement of Islamists in “civil society” would subject them to mechanisms of social control, thus “normalizing” and transforming them in accordance with the ultimate goal of constructing privatized forms of “religion” compatible with the modern liberal state. [14]

The Wrong Threat

For the immediate future, US policy toward Islamist movements will likely remain ambiguous, perched between “clash” and “cooptation.” The institutional inertia of the Cold War’s authoritarian status quo in the Middle East, the formidable alliance between Cold War warriors and the pro-Israel establishment, and the popular demonization of Islam will hinder any US administration from launching new policies toward Islamists. Perhaps the key variable determining current US policy ambiguities is the approach adopted by those elites and regimes associated with the US in the region (particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco), which strongly object to notions of a clash between the West and Islam but resist any form of political liberalization or accommodation with their Islamist opponents. These states have managed to retain an Islamic character by ceding ground to Islamist opponents on certain “cultural” issues (education, social policy and publishing), while accommodating themselves to the US-led globalizing project. Egypt’s attempt to “Islamize” the state by constructing a difference between legitimate “cultural” Islam and illegitimate “political” Islam will no doubt be viewed with considerable interest in Washington.

In the long term, the policy debate between “clash” and “cooptation” may depend upon the extent to which the neo-liberal paradigm of economic restructuring and “democracy promotion” prevails in US policymaking circles. The adoption of more accommodating and “liberalizing” strategies would be hastened by an increase in regional violence and instability caused by the failure of repressive and exclusionary policies toward Islamists, as well as growing pressure from European allies, multinational corporations and other elites seeking an improved climate for transnational economic integration.

In many ways, the current US policy debate over Islamism resembles the late nineteenth-century cleavage between European colonialists over whether to subjugate non-Western natives militarily or to “civilize” them culturally in order to preserve Western hegemony. Then, as now, the choice is a false one. Both policy options still aim to subjugate the Middle East according to Western rather than indigenous popular interests. Neither policy confronts the truly global dangers implicit in the organizational power of modernizing states and globalizing markets, which militarize and commodify indigenous cultures, destroy environments, intensify poverty and circumscribe political opportunities. These threats pose much greater risks to individual and collective rights than does any Islamic political movement.

While many critics of US policy may disagree with some of the political objectives and tactics of various Islamist movements and governments in the Middle East, they should not overlook the fact that the primary assault on the putative universal norms of international life — self-determination, human rights and representative government — is being conducted by the very regimes currently waging war on their Islamist opposition with full political and military support from the West. The claim that Islamists are not truly democratic must not delay the development of a new foreign policy grounded in a critique of authoritarianism, global neo-liberalism and specious claims about the supremacy of Western civilization.


[1] Edward Djerejian, “The US and the Middle East in a Changing World — Address at Meridian House International,” US Department of State Dispatch, June 2, 1992.
[2] For a detailed rebuttal of this documentary see “A Point-by-Point Analysis of ’Jihad in America’,” published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Washington, DC.
[3] Interview with Charles Krauthammer, Middle East Quarterly (December 1994), p. 76.
[4] Wall Street Journal, June 25, 1993.
[5] See Daniel Pipes, “There Are No Moderates: Dealing with Fundamentalist Islam,” The National Interest (Fall 1995).
[6] Peter Rodman, “Policy Brief: Coopt or Confront Fundamentalist Islam?” Middle East Quarterly (December 1994), p. 64.
[7] Pipes, pp. 55-56.
[8] These authoritarian outcomes are well detailed by such critics of US foreign policy as Roam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko and William Appleman Williams, among others. See Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982); Gabriel Kolko, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988); William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
[9] See Robert Pelletreau, Jr., “Not Every Fundamentalist Is a Terrorist,” Middle East Quarterly (September 1995); and Gary Sick, “Dual Containment: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed?” Middle East Affairs Journal 3/3-4 (1997).
[10] John Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Graham E. Fuller and Ian O. Lesser, A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).
[11] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest (Summer 1989), p. 3.
[12] This argument is drawn largely from William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization and US Intervention and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also Barry Gills, Joel Rocamorea and Richard Wilson, eds., Low-Intensity Democracy: Political Power in the New World Order (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).
[13] This theme is discussed at length in Tom Young, “’A Project to be Realized’: Global Liberalism and Contemporary Africa,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 24/3 (1995), and in David Williams and Tom Young, “Governance, the World Bank and Liberal Theory,” Political Studies 42/1 (1994).
[14] Talal Asad, “Religion and Politics: An Introduction,” Social Research 59/1 (1992).

How to cite this article:

Steve Niva "Between Clash and Cooptation," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

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