America's secret romance with Islamism

In this June 4, 2009 photo, U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the audience after delivering a speech at the Cairo University in Egypt. Speaking at the ancient seat of Islamic learning and culture, and quoting from the Quran, the President called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims".  

Kamalshah, son of Pahlawanshah, son of Said Ahmad Faqir, a resident of Laqlick, stormed into the shari'a court of the remote Afghan district of Kunnar in February 1886, demanding justice.

His wife Qalandar Bibi, Kamalshah told the qadi, or religious judge, had eloped with another villager and was pregnant with his son. But, it turned out, that wasn't the problem he wanted dealt with.

“This woman has jewels belonging to me,” he declared, “two necklaces, one bracelet, one hundred and ninety pins and one pair of golden earrings — the price of which amounts to sixty rupees.”

“I want my things,” Kamalshah complained, “but she refuses to give them up.”

Eight years before Kamalshah appeared before the qadi of Kunnar, journalist Howard Hensman, embedded with British forces during the Afghan war of 1879, offered a somewhat different account of the culture of Afghan men.

The Afghan woman, he claimed — though he never met one — was “shut up and kept from mischief within the four walls of her master's harem.”

The men were “particularly jealous of their women”; insults to their honour were certain to be “confronted by some buck Afghan with a knife in his hand and an oath in his mouth.”

Kamalshah's subversion of our stereotypes of the Afghans offers a prism through which we may reflect upon the intellectual foundations of an extraordinary project that will be key to United States foreign policy in the first decades of this century: its effort to undo the seismic ruptures opened up by 9/11 by seeking a rapprochement with the global Islamist movement.

Envoys from Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party, met with key lawmakers and State Department officials in Washington DC in May. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also said she would welcome dialogue with those of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, long reviled as irredeemable fascists, “who wish to talk with us.” In Afghanistan, President Barack Obama's administration is locked in a secret dialogue with the Taliban.

America's secret romance with the Islamists has a disturbing history — and its renewal ought be a real source of concern for those concerned with democracy.

America's Islamist project

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's appointment book for 1953 bears the record of a meeting with “the Honourable Saeed Ramadhan.” Mr. Ramadan, as his name is commonly spelt today, had travelled to the U.S. as part of a delegation of three dozen religious scholars and political activists, who its government hoped to cultivate to promote its anti-communist agenda in newly independent Arab states.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analysts, declassified documents show, described Mr. Ramadan as a “Phalangist” and a “fascist.” In the Cold War, these weren't necessarily disqualifications.

“By the end of the decade,” journalist and historian Ian Johnson has recorded, “the CIA was overtly backing Ramadan. While it's too simple to call him a U.S. agent, in the 1950s and 1960s the United States supported him as he took over a mosque in Munich, kicking out local Muslims to build what would become one of the Brotherhood's most important centres.”

British geostrategic doctrine likely had something to do with the making of this alliance. Francis Tucker, the last General Officer-Commanding of the British Indian Eastern Command, believed that the creation “of a new Muslim power supported by the science of Britain” would “place Islam between Russian Communism and Hindustan.”

From Dennis Kux's book, Disenchanted Allies, we learn that John Foster Dulles — Eisenhower's Secretary of State and a key architect of the United States' wars against democracy in Iran, Guatemala and Indo-China — believed that the Gurkhas were Pakistani Muslims, and wanted men he believed were racially-superior fighters to be on the anti-communist side.

In the wake of the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan, the U.S. would use those connections, funnelling arms and logistical support through Pakistan to the jihadists it is now locked in war with. President Ronald Reagan famously described the Afghan jihadists as “freedom fighters”: he and others on the American religious right saw in them, not without reason, ideological soulmates.

Less well known are the U.S.' efforts to rebuild bridges with Islamist groups after the horrific events of 9/11. During President George W. Bush's second term in office, the U.S. reached out to Muslim Brotherhood-linked organisations in Europe. In 2006, for example, the State Department organised a conference in Brussels, bringing together western Islamists.

The objective was to play on the fissures within the Islamist movement: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor, was bitterly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, and its cadre were engaged in pitched battles with al-Qaeda-linked organisations in Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.

Mr. Obama was mocked when, in 2009, he began reaching out to what was called the “moderate” Taliban: David Rothkopf, writing in Foreign Policy, imagined the CIA being tasked with seeking men who “advocate stoning unfaithful women to death with only small rocks and pebbles,” and “offer Bin Laden refuge in his home only during inclement weather.”

Now, though, Mr. Obama's Islamist efforts at Islamist outreach form the stuff of America's new consensus: there is, more than one commentator has said, no other way.

Part of the reason for this is tactical. The U.S. allied with reactionary regimes throughout West Asia — as it did in South America — in an effort to beat back nationalism. Egyptian rulers from Anwar Sadat onwards flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood, in an effort to legitimise their power — all the while cracking down ferociously on democratic opponents. In Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq pursued a similar trajectory.

Now, as popular dissent evicts American-allied despot after American-allied despot, the U.S. finds it has no credible secular-democratic partners to engage with.

There is also, however, an ideological foundation for America's new policies: the notion that Islamists, unlike secular democrats, are in some way authentic, organic representatives of their peoples and cultures. The idea is tied profoundly to the role of religion in America's own civic life. In his 2009 speech to what is often called “the Muslim world,” Mr. Obama repeatedly invoked the common traditions of religion to legitimise his defence of democratic rights — not the secular traditions of the Enlightenment, from which they emerged.

Back in 1978, scholar Edward Said pointed to the pervasive influence essentialist ideas about faith and identity had on western thought. The notion of that Islam explained the workings of societies as diverse as Algeria and Indonesia suffused not just scholarship, but also popular culture: Charles Deveraux's novella Venus in India, first published three years after Kamalshah approached the qadi of Kunnar, is replete with images culled from Hensman.

Intellectuals belonging to quite different traditions projected on Islamic societies their own fantasies. Deborah Baker's superb biography of Maryam Jameelah, an enormously influential American-born writer, shows she saw in the reactionary ideas of Islamist ideologues Sayyed Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi a means of resistance against modernist materialism. French philosopher Michel Foucault's uncritical support for Iranian Islamism, Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson have shown, rested on similar propositions.

Even now, the ideas survive: historian William Dalrymple, no reactionary, described the Taliban as being “in many ways the authentic voice of rural Pashtun conservatism.”

Claims like these have in fact at best problematic empirical foundations. In a nuanced 2010 essay, scholar Thomas Ruttig noted that three decades of conflict brought about dramatic changes in the structures of Pashtun society. Education, generational change and urbanisation also brought transformations — as did ideology. Even though Taliban leaders were rooted in tribal societies, Dr. Ruttig noted, “their self-identification, the balance between being Pashtun and being Muslim has changed, as in the case with many Afghans.”

Little of this nuance, though, informs reportage or scholarly writing: a few minutes with an internet search engine will demonstrate that the word “fierce” and its variants preface references to ethnic Pashtuns with mind-numbing frequency. The word, needless to say, almost never presages discussions of European nations where killing has taken place on an industrial scale.

Islamism is thus almost never understood as just one of several competing modernist movements — its influence a consequence not of its organic character, but of the geopolitical patronage.

Even though Islamists have moderated their positions in recent years, their politics remain disturbing. The Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Youssef al-Qaradawi, for example, says he appreciates music and supports the right of women to work — but also describes the Holocaust as divine punishment of Jews. He remains committed to “the spread of Islam until it conquers the entire world and includes both the East and West which marks the beginning of the return of the Islamic Caliphate.”

In the decades to come, it is possible that the rigours of democratic politics will compel figures like al-Qaradawi to temper their positions: to engage in the kind of alliance-based politics that has allowed the American religious right to work within the democratic system.

The U.S. patronage of the Islamist cause, however, will legitimise and strengthen it — not allow the regeneration of genuine, competitive democracy. Its current course threatens to compound the tragic consequences America's anti-communist crusade had for the lives of millions across the world.

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