Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Confrontation or accommodation?


America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? Fawaz A Gerges, Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp285

While some have attributed the misunderstandings, or occasional enmities, between America and Political Islam, to a "clash" of cultures or of civilizations, Fawaz Gerges chooses instead to analyse the domestic US political scene in his attempts to explain America's "fixation with Islam." He looks at historical, political, cultural and security issues, and gives four case-studies of US policy in the Middle East, examining in turn American policy towards Iran, Algeria, Egypt and Turkey.

The book seeks to understand the reasons behind the difficult relationship between the two, to address historical problems, and to give some indication of how things might in future be set to rights. In reviewing the American academic Samuel Huntington's influential theory of a "clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and the West, the author raises the question of how far considerations of culture and religion, rather than perceptions of political ideology and national interests, now power US foreign policy. Himself a native of Lebanon, Gerges holds a chair in International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in the United States.

America and Political Islam examines the making of US foreign policy towards the Islamists from presidents Carter to Clinton. It focuses on the thinking of the US foreign policy elite, and on what influences it, towards Islamist states and movements. Such influences include domestic US public opinion, the media, various interest groups, think-tanks, the US Congress and other groups and institutions. One of the book's main aims is to distinguish between "fact" and "rhetoric" in US foreign policy as bases for action. According to Gerges, American foreign policy has tended to fluctuate between "realpolitik and moralism"; "at times," he writes, "the US foreign policy elite has cloaked the balance of power behind an idealistic façade and has used democratic rhetoric as mere window-dressing; democratic ideals were sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik calculations of self-interest."

Although, Gerges writes, the world of Islam had ceased to pose any "military threat" to the West by the end of the 17th century, "the religious and intellectual challenge of Islam" continues to seize the imagination of many people in the West. Many Americans, for example, Gerges says continue to perceive Arabs, or Muslims, as "dangerous, untrustworthy, undemocratic, barbaric and primitive." Yet, he writes, it would be misleading to try to explain official US attitudes as the mere reflection of such widespread cultural and historical ones. For political and security concerns are more significant in shaping US policy towards the Islamist movements, and these include the usual considerations -- strategic calculations in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the need for oil from the Persian Gulf, the vulnerability of some pro-US Middle Eastern regimes and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gerges argues that the goal of US foreign policy has always been to achieve "stability" in the region, and, for this reason, while during the era of the Cold War the US clashed with revolutionary nationalist movements, it now clashes with their successor, "revolutionary Islam." "The equation of Islam with 'terrorism'," in the United States, writes Gerges, "has done considerable damage to the image of Muslims in the United States, thus constraining US policy makers from pursuing an accommodationist policy towards Islamists." He blames radical Islamists for this to an extent, saying that they are "their own worst enemies" in acting in ways likely to produce such perceptions.

In a chapter entitled "The Intellectual Context of American Foreign Policy," which is at the core of the book's argument, Gerges tries to differentiate between the "confrontationalist" trend in US foreign policy, which considers Political Islam to be "the new enemy" and the "accommodationist" one that merely regards it as "the new challenge." For confrontationalists, the Islamists are by definition "anti-democratic and anti-Western." Gerges cites the leading US and French scholars Bernard Lewis and Gilles Kepel as agreeing that democracy is incompatible with Political Islam and may, in fact, be incompatible also with Islam itself. For the accommodationists on the other hand things are less clear-cut. They make a distinction between the legitimate Islamist political groups and an extremist fringe. The former have to be regarded as a part of democracy, not as a negation of it. Gerges writes that it is important to emphasise such conflicts and tensions within the US foreign policy elite and within the American intellectual milieu since the US is often wrongly portrayed in the Arab World at least as "a monolith, speaking with one voice," which is not the case.

In the book's more historical and descriptive sections, Gerges provides the reader with a summary of US foreign policy towards the Islamists over the past two decades. Although presidents Carter and Reagan witnessed the rise to power, or influence, of Islamist political movements in the Middle East, both were preoccupied by the Cold War and with the Soviet Union. Carter was badly burnt by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis, however, and his administration's handling of the latter almost certainly contributed to Reagan's victory in the presidential elections and possibly to the disastrous electoral fortunes of the Democrats throughout the 1980s.

Yet while the Reagan administration adopted a tough rhetorical stance against Political Islam, it rarely acted in ways outside the well-worn grooves of US foreign policy. Reagan's Republican successor, however, George Bush, was confronted with a test of the US administration's attitudes towards Political Islam in the Mediterranean by events in Algeria. In order to prevent the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (the FIS) in the 1992 elections, the Algerian military intervened and cancelled the elections, subsequently also outlawing the FIS. Gerges comments that "the Bush administration's response to the Algerian crisis was notable largely for its passivity, in contrast to its outspoken record in advocating political pluralism elsewhere." A commitment to democracy and to political pluralism would seem to entail support for the FIS. Yet the Bush administration gave no such support.

Such ambivalence on the part of the US administration was given further expression in an address delivered by Edward Djerejian, US assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern affairs, in June 1992. Entitled "The US, Islam, and the Middle East in a Changing World," Gerges sees this as an important document of American foreign policy. While , he says, "its importance lay in its symbolic and psychological, rather than in its practical or concrete, dimensions," it nevertheless "set the intellectual framework that would influence American policy thinking for years," expressed a broadly "accommodationist" stance, and was taken over virtually unchanged by the incoming Clinton administration.

In general, the author of America and Political Islam believes that the Clinton administration's attitude towards Political Islam has been the inheritance of Bush's legacy, with all its constraints, opportunities and ambiguities. It has opted to try to "co-opt" Political Islam, rather than to confront it. "Like that of its predecessors," Gerges writes, "the Clinton administration's rhetoric on political Islam combines carrots and sticks, alternating between accommodationist and confrontationalist language. It is unclear whether this vacillation is part of the administration's conscious strategy or due to uncertainty and ambivalence regarding the Islamists' real agenda. What is clear is that US policy is full of unresolved tensions."

For the time being, Gerges concludes his book by saying, "the United States does not have a comprehensive, coherent policy regarding the role of Islam in the political process." He writes that there are "major inconsistencies" between what American officials say and what they do regarding the role of Islam in the political process. However, he also says that strategic and security considerations, rather than conflicts of culture, ideology or history, have the greater influence on US thinking and on the official US foreign policy discourse on the Islamist revival. Gerges says that Clinton's own pronouncements on Islam display "enlightened sensitivity, realism and tact," and thus stand in stark contrast to some of the material found in the US media.

However, Gerges writes that the main challenge facing the administration still lies in pursuing policies consistent with its lofty ideals, which, though so often expressed by various US officials, tend to go by the board in fact. Were this challenge to be met, then Gerges writes, "American officials [would] do much more to improve the image of the United States in the eyes of Muslims, many of whom criticize what they perceive as a double standard in forming US foreign policy," questioning "Washington's sincerity in speaking out on issues of human rights, democracy and the prevention of the proliferation of weapons," when such a discourse often seems to play little role in matters of concrete policy, governed as this is by realpolitik.

Reviewed by Nadia Abou El-Magd


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