How America Changed Its Approach to Political Islam

The view from Washington has shifted a lot over the decades.

A Muslim man reads the Koran at Saigon central mosque in Vietnam.
A Muslim man reads the Koran at Saigon central mosque in Vietnam. (Pascal Deloche / Getty)

Sometimes Islamist groups succeed. Sometimes they underperform. But they almost always matter.

This means that the United States needs answers for questions not just about the nature of Islamist movements, but also about the more politically thorny question of what the U.S. should do about them. How the U.S. and Europe should respond—or even if they should treat Islamist parties as distinctive in the first place—has been a contentious question since at least the early 1990s. The Arab Spring, two decades later, brought this “Islamist dilemma” back to the fore, and Washington found itself, again, conflicted.

The rise of the Islamic State and, more recently, the election of President Trump have complicated Washington’s view of political Islam. Some of the figures from Trump’s inner circle who held very skeptical views of Islam, such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, and former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, have now left the administration. But this brand of skepticism still holds enduring appeal for Trump’s base, and the president may feel tempted to return to it as a way of rallying his core supporters and distracting from other political woes.

Understanding the dilemma confronting the United States requires going back a few decades. Although we know from declassified State Department cables that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was on Washington’s radar during the 1950s and 1960s, American foreign policy granted no particular significance to Islamists, other than to wonder whether their religious nature might make them useful partners in checking the spread of “Third World” socialism.

Political Islam did not attract serious attention from American officials until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. For some time, the events of that year shaped American understandings of Islamism even though Iran’s Shiite revolutionary ideology wasn’t in line with the orientation of most other Islamists and was highly atypical even within Shiite history and tradition.

The event that set the tone for U.S. policy toward Sunni Islamist movements (of the Muslim Brotherhood ilk) was the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991. When it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution, the military intervened to annul the results, plunging Algeria into civil war for the better part of a decade. In a spring 1992 speech, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian indicated that the Algerian army’s intervention had been prudent because Islamists coming to power through the ballot box would have been a case of “one man, one vote, one time.” In other words, Islamists would make instrumental use of the ballot box to capture the state, only to subsequently dismantle democracy.

Sunni Islamist movements, meanwhile, were evolving rapidly with the times. By the mid-1990s, there were clear signs that these groups could no longer be understood through the original vision of Islamist “founding fathers”—such as the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna or Pakistan’s Abul Ala Mawdudi. By the mid-2000s, Islamist parties had become fixtures in the mainstream politics of Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and Kuwait. In Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose roots lay in Turkey’s Islamist movement, won its first landslide victory.

During this same period, U.S. policy toward Islamists remained quite cautious. In 1995, Washington announced that it was ceasing all contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. After the September 11th attacks, some of the more influential voices shaping American views of political Islam were those—such as Israel and Egypt—that wished to advance an understanding of Islamism consistent with their domestic interests. Soon, most Islamist parties in the Arab world decided to boycott the United States in a gesture of protest at the American invasion of Iraq. In 2006, America’s rejection of Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections seemed to confirm in the eyes of many the idea that the United States was simply unwilling to allow Islamists to govern, even when they won in free elections.

Looked at from a different vantage point, however, Washington’s reluctance to engage with Islamists seems guided more by basic realpolitik. The U.S. ceased contact with the Brotherhood in Egypt based on a request from its partner, the Egyptian government. It rejected Hamas’s victory at the polls out of concern for its close ally Israel—and because Hamas was a designated terrorist organization. Yet, at the same time, Islamist parties in various countries—including Yemen, Indonesia, Morocco, and Jordan—received various forms of support and training through democracy promotion programs funded by the likes of the United States Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. There was no coherent, deliberate policy toward Islamist parties as such; it was a byproduct of other concerns.

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In the pre-Arab Spring era, the Muslim Brotherhood and the many movements it inspired reached a consensus for how to pursue their aims: bide their time, do their best to build social influence within regime constraints, make small but significant inroads in parliament, wait for a democratic opening, and then, when it came, fill the political vacuum. There was no need to spend too much time pondering questions of governance, since the prospect of governing seemed so remote. The Arab uprisings challenged this model, then rendered it moot.

The partification of Islamist movements has been one of the most important features of Islamist evolution since the 1990s. For decades, Western analysts and policymakers alike had encouraged mainstream Islamists to embrace the democratic process, de-emphasize their religious origins, and form “normal” political parties. This was a natural fit for these groups, which, having been established by doctors, engineers, and teachers, weren’t necessarily strong on theology but knew how to get out the vote, and get out the vote they did. This prioritizing of elections—some Islamists themselves came to see it as an “obsession”—offered an easy out from difficult and divisive debates around the nature and purpose of the nation-state, issues that became all the more relevant when Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen all had opportunities to govern during and after the Arab Spring.

Having faced any number of setbacks, Islamist parties in each of the 12 countries we focus on in our new book have had to contend with basic questions of how change actually happens when elites and “deep states” oppose Islamists and when regional and international actors are suspicious of them, if not outright hostile. How Islamists deal with these challenges, naturally, has a lot to do with how the various revolutions, stalled revolutions, or non-revolutions evolved in each particular case. For example, were rulers toppled, therefore inviting a leadership vacuum that well-organized Islamist groups could then fill? Did state structures collapse after revolution, thereby provoking outbreaks of violent conflict or civil war? Where rulers were not toppled, how did Islamist parties balance nominal loyalty to existing regimes with popular demands for political change?

A common challenge faced by Brotherhood-inspired organizations is the tension that arises between their movements and their political parties, which are often described as “arms” or “wings” of the movement. The imperatives of seeking votes are often not the imperatives of a movement seeking social transformation. A preacher’s extreme sermon might excite a small core but alienate the masses needed for electoral success. Meanwhile, a party leader’s call for moderation to avoid alienating militaries or monarchies might depress the turnout of conservative supporters.

This dilemma was particularly acute after the Arab uprisings, when mainstream Islamists had to decide to what extent to contest elections. Some, like the Egyptian Brotherhood, maintained a blurry relationship between movement and party (with the latter ultimately dependent on the former), leading people to blame the movement for the party’s misfortunes and vice versa. Tunisia’s Ennahda is perhaps the most unique case, with party and movement being one and the same before transforming into a party and declaring a separation between “religious” and “political” activities. While such a move was generally welcomed by Western observers who saw this as the holy grail of moderation, it raised a new set of questions around what it meant to be an Islamist party that was no longer, in its own telling, “Islamist,” but rather “Muslim Democratic.”

Many Western observers may have wanted Ennahda to become Muslim Democratic, but did their own supporters? Islamist parties, after all, have been successful, in part, because they are not just parties; they represent broader-based movements, which provide organizational discipline, social service provision, funding for electoral campaigns, and broader reach into less politicized sectors of society.

The tension between party and movement is particularly evident among mainstream Islamist groups like the Brotherhood, which, over time, came to see elections as the primary mechanism for both social and political change, even when it came at the cost of traditional core concerns like preaching, religious education, and social service provision. Indeed, if there is one finding that emerges clearly from the failures of the Arab Spring, it is that Brotherhood organizations, particularly in the Arab world, view electoral victory as the definitive measure of success.

* * *

That was not always the case. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, was originally concerned with preaching, education, recruiting new members, and opposing colonialism (and, later, the creation of Israel). According to its bylaws, the Brotherhood aimed “to raise a generation of Muslims who would understand Islam correctly and act according to its teachings.” Until 1934, the bylaws forbade direct political action.

Banna sought to change society slowly and progressively, starting at the individual and moving to the family, the community, and eventually the government. In theory, this makes sense if one wants to reshape politics without antagonizing politicians. In practice, playing the long game becomes difficult when presented with the temptations of power and electoral success. As demonstrated by some of the Islamist responses included in our new volume, many Muslim Brothers after Egypt’s 2013 coup have pondered the tension between rushing into electoral politics and taking a step back to rebuild their social base on the local level.

There is a danger in viewing success and “winning” primarily in electoral terms. As Avi Spiegel, an expert on Moroccan Islamism, argues:

We love measuring and tracking “democracy,” focusing on winners and losers, on horse races, victories, and defeats. We study these things, I suspect, because we are guided by the belief, perhaps even the zeal, that these outcomes matter—that the winners of elections actually win something. Yet, in authoritarian contexts—even post–Arab Spring contexts—does electoral success translate into success writ large?

The bargain in Morocco has been clear enough. The Justice and Development Party (PJD), the country’s main Islamist party, accepted the confines of a system in which the monarchy enjoys veto power over all major decisions. In return, the PJD is allowed to legally exist, participate, and even enjoy a bit of power (but not too much). In practice, this means that the PJD cannot, assuming it wanted to, significantly alter or transform the country’s politics. Looking forward five, 10 or 15 years, it is difficult to envision the PJD accomplishing much more than it already has.

Pakistan’s Islamists provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Moroccan “model.” Yet it is a counterpoint that very few Moroccans—or Arab Islamists anywhere—seem much interested in. Jamaat e-Islami, Pakistan’s Muslim Brotherhood analog, usually wins only a handful of parliamentary seats, yet, as Spiegel points out, the movement may very well be more influential than its Moroccan counterpart, in terms of “influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ large.” There are other ways of winning besides, well, winning.

In Southeast Asia, Islamist parties, while gaining a significant share of the vote, have not been able to win outright on the national level. They have, however, helped “Islamism” spread throughout society and become normalized, with even ostensibly secular parties embracing the idea that Islam—and even explicit sharia ordinances—have an important role to play in public life. The lesson here may appear counterintuitive. The worse Islamists do in elections, the less of a threat they pose to their non-Islamist competitors, who, in turn, seem to have less of a problem appropriating Islamist styles for their own electoral purposes.

Of course, the causal relationships become complicated: One of the reasons that Islamists don’t do as well in South and Southeast Asia is because they’re less distinctive, since these societies seem to have coalesced around a relatively uncontroversial conservative “middle.” Democracy empowers and encourages all parties, Islamist or otherwise, to seek the center, wherever that may be. As the center shifts rightward, Islamist groups are further emboldened, particularly in polarized societies where candidates pay little price for their radicalism. It is little surprise, then, that Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in the world, has seen a sectarian upsurge. (In May 2017, a Muslim candidate who had developed a reputation as a young “moderate” played on hardline conservative sentiment to unseat the governor of Jakarta, a Christian, who was subsequently imprisoned for blasphemy.)

Indonesia may seem to some an unlikely place for a resurgence of Islamist sentiment, but so too would Turkey and Tunisia. The two most secular countries in the Middle East were among the first to witness Islamists come to power democratically. Egypt, one of the more religiously conservative societies in the region, has for now seen a drop in enthusiasm for the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. The simple narratives of the “rise” or “fall” of Islamism tell us little.

* * *

By the time the Arab uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, the United States had already begun thinking about a new approach toward Islamists. In 2010, the National Security Council began work on a Presidential Study Directive focused on the question of what a push for genuine political reform in the Middle East would look like—including the normalization of Islamists as political actors. The immediate challenge after the revolutions of 2011 was therefore not one of deciding whether to increase engagement with Islamists—the Obama administration had already come around on that issue—but rather the question of how and to what extent to undertake such a shift.

The most straightforward way to characterize the evolving U.S. approach is to say that Washington decided not to have a specific policy toward Islamists. Within the administration, there was a recognition that the agenda of these groups varied considerably from country to country. It was impossible—and unhelpful—to treat all such movements and parties in the same fashion. Having a policy toward Islamism, understood as a broad ideological tradition, seemed unwise since U.S. policy is generally formulated—for better or worse—in terms of American interests in specific countries. In much the same way that the United States does not have a policy toward parties of the center right, or green parties, it made little sense to have a separate policy toward Islamism writ large.

As the Obama administration made clear in the months following the Arab uprisings, the United States would treat Islamists as nothing more than one of the many new political actors shaping the future of Arab politics. Officials signaled areas of ongoing concern, however, saying that Washington was willing to work with all groups that renounced violence and supported the equal rights of women and minorities. Privately, the United States told the Egyptian government of Mohamed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, that it expected Egypt to maintain its peace agreement with Israel as a precondition for ongoing diplomatic cooperation.

Arguably, the real test of U.S. policy on Islamism did not come until (and after) Morsi assumed executive power in the summer of 2012. Up until that point, with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still running the country, Washington felt confident that its longstanding ally, the Egyptian military, would serve as an ultimate guarantor of stability regardless of whether Islamists won elections. After Morsi sidelined top generals in August (while, ironically, promoting future nemesis Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to defense minister), Washington became warier of Cairo’s conduct.

When it became clear that the Brotherhood-led government was more or less preserving the status quo on key foreign policy priorities, Washington reverted quite quickly to a variant of its Egypt policy of the previous several decades: work with and support whoever is in power in Cairo so long as U.S. strategic interests are protected. A corollary of this policy, of course, is the idea that Washington is expected to refrain from harsh criticism of what happens in the Egyptian domestic realm. After the military coup of 2013, Washington faced a conundrum. If it supported Sissi’s toppling of the country’s legitimately elected president, it would appear to be going back on its strong commitment in 2011 to take seriously the cause of Arab democracy. When Egypt’s security forces killed approximately 1,000 people protesting the coup outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in August 2013, it was the violent tip of a longer spear Sissi had fashioned to systematically eradicate the Brotherhood as a political actor and recategorize the group under the mantle of “terrorism.” Preoccupied by concerns with regional stability—civil war in Syria, violence in Libya and the Sinai, governance failure in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear ambitions—Washington largely acquiesced in this campaign against the Brotherhood.

The rise of the Islamic State also complicated Washington’s calculus vis-à-vis the Brotherhood. The United States was loath to do anything that might offend those countries—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—on which it relies for implementing its anti-ISIS strategy. Cooperation on counterterrorism, which in the view of Washington’s regional partners includes the Brotherhood, was the centerpiece of Trump’s Riyadh speech this May.

What this means in practical terms is that since the summer of 2013, U.S. engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood has been all but impossible. In what appeared to be a convergence between the political right and Egyptian government lobbying, several members of the U.S. Congress in late 2015 (and then again in early 2017) introduced legislation in Congress seeking to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). After Trump’s presidential victory, there was also some talk about pursuing such a designation via executive action.

While the momentum on Muslim Brotherhood proscription seems to have slowed to a crawl in the face of nearly universal criticism from experts, lawyers, and diplomats, the question of how Washington views the broader phenomenon of political Islam remains unsettled.

Whatever the Trump administration does (or doesn’t) do, political Islam will remain a potent social force and a lightning rod for regional politics. Today, Islamists constitute the ruling government in Morocco, a major opposition force in Jordan, and a significant political counterweight in Kuwait. A recent Brookings poll of experts suggested it likely that Islamists would return to power in Tunisia by 2020, and perhaps also in Syria and Yemen in the aftermath of those civil wars. If, or when, that happens, we will find ourselves having much the same debates. Hopefully, by then, we will have better answers for a problem that will have plagued the United States for nearly three decades.

This article has been adapted from Rethinking Political Islam by Shadi Hamid and William McCants, including a chapter written by Peter Mandaville.