Ought to “Islam” matter in US overseas coverage?
In america, it’s tough to overstate the diploma to which Islam has fallen off each the home and overseas coverage agenda. In some ways, it is a welcome enchancment over the near-constant preoccupation with American Muslims and Muslims overseas as objects of concern throughout the post-9/11 interval. With the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” it appeared prefer it may by no means finish, with every president having their very own explicit strategy to the “downside” of Islam.
This seems to have ended with U.S. President Joe Biden. With the top of the battle on terror, the securitization of Muslim id is essentially a factor of the previous. American Muslims are more and more a part of the cultural mainstream, accepted and normalized to the extent that they generally seem to have been forgotten completely.
That stated, there’s a darkish facet to America’s lack of curiosity in Islam and Muslims, particularly since this indifference is tied to a broader apathy towards the Center East. The Biden administration’s Center East coverage, as mirrored within the current Nationwide Safety Technique, is successfully one in every of telling regional actors to “maintain calm and stick with it.” The precedence is to forestall the issues of the Center East from crowding out consideration in the direction of extra overarching issues, such because the threats posed by Chinese language and Russian adventurism. (Whether or not insurance policies towards explicit areas may be siloed on this trend is one other matter).
To be uninterested within the Center East is, by default, to be tired of human rights, political reform, and democratization within the Center East. A coverage of sustaining the established order with solely slight changes is inevitably a coverage of turning a blind eye to human rights violations within the curiosity of “stability.” To anger regional companions with discuss of their home political preparations would require devoting extra consideration to assuaging that anger, which might distract U.S. officers from countering China and Russia.
Think about Saudi Arabia. In July 2022, Biden paid a high-profile go to to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an effort to reset a relationship that had been strained by the 2018 killing of the author and critic Jamal Khashoggi. For the reason that go to, bin Salman’s crackdown on dissidents has solely intensified.
In recent times, the decline of main terrorist teams like al-Qaida and the Islamic State has actually relieved stress on U.S. policymakers. However the Biden administration’s indifference to authoritarian consolidation within the area is an extra essential issue that enables it to show an in any other case welcome disregard for Islam.
Prospects for democracy within the Center East have lengthy been linked to questions round Islam’s position in public life. Any technique of democratization, in any case, would entail state authorities ceding management of non secular data and manufacturing — a site they’ve jealously guarded for many years. In religiously conservative societies, one thing as resonant and highly effective as Islam couldn’t be left to the plenty, or so Arab autocrats thought. If folks might select their very own leaders, religiously-oriented events — Islamist events — would have a higher say in politics and authorities and maybe win elections outright. The failures of the Arab Spring and the return of repression have relegated such inquiries to the background. Fierce states are even fiercer in the present day. However as I argue within the newest challenge of Present Tendencies in Islamist Ideology, the “downside” of Islam has merely been postponed; it has not been resolved.
It’s no accident that the 2 administrations that centered appreciable consideration on Center East democracy (or the shortage thereof) have been additionally those that felt compelled to make Islam-related pronouncements. Whereas the Bush administration in the end did not translate its sweeping pro-democracy rhetoric into coverage, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does deserve some credit score for greedy the intimate hyperlink between “political” issues and “spiritual” issues within the area. To deal with the previous was to take critically the latter. For instance, she notes that “faith and politics don’t combine simply — however the exclusion of non secular folks from politics doesn’t work both” and that the Arab world “desperately wants a solution to [this] problem.”
Whereas President Barack Obama was much less captivated with democracy promotion (partially because of a want to distance himself from the Bush administration’s adventurism), he was compelled to take it extra critically throughout the Arab uprisings of 2011. And he too understood that to have a coverage of selling political reform and inclusion meant pondering fastidiously about America’s longstanding “Islamist dilemma.” As one senior aide to Obama described it to me:
Obama began off very a lot of the view that we have to settle for that Islamists could have a job in authorities. I believe he got here in very a lot believing in that and he needed to be the president who would have an open thoughts about Islamists.
This “open thoughts” didn’t essentially final, however it’s telling that the Obama administration felt it had to consider Islamism so as to consider democracy. The inverse was true for President Donald Trump. His energetic hostility in the direction of democracy promotion and enthusiasm for Arab dictators translated right into a want to exclude and even punish Islamist teams just like the Muslim Brotherhood.
It could have been onerous to keep away from this conclusion. To the extent that Arab societies democratized, voters would have extra to disagree about when it got here to Islam’s place in politics and its relationship to the state. Below the restricted electoral competitors that Arab autocrats had allowed starting within the Nineteen Eighties, “id politics” round faith steadily eclipsed the normal left-right politics of sophistication as the first electoral cleavage. And so emerged what the political scientist Hesham Sallam calls “classless politics.”
Islamist events have been the first beneficiaries of this shift. However since there was no actual threat that they’d be allowed to take energy, the sensible implications of their ideological preferences might stay considerably theoretical, projected far out into the longer term. With the democratic openings of the Arab Spring, nonetheless, this all modified. Now that Islamist events had a sensible shot at profitable energy, the query of how — or whether or not — to accommodate a extra pronounced position for Islam rose to the forefront of Arab politics in a means that it hardly ever had earlier than. Furthermore, constitutions needed to be drafted, and constitutions would wish to deal with (or not less than select to not tackle) the polarizing matter of Islam as a supply of state id and Islamic legislation as a supply of laws. A political and spiritual settlement remained elusive in Egypt, paving the best way for the institution of a brand new navy dictatorship beneath Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Even in Tunisia — till lately the Arab Spring’s lone remaining (relative) success story — Islamist, secular, and leftist political forces appeared to succeed in such a settlement solely to see it collapse. At the moment, after a slow-motion coup, Tunisia finds itself languishing beneath one-man, authoritarian rule.
With a brand new authoritarian regular asserting itself throughout the area, the continued effort to hunt a democratic decision to the query of Islam’s applicable position in politics and public life is on life assist. For now not less than, this has given the Biden administration the permission, and even perhaps the liberty, to ignore the democratic dilemmas its predecessors had little selection however to face. Future administrations may not be so fortunate. The dilemmas, in any case, haven’t gone away.