The region: You still don’t understand Islamism, do you?

American policymakers still don’t understand that nice words have not changed anything.

hardline islamists in egypt 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
hardline islamists in egypt 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Around 2007, I gave a lecture at the US Defense Department. One of the attendees presented a scenario suggesting that the “problem of Islam” was not political, but an issue of semantics.
There was a secret debate happening at the time in the Defense Department and the CIA, in which some people thought that all Muslims were a problem, some believed only al-Qaida was a problem, and still others thought the Muslim Brotherhood was a problem.
The main problem, however, was that all Islamism was a political threat – but it was the second position that eventually won over the Obama administration.
Take note of this: since 2009, if you wanted to build your career and win policy debates, only al-Qaida was a problem. The Brotherhood was not a threat; after all, it did not participate in September 11.
This view was well-known in policy circles, but it was easy to mistake this growing hegemony as a temporary phenomenon.
Actually, it only got worse.
A Muslim Foreign Service officer recounted how some US officials were trying to persuade The Powers That Be that al-Qaida was split from the Muslim Brotherhood. Imagine how horrified he was. Still other officials told me that there was heavy pressure and well-financed lobbyists trying to force officials into the idea that al-Qaida was the only problem.
Some high-ranking Defense Department officials – for example, one on the secretary of defense’s level – were pressured to fire anti-Brotherhood people. I know of at least five such incidents.
For example, I was asked to participate in a contract and co-direct a project for the federal government, and my paper was to be on the idea that all Islamists posed a threat. To my surprise, I was told that my paper had been rejected. Shocked, I asked to speak to the two co-contractors on the telephone. Isn’t it true, I said on the phone, that I was to have co-direction of this project? He said that yes, it was; nevertheless, the rejection stood. (By the way, this co-director, who likely became interested in the Middle East in large part because of me, was very rude. I then told him that though the project had originally been my idea, I was going to walk away from it and not demand compensation.) In another incident, a high-ranking CIA official posted a paper arguing that the Brotherhood was not a threat, only al-Qaida was, and that US policy should therefore hinge on the Brotherhood. In still another case, a US official made a statement at a public function that neither Hezbollah nor Hamas posed a threat to US interests.
By 2013, this resulted in a few people’s arguments that Iran could be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
To government officials, the situation was therefore clear: If you wanted to make some money in Washington, you have to toe the line that the Brotherhood is not a threat. If sanctions ended against the Brotherhood or Islamists, including Iran, this could also lead to trillions of dollars in potential trade deals.
Note that in 2009 and 2010, an attempt was made to build such a model with Syria, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered in a civil war there.
But Iran was a far more valuable state. In fact, Tehran was a far easier target because it had far more money and could possibly be bought, simply by agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon.
The following is what I predicted in my 1980 book, Paved With Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran: “United States-Iranian relations could not possibly have been worse in the months following November 4, 1979. From the American point of view, the central problem was obtaining the release of 53 American diplomats being held hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. To the Iranians the capture of the American Embassy and its occupants marked a successful end to one revolution, and the opening shots of a second. For Iran, like Russia in 1917, was to undergo both a February and a November revolution – the first a political struggle to unseat the old regime, the second a social, economic and cultural revolution to build a new Islamic society.
“In Iran’s case, it was the fundamentalist mullahs and their Islamic Republican Party who were seeking to achieve what the Bolsheviks had done in Russia – monopolize power. Like Lenin, [Ayatollah] Khomeini would in time turn against moderate segments of the revolutionary coalition and purge their members from positions of authority; like the Bolsheviks, the fundamentalists, once in power, would refuse to compromise with those ethnic movements that had aided the revolution; and like the Leninists, Khomeini’s supporters would try to create a [totalitarian] structure, subsuming into their ideological framework all aspects of national life, from the courts to the schools, from the military to the conduct of commerce, and even the daily behavior of the citizenry.
“Thus, the United States and Iran, two countries whose friendship had begun with such high expectations and whose relations had included fine moments of selfless cooperation as well as many shameful episodes of corruption and insensitivity, were now the bitterest of enemies.”
In 2014, I am convinced that the leadership of the Iranian Islamist regime still feels the same way, just as American policymakers still don’t understand that nice words have not changed anything. Note that president Ronald Reagan sending the Iranians a keyshaped cake – supposedly to symbolize the “opening” of US-Iranian relations – also demonstrated little understanding of Iranian extremism.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (7th edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).