Does “Islam” have any relevance to US foreign policy?

Date:

Does "Islam" have any relevance to US foreign policy?

  • News by AUN News correspondent
  • Wednesday, March 15, 2023
  • AUN News – ISSN: 2949-8090

Summary:

  • That said, there is a sinister side to America’s loss of interest in Islam and Muslims, especially when this indifference is related to a broader apathy towards the Middle East.

  • Possibilities for democracy in the Middle East have long been tied to debates concerning Islam’s role in public life.

  • Yet all changed with the Arab Spring’s democratic openings.

  • Now, Tunisia is wallowing in one-person, authoritarian rule following a slow-motion coup.

  • The continuous struggle to find a democratic answer to the issue of Islam’s proper role in politics and public life is on life support as a new authoritarian normal asserts itself throughout the region.

In the United States, it is difficult to overestimate how much Islam has slipped off the domestic and foreign policy agendas. This is a refreshing change from the nearly continual concern with American Muslims and Muslims worldwide in the years following September 11, 2001. With the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” it felt like it could never end, with each president having their unique response to the “problem” of Islam.

This appears to have ceased with U.S. President Joseph Biden. The securitization of Muslim identity has mostly disappeared with the end of the war on terror. American Muslims are becoming more integrated into culture as a whole, tolerated, and normalized to the point where they occasionally seem entirely forgotten.

That said, there is a sinister side to America’s loss of interest in Islam and Muslims, especially when this indifference is related to a broader apathy towards the Middle East. theastre a and the the theec the e e , sions,ungasserasserasse a shots.lyselysely The objective is to prevent Middle East’s difficulties from crowding attention towards more overarching challenges, such as the risks posed by Chinese and Russian adventurism. (Whether policies targeting certain regions can be isolated in this sense is another thing).

Being uninterested in the Middle East automatically translates into neutralising the region’s political reform, democratization, and human rights. Maintaining the status quo while making only minor alterations is invariably a strategy for ignoring human rights abuses in the name of “stability.” To irritate regional allies by mentioning their domestic political systems would necessitate spending greater attention to assuaging that anger, which would distract U.S. officials from combating China and Russia.

Think of Saudi Arabia. In July 2022, Biden paid a high-profile visit to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to restore a relationship strained by the 2018 killing of the journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi. Bin Salman’s campaign against dissidents has only gotten tougher since his visit.

The pressure on U.S. politicians has undoubtedly decreased in recent years due to the demise of critical terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Yet, the Biden administration’s disrespect for the regional consolidation of authoritarianism is a crucial extra element that permits it to exhibit an otherwise desirable disregard for Islam.

Possibilities for democracy in the Middle East have long been tied to debates concerning Islam’s role in public life. After all, any democratic process would require the state’s authorities to relinquish their long-held monopoly on producing and disseminating religious knowledge. Arab autocrats believed that something as resonant and potent as Islam couldn’t be left to the people in religiously conservative societies. If people could choose their leaders, religiously-oriented groups – Islamist parties — would substantially influence politics and governance and perhaps win elections outright. Such issues have been pushed to the margins due to the Arab Spring’s failures and the resurgence of repression. Today’s states are much more abrasive. Yet, the “problem” of Islam has just been deferred; it has not been solved, as I contend in the most recent issue of Current Trends in Islamic Ideology.

It is no coincidence that the two administrations that gave the Middle East’s democracy—or lack thereof—considerable attention both felt forced to make statements about Islam. While the Bush administration ultimately failed to translate its vast pro-democracy rhetoric into action, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does deserve some credit for realizing the intimate relationship between “political” difficulties and “religious” ones in the region. Addressing the former meant considering the latter. For example, she argues that “religion and politics don’t mix nicely — yet the exclusion of religious people from politics doesn’t work either” and that the Arab world “desperately needs a response to [this] dilemma.”

While President Barack Obama was less enthusiastic about promoting democracy (partly because he wanted to distinguish himself from the adventurism of the Bush administration), he was forced to do so during the 2011 Arab uprisings. He also recognized that a programme supporting political inclusion and transformation required careful consideration of America’s long-standing “Islamist conundrum.” According to a senior Obama aide who spoke to me:

Obama’s initial stance was firmly rooted in the idea that we must accept Islamists would play a part in politics. I believe he entered the presidency firmly convinced of that and wanting to be the leader who would view Islamists objectively.

It’s telling that the Obama administration thought it had to consider Islamism to view democracy, even though this “open mind” didn’t necessarily last. For President Donald Trump, the opposite was true. His outspoken opposition to promoting democracy and support for Arab autocrats resulted in a determination to shun and even punish Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was difficult to avoid coming to this conclusion. To the extent that Arab states democratized, citizens would have more to argue about regarding Islam’s place in politics and its connection to the state. The traditional left-right politics of class were gradually supplanted as the central electoral division under the little electoral competition that Arab autocrats had permitted beginning in the 1980s. Therefore, what political scientist Hesham Sallam calls “classless politics” existed.

The main winners of this change were Islamist parties. However, the practical ramifications of their ideological inclinations could remain primarily hypothetical and distant in the future because there was no genuine danger that they would be allowed to seize power. Yet all changed with the Arab Spring’s democratic openings. The issue of how to accommodate a more prominent position for Islam sprang to the forefront of Arab politics in a way that it had rarely done before now that Islamist groups had a severe chance of obtaining power. Furthermore, it was necessary to design constitutions, and those constitutions would have to deal with (or at least decide not to trade with) the divisive issue of Islam serving as a source of national identity and Islamic law serving as a source of legislation. Egypt’s inability to reach a political and religious consensus paved the ground for installing a new military dictatorship led by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Islamist, secular, and communist political parties attempted to establish such a settlement even in Tunisia, which until recently was the last remaining (relative) success story of the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, the payment ultimately fell apart. Now, Tunisia is wallowing in one-person, authoritarian rule following a slow-motion coup.

The continuous struggle to find a democratic answer to the issue of Islam’s proper role in politics and public life is on life support as a new authoritarian normal asserts itself throughout the region. This has given the Biden administration, for the time being at least, permission—possibly even freedom—to ignore the democratic conundrums that its forerunners were forced to confront. Perhaps future administrations won’t be as fortunate. The problems still exist, after all.

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