Does “Islam” Matter in US Foreign Policy?

In the United States, it is hard to overstate the extent to which Islam has fallen off the agenda of both domestic and foreign policy. In many ways, this is a welcome improvement over the almost constant preoccupation of American Muslims and Muslims abroad as an object of concern since 9/11. With the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” it seemed like it would never end, as each president has his own particular approach to the Islam “problem.”

This seems to have ended with US President Joe Biden. With the end of the war on terror, Muslim identity security is largely a thing of the past. American Muslims are increasingly becoming part of the cultural mainstream, accepted and normalized to the extent that it sometimes seems completely forgotten.

That said, there is a dark side to America’s loss of interest in Islam and Muslims, especially as this indifference is linked to a broader apathy toward the Middle East. The Biden administration’s Middle East policy, as reflected in the recent National Security Strategy, is effectively one of “keep calm and carry on” instructions to regional actors. The priority is to prevent Middle East issues from drawing attention to broader issues, such as the threats of Chinese and Russian adventurism. (Whether policies for specific regions can be silenced in this way is another question.)

Disinterest in the Middle East, by default, means disinterest in human rights, political reform, and democratization in the Middle East. A policy of maintaining the status quo with only minor adjustments is a policy of turning a blind eye to the inevitable human rights violations in the interest of “stability”. Annoying regional partners with talk of their domestic arrangements will require a greater focus on alleviating that anger, which will distract U.S. officials from confronting China and Russia.

Consider Saudi Arabia. In July 2022, Biden paid a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an attempt to repair relations strained by the 2018 assassination of writer and critic Jamal Khashoggi. After the visit, bin Salman’s pressure on dissidents only intensified.

The decline of major terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in recent years has certainly eased the pressure on US policymakers. But the Biden administration’s indifference to authoritarian consolidation in the region is an additional factor that allows it to display a welcome disregard for Islam.

Prospects for democracy in the Middle East have long been linked to questions about the role of Islam in public life. Any process of democratization would eventually lead to a relinquishment by state authorities of control over religious knowledge and production, a domain they had jealously guarded for decades. In religiously conservative societies, something as loud and powerful as Islam could not be left to the masses, or so the Arab autocrats thought. If the people could elect their own leaders, religiously oriented parties—the Islamist parties—would have a greater role in politics and government, and possibly win elections outright. The failures of the Arab Spring and the return of repression have relegated such issues to the background. Violent states are even more violent today. But as I argue in a recent issue of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, the “problem” of Islam has simply been postponed. it has not been resolved.

It is no coincidence that the two administrations that have paid considerable attention to Middle East democracy (or the lack thereof) are also the ones that have had to make statements about Islam. While the Bush administration ultimately failed to translate its sweeping democratic rhetoric into policy, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deserves some credit for understanding the intimate connection between “political” issues and “religious” issues in the region. To address the former was to take the latter seriously. For example, he notes that “religion and politics don’t mix easily, but removing religious people from politics doesn’t work either,” and that the Arab world “needs a serious response; [this] challenge”.

Although President Barack Obama was less enthusiastic about democracy promotion (in part because of a desire to distance himself from the adventurism of the Bush administration), he was forced to take it more seriously during the 2011 Arab uprisings. And he also understood that policies to promote political reform and inclusion meant thinking carefully about America’s long-standing “Islamist dilemma.” As one of Obama’s senior aides described it to me:

Obama started basically with the view that we have to accept that Islamists will have a role in government. I think he came in believing that very much and wanted to be the president who would have an open mind about the Islamists.

This “open mind” didn’t necessarily last, but it does suggest that the Obama administration felt it had to think about Islamism in order to think about democracy. The opposite was true for President Donald Trump. His active hostility to democracy promotion and enthusiasm for Arab dictators has turned into a desire to exclude and even punish Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

It would be difficult to avoid this conclusion. To the extent that Arab societies were democratized, so would voters more disagree when it comes to Islam’s position in politics and its relationship with the state. With the limited electoral competition that Arab autocrats have allowed since the 1980s, “identity politics” around religion have gradually undermined traditional left-right class politics as the primary electoral cleavage. And so, what political scientist Hesham Sallam calls “class politics” emerged.

Islamist parties were the main beneficiaries of this shift. But since there was no real danger that they would be allowed to take power, the practical consequences of their ideological preferences could remain somewhat theoretical, projected into the distant future. With the democratic openings of the Arab Spring, however, all this changed. Now that Islamist parties had a realistic chance of winning power, the question of how, or whether, to accommodate a more prominent role for Islam rose to the forefront of Arab politics in a way it rarely had before. Furthermore, constitutions had to be drafted, and constitutions had to address (or at least not address) the polarizing issue of Islam as a source of state identity and Islamic law as a source of legislation. The political and religious settlement in Egypt remained unclear, paving the way for the establishment of a new military dictatorship under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Even in Tunisia, until recently the only remaining (relative) success story of the Arab Spring, Islamist, secular, and leftist political forces seemed to reach such a settlement only to see it collapse. Today, after a slow coup, Tunisia finds itself under one-man authoritarian rule.

With a new authoritarian normal asserting itself in the region, continued efforts to seek a democratic solution to the question of the appropriate role of Islam in politics and public life are on the line. For now, at least, it has given the Biden administration permission, and perhaps even freedom, to ignore the Democratic dilemmas his predecessors had little choice but to face. Future administrations may not be so lucky. After all, the dilemmas have not disappeared.

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