U.S. Policy Toward Islamism

February 15, 2000


More on:

Radicalization and Extremism

Middle East and North Africa



For policymakers, Islamism, Islamist states, and Islamist movements pose a set of awkward and unusual problems. By default as well as by design, the U.S. government, and especially its national security establishment, is at its best when dealing with crises -- preventing them (just barely), managing them, and resolving them. Though solutions are rarely neat and linear, the threat itself is usually acute, the problem is well defined, and the target (either the state, its interests, or those of one of its allies) is clear. Governments sometimes devise comprehensive strategies for dealing with longer-term challenges, but that is more often than not the exception to the rule, one that is usually slow in developing (e.g., the debate over missile defense, now two decades old) and one that emerges as a result of a grand national consensus on an issue (e.g., the bipartisan agreement on the containment of communism) that is usually rare and difficult to muster in a vibrant democracy.

Islamism -- the pursuit of political power with the aim of establishing regimes based on Sharia law -- does not fit easily into this mix. The role of religion in policymaking itself is a major complicating factor. Two corollaries of America's own strict separation of religion and state that seem to have developed among the policy/political elite have defined the context for addressing Islamism: first, U.S. officials are profoundly reluctant to view (or have great difficulty in assimilating) the organic connection between religion and state that exists in many other societies. Second and somewhat contradictorily, U.S. officials tend to evince an exaggerated deference to religious sensibilities when they are claimed by others. The former, for example, is one of the reasons why the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnians by Serbs is rarely defined as "religious cleansing" of Muslims by Christians; the latter is one of the reasons why, for example, senior U.S. officials (including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, and then-Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk) have publicly legitimized the "Islamic" nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as though the U.S. government ought to take positions on this matter and despite Iran's heterodox a manifestation of Islam (and even Shiite Islam).

In general, Americans prefer characterizations along national grounds over religious ones, but are quick to sanctify -- if that term can be used -- virtually all religious claims with official status. (Actually, the two trends are not so contradictory -- the latter is a natural outgrowth of the deep reticence to engage in any religiously tinged policy debates.) Hence, the challenges posed by Islamism and Islamist movements-i.e., the basic claim that religion (indeed, a certain religion, and a certain interpretation of that religion, no less) is the chief determinant of right and wrong -- is both alien and unnerving to American policymakers.