Finding a Place for Political Islam

By: Andrew Swick, Columnist

Photo Credit: Al-Jazeera

Two recent publications by prominent Washington researchers aim to tackle the difficult question of how the United States should approach political Islam—especially in the Arab world. Rethinking Political Islam, by Shadi Hamid and William McCants, reviews a multi-year study by the Brookings Institution, providing country case studies and outlining opportunities for renewed US engagement with Islamic communities in the Middle East. From a more suspicious perspective, AEI’s Katherine Zimmerman’s “America’s Real Enemies” report analyzes America’s campaign against Salafi-jihadism, showing areas of overlap and contrast between jihadism and Salafism. Both publications, however, note the danger in indiscriminately treating Islamists as rogue parties. In the context of the Islamic State’s downfall and continuing upheaval within the Middle East, the United States avoids engaging with political Islam at its own peril.

While US administrations viewed Islamist political groups with skepticism and caution following the revolutions of the early 1980s, recent changes have challenged traditional strategies. Hamid and McCants note in their book that the United States approached political Islam, especially after the 9/11 attacks, with a combination of caution and realpolitik as US leaders backed Arab governments in their campaigns against Islamist groups—often to ensure the support of those governments for other US efforts.[i] President Obama, the authors point out, altered the direction of American strategy by looking for opportunities to engage with Islamist groups, especially after the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011. Within two years, however, this course was upended by what Hamid and McCants call “twin shocks”—the June 2013 military coup in Egypt and the rise of the Islamic State.[ii] These events injected even greater complexity into the US relationship with political Islam, obscuring any clear path forward.

As US leaders begin to construct a posture for the Middle East following the defeat of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, they may benefit from working to provide an outlet for legitimate political participation for Islamist groups. As stated by Katherine Zimmerman, Salafists themselves “are not America’s enemies,” and do not pose a threat to the United States if they do not embrace violent jihad.[iii] By enabling conservative Islamist groups to participate in elections and political expression, Arab governments can shrink the recruiting pool for violent movements. Even if these governments can’t stamp out all terrorist violence, they can remove some of the breeding grounds for violent extremism.

In contrast with this approach, the military leadership in Egypt continues to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and, in turn, marginalize its membership. After removing the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime banned the group from political participation and began to remove all traces of the Brotherhood from Egyptian society. Recently, the government has increased its dismemberment of the “Muslim Brotherhood’s nationwide network of social services.”[iv] In addition, while Egyptian courts have eased convictions and sentences of some Brotherhood members, in September an “Egyptian court sentenced top Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie” to life in prison.[v] As Steven Brooke argues, this repression and lack of legitimate means for activism is “incentivizing the Brotherhood to adopt more confrontational methods of opposition.”[vi] Brooke’s conclusion shouldn’t surprise observers of Egypt, as many of the members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad—including Ayman al-Zawahiri[vii]—were further radicalized in prison following the government’s 1980s crackdown on Islamist groups.

Sisi’s approach to Islamists has attracted support in the United States, however, as the Trump administration reportedly considered designating the Muslim Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). While the administration recently “placed on hold any executive order designating the Muslim Brotherhood”[viii] —the State Department’s current list of FTOs does not include the Brotherhood[ix]—some analysts in and out of government still see a threat in Islamist ideology itself. For example, Robin Simcox of the Heritage Foundation states that both violent and nonviolent Islamists should be regarded as enemies of the United States, as a result of a “convergence of views and aims” between the two.[x] Because Islamists insist on the ascendance of conservative Islamic governments, Simcox argues, their aims are incompatible with US policy. While Simcox is correct in maintaining that the establishment of Islamic theocracies across the Middle East would be contrary to American interests, democratic and peaceful expressions of Islamist ideology are certainly preferable to violent jihad.

Ultimately, if US leaders hope to successfully manage extremist violence following the defeat of the Islamic State, they should encourage allies to permit Islamists to engage in legitimate political activism. The results following Egypt’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood indicate that, without such an outlet, Arab governments may inadvertently inject new life into the Salafi-jihadi movement. While the Trump administration took a step in the right direction by offering to mediate a dispute between Gulf states and Qatar over support for Islamists,[xi] a decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would threaten to undo recent gains over violent jihadists in the region.

[i] Shadi Hamid, Peter Mandaville, and William McCants, “How America Changed Its Approach to Political Islam,” The Atlantic, October 4, 2017.

[ii] Shadi Hamid and William McCants, Rethinking Political Islam (New York: Oxford University Press), 5.

[iii] Katherine Zimmerman, “America’s Real Enemy,” AEI, July 2017.

[iv] Steven Brooke, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s social outreach after the Egyptian coup,” Working Paper, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, August 2015., 12.

[v] Haitham Ahmed, “Egyptian court hands fresh life sentence to Muslim Brotherhood leader,” Reuters, September 28, 2017.

[vi] Steven Brooke, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s social outreach after the Egyptian coup,” i.

[vii] Jayshree Bajoria and Lee Hudson Teslik, “Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 14, 2011.

[viii] Raymond Tanter and Edward Stafford, “Designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Terrorist Organization is a Bad Idea,” Foreign Policy, March 3, 2017.

[ix] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” U.S. Department of State.

[x] Robin Simcox and Katherine Zimmerman, “Are political Islamists America’s enemies in the fight against terrorism?” AEIdeas, October 10, 2017.

[xi] James Oliphant, “Trump offers to mediate talks on Qatar crisis,” Reuters, September 7, 2017.

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