How America Changed Its Approach to Political Islam

Source: The Atlantic


Sometimes Islamist groups succeed. Sometimes they underperform. But they almost always matter.

This means that the United States needs answers for questions not just about the nature of Islamist movements, but also about the more politically thorny question of what the U.S. should do about them. How the U.S. and Europe should respond—or even if they should treat Islamist parties as distinctive in the first place—has been a contentious question since at least the early 1990s. The Arab Spring, two decades later, brought this “Islamist dilemma” back to the fore, and Washington found itself, again, conflicted.

The rise of the Islamic State and, more recently, the election of President Trump have complicated Washington’s view of political Islam. Some of the figures from Trump’s inner circle who held very skeptical views of Islam, such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, and former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, have now left the administration. But this brand of skepticism still holds enduring appeal for Trump’s base, and the president may feel tempted to return to it as a way of rallying his core supporters and distracting from other political woes.

Understanding the dilemma confronting the United States requires going back a few decades. Although we know from declassified State Department cables that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was on Washington’s radar during the 1950s and 1960s, American foreign policy granted no particular significance to Islamists, other than to wonder whether their religious nature might make them useful partners in checking the spread of “Third World” socialism.

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