Moderate Islam in the Maghreb: How US foreign policy shapes Islamist contention

April 4, 2019

Since the beginning of the U.S-led war on terror, a handful of Muslim-majority states have begun to brand themselves on the international stage as a source of “moderate Islam.” A recent report by Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid observes that states’ uses of Islam in foreign policy are extensions of domestic religious-political cultures.


Vish Sakthivel

PhD Candidate in Modern Middle East Studies – University of Oxford

Nonresident Fellow – Foreign Policy Research Institute

Algeria and cases like it, however, reveal that this relationship might also be dialectic: Where states use domestic religious orientations to craft their foreign policy posture, the political-religious dynamics that result project back on to domestic religious actors’ considerations. Algeria’s regional role as an exporter of “moderate Islam” has shaped how domestic Islamists position themselves within the political-cultural milieu.

A corollary of this phenomenon is that “moderation” has become even more resistant to precise definition, and is instead subject to complex political contestations. It might well be analogous to the discursive role that the concept of liberty, or freedom, plays in the United States: It is a lynchpin of political legitimacy, even while rival political camps define it in diametric opposition and make exclusivist claims to it. “Moderate” has become a contested social label from which religious actors are loath to be excluded. Such a lens qualifies explanations of Islamist moderation as chiefly a result of doctrine, and challenges those that analyze it as a single detectable position or objectively traceable process.


The global war on terror began in 2001, incidentally as Algeria’s civil conflict wound down. Over the course of this decade-long war between the Algerian army and Islamist insurgent groups, the state sought Western allies’ moral and diplomatic support for its narrative on the conflict (namely, who was its hero, and who its villain). This was facilitated by Algeria’s enlistment in the U.S.-led counterterror efforts. Its own violent period was presented as part of the “war on terror” and taken up as a shared interest.

Seeking to supplement their military efforts, Western powers and their allies enlisted perceived Islamic moderates to combat extremist ideology. As part of its own response, Algeria touted its religious training for moderate clerics and preachers and publicized its Ministry of Religious Affairs’ use of female guides (murshidat) in spreading moderate interpretations to at-risk youth and their families. Algeria also ramped up intelligence sharing and began participating in the U.S.-led Flintlock joint military exercises. These efforts allowed Algeria to portray itself as a reliable ally in global security.

1 reply

  1. I do not think that ‘US foreign policy’ can nor should influence ‘modern Islam’. The US foreign policy tried their hand in promoting militant Islam (starting with the jihadists against the Russian occupation of the USA and using them again and again when it suited them). Now they want to try their ‘luck’ with promoting ‘moderate Islam’ ???? Simple: follow the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at and you have the moderate islam that we all need.

Leave a Reply