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Book Review
A fine study on US policy perspectives

Name of the Book: America and Political Islam–Clash 
of Cultures or Clash of Interests?
by Fawaz A Gerges
Cambridge University, USA $13.95/280pp. 

This important book was written before September 11 on American administrations' (from Carter, Reagan, Bush to Clinton) attitude towards political Islam, focussing on Islamists in Iran, Algeria, Egypt and Turkey (chapter 6 to 9). One finds this study still valid. The US actual policies are flowing in the same direction, nay, rather hardened under Bush junior.

The author utilises several terms-- political Islam, Islamism, Islamic revivalism, Islamic activism and Islamic movement-- to delineate the contemporary Islamist phenomenon, using them interchangeably. He rightly says, "Islamic activists contend that Islam possesses a theory of politics and the state and includes prescriptive notions for political and social activism." According to the writer, the term "Islamic fundamentalism" fails to capture the complexity and eclectic nature of the Islamic revival.

Fawaz Gerges has raised a systematic set of questions which serve as an analytical device to structure analysis and organise data. Some of the questions are given below: 1. Do US governments perceive political Islam as posing a monolithic threat to Western interests, or do they also appreciate its often ambiguous and eclectic character? 2. Is there any consensus among the US foreign policy elite regarding the compatibility between Islam and democracy? 3. Do cultural and historical differences influence US officials' diagnosis of Islamic revivalism 4. What is the input of the Congress, Israel and pro-Western Middle Eastern states in mediating American views towards Islamists? etc.

It was clear from the evidence that some of the US public pronouncements on political Islam point to a conscious attempt to accommodate and reach out to moderate Islamists. Far from depicting Islam as a threat to the West, the Bush and Clinton administration, in particular, lavishly praised Islamic religion and welfare, recognising the legitimacy of the renewed emphasis on traditional values in the Islamic world. Both administrations rejected the clash of civilisations hypothesis. 

However, on a closer look, it appeared that the US approach towards Islamists is beset with ambiguities and tensions. American decision makers were reluctant to take a strong and decisive position on Islamic revivalism. Their inability to predict and assess the foreign policy implications of Islamists, if they gain power, was the basis of their reluctance. 

Three concerns underlined the US stance on political Islam. First, it did not want to appear explicitly hostile towards Islamists. They did not want to repeat mistakes committed in dealing with Islamic revolution in Iran. Second,the US hesitated to supportopenly any Islamist group lest its regional interests and those of its allies be compromised. They had deep suspicions regarding agenda of Islamist activists. Finally, they viewed revolutionary Islam as anti-democratic and autocratic.

In addition there was ample proof that the US administrations’ public statements were often inconsistent with their conduct towards Islamist movements and states. US decision makers had been reluctant to go by their liberal pronouncements while forming policy towards Islamists. They stood solidly with Middle-Eastern secular regimes.

Gerges states that some Islamist movements had been deliberately provocative and confrontational, unwilling to recognise their limits of power and categories of national identification and differentiation. That reinforces US officials perception that Islamist are intrinsically anti-Western and anti-democratic. On balance, the American foreign policy elite viewed the good Islamists as the ones who were apolitical; moderate Islam is also equated with the pro-Western governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Within the intellectual context of American foreign policy (chapter 2) Gerges divides opinion makers and academics of Islamic politics into confrontationist and accommodationist camps. The confrontationists interpret Islam as "the enemy". They propagate that Islam is anti-democratic. They are against democracy in Muslim countries. Their views, democracy in the Middle East was a luxury that the friendly Middle East regimes could not afford. They are afraid that Islamists would seize power through legitimate means. They asserted that struggle between Islam and the West is not just material and political interests, neither ideological nor economic but it was a clash of culture and civilisation. They were not concerned with human rights violations in Islamic countries.

Bernard Lewis, Gilles Kepel, Samuel Huntington, Martin Indyk, Amos Pertmutter and Daniel Pipes are some of the names in confrontationist camp.

The accommodationists regard Islam as a new challenge. They reject a confrontationist portrayal of Islam as anti-West and anti-democratic. They distinguish between the action of legitimate Islamist political oppositions groups and the tiny extremist minority. They assert that deeds of the small violent fringe cannot be equated with moderate political and non-political movements. They also question the commitment of Western and Muslim governments to democratisation. 

John Esposito, Leon T. Hadar, Robin Wright, Gary Sick, Richard W. Bulliet, John Hippler and Ignatius may be put under this camp. They have said, "The West is a daily reality in the lives of nearly all Muslims, its culture many of whose features Muslims admire: education, technology, concept of liberty, respect for human rights, rule of law and improved standard of living." 

What Islamists oppose, contend accommodationists, are specific Western policies, such as Washington’s support for the corrupt and repressive Middle Eastern regimes, unconditional US support for Israel and long history of American economic and military intervention in the region. 

They advise the US against opposing the implementation of Islamic law or activities of the Islamic movements, where such programmes pose no threat to US vital interests. The dominant Islamist current is a challenge, not a threat, to the US. It appears after studying the position of both the camps that political Islam is hotly debated in academic and policy circles (p-135) and they are split in their evaluation of Islamists and how do deal with them.

Instead of history and culture, some of the primary interests of the US have a great bearing on the US attitude on Islamic resurgence. Gerges mentions these as: 1. US strategic calculations in the Arab-Israel’s theatre 2. access to Persian Gulf oil 3. vulnerability of pro-US Middle Eastern regimes to an Islamic assault 4. propagation of terrorism 5.potential proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Islamic states. 

The first three may rightly be regarded as the major pillars of American foreign policy in the region. However, Gerges has not explained anywhere as to why Israel is the most important, and for some, the only factor in US foreign policy. Or, why Israel’s interests are considered synonymous with the US interests.

Gerges has rightly said that "the equation of Islam with ‘terrorism’ has done considerable damage to the image of Muslims in the US, thus constraining US policy makers from pursuing an accommodationist policy towards Islamists. Post-September 11events have justified this statement. Furthermore, the US-supported regimes and Israel are united against Islamists. Such regimes include Hosni Mubarak's of Egypt, Zeine Abedin Ben Ali's of Tunisia and the Algerian military junta's.

Gerges concludes that despite the myriad pronouncements by American officials, the US does not have a comprehensive, coherent policy regarding the role of Islam in the political process. American thinking on Islamists has not been translated into concrete policy guidelines. The study has found major incongruities between what US officials say and what they do regarding the role of Islam in the political process. One of the findings of the study that US pronouncements (in particular Bush and Clinton) with few exceptions are well anchored within the accommodationist camp. 

However, actual American policies towards Islamic movements and states reveal a deep residue of ambivalence, skepticism and mistrust. A case-by-case survey as shown in the book, shows that the US feels reluctant to engage Islamists in any meaningful dialogue. It has supported such regimes that fight political Islamists without persuading them to open up and join the legitimate opposition. They appear to be against democracy in such states. In the end, Gerges has suggested measures which can meaningfully improve US relations with Muslims. No doubt this study is a valuable addition to the understanding of US foreign policy regarding Muslim states.

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