International Affairs

US working alongside its Arab allies should promote moderate forms of Islam


Since the emergence of Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), America has shifted its terror-fighting strategy three times — making the exact same error, three different ways.

In the George W. Bush years, policymakers focused on the axis of evil states that supported terrorists with men, money and materiel.

{mosads}This produced a strategy devoted to killing or capturing militants, staunching financial flows to terrorists and denying extremists access to raw materials for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.


While sound, this approach was highly interventionist and allowed critics to frame it as a war between the West and Islam — despite Bush’s many unequivocal statements to the contrary.

President Barack Obama believed that the U.S. had to openly reject the clash of civilizations idea and sought to de-emphasize interventionist military tactics (despite ordering three times more drone strikes than Bush). Instead, he opened a dialogue with Islamist forces from the Taliban to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. 

The hope: radicals would accept that the West was not trying to eradicate its civilization, but only meant to persuade militants to trade their car bombs for campaign signs. Once militants joined democratic coalitions, Obama believed, their responsibilities would make them act responsibly. This backfired badly.

Genuine Arab democrats were alienated by Obama’s engagement with mass murderers, leading some of them to burn U.S. ambassador in effigy in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Others came to distrust Washington.

Meanwhile, terrorists had little interest in sharing power or standing for re-election once they had power — leading, in Egypt, to bloody coups or renewed attacks, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, by terrorists trying to increase their bargaining power. 

With President Donald Trump, America’s steering wheel was yanked into a third u-turn. Since Obama’s negotiations required ideological differences to be downplayed and words like “radical Islam” and “Jihad” were therefore banished, the new administration headed in the opposite direction — emphasizing those banned words.

The idea is that the war on terror is partly a war of ideas and that the enemies’ ideas must be named to be defeated. Yet this thinking leads to banning travel from countries believed to support radical Islam — a ham-fisted approach that fails to distinguish between America’s friends and foes in each of the listed countries. 

Each of these policy rebounds is more about fixing the mistakes of its predecessor than about grasping the complex reality of the Arab world today. 

Each of these policy approaches ignores that there is a civil war fracturing every Arab land, dividing generations and even families. On one side, is the vast majority of Arabs who yearn for peace and prosperity, stable institutions and honest governments.

On the other, is a small group that believes violence, by shoving aside ordinary politics, can usher in a utopian based on seventh century Arabia. Whenever they are given a chance to rule — in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or briefly in Egypt — these coercive utopians have little patience for human rights, dissenting views, private property or constitutional law.

In short, the Arab civil war is between modernity and medievalism, between freedom and submission. America should clearly align itself with the future and freedom and ask for support among Arabs on that basis.

While political Islam has many faces, its denial of universal values is a constant.

American strategy should champion universal ideals of human rights and embrace brave Arab democrats who stand for these values. America should realize that it has allies among every Arab population and engage them at the individual level, not the stratospheric level that only sees nation-states. This means a multi-layered strategy, using broadcast and social media, to combat radical claims and present reasonable alternatives.

Instead of trying to negotiate with terrorists, America should be strengthening supporters of tolerance and peace.

If Trump wants to earn and keep the support of Arabs, he should forswear any talks with extremists, insisting on the same unconditional surrender that the U.S. demanded in World War II. Without the same clear goal and same sense of who is an ally, America will never be able to rouse the Arab majority.

The U.S., working alongside its Arab allies, should promote moderate or quietist forms of Islam — not remain neutral on religious matters. This means working with Islamic leaders, many of whom are state-funded imams, to challenge jihad on a religious basis and offer a form of faith shorn of violence.

At the same, America and Arab governments should promote constitutional safeguards to limit the power of political parties and temporary majorities. Islamists can be given a role, if they are confined by norms of democracy and treated as one party among many.

These strategic insights come together in Morocco, where King Mohammed VI has used his religious role of Commander of the Faithful to inspire religious leaders to combat jihadist themes and urge tolerance and peace.

The king has also spent more than a decade championing gradual democratic reforms, culminating in a constitutional monarchy that vests all powers (except foreign affairs, national security and intelligence) in the elected parliament.

The Islamists, who, at 20 percent, won the largest number of votes, had to form a coalition with secular parties and rule by consensus. Strong institutions defeat the dangerous ambitions of strong men. 

While every Arab land is different, these ideas can be adapted to each of them. Peace and freedom are universal ideals; they enjoy support in every Arab land. America should focus on rallying its friends, not trying to placate its enemies.

Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is a board directors of the Atlantic Council and an International counselor of the Center for a Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump foreign leaders international affairs Islam

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