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Here’s how we can roll back on Islamist movements

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The American policy toward Islamists — meaning the contemporary political ideology informed by ideas about Islam, as opposed to the religion of Islam itself — should have been subjects of debate in Arab capitals and the West over successive U.S. administrations.

The Obama White House seemed to tilt toward Islamists both in Arab countries where the Muslim Brotherhood won elections and in Iran as the reigning mullahs rigged elections.  

{mosads}President Trump, by contrast, appeared to signal early on that he abhorred Sunni and Shiite varieties of the ideology in all their manifestations.


Yet, more than a year into this presidency, the White House policy toward radical Islamism strains remains unclear.  

Regarding Sunni varieties, for example, a proposed move to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist entity, which the president seemed initially to support, has since been shelved.

With respect to Iran and its Shiite Islamist proxies, the President has not yet made clear how it will meet its pledges to roll them back.  

On the bright side, new actions by the U.S. Treasury Department have targeted Hezbollah affiliates in West Africa, Latin America and Lebanon itself.

On the other hand, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his own recent visit to Beirut, made seemingly contradictory statements about Hezbollah, at one point appearing to legitimize the group’s violent domination of Lebanese politics. 

In the Arab world, where conspiracy theories reign, American allies and adversaries alike typically interpret a great power’s incoherence as a deliberate effort to sow confusion. So as a Moroccan citizen and a friend to the United States, I feel obliged to report that a more clear and consistent line on the Islamist challenge would go a long way in reinforcing America’s alliances in the region.

Islamist’s own track record over the past four decades should provide ample fodder for informed policy deliberation. 

While Shiite Islamists have ruled Iran since 1979 and gradually come to dominate four Arab capitals by proxy, Sunni Islamists have now had the chance to govern, rule, or call the shots in Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey and portions of Syria and Iraq.

In each of these locations, ordinary people who have lived under their rule attest to the same four tragic outcomes:

First, Islamists have exposed their supposed moral purity as a fraud. Graft and brutality are no less widespread in Islamist Iran than in nominally secularist Algeria.

Moral depravity has been a mainstay of Islamism too: Morocco and Tunisia have both seen Islamist elites take “wives” a third their age only to abandon them within weeks, then justify their behavior as permissible under Islamic law.

In this context it seemed hardly surprising that in Paris, Tariq Ramadan — an Islamist intellectual leader and grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder — was taken into custody earlier this month while being investigated on charges of rape. 

Second, Islamists have uniformly failed to deliver promised socioeconomic benefits to the population. Their claims to possess a secret recipe for prosperity grounded in Islamic tenets has proved empty.  

Just ask any of the participants in mass demonstrations in dozens of Iranian cities whether the Mullahs have delivered the social justice that they promised. Or ask civilians in Gaza how many schools and hospitals have been built by Hamas for every terrorist tunnel. 

Third, power does not moderate Islamists; they simply maintain the same belligerent ideologies they had espoused while in opposition. For example, years into its management of most ministerial portfolios in Morocco, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development continues to spew Islamist supremacism.  

So does Hezbollah — in addition to making war on ideological rivals foreign and domestic — though it effectively controls Lebanon. The Tehran regime’s extremism despite decades in power need hardly be reviewed.  

Fourth, Islamists work continually to ingrain their toxic ideologies in young people by dominating schools, mosque pulpits, and mass media.

Thus the longest lasting damage they do occurs through their brainwashing of a captive audience: It is their way of carrying their militancy and chauvinism into the next generation.

This bitter legacy calls for policies by the U.S. and its allies to undermine Islamist domination wherever it is found, inoculate youth from Islamist teachings and promote a new set of salubrious ideals in their stead.  

Doing so means, for starters, using a range of tools — including military action, security measures, intelligence work and economic pressure — to weaken Iran and its Arab proxies.

It also means beefing up security partnership with Arab establishments that have come to recognize the perils of Sunni and Shiite Islamism alike.

But some of the most important aspects of a policy to counter Islamism doesn’t lie in America’s relations with Arab governments, but rather with those non-state actors whom Islamists despise the most, which are liberals championing equality, tolerance, civil society, and critical thinking.  

For too long, the United States has adopted a position of neutrality on the intraregional debate between Islamists and Arab liberals, effectively ceding the field of ideological competition to powerful Islamist machineries bankrolled by oil-rich backers.  

But now the ground has shifted all thanks to the Islamist’s failings as to the widespread realization on the part of some Arab establishments that new, constructive values must be instilled to safeguard the region’s future.  

Some reform-minded autocracies are now granting a larger space for liberals to make their case in the court of public opinion. To succeed, they will need assistance, expertise and moral support from the world’s superpower.

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.

Tags Donald Trump Hezbollah Islam Islamic fundamentalism Islamic terrorism Islamism Muslim Brotherhood Political ideologies Religious controversies Rex Tillerson Shia–Sunni relations

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