Islam’s Two Faces?

Welcome to the new e-zine format for Foreign Policy In Focus. The new name of our e-zine, World Beat, emphasizes that our “beat” is the world and that we feature voices from around the planet. We’ll be introducing some new features in the fall, including a section on culture and foreign policy, so the musical connotations of World Beat will also soon become relevant.

Every week, World Beat will provide you with the most recent FPIF content in the column to the left. We’ll also feature a short comment on international events that highlights the work of FPIF contributors and others.

Which brings us back to the question for this week: does Islam have only two faces?

The United States, when it looks at Islam, suffers from a peculiar disorder of the eyes that perhaps only the great neurologist Oliver Sacks can properly diagnose. Where there is a great multiplicity of sects, beliefs, and approaches in Islam, the U.S. government has a stubborn double vision.

It sees threat. And it sees “moderate Islam.”

Into the category of threat, the United States manages to lump together everything that it doesn’t like. Before the Iraq War, the Bush administration tried to hammer home the point that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were in cahoots, despite considerable evidence that Saddam saw Osama bin Laden as a rival not a partner. Today, the administration is trying to shoehorn al-Qaida together with Hezbollah into an all-purpose terror network, though the Sunni al-Qaida makes war on the West and eschews all politics while the Shiite Hezbollah has much narrower goals, has served in the Lebanese government, and runs an extensive social welfare apparatus. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza also stare at each other across the Sunni-Shia divide.

Of course, a common enemy can do wonders for tactical cooperation. The plight of the Palestinians and disgust over U.S. unilateralism, as Max Rodenbeck suggests in an interesting overview of Sunni-Shia relations in the New York Review of Books, has promoted a certain shaky pan-Islamism. And certainly the U.S.-supported invasion of Lebanon by Israel has reduced whatever doctrinal disputes the Muslim world might have had with Hezbollah. Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah have been coordinating their strategies ever since 1992 when, as Helena Cobban writes in her blog Just World News, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin thought he would “teach the Palestinian militants a lesson” by rounding up and deporting 400 of them to Lebanon.

Islamic Renewal

The second category of “moderate Islam,” as FPIF’s Najum Mushtaq writes, can be equally problematic. In “Islamic Blowback Part Two,” Mushtaq describes the attempts by the United States to promote a reform of Islam from within. This might sound nice (“reform” and “moderate” are certainly feel-good terms). But the U.S. partners in this effort to contain Islamic fundamentalism are “medieval monarchies, military regimes, Islamic emirates, and controlled democracies,” Mushtaq writes. “Whether supporting educational reform in Pakistan or engaging Islamist parties in Morocco, the United States may well be repeating the same errors of the Cold War era. The ideological attack on militant Islam resembles a previous generation’s war on communism, and the search for responsible partners in the Islamic world has led the United States, in the interests of expediency, to embrace some unsavory principles and characters.”

This problem of double vision is by no means unique to the Bush administration, as FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes points out in his new commentary “Why the Dems Have Failed Lebanon.” The inability to understand the diversity and the cleavages within Islam—and the belief that only military force can eliminate perceived threats—is truly a bipartisan disorder.

Nor is the application of a “with us or against us” philosophy to understanding Islam simply an analytical failure. This is no mere standoff between, for instance, the “lumpers” and the “splitters” of the history profession who either look for connections between disparate entities or search for ever more refined distinctions. As FPIF contributors Adil E. Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker write in their new commentary, U.S. neoconservatives are overemphasizing the links between Hezbollah and its occasional backers Iran and Syria to widen the current conflict.

The result is obvious. Just as al-Qaida didn’t operate in Iraq until after the 2003 invasion, the Islamic groups that the United States sees as unified will increasingly begin to act that way. What you see is, indeed, what you get.

Or, to put it in another way, the war against terrorism is also a war against nuance: nuanced understanding and nuanced policy.

Long Live Nuance

Fortunately, nuance is not dead yet. FPIF’s Conn Hallinan, in “How the Irish Can Save the Middle East,” points out that it’s never too late to overturn a history of us-or-them thinking. The Irish “troubles” have been going on for more than 40 generations, but the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 offers all sides in the conflict a palatable exit strategy—and the adversaries in the Lebanon crisis a potential model.

And, as FPIF’s policy outreach director Erik Leaver argues in a new commentary, public support in the United States—and in Congress—for a withdrawal from Iraq has never been higher, and you don’t have to look further than the recent primary results in Connecticut for proof. U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would begin the process of severing the toxic connection between war and an effective counter-terrorism strategy. And help the United States begin to address the “vision thing,” the narrow, distorted, binocular view of Islam.

This week, in addition to analyses of UN reform by Ian Williams and the Uganda peace talks by Peter J. Quaranto and Michael Poffenberger, FPIF has introduced photos to the website. It’s an odd couple this week: FPIF co-director Emira Woods and U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. We’ll be introducing more images to the website in the fall in our own attempt to provide you with a more diverse picture of the world.