U.S. Policy toward Political Islam --

By Zunes, Stephen | Foreign Policy in Focus, June 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

U.S. Policy toward Political Islam --


Zunes, Stephen, Foreign Policy in Focus


Key Points

* U.S. policy toward the Islamic world is skewed by negative stereotypes of Islam that fail to recognize its diversity.

* Radical Islamic movements often arise out of the legitimate needs and grievances of oppressed sectors of the population who see the U.S. as partly responsible for their suffering.

* Washington has encouraged the rise of extremist Islamic politics both through shortsighted support for such movements or governments and through its support of repressive regimes, which often trigger extremist backlash responses.

Key Problems

* The U.S. has supported hard-line Islamic movements and governments, such as the Saudi Arabia regime, which have encouraged extremist movements elsewhere.

* U.S. support for repressive governments makes democratic and nonviolent options for the Islamic opposition extremely difficult.

* Neoliberal economic development strategies--vigorously encouraged by the U.S.--have resulted in widespread economic dislocation, which has in turn encouraged the growth of radical Islamic movements.

Key Recommendations

* The U.S. must shift from supporting repressive governments to encouraging greater democracy and pluralism in the Islamic world.

* The U.S. must demand an end to Israel's illegal occupation of Arab East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories and promote a peace agreement that recognizes the city's importance to all three monotheistic faiths.

* The U.S. should support sustainable economic development in the Islamic world, so that the benefits of foreign investment and globalization can be more fairly distributed with minimal social disruption.

The perceived growth of radical Islamic movements throughout the Middle East and beyond has not only caused major political upheaval in the countries directly affected but has placed political Islam at the forefront of concerns voiced by U.S. policymakers. One unfortunate aspect of this newfound attention has been the way it has strengthened ugly stereotypes of Muslims already prevalent in the West. This occurs despite the existence of moderate Islamic segments and secular movements that are at least as influential as radicals in the political life of Islamic countries.

Even though the vast majority of the world's Muslims oppose terrorism, religious intolerance, and the oppression of women, these remain the most prevalent images of the Muslim faith throughout the Western world. Such popular misconceptions about Islam and Islamic movements--often exacerbated by the media, popular culture, and government officials--have made it particularly difficult to challenge U.S. policy.

To be able to respond effectively to Islamic militancy, the U.S. must clearly understand the reasons why a small but dangerous minority of Muslims have embraced extremist ideologies and violent tactics. These movements are often rooted in legitimate grievances voiced by underrepresented and oppressed segments of the population, particularly the poor. And the U.S. is increasingly identified with the political, social, and economic forces that are responsible for their misery. Many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere are exposed not to the positive aspects of U.

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