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Toward a New Foreign Policy.

To effectively challenge the threat from radical Islamic movements, the U.S. must shift its focus from trying to crush such movements to pursuing policies that discourage their emergence. Similarly, the U.S. must recognize that not all Islamic movements are contrary to the development of political pluralism or good relations with the United States.

From Afghanistan to Algeria and beyond, radical Islamic movements have grown to prominence where there has been great social dislocation in the population, whether it be from war or misguided economic policies. Policies designed to minimize such traumatic events will be far more successful than military threats in encouraging moderation in Islamic countries.

The U.S. must cease its support for autocratic regimes and encourage greater political pluralism. In countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Yemen, where Islamic parties have been allowed to compete in a relatively open political process, they have generally played a responsible--if somewhat conservative--role in the political system. The more radical elements observable in many Islamic movements are usually a reflection of the denial of their right to participate in political discourse. Many radical Islamic movements, such as those in Egypt, Palestine, and Algeria, include diverse elements. Were they no longer under siege and instead allowed to function in an open democratic system they would likely divide into competing political parties ranging across the ideological spectrum.

It is noteworthy that the FIS in Algeria competed fairly and nonviolently during that country's brief political opening in the early 1990s, only to have its anticipated election victory stolen in a military coup. In the aftermath, the radical GAM emerged to launch its campaign of terror against foreigners and broad segments of Algerian society.

Indeed, no extremist Islamic movements have ever evolved in democratic societies. Supporting democracy would therefore be a major step in the direction of moderating political Islam. The U.S. must stop considering Islam to be the enemy and instead encourage Islamic movements by working for justice and economic equality.

Washington must support the Palestinians' right to statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, including a shared Jerusalem that would serve as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. Both Congress and the executive branch should rescind resolutions and past statements that imply support for Israel's unilateral annexation of Arab East Jerusalem and surrounding Palestinian lands. Washington must instead recognize the city's importance to all three monotheistic faiths. Not only would such a policy shift bring the U.S. in line with international law, UN Security Council resolutions, and virtually the entire international community, but it would also remove a highly emotional and volatile issue from the arsenal of Islamic extremists, who exploit the widespread anger about U.S. support for the illegal Israeli occupation of a city that Muslims also see as holy.

The U.S. should stop pushing for radical economic liberalization in Islamic countries, since such policies increase inequality and result in rising materialism and conspicuous consumption for elites at the expense of basic needs of the poor majority. Instead, the U.S. must support sustainable economic development, so that the benefits of foreign investment and globalization can be more fairly distributed with minimal social disruption. Although some Islamic traditions have proven to be relatively tolerant of autocratic governance, the presence of corruption and a lack of concern about social injustice by a country's leadership are generally seen by Muslims as a violation of a social contract and must be resisted.

In many respects, political Islam has filled a vacuum that resulted from the failure of Arab nationalism, Marxism, and other ideologies to free Islamic countries both from unjust political, social, and economic systems and from Western imperialism. Just because radical Islamic movements have embraced tactics and ideologies reprehensible to most Westerners does not mean that the concerns giving rise to such movements are without merit.

Only by addressing the legitimate grievances of these movements will there be any hope of stopping their often illegitimate methods and questionable ideologies. Otherwise, the U.S. may find itself dealing with a series of conflicts that could eclipse the bloody surrogate cold war battles that ravaged the third world in previous decades.


Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton University Press, 1996).

John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1995).

Scott W. Hibbard and David Little, Islamic Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997).

Charles Hirschkind, "What Is Political Islam?" Middle East Report, October-December 1997.

Stephen Hubbell, "The Containment Myth: U.S. Middle East Policy in Theory and Practice," Middle East Report, Fall 1998.

Stephen Zunes <> is an associate professor of politics and chairperson of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. Zunes is also a senior analyst and the Middle East and North Africa editor at Foreign Policy In Focus.
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Author:Zunes, Stephen
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:Jun 18, 2001
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