You Still Don’t Understand Islamism, Do You?

Around 2007, I gave a lecture at the Defense Department. One of the attendees presented a scenario suggesting that the “problem of Islam” was not political but a problem of verbiage.

There was a secret debate happening in the Defense Department and the CIA in which some people thought that all Muslims were a problem, some believed that only al-Qaeida was a problem, and still others thought the Muslim Brotherhood was a problem.

The main problem, however, was that all Islamism was a political threat, but it was the second position that eventually won over the Obama administration. Take note of this; since 2009, if you wanted to build your career and win policy debates, only al-Qaeda was a problem. The Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat; after all, it did not participate in September 11. This view was well-known in policy circles, but it was easy to mistake this growing hegemony as temporary.

Actually, it only got worse.

A Muslim Foreign Service officer recounted how some U.S. officials were trying to persuade the powers that be that al-Qaeda was split from the Muslim Brotherhood. Imagine how horrified he was. Still other officials told me that there was heavy pressure and there were well-financed lobbyists trying to force officials into the idea that al-Qaeda was the only problem. Some high-ranking Defense Department officials -- for example, one on the secretary of Defense’s level -- were pressured to fire anti-Muslim Brotherhood people. I know of at least five such incidences.

For example, I was asked to participate in a contract and co-direct a project for the federal government, and my paper was to be on the idea that all Islamists posed a threat. To my surprise, I was told that my paper was rejected. Shocked, I asked to speak to the two co-contractors on the telephone. Isn’t it true, I said on the phone, that I was to have co-direction of this project? The response was yes it was, nevertheless, a more junior member of the press could not prevail. By the way, this co-director, who likely became interested in the Middle East in large part because of me, was very rude. I then told him that though the project had originally been my idea, I was going to walk away from it and not demand compensation.

In another incident, a high-ranking CIA official posited a paper that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat, only al-Qaeda was, and U.S. policy should therefore depend on the Brotherhood.

In another case, a U.S. official made a statement at a public function that neither Hizballah nor Hamas posed a threat to U.S. interests.

By 2013, it sprouted in a few people’s arguments that Iran could be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. The theoretical situation to government officials was thus clear: If you wanted to make some money in Washington, you would have to toe the line that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat. If sanctions ended against the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists, including Iran, this could also lead to trillions of dollars in potential trade deals. Note that in 2009 and 2010, an attempt was made to build such a model with Syria, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered in a civil war.

But Iran was a far more valuable state. In fact, Tehran was a far easier target because it had far more money and could possibly be bought simply by agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon.

Following is what I predicted in my 1980 book Paved With Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran:

United States-Iranian relations could not possibly have been worse in the months following November 4, 1979. From the American point of view, the central problem was obtaining the release of fifty-three American diplomats being held hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. To the Iranians the capture of the American Embassy and its occupants marked a successful end to one revolution and the opening shots of a second. For Iran, like Russia in 1917, was to undergo both a February and a November revolution--the first a political struggle to unseat the old regime, the second a social, economic, and cultural revolution to build a new Islamic society.

In Iran’s case, it was the fundamentalist mullahs and their Islamic Republican Party who were seeking to achieve what the Bolsheviks had done in Russia--monopolize power. Like Lenin, Khomeini would in time turn against moderate segments of the revolutionary coalition and purge their members from positions of authority; like the Bolsheviks, the fundamentalists, once in power, would refuse to compromise with those ethnic movements that had aided the revolution; and like the Leninists, Khomeini’s supporters would try to create a totalistic structure, subsuming into their ideological framework all aspects of national life, from the courts to the schools, from the military to the conduct of commerce, and even the daily behavior of the citizenry.

Thus, the United States and Iran, two countries whose friendship had begun with such high expectations and whose relations had included fine moments of selfless cooperation as well as many shameful episodes of corruption and insensitivity, were now the bitterest of enemies.

In 2014, I am convinced that the leadership of the Iranian Islamist regime still feels the same way, just as American policy makers still don’t understand that nice verbiage has not changed anything. Note that President Ronald Reagan sending the Iranians a key-shaped cake -- supposedly to symbolize the “opening” of U.S.-Iranian relations -- also demonstrated little understanding of Iranian extremism.