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Engaging Fundamentalists

Reuel Marc Gerecht
11th August 2012 - The Caravan, Hoover Institution

Given the growing strength and electoral triumphs of fundamentalists in the Middle East, many in Washington fear that the administration just can’t handle Islamists. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been the intellectual mother ship of virtually every radical Islamic movement, including al-Qa’ida. Comments by senior American diplomats and intelligence officials about the Brotherhood’s “moderation” are certainly worrisome. Could Barack Hussein Obama’s naiveté, so apparent in his early desire to engage Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khameneh’i, manifest itself again among the Arabs?

Probably, but it won’t matter. Engagement isn’t likely to go far. Muslim fundamentalists fear us more than we fear them. Our touch—especially the West’s unstoppable and intimate focus on women—is poisonous, if not lethal, to their vision of a good Muslim society. Even if President Obama and his minions believe and act as if there is considerable common ground between the United States and electorally triumphant fundamentalists, Islamists will put severe limits on how much American officials can be “duped.” Political correctness may at times cripple American counterterrorism (the case of Major Nidal Malik Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas, is a good example), but its foreign-policy equivalent—mirror-imaging American views upon foreigners—has been unable, even under Mr. Obama, to reshape fundamentally the relations between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

This has been so because Iran’s Islamist elite believes vividly in a clash of civilizations. It’s impossible to read the supreme leader speeches, or his new officially-sanctioned biography, Sharh-e Ism (“The Explanation of the Name”), and not see his seething, long-brewing hatred of Western culture and its cutting edge, the United States.

Militant Muslims are always looking at the elemental moral components of their society.  They can’t stop looking at the public square, where Western culture, led by the sensual beat and rebellion of Western music, thrives among the young. Western “realists” and grand strategists keep looking at the map and see geographic and non-ideological convergences between the United States and Muslim lands; Islamists see the globe through a microscope, hunting for the foreign microbes that have infected just about everything, but especially their daughters.

Western Leftists probably would have made Iranian revolutionaries into global heroes years ago if it had not been for the Islamic Republic’s determination to veil and “protect” women. France’s leftists really wanted to embrace the Islamic Salvation Front’s fight against the Algerian military junta in the early 1990s. For the most part, they couldn’t do it. The Front’s vivid anti-feminism just out weighed other considerations.

Democratically-elected fundamentalists in Tunisia and Egypt—probably the most sophisticated and open of Arab Islamists—are going to have extraordinary difficulty reconciling their conception of virtue with the mores common among the countries’ Westernized youth and urbanized, professional classes. Severe cultural clashes, perhaps even more than nightmarish fiscal problems, will likely dominate future politics in these countries. This internal tension will inevitably have foreign-policy overtones.

The biggest problem for the new Islamist elites is likely to be their cultural inability to engage Western officials and businessmen enough to keep their countries running. With Iran in our minds, we should, however, seek engagement as profoundly, as comprehensively, and as intimately as possible. We don’t want to pull our punches—an omnipresent problem with diplomats concerned about not offending their hosts. We want to challenge at close quarters. There’s a decent argument that the United States should—even in these trying economic times—increase aid to Arab governments dominated by fundamentalists. We should want to see whether they would compromise their ethics for our cash.

Jean-François Revel’s brilliant La Tentation Totalitaire was the rage among the American Right during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when the Soviet Union was gaining ground. For Revel, the left, enervated by the welfare state and its socialist roots was sapping the Western will to fight. Though certainly right about many of the particulars, Revel was wrong where it mattered most: the unrivaled magnetism of Western civilization and the staying power of the United States. Muslim fundamentalists sentimentally are a lot like Revel: they more easily see doom and gloom than happiness. We should feed that sensation and allow enough time for democracy’s jousting ethic to work its deconstructing ways on their cherished values—as it has constantly reshaped ours.

President Obama may not have known what he was doing when he extended his hand to Ali Khameneh’i. But he did the right thing. We should do it much more assertively and confidently with the Arab Islamists now rising to power.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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arab-spring, egypt, iran, islamist, muslim-brotherhood, tunisia