Middle East Quarterly
That's Not Enough
Richard Schifter's response highlights some of the very traits that impede U.S. policy toward fundamentalist Islam. Although he valiantly defends administration policies, he sidesteps the central point of my March article.
Schifter makes much of the consistency "an impartial reader" would observe in the speeches of the Clinton administration on this subject, but we do not disagree here; I concluded my article noting that "the U.S. government has maintained a coherent policy toward fundamentalist Islam." We agree on the policy's consistency; we disagree on its merits. I argued that it suffers from three key misunderstandings: a conflation of traditional values with fundamentalist radicalism; a false distinction between "good" fundamentalists and "bad" ones; and an over-reliance on socioeconomic solutions. Schifter's letter does not change my views on these problems; indeed, in places, he confirms them.
First, he engages in revisionism of past statements by his colleagues. He tells us that the administration's approving references to Islam were meant to apply to "the outlook of practicing, believing Muslims who adhere to a moderate, tolerant tradition of their faith." But the texts of administration speeches do not confirm his claim. For example, in the single most important discussion of these issues, Anthony Lake's speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on May 17, 1994, no such qualifications are to be found. Instead, Lake glowingly describes the rising wave of Islamization as the "renewed emphasis on traditional values in the Islamic world." I would be the first to applaud if Lake had said what Schifter would have him say, but he did not.
Schifter's references to violence highlight a second characteristic of current policy: the attempt to distinguish between "good" and "bad" fundamentalists by applying violence as a litmus test.1 While rightly condemning terrorist groups, the U.S. government seems to approve of the fundamentalist ideologues who fan the flames of terrorism, praising them as exemplars of "traditional values" and beacons of religious renaissance. From a practical standpoint, this distinction is an exercise in hair-splitting. Fundamentalist Islam seeks radically to subvert the existing order, and virtually every U.S. objective in the Middle East -- democracy, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and human rights -- lies in its crosshairs. This core hostility toward American interests renders woefully inadequate the litmus test of violent actions alone.
Schifter asserts that the current policy does indeed incorporate these interests. How, then, does he explain Washington's benign attitude toward the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, a fundamentalist group that espoused democracy before the 1991 elections, but after winning the first round, declared, "No law. No constitution. Only the rule of God and the Koran"?2 As elections provide increasing opportunities for fundamentalist inroads, Americans must struggle to reconcile interests in short-term stability and long-term democratization. It is not enough simply to speak out against "extremism" and "violence," as Schifter and the Clinton administration have done.
Lastly, Schifter defends the Clinton administration's twin pillars of economic development and democratization as the foundation of an anti-fundamentalist policy. But economic growth and political reform are not the universal salve that the Clinton administration imagines them to be. Dollars and democracy may alleviate many socioeconomic grievances, but the middle-class fundamentalist surge in Turkey, Egypt, India, and Indonesia suggests that other grievances remain unaddressed. Schifter ought to acknowledge that culture and ideology also play a role.
I should note that the Clinton administration is not alone to blame in its policy toward fundamentalist Islam. In the seventeen years and four U.S. administrations since the fall of the shah, not one U.S. official has issued a statement detailing the threat of fundamentalist Islamic ideology. In the three hundred plus speeches and documents dealing with Middle Eastern policy, I have found only passing references to fundamentalism in the context of Iran, terrorism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not a single speech has acknowledged fundamentalism as a threat and defined the scope of the challenge.
Schifter's response suggests that the Clinton administration recognizes that fundamentalist Islam poses a serious challenge. But its response reflects an uncertainty and unwillingness to respond decisively. Until the administration addresses the full breadth and depth of the fundamentalist challenge, U.S. policy will continue to fall short.
1 Interestingly, like other administration officials, Schifter asserts the authority to interpret true and false versions of Islam. He writes that the administration has clearly condemned those who, "however they describe themselves, . . . use or advocate violence in pursuit of what are essentially political agendas." This comment is reminiscent of Anthony Lake's avowed opposition to "militants who distort Islamic doctrines." See Anthony Lake, "From Containment to Enlargement," Vital Speeches, Oct. 15, 1993, p. 13.
2 Judith Miller, "The Challenge of Radical Islam," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1993.