An intense debate is increasingly heard in U.S. foreign policy circles: How should this country respond to the phenomenon of fundamentalist Islam? In a way, it's a whole new debate, dealing with such sensitive issues as the role of religion in politics

An intense debate is increasingly heard in U.S. foreign policy circles: How should this country respond to the phenomenon of fundamentalist Islam? In a way, it's a whole new debate, dealing with such sensitive issues as the role of religion in politics and whether the U.S. government should even have a policy toward a religiously-based movement. But in another, eerie way, it's the same old debate, for Americans divide on this issue roughly as they did on the issue of Marxism-Leninism. Left and Right still exist, in other words, and they continue to disagree roughly in the same way over the same issues.

Just as the Left paid little attention to the attractions of communist ideology, but held that its appeal lies in economic deprivation and social problems, so it now says the same about fundamentalist Islam. In both cases, it advocates dealing with militant ideology by solving socio-economic conditions; in both cases, it urges close attention to local causes. Just as American liberals sought to empathize with communists, and so to find significant differences of outlook among them, so they now approach fundamentalist Muslims, looking for possible openings. Now as then, liberals see Western policy as the ultimate source of the problem: hostile relations did not start with Lenin or Khomeini, but with a series of aggressive and greedy American acts. The United States is on the wrong side of history in trying to stave off these movements; Washington would better serve long-term American interests by eliminating its rear-guard battles, accepting the inevitable, and establishing reasonable relations with the new powers. If it did so, it would be pleasantly surprised: today's fire-breathing leaders will turn into far more accommodating ones tomorrow, for the other side (once the Soviet Union, now Iran) will no longer fear encirclement and will relax.

The Right, as Peter Rodman points out, disputes every one of these points. The source of radicalism, it says, lies less in poverty and oppression than in a misguided utopianism. Universalist ambitions, not local grievances, fuel the ideology. Conservatives show little interest in differences between communists or fundamentalist Muslims, tending to dismiss these as tactical and insignificant; what counts is the big picture. Western policy does not create these enemies, it deals with them, reluctantly, as it must. Encirclement is a canard. Conservatives deny that the communists or fundamentalists have history on their side; rather, their regimes are temporary aberrations, sure to be relegated to the museum of human experience. Appeasement does not work; resolve does. Stick by friends and never let the other side think us weak.

In brief, the Left once again argues in favor of mutual understanding and cooption: talk to our adversaries, bring them into the system, trade with them. The Right still instinctively favors confrontation and containment: stand up to our self-declared opponents, isolate and weaken our enemies, stick by our friends.

Each of these views, of course, implies a specific foreign policy, and with a Democrat in the White House, the U.S. government has adopted a liberal outlook on fundamentalist Islam. Anthony Lake, the president's national security advisor, recently declared that while "Islamic extremism poses a threat to our nation's interests," he dismissed this as not a religious phenomenon: "Islamic extremism uses religion to cover its ambitions." He also stated that "traditional values" of fundamentalist Muslims need not conflict with the West. He concluded with this noteworthy observation: "There is absolutely nothing in fundamentalism in any religion that leads to radical behavior." Seeking to portray itself as no enemy of the fundamentalists, the Clinton Administration offers dialogue with them and urges Algiers to do the same.

This interpretation of fundamentalist Islam reigns today in the United States, for it represents not only the policy of the government but also the consensus among American scholars of Islam. (Indeed, liberal specialists from the academy have unusually great influence in the formulation of policy toward fundamentalist Islam, as is often the case in subject areas outside the realm of routine diplomacy-environmentalism and high-technology also come to mind.)

The conservative, or dissident, view sees a great chasm between traditional Islam and fundamentalist Islam. The one is a way of life, the other a radical ideology. This view respects traditional Islam but sees fundamentalist as an enemy that must be combated. There is no such thing as a fundamentalist who simply wants to live his life quietly; nor who forwards "traditional values." These are radicals with who intend to turn their societies upside down. The Right sees conflict with fundamentalist Muslims as close to inevitable, given how they despise the West for what it is, not what it does. The Right responds by advocating a tough stance against the fundamentalists and their ideas. (And not, it bears emphasis, against Muslims in general or Islam the religion.) This has several implications for U.S. policy:

  • Do not cooperate with fundamentalists, do not encourage them, and do not engage in dialogue with them. Rather, oppose them. Of course, practical reality sometimes creates circumstances when this rule needs to be bent (during the Kuwait War it made sense to seek Iranian help against Iraq).
  • Use the many instruments of leverage to press fundamentalist states-the Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan-to reduce their aggressiveness.
  • Celebrate and support Muslim individuals and institutions who stand up to the fundamentalist scourge with the immense prestige of the United States as well as the funds in its information and development agencies.
  • Stand by those Muslim governments in combat with the fundamentalists. In the case of Algeria, join the French in making it clear that we don't want the fundamentalists to take power.
As old divisions of the Cold War revive in a new context, as liberals and conservatives offer arguments that echo those of yore, it's important to keep in mind who was right the last time around, for that offers a strong indication who will be right this one too.