[Ed. note: The Algemeiner's title is "The Muslim Brotherhood Is Challenged at Georgetown University Event." CW's text differs slightly.]
Across the decades "it is always the same issue" for American policymakers seeking the "finest tuning" in policy towards Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other Islamists, noted MB researcher Mohamed-Ali Adraoui. His March presentation before an audience of about thirty at Georgetown University's Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) was unusually balanced for ACMCU, typically a bastion of pro-Islamist, anti-Western views.
The French Adraoui is a visiting researcher on a European Union fellowship at Georgetown. ACMCU director Jonathan Brown moderated, while his colleague John Voll and Georgetown's Muslim chaplain Yahya Hendi attended. The audience also included regular ACMCU event attendees, such as anti-Israel former Foreign Service Officer Benjamin Tua and foreign policy commentator Stanley Kober, a Georgetown alumnus.
Adraoui described recurring patterns among American officials of neglecting religion's role in modern life and the resultant dilemma of encountering Islamism. American policymakers have recognized that Middle Eastern Islamists "are part of their societies, they are powerful, they are influential, [and] they have some role to play." Thus, they wonder whether they can use Islamists "in order to tame, let's say, their dark side, in our interest."
Yet Islamism is "extremely interesting" for Adraoui, because for "years this issue was almost inexistent [sic]" in American policy concerns. The first State Department report on the MB appeared in 1944 in response to an MB letter to the American embassy in Cairo urging American opposition to colonialism and Zionism in the Middle East. The report misidentified the MB's founding year as 1938, not 1928, and the letter, written in Arabic, prompted the embassy to hire its first Arabic-speaker.
Although the report warned against the MB's "fanatical principles" that Egypt "should be governed by Quranic law" and that "everything non-Muslim should be detested," American diplomats later disregarded such advice. After Egyptian military officers overthrew Egypt's monarchy in 1952 and began aligning with the Soviet Union, American officials speculated about making the MB a Cold War ally. They met with MB leaders, such as Said Ramadan, son-in-law of MB founder Hassan al-Bana and father of the deceptive, stealth Islamist Tariq Ramadan and asked "are you in favor of the values we have been defending" and "could you basically be our partner."
Such naïveté towards Islamism reflected an overriding American focus on Cold War Communism. Adraoui recalled one American diplomat explaining in an interview that before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination, there was "no real interest for this radical extremist political ideology." He noted that American policymakers viewed Sadat's jihadist assassins as mere Soviet proxies, as they had mistakenly believed "there was no independent Islamist action outside of the Cold War framework."
Adraoui described a key shift in American policymakers' thinking in Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian's June 2, 1992, Meridian House address in Washington, D.C. Algeria was in the early stages of a bloody civil war between various Islamists after the military seized power in January 1992 before elections would have brought Islamists to power. The speech indicated that "for the very first time, at the highest political and diplomatic level in U.S. leadership, a new possible threat [of Islamism] is clearly acknowledged." It was, Adraoui observed, a "paradigm shift in the U.S. global strategy."
Nonetheless, President George W. Bush revived flights of fancy concerning Islamism. His administration courted Islamists as a "potential ally against the systematically violent transnational jihadists," Adraoui noted. For example, Bush welcomed Hezbollah's participation in 2005 Lebanese elections, believing the group would be more interested in repairing potholes than jihad terrorism.
Likewise, President Barack Obama thought democratization would better serve American interests and Middle Eastern stability than autocracies, as his June 4, 2009, Cairo speech demonstrated. Adraoui described the belief that the MB's "revolutionary potential could be tamed" as a "key component" of Obama's policies during Egypt's 2011 "Arab Spring," and later, when the MB won elections. America's ambassador to Egypt at the time, Anne Patterson, told Adraoui in an interview that the MB seemed much more moderate than the Islamists she had encountered as ambassador to Pakistan.
Such statements recall why Egyptians, who supported a nationwide mass protest movement that led to a military overthrow of the MB in 2013, considered Patterson the "Muslim Brotherhood's lackey." Meanwhile, longtime State Department Middle East envoy Ambassador Dennis Ross warned Adraoui in an interview that the MB "may reject the use of violence, but not as a principle."
Reflecting upon Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party and the radical background of Ennahda leader Rashid Ghanoushi, Adraoui raised the question, "Can you be an Islamist and a democrat?" Recent Ennahda opposition to Tunisian proposals to abolish Islamic inheritance laws only confirms what Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes emphasized in an interview with Adraoui: "There could be no such thing as a moderate Islamism."
During the question and answer period, audience member Voll expressed his agreement with Pipes and Adraoui regarding Islamism's significance, despite scholarly neglect. Notwithstanding of their political disagreements, Voll sympathized with Pipes's feeling of intellectual isolation. The former recalled being criticized for a dissertation on Sufism in the 1960s, when studies of leftist radicalism were considered paramount. Similarly, Pipes had told Adraoui that before al-Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks, his study of "political Islam was like, today, focusing on Chilean foreign policy."
Given Islamism's vital importance, Adraoui's willingness to survey a broad variety of views on the subject is commendable, although completely out of character for ACMCU's pro-Islamist biases. While ACMCU and the wider world of Middle East studies often degenerate into rank radical propaganda, Andraoui's presentation gave opposing views a respectful hearing. If only more Middle East studies academics would follow suit.
Andrew E. Harrod is a Campus Watch Fellow, freelance researcher, and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod.