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The United States and the Birth of Islamism

What part did the United States play in creating radical Islam?

January 18, 2006

What part did the United States play in creating radical Islam?

Like monsters imbued with artificial life, radical imams, mullahs and ayatollahs stalk the landscape, thundering not only against the United States — but against freedom of thought, against secular science, against nationalism and the left, against women's rights.

Some are terrorists, but far more are just medieval-minded religious fanatics who want to turn the calendar back to the seventh century.

During the Cold War, from 1945 to 1991, the enemy was not merely the USSR. According to the Manichean rules of that era, the United States demonized leaders who did not wholeheartedly sign on to the U.S. agenda or who might challenge Western — and in particular U.S. — hegemony.

Ideas and ideologies that could inspire such leaders were suspect: nationalism, humanism, secularism, socialism. But subversive ideas such as these were also the ones most feared by the nascent forces of Muslim fundamentalism.

Throughout the Middle East, the Islamic right fought pitched battles against the bearers of these notions, not only in the realm of intellectual life — but also in the streets.

During the decades-long struggle against Arab nationalism — along with Persian, Turkish and Indian nationalism — the United States found it politic to make common cause with the Islamic right.

More broadly, the United States spent many years trying to construct a barrier against the Soviet Union along the Soviet’s southern flank. The fact that all of the nations between Greece and China were Muslim gave rise to the notion that Islam itself might reinforce that Maginot Line-style strategy.

Gradually, the idea of a green belt along the arc of Islam took form. The idea was not just defensive. Adventurous policy makers imagined that restive Muslims inside the Soviet Union's own Central Asian republics might be the undoing of the USSR itself — and they took steps to encourage them.

The United States played not with Islam — that is, the religion, the traditional, organized system of belief of hundreds of millions — but with Islamism. Unlike the faith, with 14 centuries of history behind it, Islamism is of more recent vintage.

It is a political creed with its origins in the late 19th century, a militant, all-encompassing philosophy whose tenets would appear foreign or heretical to most Muslims of earlier ages — and that still appear so to many educated Muslims today.

Whether it is called pan-Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism or political Islam, it is an altogether different creature from the spiritual interpretation of Muslim life as contained in the Five Pillars of Islam.

The mutant ideology that the United States encouraged, supported, organized or funded is, in fact, a perversion of that religious faith.

It is the same one variously represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, by Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, by Saudi Arabia's ultra-orthodox Wahhabism, by Hamas and Hezbollah, by the Afghan jihadis — and by Osama bin Laden.

Long before the advent of the George W. Bush Administration, the United States found political Islam to be a convenient partner during each stage of the U.S. empire-building project in the Middle East.

This is true from its early entry into the region to its gradual military encroachment, to its expansion into an on-the-ground military presence — and finally to the emergence of the United States as an army of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 1950s, the enemy was not only Moscow, but the Third World's emerging nationalists — from Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt to Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran.

The United States and Britain used the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist movement and the grandfather organization of the Islamic right, against Nasser, the up-and-coming leader of the Arab nationalists.

In the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat in Iran in 1953, the United States secretly funded an ayatollah who had founded the Devotees of Islam, a fanatical Iranian ally of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Later in the same decade, the United States began to toy with the notion of an Islamic bloc led by Saudi Arabia as a counter point to the nationalist left.

In the 1960s, despite U.S. efforts to contain it, left-wing nationalism and Arab socialism spread from Egypt to Algeria to Syria, Iraq and Palestine. To counter this seeming threat, the United States forged a working alliance with Saudi Arabia, intent on using its foreign policy arm, Wahhabi fundamentalism.

The United States joined with King Saud and Prince Faisal (later King Faisal) in pursuit of an Islamic bloc from North Africa to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia founded institutions to mobilize the Wahhabi religious right and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi-backed activists founded the Islamic Center of Geneva (1961), the Muslim World League (1962), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (1969) and other organizations that formed the core of an international Islamist movement.

Even after the Iranian revolution of 1979, the United States and its allies failed to learn the lesson that Islamism was a dangerous, uncontrollable force. The United States spent billions of dollars to support an Islamist jihad in Afghanistan, whose mujahideen were led by Muslim Brotherhood-allied groups.

The United States also looked on uncritically as Israel and Jordan covertly aided terrorists from the Muslim Brotherhood in a civil war in Syria. And it looked on as Israel encouraged the spread of Islamism among Palestinians in the occupied territories, helping to found Hamas. And in the United States itself, neoconservatives joined the CIA's Bill Casey in the 1980s in secret deals with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

By the 1990s, when the Cold War was over, the political utility of the Islamic right seemed questionable. Some strategists argued that political Islam was a new threat, the new "ism" replacing communism as America's global opponent.

That, however, wildly exaggerated the power of a movement that was restricted to poor, undeveloped states. Still, from Morocco to Indonesia, political Islam was a force that the United States had to deal with. Washington's response was muddled and confused.

And then came 9/11. After 2001, the Bush Administration appeared to sign on to the neoconservative declaration that the world was defined by a "clash of civilizations." It launched its global war on terrorism, targeting al Qaeda — the most virulent stain of the very virus that the United States had helped create.

Still, before, during and after the invasion of Iraq — a socialist, secular country that had long opposed Islamic fundamentalism — the United States actively supported Iraq's Islamic right.

It did so by overtly backing Iraqi Shiite Islamists, from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to radical Islamist parties such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Call (Al-Dawa) — both of which are also supported by Teheran's mullahs.

We should be mindful of that troubling history. When we now fear all those Islamists, we do well to remember just who helped spawn them.

Adapted from “Devil’s Game” by Robert Dreyfuss, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt And Company Publishers.