Since September 11, American foreign policy has approached the Arab world in three different ways. The first, under the George W. Bush administration, set out to name, shame and confront an “axis of evil.” The second, under President Obama, eschewed confrontation with Islamist forces in favor of an attempting to engage them politically.
Though the specifics of President Trump’s strategy may yet be in a state of flux, there is a sense that it combines a degree of pragmatism with a willingness to confront enemies, prod allies and, periodically, throw all parties to a given conflict off balance. He clearly identifies “radical Islam” as the enemy. He clearly sees the major terrorist threat to America as emanating from failed Arab states in the throes of civil war. These are valid and legitimate concerns. But they need to be unpacked, and developed into a more granular appraisal of a spectrum of Islamist movements and threats, some of which pose far greater danger than others. To do so is not to succumb to obscurantism—or “analysis paralysis,” as some critics of the Obama White House referred to the latter’s policies. On the contrary, it is a means of sharpening the national-security strategy which the president wants to pursue.
Islamism—the range of modern-day political ideologues informed by ideas about Islam—has many faces. One of them—what can be called “Salafi jihadism”—is indeed a kind of hybrid of religion and fascism. Its fiercest opponents are Arab liberals, who oppose both of these aspects: they want a transcendent civic ethos without religious imposition on people’s lives, and they want a pluralistic system of governance, not a neofascist state.
During the inaptly named “Arab Spring,” the region saw other trends in Islamism that also posed threats to the region. Some condemned terrorism but shared its extremist foundations, indirectly advancing Salafi jihadists’ goals by waging a political war against the same universalist principles that both detested. These “political Islamist’” strategies and their outcomes differed from one country to the next. In Egypt, the government of Muslim Brotherhood stalwart Mohammed Morsi ended in bloodshed. In Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood had played a political role for decades, the parliament in which they dominated was peacefully but decisively dissolved. In Tunisia, the Islamist “Ennahda” movement, which won a plurality of votes in the country’s first democratic parliamentary elections, was effectively checked by resilient institutions of civil society in the country—notably, organized labor. In Morocco, where the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) won the right to govern in landmark elections, it was nonetheless checked by the king in key realms—foreign affairs and social policy—as well as Moroccan civil institutions that thwarted the PJD’s aspirations.