America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?

Oct 29, 2001

Fifty years ago, the entire Middle East used to admire the United States, viewing it as an island of progressivism in a Europe-centric world. Today there are no major political groups in the Arab world that are pro-American. What went wrong? Gerges examines the trajectory of recent U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for some answers.


JOANNE MYERS: We are experiencing unimaginable grief and enormous anger. Unable to fully comprehend the motives for the attacks, we as a nation are asking many questions. One, in particular, seems to be asked over and over again: Why America? After all, if we look at American foreign policy around the world and look beyond our support of Israel, many of our initiatives belie the claim of Osama bin Laden and others that America is categorically an enemy of Islam. For example, in Kosovo the United States led an intervention to aid the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians. And when Russia waged a brutal military campaign in Muslim Chechnya, President Clinton publicly confronted Boris Yeltsin about Russian human rights violations. Furthermore, America has been one of the leading humanitarian aid donors to Afghanistan. Therefore, in an attempt to understand what went wrong and to uncover what we missed in the past, in the hope of making our future more secure, I have invited Dr. Fawaz Gerges to be our guest this afternoon. He will discuss with us one of the most misunderstood areas of U.S. foreign policy, the relationship between America and the Muslim world.

I believe that Dr. Gerges is one of the few people most likely to provide us with a level-headed and comprehensive analysis of American policy towards Islam. His discussion this afternoon is based on his most recent book, America and Political Islam, which will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program.

He is also the author of Superpowers and the Middle East: Regional and International Politics. His articles and essays have appeared in many journals and newspapers, including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Nation, Harvard Journal of World Affairs, The Oxford International Review, and The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

Our guest is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is also a consultant and regular commentator for ABC, as well as having appeared on many TV and radio programs throughout the world, including CNN, NPR, BBC, and Charlie Rose.

Although born in Lebanon to a Greek Orthodox Christian family, Dr. Gerges was educated in London, where he received his Master of Science at London School of Economics and was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford. He has taught at Oxford and Harvard and was a Research Fellow at Princeton University for two years. He has won several academic awards, including a two-year MacArthur Fellowship, which he used to conduct field research between Islamics and the West in six Arab countries. Dr. Gerges, it is a pleasure to have you join us. Thank you very much.


FAWAZ GERGES: I am delighted to be here. I wish the circumstances had been different, but the context, as we know, is very tragic and disheartening after the attack on the United States and the thousands of American casualties.

I was commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations in the early 1990s to write a monograph on America's relations with the Muslim world, in particular with Islamist movements. As you know, the conventional wisdom in the 1980s and 1990s was that Islamist movements presented a critical threat to the established political order in the Arab and Muslim world. And indeed, few American officials made any connection between the rise of Islamist sentiments and Western and American interests. Few imagined in their wildest dreams that this sentiment would be unleashed against the American heartland and Western interests, in Europe and throughout the world.

It is fascinating to me, looking back at my book after five or six years, to see that American foreign policy towards the Islamist movement was quite complex and nuanced in the early 1990s. American officials went out of their way to understand what the Islamist movement was all about, and construct strategies to deal with it. American policy-makers, in particular in the Clinton Administration, antagonized some of the key states in the Arab and Muslim world because they wanted to engage with the mainstream Islamist movements, to understand their grievances, and their political agenda.

I went to the Middle East at the end of 1998—1999 on a MacArthur Fellowship. I felt that in order to understand the relationship between the Islamist sentiment and the West, it was essential to see it from the other perspective as well, and I wanted to do a follow-up book on how Muslims perceive and interact with the West, including of course, and particularly, the United States. I spent two years living in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and some other countries, where I focused on fringe Islamist movements, on what I call the "rising social elements," to understand, for example, the phenomenon of militant Islam, rather than merely mainstream Islam.

Here I want to make one qualification: The overwhelming number of Muslims are mainstream, and the fringe elements are truly a tiny, tiny fraction within the Islamist movements. It is a shame that the focus is now on Osama bin Laden and some of the most terrorist elements. But the mainstream Islamist movements are the most dominant and powerful opposition in the Arab and Muslim world, and they do not subscribe to violence as a legitimate instrument of political action. By fringe Islamist movements I mean those that would use violence and terrorism as a legitimate tool of political action.

My brief presentation today will not just focus on American foreign policy toward Islamist movements; it will also look at how Muslims perceive and interact with the Western world, particularly the United States. I hope that this will be a more comprehensive presentation than just talking about American foreign policy toward the Islamist movements.

I will focus on two major themes tonight. The first theme is the changing face of Islamic militancy in the Middle East. Most commentators talk about Islamic militancy, as if nothing had changed in the last ten years, but there are some dramatic, substantive shifts which have occurred. Unfortunately, most of our academic community do "tourist research." They go for a week or two, meet with the same people, sit down, get a few books in English, and come back home. Very few people take the time to live and study in the area. My great teachers at Oxford and Cambridge spent a lifetime trying to understand other cultures and societies. Now most academics do not even speak foreign languages. They prefer the luxury, safety and peacefulness of their offices, the "ivory tower." This explains why, when the great social upheavals take place—whether the Iranian revolution in 1979 or the major wars—both the academic and policy communities are often caught napping.

My second theme is how America and Americans are perceived, not just by Arab and Muslim publics, but also by public commentators, civil society leaders, and leading intellectuals. This is a highly complex question now with our current obsession: Why do they hate us so much?

Forty-five years ago, I would have written the book Why Do They Love America So Much? The United States was seen as an island in a sea of Eurocentrism, one of the most progressive nations in the world. What has happened in the last 45 years? Why have America and Americans become so disliked? Under this thin layer of antagonism lies a great deal of fascination with the American ideal and dream. Every taxi driver will tell you he would like to go to America. Most intellectuals are educated in the West. So it is much more than just black and white, and I would like to shed some light on these themes.

And lastly, I want to suggest a few ways and means by which the United States can tackle the underlying tension and antagonism in the region, or "How can the United States address the arsenal of accumulated grievances?" I am talking about substantive initiatives and measures to address the underlying causes that fuel tensions between the two civilizations.

I wish to make five points tonight.

1) Arab governments defeat militant Islamism

Although initially embattled and besieged, by the end of the 1990s the Arab political order finally contained the threat from fringe Islamist movements, crushed their military capabilities, arrested their political leaders, and regained control of the political environment. The major threat to the established regimes came from certain fringe movements, whether in Algeria, Egypt, or other Gulf states. By the end of the decade, both the Egyptian and Algerian governments succeeded in decimating the militant Islamist factions. In particular, al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya, the Islamic group in Egypt, the Egyptian Jihad, and the GIA [Armed Islamic Group of Algeria] in Algeria was defeated on the battlefield. The political order in the Arab and Muslim world survived the social and religious upheavals between 1991 and 1998. But 1998 represented a major watershed in the fight between the political regimes and the Islamist movements.

Two of the most important reasons for the success of the Middle Eastern governments, in particular, in Egypt and Algeria, lie in the inability of the fringe movements, whether the Algerian Islamists or the Egyptian Islamists, to cultivate and sustain a strong social base. This is an important point because in both countries in the 1990s, we witnessed a major insurgency on the part of the Islamist movements trying to topple the governments.

These movements were interested in capturing and seizing power. They were impatient and arrogant. Some of their rank and file and middle-range officials whom I have talked to conceded that they made some strategic blunders through their arrogance. The Islamist foot soldiers were defeated on the battlefield at the end of the 1990s. And defeat, of course, creates and produces tensions, contradictions, and divisions. If you look at the political landscape in both Egypt and in Algeria, major tensions erupted between the dominant factions within the Islamist movement and some leaders who wanted to fight on, regardless of the defeat.

Let me summarize by saying that in Egypt, in particular, the Islamic group—that is, al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya and the Egyptian Jihad—accepted that the war was lost and nothing was to be gained from fighting on. They declared a unilateral cease-fire and said, "Listen, armed conflict did not get us anywhere. It's about time that we quit." That is exactly what happened.

2) Militant Islamism restructures

Which brings me to my second point, that the destruction of the main militant factions in Egypt and Algeria as organized movements did not stop there. Instead, it resulted in the further splintering of those groups into extreme cells and factions. For example, in March 1999, al-Gama'a's leader in Egypt—al-Gama'a stands for group in Arabic—declared a unilateral cease-fire. Their sister, Egyptian Jihad, chose to continue fighting, particularly against the United States and Israel. It was fascinating that in 1999 they did not say, "We want to continue to fight against the Egyptian Government," which had defeated them, but rather "We want to fight against the United States and Israel."

3) Militant Islamists declare war on the U.S.

This leads me to my third point. The defeat of militant Islamists on their home battlefield has led them to shift focus from the internal to the external front. This is a highly critical point to keep in mind. As you know, one of the dominant themes of both the mainstream and fringe Islamist movements between 1970 and the end of the 1990s was that the internal enemy—the existing political regimes—-was much more critical than the external one, including Israel and the United States. They believed that the essential step is to create an Islamic state, Allah's kingdom on earth, and then, as an bridgehead, you can focus on your external enemies. This was the dominant discourse.

The Islamists were thus not interested in creating a social base and changing society from within, but in seizing power and using the state itself to change social dynamics. It is amazing how statist they are. They do not actually want to abolish the state or create a different type of political order; they want to capture the state and then use it to expand and broaden their political base. When they were defeated at the end of the 1990s, they needed to find a way out of this entrapment. The declaration of war on the United States and Israel by the end of the 1990 was the continuation of the previous war against the existing political regimes. The change in focus from the internal to the external arena did not mean that they changed their agenda or objectives.

Another professor and I at Columbia University are working on a project studying all the videotapes released by Osama bin Laden in the last few years. One thing that emerges clearly from these tapes is that the United States is an indirect target. The direct targets for Osama bin Laden and most militant movements are the established political regimes in the Arab and Muslim world, including the infidel royal families in Arabia, the late King Hussein of Jordan who sold out, and the Egyptian Government, all of whom collaborate with the United States. Targeting the United States is thus trying to kill two birds with one stone, because they believe that the U.S. supports the existing political order. Without the U.S., the thin layer of power in the Middle East would crumble overnight. Here I want to briefly quote from Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of Osama bin Laden's most trusted lieutenants, who was the leader of Egyptian Jihad, the fringe Islamist group I have been referring to. He was the first prominent militant Islamist to join bin Laden's front to fight the crusaders and Jews in 1998. Al-Zawahiri is prominently featured in bin Laden's videotapes, where he explains why they are targeting America:

America pursues a hypocritical policy toward the Muslim world. America claims to be the champion and protector of human rights, democracies, and liberties, while forcing on Muslims oppressive and corrupt political regimes. Egypt is a case in point. There are about 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt.

This is, of course, highly exaggerated. There are now about 16,000 prisoners, according to human rights organizations, and the Egyptian Government claims fewer than that. Ayman al-Zawahiri said 60,000 are prisoners, and that

dozens of death sentences have been handed out. All this takes place with America's supervision, America's approval, and America's orders. America has a CIA station, as well as an FBI office and a huge embassy in Egypt, and it follows closely what happens in the country. Therefore, America is responsible for everything that happens in Egypt and responsible for human rights violations there and in other Arab countries as well.

I must stress here—and hardly anyone touches on this particular point—that al-Zawahiri, as the leader of the Egyptian Jihad, took his organization and joined with Osama bin Laden's front against the wishes of the dominant faction within the Egyptian Jihad. The rank and file and some ex-members of the Jihad— indeed the Jihad leadership—were outraged that al-Zawahiri would join Osama bin Laden, because they said: "Well, after all, Jihad was defeated by the Egyptian Government and here we are taking on the United States and Israel." Their argument was that you can actually over-extend yourself and fight on two fronts; you are taking on the United States, and this was going to be very costly. Al-Zawahiri and his lot—the fugitive leaders in Afghanistan—were forced to resign from the Jihad leadership at the end of the 1990s. We thus need to keep al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and their threat in perspective.

The dominant factions within Jihad, the Islamic groups, and other organizations in Algeria are not closely affiliated with Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri took several lieutenants and hundreds of fighters who were already fighting in Afghanistan. The dominant perspective within Jihad proved to be correct, because after 1998 the United States did join the threat against Osama bin Laden, and played a decisive role in tipping the balance of power against the militant Islamists. Here I want to mention a few examples.

Dozens of Jihad and Islamic group members were repatriated to Egypt as a result of direct pressure by the United States, European and African governments, and others. These resources proved to be highly valuable for the Egyptian Government, who spilled the beans about the networks of Jihad and Islamic groups and other militant organizations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. By the end of the 1990s, not only did a small faction within the militant Islamists have a shift of focus from the internal to the external environment, but the United States itself pursued an entirely different radical policy towards Islamist groups. It became embroiled in the bloody fight in the Mideast, explicitly taking sides with the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Gulf governments against their militant opposition. Here, once again, the United States found itself in the same trenches as the unpopular Middle Eastern governments, even though in the 1990s American foreign policy maintained a healthy distance from this bloody confrontation. By the second half of the decade, American policy-makers appeared to throw caution to the wind and joined the fray alongside the Egyptian and Algerian governments. The irony of this shift is that while in the early 1990s Middle Eastern states were threatened by militant Islam, by the end of the decade, the threat had evaporated. The governments on their own, with just some U.S. support, succeeded in demolishing or strategically defeating the main Islamist movements.

Why did the United States shift gears after pursuing a highly complex policy towards Islamists in the early 1990s? Why would you join the fray? Why would you take sides and antagonize more people than you had already done between the 1950s and the present? Did American policy-makers have an appreciation of the consequences and damage of such a dramatic shift? Did the pressure by Washington's Middle Eastern allies succeed in gradually convincing U.S. officials to take sides? We really don't know the extent to which pressure by Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia played on the United States and forced them to take an active role in fighting militant Islamists.

What was the impact on the policy and academic community in advocating a decisive alliance with the pro-Western regimes in the Middle East in the 1990s? There was great debate taking place in the United States between what I call the confrontationalists and accomodationists. One group of scholars and policy-makers believed that the United States should support pro-Western regimes, but maintain a healthy distance. Some very powerful members of the policy and academic community believed that the U.S. should join the fray and fight the war alongside these pro-Western allies.

You might say: Why are you throwing the question on the table in the first place? This is a highly pertinent question in light of what has happened, and what some of the same voices are telling us now that the United States should do in its campaign against terrorism. They told you, "Yes, of course, go and fight and join the fray," and now they say, "Well, let's not stop it, let's expand and broaden the war into other theaters." We need to question here and absorb the consequences of our advocacy. What comes after you join the fray, and to what extent do political actions produce opposite results, as we know in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters?

To what extent does a broadening and expansion of Washington's campaign serve U.S. long-term vital interests in the region, and how can the United States manage the deepening resentment against its policies in Muslim lands, both in the short and long term?

I would argue that we have the military means and capabilities to win a war, but that is not really the question. We might win it in one year, in two years. The difficulty comes after we win the war. What do we do? Do we have the political will to invest in rebuilding societies, gluing states together, and investing in such broken and decimated civil societies, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or even Iraq?

The technical debate about winning the military campaign loses sight of the bigger picture. This is one of the reasons why the United States in 1991 stopped short of going to Baghdad to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, because President Bush did not have the stomach or the nerve to try to glue Iraq together.

4) Arab culture drifts towards Islamism

These questions bring me to my fourth point tonight. Although for now the Middle Eastern regimes have eliminated the military threat from the fringe Islamist movements, it could be the height of irrationality to think that the Islamist movement is a scam political force in the Middle East. Remember, I am talking about fringe Islamist movements that threaten the survival of the established regimes. But the most powerful and dominant opposition forces in the Middle East remain the Islamists. If we held elections tomorrow in Algeria and Egypt, they would probably get 35 percent. In almost no country do they have an outright majority. Even in Turkey, they will have about 17 or 20 percent. This is a testament to what political actions achieve. One of the indirect results of the bloody struggle between the established governments in the Middle East and the fringe Islamist groups—Jihad, the Islamist Group, and GIA—is that popular culture in important segments of the elite has been Islamicized in form and substance in almost every country. Even in some of the most relatively open societies, like Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco, Islamism right now is truly the dominant form of political culture.

Radical Islamists lost the war on the battlefield and won the debate, and this is the irony of that ten-year confrontation between the Egyptian, Algerian, and various Arab governments and the militant Islamists. The main discourse and the political and social culture are permeated with Islamist discourse. This particular point has been absorbed by neither the established elite nor the governments nor the West.

Now the irony is that the Egyptian, Algerian, and Jordanian Governments all compete with the Islamists to say "we are more Islamist than you are." You have the Egyptian Government, one of the key Arab states—Egypt, the Arab renaissance, great writers, great thinkers—which now has certain red lines on books and essays. Why? Because they are terrified of alienating the Islamists. And the same is true even in Lebanon, which was one of the most open societies.

5) Mainstream Arabs turn against the U.S.

My fifth point, related to the fourth, concerns the nature and degree of threats to U.S. interests in the Muslim world. The terrorist elements currently arrayed against the United States represent a tiny fraction of the Islamists. We should not exaggerate the power and reach of Osama bin Laden, even though using very bloody and primitive means, he succeeded in killing thousands of Americans. But the forces he represents are truly tiny.

The thesis that is sold every day of the United States versus Osama bin Laden is a great simplification and distortion of the complex reality. The United States is not just facing Osama bin Laden.

I'm talking about Arabs and Muslims, but I should be talking about social forces and groups, because while most Arabs and Muslims disagree with the bloody and brutal tools and means used by the al-Qaeda, they tend to agree with the message.

I have yet to meet a person in the Middle East who doesn't say that Osama bin Laden makes sense. I sat with fifty Arab and Muslim intellectuals and they were talking about Osama bin Laden as if he were an academic. He comes across as cool, rational, convincing. They were talking about him as a matter of fact, not as a professional killer, regardless of what his message is. This reflects a deeper part of the question. Most of the conscious political groups in the Arab and Muslim world tend to be socialized into an anti-American mindset which has become the staple of politics in the region. Differences in political orientation don't mean anything. Liberals in the Arab world tend to be as anti-American as conservatives and as Islamists. That is what is tragic, disheartening, and frightening about America's relations in the region.

I wrote my first book at Oxford, and did my dissertation on the Arab nationalist movement, on inter-Arab relations and Nasser's movement, and his relations with the great powers, the United States. If you read the discourse today of the major Islamist movements and pan-Arab nationalists or socialists, there is a difference in the sense of how they perceive the United States. This raises larger questions. What has happened? Why has it become so?

We know that that was not so in 1919 during the Paris Peace Conference after the defeat of the Ottoman empire. President Wilson, gentleman and honorable man that he was, insisted that he must send a commission to the Middle East to find out what the Arabs and Muslims want. Do they want British imperialism, French colonialism, a mandate, or do they want freedom?

It was called the King-Crane Commission. King and Crane, university presidents, went to Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, and asked the people: "What do you want?" They said: "Of course we want freedom, we want to be independent. But if there was a need for a power, a mandate power, we want the United States." King-Crane returned to the country just fascinated at how people loved the United States which was thought to champion self-determination. Even in the 1950s, the U.S. was seen in an entirely positive light. What has happened between 1955 and 2000? How have we managed to alienate? You can deceive 1,000 people, 50 percent of the people, but for 90 percent of people to have such radical, antagonistic views of the United States raises the

QUESTION: What happened? This is not just intrinsic about hatred, but there are other elements.

And why has the United States become a scapegoat? Most of the social forces in the region now blame the United States for their ills. Not all the grievances are legitimate. To my mind, the new curse bewitching Arab and Muslim politics is that anti-Americanism has infected the political culture.

You no longer have to say anything. You are just American and then the conspiracies grow. I can't tell you how difficult it is for an Arab or Muslim intellectual to say anything positive about America. To be politically conscious in the Arab and the Muslim world today is to be anti-American, to be suspicious of American motives, desires, even American culture and society. This is truly the tragedy of Arab-American relations.

There is a fury, a legitimate sense of grievance against the United States. We all know the list by now: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraqi tragedy, America's military presence in the Gulf, America's close affinity with corrupt political leadership. While the United States has pursued some unjust and unfair policies, the Arab world has failed to take personal and moral responsibility for its dismal failure on both the economic and political levels.

That authoritarianism is deeply consolidated and entrenched on every level in the Middle Eastern society is not the fault of the United States, nor that terrorism has decimated hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims, nor that Arabs have failed to create transparent and accountable political institutions. While we might say that the United States must take some major initiatives to address the underlying legitimate grievances, Arabs and Muslims must ask themselves if they are willing to resolve their problems head-on, resolve the tensions between state and society that create democratic institutions, and address, join, and embrace fully modernity without qualifications, without linking modernity to imperialism, colonialism, globalism, and other -isms? This is the challenge.

The Arabs have a more formidable task than does the United States trying to address the underlying grievances of the Arabs.

Thank you.

Question and Answers

QUESTION: Would you speak to the underlying social, economic, and other issues that are the real cause of the list of grievances and other hostilities and anti-American feeling?

FAWAZ GERGES: I'm glad you asked this question. Is it really in America's interest to have such a close affinity with some of the political regimes in that part of the world? We must realize that most of these governments are not really representative of their population. Most are maintaining order and stability by the bayonet rather than by elections and legitimate means of political participation. Most of them monopolize all the legitimate issues of political participation.To what extent have the populations in the Arab and Muslim world really linked the United States to the existing oppressive regimes themselves? The question of economic development is also important. It is not the fault of the United States that there are major economic hardships in the region.

Let me give you some economic statistics so you can see the extent of the problem. In Yemen, the median income is $190. In Sudan, it is $170. In Egypt, it is $1,000. The Egyptian Government says it is about $2,000, but the World Bank says between $1,000 and $1,500. In Syria, $900. We know that dismal economic conditions, alienation, marginalization, and political oppression serve as a breeding ground for the foot soldiers who are being recruited by Osama bin Laden.

The most important question remains the unwillingness of the United States to exert pressure on the established political regimes, or even toward opening up political space, integrating the rising social classes into the political field, and at least reforming the entrenched authoritarian structures that exist. And unfortunately, the United States has come to be seen as the sustainer and supporter of the political order.

QUESTION: I'm a little surprised that in this entire discussion, the word "oil" has never crossed your lips. Is there something other than oil that explains American policy in the Middle East?

FAWAZ GERGES:Well, it was really implied. I talked about America's close affinity with the established regimes, that the U.S. supports the political order. Of course oil lies at the heart of the story. But it is not the only story. If there are two major vital interests of the United States, they are oil and Israel. The question of Israel is as important as that of oil.

To understand Osama bin Laden's change of heart towards or against the United States one must recall the story of oil and the Gulf War, and of course the subsequent stationing of American military forces in the Kingdom itself. Some of us who travel and do research in the Middle East feel that you cannot understand the Islamist movement without grasping the critical part that Saudi Arabia plays in supporting and financing there. It is not a conspiracy. Saudi Arabia uses religion as a legitimizing tool, a mechanism, and as such it supports the Islamist movements from the ultra-right to the ultra-left. Between 75 percent and 90 percent of books produced in the Arab world today are religious, and almost 90 percent of funding comes from Saudi Arabia.

Most of the Islamist leaders and intellectuals, the ones that leave or are forced to leave their countries, go to Saudi Arabia. The entire Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt hibernated in Saudi Arabia for almost twenty years after it was expelled by the President.

Saudi Arabia plays a major role, and not because it wants to use the Islamist sentiment to expand or for any ambitious policy, but because it wants to come across as the custodian and guardian of Bilad al-Haramayn, the lands of the two holy places.

So the story of oil is important, of course, because it lies at the heart of the relationship between the United States, the West, and Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: I am the Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations. May I ask you to dwell a little bit on the factor of Israel in the activation of the Islamists and how you look at that particular point, the U.S.-Israeli relationship in relation to what happened within the Islamist movements?

FAWAZ GERGES: This is a highly critical question, and not just a matter of propaganda. You cannot understand the rise of the Islamist sentiment in the Middle East without the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel's crushing defeat of the Arab states in 1967 played a tremendous role in changing the political and intellectual landscape in the Arab and Muslim world. Many Arabs who subscribed to secularism, nationalism, and socialism said, "Well, listen. Here you have 2 million religious people defeating 200 million Arabs because the Arabs have forsaken God, do not really believe in God." They believe that Israel won the war because it was a religious state, Israel believes in God, Israel was living according to its holy book.

Many people drew the lessons from the particular incident and said, "Let's somehow rethink our ideas, our politics, our structures." There is a causal link between the rise of the Islamist sentiment and the defeat in 1967.

If you look at the history of the United States relations in the region in the 1950s or 1960s, the U.S. was in the same trenches as Islamist activists against socialism, Marxism, and Arab nationalism. In 1958, when the nationalists and the socialists were at the height of power, President Eisenhower at one of the major National Security Council meetings said: "For God's sake, let's use Saudi Arabia. After all, the holy places are there. Use Islam as a counter force to socialism and Marxism." Both Israel and the United States invested considerably in Islamism as a counterweight to nationalism, socialism, and Marxism. Afghanistan is a classic case, where we invested almost $6 billion to fight communism. And, of course, Israel is really trying to build up Hamas as a counterweight to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], which is a secular nationalist movement.

But let me get to the bigger picture. To understand the polarization and the increasing power of the Islamist sentiments, one must grasp the critical and existential role that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict plays in the Arab and Muslim world. This is one of the most critical issues poisoning the relationship between the two cultures.

Look what Saddam Hussein did in 1991. He said he invaded Kuwait to liberate Palestine.

The Palestinian-Israel conflict resonates deeply in the Arab and Muslim imagination, and as long as this conflict remains simmering, it is difficult to address the underlying reasons for the antagonism between Arabs and Muslims.

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